The Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism

The Fortune Teller’s Curse

I grew up very Catholic. Some people in the US went to Catholic school; I went to Catholic country. I was an altar-boy for 6 years. I prayed to God every day. Some people took my resemblance to my cousin Owen, a local priest, and my piety as a sign that I was the boy of my generation destined to serve the Church.

When I was seventeen I decided, with the aplomb and attitude only a seventeen-year-old can muster, to reject the Catholic Church and the concept of God. It was the first major decision I made as an adult and, though I dreaded telling my parents of it, I felt it was an important part of adulthood to take a stand and fight for it.

Of course when fighting for a stand I wasn’t against stacking the odds in my favor. I decided to tell my parents independently to avoid their ability to gang-up on me. I knew it would be traumatic for them: Both are strict Catholics, with my mother bordering on the fervent side in her beliefs. And I knew it would be, to put it mildly, unpleasant for me to break the news to them in parallel.

My conversation with my father went as I expected: he grew very cross, told me I didn’t know what I was doing, and stormed out of the room yelling to my mother, “Jesus Cathy! We’re raising heathens!”

However, my “coming out” to my mother did not go to plan. She listened patiently to my arguments. She stayed calm as I told her I would no longer go to mass; no longer pray to God; no longer worry about the salvation of Jesus Christ. She just waited. And when I was done, when no more words could come out, she just touched my arm and said:

“I’m glad you’re having doubts Andrew. When I was your age, I had doubts too. It only made my faith stronger in the end.”

It was the scariest thing anyone has ever said to me. Not just the words, but the confidence in her voice, the surety in her eyes. As though she could clearly look into the future and pluck out my path. I was stunned. And she just left the room. We never talked about it again.

But here I am, almost seventeen years later, and I still fear she will end up being right.

The Spirit of Running Naked

I spoke a while ago about trying to change myself, in mind, body, soul and spirit. The last few posts focused almost exclusively on the body aspect. The next few will focus on the spirit.

To those who find metaphysical-struggles and theological-bullshit boring and not interesting, I apologize in advance, and will return to more concrete topics later. But for the remaining two people (you know who you are) who might find this interesting, the next series of posts will outline how I’m trying to improve my spirit and what that means to me. I will write about why I rejected Catholicism, how I came across and embraced the religion of atheism, some of the problems that emerged for me with atheism over the past ten years, how I’ve now come to now reject strong atheism, and explain how I’ve ended up accepting the concept of spirituality and exploring what that means in my life.

As with the 5 Rules of Change, this will be a multi-part essay that I’ll post one per week over the next few weeks. Or if you prefer to wait for the entire thing, come back to this page in 6 weeks and I will have updated the links below. Stay tuned:

  1. Get Thee Behind Me Jesus!
  2. The Shiny Ball of Atheism.
  3. Survival of the Holiest.
  4. The Fundamentalist Atheist.
  5. Rise of the Pragmatic Agnostic.

11 thoughts on “The Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism

  1. GNP

    As one of the two people interested in this topic, I look forward to this series of posts. Thanks for sharing the experience with your mom.

  2. Hans Roth

    Having been raised strict Catholic, I too, rejected their contradictions and resistance to logic over 40 years ago. Consequently, I looked around with a diversity of other religions to determine if any of them made sense to me. One of the number of conclusions I came to is that they all, to some degree, contribute to the evils in the world today. War being the most glaring one. Haven’t wars, through the ages, proven that religious differences are one of the greatest catylists to this most inhuman of acts? Apparently, with all of our technonogical advances and access to information, we haven’t really evolved very much. My definition of RELIGION: QUICKSAND ON THE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT.

  3. Art Clarke

    Hi Hans (and Howard),

    Thanks for the great (and insightful) comments!

    I agree that all religions contribute to some degree to the evils in the world. But I also believe the same can be said of all secular faiths (I know… a contradiction) as well (think 20mm killed in Stalin’s Soviet Union). I’ll talk about that in The Fundamentalist Athiest (in a few weeks).

    Now that said, I believe that all religions and all secular faiths contribute to some degree to the good in the world as well. Any human creation I’ve run across has the potential for good or evil, and will likely at some point during its existence be used for both.

    – Art

  4. Howard Roth

    Hi Art,
    Maybe I should elaborate (perhaps unnecessarily) on “Original sin is the belief in original sin.” One of the natural phenomena that continues to fascinate me is the placebo effect. While the placebo generally is taken as a positive belief factor in western medicine, it can also show up as a poison pill in a practice like voodoo. Poison pill placebos like the belief in original sin function as matrices of power and control in many a tradition or institution. Put quite bluntly it puts a yoke of self-doubt any human being by the simple assumption of “you’re no good to begin with” and generally speaking redemption comes through the redemptive pardons of clergy or clergy-like agents of the controlling institution.
    In terms of formative experience the institution gets tremendous help through the carrot and stick wielded by the parents within the family the father’s stick with his “shut up and obey” and the mother’s carrot with her loving reassurance that in the end she’ll be proven right after all.
    The parents thus support the institution because they have learned it’s good and “natural” to do so. Are they to blame? Who can judge? Can there be parents who are good people even though they are living in and acknowledge a society like Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany or the Mafia? Are people to be condemned merely because they don’t see through facades? These are some basic questions which, I am sure, will lead to other questions. Anyway, don’t be surprised if this post shows up on my own blog, which has been dormant for months.

    P.S. A couple of great documentaries touching on Irish Catholicism are The Magdalen Sisters and Deliver us from Evil

    P.P.S. Just for the record, I am all for true spirituality

  5. Art Clarke

    Hey Howard,

    I agree the “Original Sin” concept is a very effective institutional tool for making members of a faith accept dominion of a church over them. Your question of “who is to blame” is interesting, and I think when you dive into it, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone to blame (much like in most business crisis, you’ll rarely find one person to blame:

    Its the nature of human-designed systems that the systems evolve ways to self-perpetuate. We tend to like stability, and therefore invent concepts that help stabilize things. I have no bitter thoughts on the concept of “Original Sin” — I think it’s an entirely rational creation that Catholics foisted on themselves. While the concept itself does give me some heebie jeebies, in general I believe Religions do more good in the world than harm.

  6. preechaman7

    Got here tag surfing and wanted to tell you that your story fascinates me. I am going through a wilderness of sorts right now. I enjoy your logical approach to finding the “truth”. I’ll check back to see how things are progressing.

  7. Howard Roth

    Hi Art,
    Thanks for referring me to the Fifth Discipline. I was very impressed with what I saw reviewed on Amazon.
    Here is my latest input to the Pragmatic Path.

    A Way to Create a Creator

    One of several Biblical concepts is that mankind is created in God’s image, but what is God’s image? Is it possible to make an image of something infinitely vast and complex? It is the general assumption on the part of major religions that God has omni-qualities, i.e. that the Supreme Being is everywhere, knows everything and has total power. As these qualities are infinite, mankind as a finite being can never encompass the nature of the Superior Being, but being a creator in his own right, the human being has the power to create in thought and speech a description of what that Superior Being might be. The small creator can thus determine what the big Creator is simply by establishing his personal image of the Greater Being.
    Take the example of showing God as an angry father. People are free to accept or refuse the angry-father image, but how is it that the listening public decides for or against the image? It decides according to the quality and degree of authority that the person in a position of secular or religious leadership projects. If the leader rules by way of anger and intimidation and claims his authority is from God, the followers easily accept the image of God being an angry, intimidating being. So in general terms it stands to reason that God becomes whatever those who hold power wish Him to be. It then becomes an easy matter for the heads of organized religions to issue proclamations such as that women should dress in habits or burkas. As long as leaders have conviction and faith, the followers adopt the same faith and conviction, feeling themselves to be among the chosen. Anyone who challenges the leaders’ authority is accused of “lacking faith.”
    So anyone with great faith and conviction can create a Creator simply through the establishment of an image, and if the creator can buttress his image through methods ranging from subtle persuasion and/or intimidation to violent coercion it becomes easier for the followers to believe than not to believe. If the faith is in the context of traditional religion, the believer can have a born-again experience; if the faith is based on a new belief system, the believer simply puts himself under the guidance of the leader who has created his particular image of God.

  8. Art Clarke

    Thanks for all the great comments folks — and I’m going to need time to ponder them all. preechaman7, I look forward to you returning, and let me know what you think then.

    – Art


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