The Way of the Agnostic by Gary Cutting is in The New York Times to-day. I found it very thought-provoking. I had not previously identified love, understanding , and knowledge as the three human needs underpinning religion, but these make as much sense as anything else. The article is long, but well worth the time especially if, like me, you nurture a perennial ache to understand why you must stand outside the comforts and challenges of religious community.
I have quoted from the introduction and the conclusion.
To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge. Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge. (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here: I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true. Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)… Knowledge, if it exists, adds a major dimension to religious commitment. But love and understanding, even without knowledge, are tremendous gifts; and religious knowledge claims are hard to support. We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims. We should, for example, countenance those who are Christians while doubting the literal truth of, say, the Trinity and the Resurrection. I wager, in fact, that many professed Christians are not at all sure about the truth of these doctrines —and other believers have similar doubts. They are, quite properly, religious agnostics.
I think I have always been a religious agnostic. For practical reasons involving distance and transportation, my not particularly observant catholic parents enrolled me in the nearby public school until the end of grade three. Then we moved back to Hamilton and a catholic school was both the practical and ideological choice.
But when I was seven, I mysteriously reached “the age of reason” and it was time for first communion.
So, with no former training or understanding of context, I was excused until recess from my public school classes for six weeks, and took my instruction at the catholic school.
I “made” my first communion!
The white dress, the veil, the flowers, the new rosary (no, not to wear) and little white book with one column in English and the other in Latin. There was a procession with smelly smoke. Then a very wide and crowded photo was taken with a smiling priest at each end. My mother and grandmother and aunt hugged me and wept. Afterwards we had tea and cookies. My veil was itchy. I did not spill anything on my dress.
At seven, you go along with what you are told. The drama and novelty and being the center of so much attention wasn’t too bad either, although I did fall behind in some classes at my “real” school. Although they were curious about my collection of holy cards, especially the sacred heart, I was hard set to answer my playmates’ credulous enquiries. They didn’t know what to make of the bride dress, the closet for telling secrets, the parade, and the big cookie… more about that, perhaps, at a later time. My playmates didn’t get it, and truthfully, neither did I.
I have faced the same dilemma many times. I can explain what I am supposed to do and believe… sort of… but without real knowledge and conviction. The questions have always remained.
Many of my church going friends probably do not accept everything… or even very much of what their churches preach. Sometimes I want to challenge them and ask how they can go through the motions and say the words that so offend my sense of what is right and true. I try to be respectful and tactful, but it can be very difficult.
Perhaps this article has answered the question, at least in part.
My friends are neither cowards nor hypocrites. They are religious agnostics, for whom love and understanding are more important than knowledge. They have settled for two out of three… but within religious cultures that still insist that knowledge, i.e faith and obedient belief, are paramount.
Two out of three… for me, ignoring the most important, but a compromise that they find quite acceptable. I wish I could be so fortunate, but the cognitive dissonance I experience makes me feel too uncomfortable.
What do you think?