Religious Language and the Agnostic

I’m an agnostic. This word best captures my current residence on the belief scale, since being an atheist requires a knowing that I can’t claim to possess and theist or even deist reach further than I’m willing to stretch. But I was raised a theist and continue carry the language of a theist. No, I don’t pull out terms like second coming when discussing matters of belief, faith, or global warming, but other distinctly religious language leaves my lips, perhaps unnervingly often for one claiming not to feel the evidence is present to accept the existence of God.

Sacred. Holy. Spirit. Reverence. Soul. Communion. Divine. Amen. All those retain a place in my vocabulary, even years after the concept of a god eludes me. I’ve oft heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” and perhaps this applies to me, which might explain the retention of that spiritual language. Or perhaps it reflects what I miss about believing — a connection with something bigger than the forces of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Perhaps I make for a poor agnostic. I’d like to think not, however. I’m quite comfortable in my not knowing about the nature of the divine. In that not knowing, I can’t embrace a theistic tradition. Materialist, however, I’m not. I’ve mused here before about soul, salvation, and the sacred, all terms that leave most secular humanists cringing or at least looking the other way. Yet these terms speak to me. Better than anything else, these words of spiritual origin touch what I believe about the transcendent nature of life.

There is something more. Perhaps that more is the sense that the sum of us is more than our parts. Call it strength in numbers if you like, but there is something transcendent to me when two or more are gathered, regardless of their names. Whether that greater something is love, compassion, God, or something else entirely, I don’t care. But, for me, there is something there.

Perhaps that something — that love or whatever — is the product of the chemicals of my very human brain, circuits trying to make sense out of what I don’t understand. Perhaps it’s no different from what the ancients did when they ascribed the sun and moon with powers and worshiped them accordingly. I don’t know what that element is that exists when I’m in communion with others, what can bring out the very best in us and bind us together when there is no sound reason to be bound. Perhaps it’s an illusion or delusion. Perhaps it’s even God.

I don’t really think the “what” matters. I’d prefer not to make my “what” a someone or something with rules attached and strings to pull. I’d not want my “what” to be what divides a family, nation, or worlds. Whatever that “what” is — love, God, some law of the Universe that we have yet to understand, or only the workings of my human imagination — really doesn’t make a difference. It is, after all, only what helps me make sense of the world as I see it.

Maybe it’s a bit more than that. What to me is frankly divine (although not in the God as ruler and creator sense) shapes my way of being in the world. Whether Humanist, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, agnostic, or something else, our beliefs serve as the lens through which we see the world. My version of agnosticism tinged with spiritual language informs the way I think and act in this world. Believing that compassion and love are what both binds us and is greater than us, I strive to be more compassionate and loving. Holding to the idea of a soul — a true essence of the self that transcends egoic desires — leads me to seek that which lies deeply within each human. Understanding the natural world and all it holds as holy and sacred impacts my interaction with that world.

There is a flip side to those ways of viewing the world. What is not compassionate and loving distresses me, most of all when it comes from me. When I struggle to find good in another only to be thwarted, my sense of soul stutters a bit. While I hardly believe that all the world is good, I believe we were all born with the potential to move through the world with goodness. And though I may see both the furthest stars and smallest insect as sacred and holy, I eat some of those holy creatures and burn a fair amount of energy our nearest star played a part in forming millions of years ago, feeling guilty along the way.

In short, I’m human. I’m an agnostic human, with over thirty years of theism and theistic language that has left its mark in my heart and language. Some might say I’m still tethered by that theistic upbringing, unwilling to let go of the reassuring comfort of belief in what cannot be seen or measured. Perhaps. And perhaps this language will drop away in another five or ten years, as my time away from traditional religion increases. I hope not. Or at least I hope the sense of wonder at this universe and the love we share within it will not drop away as well.


12 thoughts on “Religious Language and the Agnostic

    • Thanks! No, I haven’t studied theology formally or read Whitehead. I was raised by liberal Christians (one whom is now a Reform Jew) and was strongly influenced by my mother’s Biblical scholarly studies and the Jesuits at the University of Detroit. Somewhere in all of that, I found myself an agnostic in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It works for me, and what I can’t work out all the way, I muse about here.

      • Great post …

        I myself am a non-christian. Or agnostic atheist or antitheist. My question for you is how would you describe your experience at a uu church being agnostic? And how would you doing scribe the church in general?

      • Thanks! Unitarian Universalist churches differ greatly, so seeing one is not seeing them all. In general, the order of service is familiar to those from Protestant churches — readings, sermons, songs. The content varies on the minister and the congregation. Some UU congregations are made up of largely liberal Christians, while others (like my own) find more secular humanists in the pews. I’m on the more spiritual end at my church, but not alone there. The pews contain those who would identify as theists, deists, atheists, agnostics, and seekers. We have UU Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, and more on Sunday morning. As typical (and I use that word carefully here) of a UU congregation, we are welcoming to GBLTs, smaller in size (under 200 members), painfully lacking racial diversity, struggling to increase membership, liberal (not exclusively), highly educated, skeptical, questioning, financially struggling as an institution, dedicated to raising freethinking youth, and generally accepting and tolerant.

        As an agnostic, I feel entirely comfortable. I entered the church as agnostic, and since I’ve been there, that status hasn’t really budged. My understanding of what I do believe, reflected in this blog, has developed dramatically, somewhat due to the church itself and somewhat due to plenty of thought on my end. I find it deeply satisfying to be surrounded by others who ponder the big questions and are dedicated to protecting the worth and dignity of every human being. It’s why I make it their each week.

        Any additional questions are welcome!

  1. I’m an agnostic. This word best captures my current residence on the belief scale, since being an atheist requires a knowing that I can’t claim to possess and theist or even deist reach further than I’m willing to stretch.

    Actually, there atheists who claim the atheist label without the certainty that you think it requires.

    The most famous example would be Richard Dawkins. Here’s the 1-through-7 spectrum of belief that he suggested in The God Delusion.:

    1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”

    2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”

    3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

    4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”

    5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”

    6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”

    7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

    Source —

    Dawkins calls himself an atheist but says that he falls between 6 and 7 on this spectrum (which means that he isn’t 100% certain there is no god).

    • I don’t see the God question as one that lends itself to mathematical probabilities, nor do I think it is one that even necessitates proof. My question of the divine is not Dawkins’ — I don’t believe in a supernatural being responsible for all creation and who has a personal relationship with me, but I do wonder about something “more” than the material end of life. And I’d hold that the language of Dawkins and of other fundamentalist atheists does nothing to foster understanding between theists and nontheists and those who choose to hold the discussion in a different way. That all said, if we’re defining God as Dawkins’ seems to define God, I’m likely in the 5 to 6 range.

      (I find Dawkins’ scale interesting, with “know” being the verb for #1, “believe” being the verb of choice for #2 and 3, #4 sticking with a linking verb, #5, 6 and 7 returning to the verb “know”. That gradation interests the pedantic grammarian side of me, but I’ll just shush that side for now.)

      • I like Dawkins’ scale for how well it points out the parallel between the different brands of fundamentalism, and I appreciate your use of the term “fundamentalist atheists” in this context. It is particularly bothersome to me when philosophically positivistic (or verificationist) thinkers assert absolutes that violate their own epistemological criteria. One would think that “fundamentalist atheists” would have learned that metaphysical absolutes are a thing of the past.

        I am always in flux on Dawkins’ spectrum. Though this post has some inaccuracies (namely in how I use the Myer-Briggs category of P), I think you might relate to my use in what follows: | Do note that my listing of categories on this scale represent how the various numeric values look *in me* personally. I hope you don’t mind me sharing, but I find this relevant.

      • Thanks for that link. I’m enjoying your blog, too, and found this line resonating deeply:

        I am a rational atheist with deeply mystical, creative anchoring in God. Yes, this is a contradiction, but I am okay with this. It works for me.

        While Dawkins may explain belief on that continuum, to me, an an assertion of atheism is a statement of knowing that there is nothing beyond the material stuff that makes up the universe. For now, that’s a sticking point to me. (I’m an INFJ and Enneagram 1, with a tendency to get stuck on a word and be unable to get beyond one interpretation of it. Don’t get me started on “soulmate”. Despite a sense of what one’s soul could be and the intuition that two souls could find a home together, the term is fingernails on a blackboard to me. It’s all in my head, but isn’t most of this stuff?)

        You’ve expressed it well, and I sense we’re not too far apart on our contradictory definitions of our beliefs. I’ll be reading more of Approximations and adding it to my list for other readers to explore.

    • Thanks for the reminder. I’m strongly in the camp that the answer is unknowable, which is most of my resistance to referring to myself as an atheist. I’m not an atheist. “God” (or whatever term one wants for what might be beyond the material world) don’t, in my opinion, lend themselves to the language of knowing.

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