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.