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12. The death of certainty

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So, there I was, fifteen or so years old, and I had decided that the religion I had been raised with was clearly nonsense. It’s a fairly common teenage experience, I suspect. You see things from the other side, you know the adults have been lying to you about what they knew, you get mad about the way adults always seem to be lying about something, and then you slink off and read a lot of Bertrand Russell.

(In those days. Nowadays you might reach for Dawkins or Hitchens as well.)

But for me it didn’t end there, because I’m not really, deep down, an atheist.

My lack of certainty went both ways. If I couldn’t be sure there was a god, by the same logic, I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t one, either. Which would make me a fairly classical agnostic, except that I also have something that I’ll call a spiritual-seeking impulse. I have an emotional relationship with the universe that causes the universe to make more sense to me if I imagine my relationship with it as being a bit two-way.

So I tried other religious constructs on for size. Buddhism. Various forms of paganism. Vaguely Jeffersonian deism. General mysticism.

None of these other religious constructs turned out to be any more convincing than Christianity. And I couldn’t deny that for me Christianity still seemed more meaningful.

I now believe that’s primarily culture — because I was raised in a culture steeped with the metaphors and idioms of Christianity, they influence my way of looking at the world at a level that’s very deep and often unconscious, like language. I think this is true for many modern North Americans, even those not raised in the Christian church. When atheists say "oh my god!," it doesn’t meant they secretly believe in a Christian God. Their god is purely rhetorical. The rhetoric has meaning because of our shared culture.

(In fact, I believe some of the text written by the founders of our nation is wildly misinterpreted by the modern religious right, because they fail to recognize the culturally idiomatic use of a rhetorical god as being in any way different from the sincere prayer of a believer.)

So, Christianity has certain pre-existing mental hooks that give it more resonance for me than, say, Hinduism. I think any shared cultural experience gives these kind of hooks, it’s not unique to religion at all, and it’s certainly not unique to Christianity. But for a while I thought, maybe, that resonance pointed to some kind of metaphysical truth. Maybe Christianity seemed more meaningful because it was more meaningful. God speaking to me, or something. I wasn’t sure.

My family had switched to a different church by this point, and I liked the pastor at the new place. So I mentally gave Christianity another go.

In some ways this was an honest part of my, uh, I want to say "spiritual path" but that makes me sound like a complete donk so I don’t actually want to say that at all. In part it was a natural part of my exploration of metaphysical concepts and how I felt about them. I had discovered something true about myself — that in spite of all the church stupidity I still felt something special attached to the symbols of Christianity — and I was trying to figure out what that meant.

But in part it was something like cowardice. A hesitation to head out into the wilderness all by myself.

My family were all believers and being a nonbeliever made me feel really cut off from them. Also, it’s hard to throw off all your childhood social conditioning right away. You can doubt, but then you have doubts about your doubt. Are you, little 20th century college student, really smarter than two thousand years of human history? Don’t you think, if it were truly all nonsense, that somebody smarter than you would have noticed that by now? What if the answer is really obvious and you’re just missing it?

I hadn’t stopped believing in a Christian God, exactly. I had stopped believing in the certainty of a Christian God. And I still didn’t know what that meant.

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One Comment

  1. One thing about classic agnosticism is that almost all proclaimed and/or purported atheists are agnostics. But cultural osmosis decided that agnostics are wishy-washy universalist types and atheists felt they needed to fight back. Also because assuming something doesn’t exist until it’s proven is a safer, more scientific neutral starting point (hypothesis, if you will) than just shrugging hopelessly.

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