In this post I’ll be sticking with my theme of yesterday, related to the lecture I gave at NYU, two nights ago now, about how the Bible deals with the problem of suffering. At the end of the lecture I indicated that I have a view of suffering related to that set out in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes, claiming to be king of Solomon (even though he was living many centuries later) stressed that life is short – it is here for a little while and then gone – and that our view of how to live should be controlled by that uncomfortable but very real fact. For this author there is no obvious justice in the here and now. Righteous people suffer and the wicked often prosper. And the injustice of this life will not be made up in the afterlife since, for this author, there is probably not going to *be* an afterlife. This life is all there is. Which is why, for him, “a live dog is better than a dead lion.” (!)
If it’s true this life is all there is, and that it will not be with us for long, how then shall we live? For this author, we should cherish life for as long as we have it, enjoying what we eat and drink, enjoying our work, enjoying our relatives, and presumably, our friends. We won’t live forever. We won’t even live long. And so we should enjoy it as much as we can for as long as we can.
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I was thinking after my lecture that there were two things that surprised me when I became an agnostic, some 18 or 19 years ago now I suppose. (More? Less? I don’t remember: it’s not like my “born again” experience in high school that I remember with precision.) The first thing that really surprised me was just how *militant* both agnostics and atheists are about the terms they use for themselves. I always thought, as a Christian, that they were basically the same thing or at least that they commonly made common cause against everyone else. Wrong. Agnostics tend to shake their heads at disbelief at atheists and atheists tend to look down their nose at agnostics.
The term “agnosticism” literally means “one who doesn’t know.” And typically it is thought that an agnostic is someone who says she doesn’t “know” whether or not there is a superior divine power in the universe. The atheist, on the other hand, in this traditional view, is someone who says definitively that there is not such divine power. And what I found after becoming an agnostic myself is that all atheists seem to think that agnostics are simply wimply atheists (afraid to say what they *really* think, unwilling to live up to the courage of their convictions) and all agnostics think that atheists are simply arrogant agnostics (since, really, they don’t know either!).
Since then I’ve come to realize – as I indicated in a posting long ago now – that agnosticism and atheism are in fact dealing with two different things: knowledge (agnosticism) and belief (atheism). An agnostic doesn’t know if there is a god; and an atheist doesn’t believe that there is. And so it is possible to be both at once, depending on whether you are classifying yourself according to what you know or what you believe.
But as a philosophy graduate student at NYU pointed out to me over drinks at dinner two nights ago, there is a difference between an atheist who does not believe there is a god, and an atheist who believes there is not a god. Big difference. In the past I’ve described these two modes of being an atheist (this isn’t my invention: I’ve seen others say this) as “weak” atheism (not believing in a god) and “strong” atheism (believing there is not god). I’m more or less between these two. So I’m an agnostic of a strongish weak atheistic streak.
The other thing I didn’t expect when I became an agnostic is of more immediate interest when it comes to how I live. I really thought (and this for a long time is what kept me from making the leap to agnosticism) that if I stopped believing in god, I would have no moral compass. There would be nothing to guide my actions. There would be no reason for me to behave in a moral fashion. I would be led into a life of hedonistic abandon. It would be an orgy every night of the week.
To my surprise, once I became an agnostic, I realized that it was not that way at all. It was not an orgy every night. Once a week was absolutely enough.
OK, not really. The truth is that as an agnostic I’m no more or less moral than I was before. I do have different grounds for wanting to be moral. I no longer worry about how I will suffer or be rewarded in the afterlife. I no longer think that I have or need some kind of “objective” grounding for ethics in a divine being who created all things and who has given humans his “law” that needed to be followed. There are plenty of compelling reasons to be ethical without God. And I believe life is happier when we *are* ethical, being concerned for the well-being of others, helping out others who are in need, loving our neighbors as ourselves, doing good for those in our community, whether our community is our family, our town, our nation, or our world.
I’ll say more about all that in a future post.