An Agnostic talks to his children about God

One of the interesting (and I suppose obvious) things about having children is that it exposes to the spotlight some of the attitudes and behaviours that you’re perhaps more comfortable keeping hidden. Who hasn’t been mildly surprised to hear their own parents’ phrases springing from their mouths? And it’s not just in the way we speak to our children, it’s also in the way we behave towards and around them, and in the ways we attempt to encourage them to behave. I’ve been genuinely surprised, for example, to find how much I value manners in my children. Hearing them say please, excuse me and thank you, fills me with a level of satisfaction that is surely irrational. Whereas I’m much less excited by their interest in letters and numbers, somehow I figure that’ll work itself out and if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. Somehow, children serve as a special kind of mirror, one that sees beneath the surface.

As the boys grow older, my guiding input will extend beyond, ‘wait your turn’, and ‘stop, car coming.’ Whether explicitly or not, they will be exposed not just to my behaviours, but to my beliefs. And living, as I do, in a society where it’s considered bad form to discuss things which might lead to disagreement (which is to say, anything interesting) I’ve developed over time something of a live and let live attitude. I’ll see things my way, you see them yours, and so long as we don’t annoy each other too much, what does it matter? And mostly, people’s beliefs don’t annoy me at all and it all works out very well.

But beliefs don’t just spring into existence ready formed. We are each the products of our pasts, and now I am, in part, the past of my boys. Time then, I suppose, to wonder what it is I will say to them about the big questions, the whys and shoulds that one way or another fold themselves into our notion of religion. Although I have no great desire for my boys to end up seeing things quite the way I see them, I do like the idea that they are exposed to as clear a version of that perspective as I can muster. Hence this series of posts that I have loosely conceived of as an explanation of my religious agnosticism. I don’t know how long it will take to work through this, but I imagine it could be a little while. The reason being, mine is not agnosticism of the ‘I’m just not interested, and would really like for people to leave me alone’ variety, nor is it of the ‘I’m just saying we can’t be sure, and we can’t, so we’re all agnostics really’ family of misconceptions. No, I am that slightly odd child, a passionate agnostic. I like not believing, it gives me great satisfaction and joy. I don’t think it’s in any sense the correct stance (that’s rather the point of agnosticism) but I do find, that for a certain type of human, with a certain set of tastes and values, it can be jolly fun.

So, roughly speaking, here’s what I aim to cover in this series of letters to my boys. Next time, I need to kick off by defining what my preferred flavour of agnosticism is all about. After that, because I will claim that one can not establish that either belief or unbelief in God is inherently more reasonable, I’m going to have to examine the arguments proposed by those who would disagree. That means talking about why there is something and not nothing, what we mean when we cay something is good or wrong, and what it can possibly mean to live a meaningful life in a world without an overarching framework of purpose? It will also need to examine the atheistic claim that, in the absence of compelling reasons for belief, unbelief is the rational response.

This will inevitably lead to the realisation that what we even mean by terms like exist or believe are up for grabs, and so at some stage, if the mood is right, I may well have to slide into more abstract philosophical territory.

The ultimate destination, however, is the explanation of the advantages, as I see them, of adopting the agnostic stance. To foreshadow this, so you don’t commit to following along (and I hope participating in the conversation too, because that will help me address the weaknesses in my case) only to be disappointed, my number one reason for preferring agnosticism over either theism of atheism is that it provides a consistent framework for my curiosity. (The number two reason is that I get to argue with both sides, and who wouldn’t want that?)

So, welcome aboard.

6 thoughts on “An Agnostic talks to his children about God

  1. Edwin says:

    I object to your argument of the “advantages of adopting the agnostic stance.” One’s beliefs should be based solely on logical thought and reason, not on practicality. Anything else is not being true to yourself and to the world around you, because if we accept that something is true because it is easier or more consistent, then we are making a decision to avoid reality in favour of an imagined world. The dangers of the precedent this sets are obvious. Therefore, I look forward to your series of posts, in the hope that they primarily consist of reasoned arguments.

  2. Hi Edwin

    I think your point is an important one, although the issues are more complex than can be done justice in a short comment. Hopefully, during this series, I’ll be able to adequately cover them. Briefly, three points might be worth noting from the get go.

    First, agnosticism doesn’t constitute a claim about reality (beyond the claim that I quite like it, which I can justify by observing my personal response). Because it neither says God exists, nor God does not exist, there is no leap from here’s how I like looking at the world, to here’s how I think the world is. Some agnostics argue that their way of seeing the world is better, and hence expose themselves to the danger you identify, but I’m not amongst them.

    Second, if we say that our beliefs should be based on reason alone, we find ourselves in a tricky situation, in that reason doesn’t appear to be sufficient to by itself establish anything. We always need some sort of a starting point. So, questions of God are often, by their nature, about what we choose to believe at the point where our reason can no longer guide us (the agnostic tends to argue, at this point, stop, whereas theists and atheists both prefer a slightly different approach).

    And finally, there is within philosophy a pragmatic tradition that argues that practicality is the best basis for belief, and it’s not one I would dismiss out of hand. It’s a provocative and sophisticated worldview. As an example, why do we believe in regularity such that our everyday expectations (the sun rising tomorrow) might be thought of as reasonable? Is there a good answer other than ‘because it’s tremendously helpful to think this way?

    Anyway, hopefully this will become clearer with subsequent posts.


  3. Edwin says:

    Thanks for the response. It seems I can’t argue that without waiting until your post defining exactly what your specific type of agnosticism is about, as it appears to be quite different from anything I’ve come across before. So, ’till then.

  4. I fear that this discussion may go over my head but I will look forward to reading the series all the same. By coincidence, just this week the ten year old and I have been batting the subject of religion (and by extension what happens when you die, etc). Most often, as it happens, while driving in the car (how many good conversations do we have in the car? Killing time, captive audience, etc etc).

    What has struck me as we’ve talked so far, is just how fluid my own beliefs really are. My reasonings are not nearly as finely crafted as I thought them to be, and are barely a match for the imagination of a ten year old with a seemingly infinite capacity to believe in the unseen, the untestable, the unknowable.

    Who knew you could keep so fit just by taking a simple car trip with a ten year old!

  5. Jeannie Ruiz says:

    I guess I’m always surprised by peoples’ need to define everything.
    Why does my “agnosticism” have to be the same as yours? My daughter has expressed interest in God and Jesus due to conversations with schoolmates.

    Let me share the “understanding” of a 6-yr-old.

    “So God lives way way way way out past all the stars and worlds, and that is where we go when we die if we are good people. And we give a man a ticket like at the movies so he will open the gate. Maybe we should get a Magic Band like at Disney World so we can just touch the gate to get in… Then we have to give the three-headed dog a bone or something so he’ll let us across the river. Then Grandma can pick up Muppy Dog at the Heaven doggy daycare. And when Emma Cat dies we can get her too but at the cat daycare. She will hate it there so we should hurry. And we will see all the people that died so no one is lonely… Unless you were bad and then you have to wait on the inside of the Earth for the bad angel that was greedy and tried to take God’s stuff and had to go in timeout. He doesn’t have a magic gate though. He is just in a really looooooong timeout waiting for all the bad people.”

    You might mistakenly think I paraphrased this, but I’m considering posting it on YouTube.

    So, all this existential discussion about framing belief systems for children is hooey. You can choose to indoctrinate them in a religious framework, or you can expose them to many philosophies while they make decisions for themselves. I told my daughter -in response to this amazing story- that I couldn’t imagine how long a journey to Heaven would take given its apparent location. I read her a Greek myth about Cerberus. We talked about the beauty of not defining God and my belief that we are all connected in some indefinable way as evidenced by the Heisenburg principle (you get the idea). Then sat back as she edited her story to move Heaven closer and travel there in the “blue box that the guy in your show uses to get around in…”

    Ummm… Yeah. Just relax. And enjoy the journey…. Then please post it on YouTube.

  6. Hi Jeannie

    You lose me somewhere here, not sure which is the link I’m missing. ‘Why does my agnosticism have to be the same as yours?’ Well, it doesn’t. clearly. However, whenever a group of people wish to discuss something like agnosticism, it certainly helps to ensure that, at the very least, they understand one another’s definitions, otherwise we talk straight past one another.

    When we get to ‘all this existential discussion about framing belief systems for children is hooey’ I’m not sure from whence this statement is inferred. Your daughter’s story is delightful, and clearly an absolute product of its culture (Disney, God, reward for goodness, a place beyond the stars). We build our stories from the material at hand, and we as parents are part of that context.

    I’ve no interest in telling my children how to think about the world, but I do like the idea, that at the point where they’re interested (and perhaps they never will be), I’ll be able to articulate my belief system in such a way that they can at least understand and assess it. Then this understanding, whether adopted, altered or rejected, will become part of their backdrop. It seems to me you’re already doing something like this, by sharing with her your notion of us all being connected in some undefinable way. Because I don’t share this belief, I’m much less likely to ever tell it to my children (mostly because it just won’t come to mind). This, it seems to me, is just the way the process works.

    As for relaxing, well yes, we ought to, for sure. For some strange souls however, and I am one, intellectual endeavour is a great form of relaxation. That’s just the way the geeks of the world are made.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: