Sunday, May 17, 2020

Agnostic Faith | Sixth Sunday of Easter 2020

via Bruce The Deus 21 April 2019 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unitarian Universalism is agnostic; Unitarian Universalists may or not be agnostic. There is no tension there, and I'll explain why. But first, let's consider our terms.

It's not uncommon for someone to reveal that they're atheist, only to be asked a couple of questions and then told, "oh no, you're an agnostic."

The immediate reason for this is a misunderstanding of what being agnostic or an atheist is all about. People often thing that 'agnostic' just means someone doesn't claim to know, when in truth, agnosticism says that certain things, particularly about God, are ultimately unknowable. Another popular misunderstanding regards atheism, in which people assume that atheists are claiming to have 100% certainty that there is no god. In reality, atheism doesn't require that level of certainty. An atheist is someone who, based on the evidence available to them, has concluded that there most likely aren't any gods. This understanding is open to being revisited, but only if extraordinary new evidence comes to light.

In my opinion, the overarching reason for the insistence that atheists are actually agnostics is a matter of the theist's positive feelings for that person. To many, atheism is next to devil-worship: an angry, bitter rejection of a God who is readily apparent to good-hearted folks. Atheists are believed to be people without morals or else simply untrustworthy. If a theist views someone as a decent human being it's nearly impossible to think of them as an atheist, as they fundamentally view that as a contradiction.
"For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." — Acts 17:23 NRSV
Throughout all of human history we have tried to have a relationship with the unseen. Our innate, instinctual agent detection kept our ancestors from hungry tigers hiding in bushes, but it also made them tend to ascribe sentience to rocks, trees, and so forth. At the very least they thought that were were spiritual forces in the natural world that needed to be kept happy. This eventually developed into full pantheons of deities, then mergers of pantheons as nations were conquered and absorbed, and then in the Western world monotheism became the rule of the day. A universal deity that is the one and only, to the point where 'he' no longer has a name, and is simply called 'God.' Quite a journey for a Canaanite storm god (or possibly two gods, El and Yahweh, the latter of which might have been a god of metallurgy and volcanism).

Sometimes people have simply worship the unknown.

In Unitarian Universalism we have certain Principles that we have defined and set as the heart of a covenant between our congregations. The 4th of these is "[a] free and responsible search for truth and meaning." When we gather, we often refer to our services as 'worship.' Our clergy try now and then to persuade us that the word actually means 'worth-ship' or some such, but most of us don't seem to care either way. While we do have Christian churches among us that do engage in active worship of the divine, most of us (from what I can tell) focus our services on this life, with its struggles and triumphs, seeking to improve ourselves, feel encouraged, and support one another. The 'Spirit of Life' comes up from time to time, but we don't generally define what that means. As a body, we are agnostic. Our tradition, though born out of Protestant Christianity, is itself agnostic.

We are not all agnostic, though. I am a non-theist, and there are many who believe in a force, and some in a personal God. Some of us are eclectic, seeking wisdom from many religious traditions and schools of philosophy. Others are strict naturalists, considering anything not derived from a scientific approach to be 'woo.' I know one person at my congregation who believes in the trinity and the resurrection, and just feels at home with our community. He isn't a Unitarian, but he is a Universalist, and certainly very welcome to full participation in the life of the congregations.
“Science is agnostic when it comes to God - not atheistic, as some people prefer to read that laden word wrongly - just agnostic.” Eric Chaisson, Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
Though they are a minority, there are believers among scientists. They could be Mormons, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or whatever else, and their research usually is not negatively impacted by their faith. Somehow, they keep it separate. For the more conservative of them that might be more of a strain, but the best scientists follow the scientific method, engage in best practices, and submit results and conclusions for peer review.

Science is agnostic, and employs the scientific method. Unitarian Universalism is agnostic, and while it is not scientific, we do have the concept of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are encouraged to test our worldviews. We challenged on matters of racism, poverty, misogyny, and more. We are empowered to do what we think best to live a good life, and welcomed to do so within covenantal relationships. We get it wrong sometimes, as individuals, congregations, and as an association. And yet we seek to hold ourselves to account, and press on with our pursuit of what is highest and best. Some might say we are seeking a god unknown to us. It's simpler to understand that what we seek may be known or unknown, and it is not the same for everyone. This is our agnostic faith, whatever else we may believe.