The Rise of the Pragmatic Agnostic
The CEO of a company I used to work for (we’ll call him “Mike”) was fond of the word “Awesome.”
Actually, “fond of” understates his attachment to the word – it was his catchphrase: Multi-million dollar deals were “awesome”; new technologies were “awesome”; hitting a milestone was “awesome”; hiring a new person was “awesome”; having a good company party was “awesome”; changing the colors of the company logo was “awesome”.
Frankly, I sometimes wondered if he thought getting out of bed in the morning was “awesome”. I snickered to myself (like Inigo Montaya), “I do not think the word means what he thinks it means.”
In this series of articles I’ve shown how I rejected the doctrine, dogma and disciplines of organized Catholicism, and how, after almost ten years as a priest of Fundamentalist Atheism, I gave up my vestments and developed doubts (based on the Scientific Method) on the non-existence of Spirituality.
In hindsight I can see a clear rational path to my current spiritual stance, but it would be a lie to say my journey here has been either direct or directed, or that I have reached its final destination. About the only thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that I currently ascribe to the principles of “pragmatism” and “agnosticism”, and these two principles have shown me something unexpected: “Awesome” does not mean what I thought it means.
Whether Mike intended it or not(1), “awesome” is the right word to use. I just needed to open my eyes.
The principle of pragmatism is simple: look at the data and the experiences and draw conclusions that maximize your advantage (independent of your preconceptions). It’s not sexy. Idealism is sexy. Idealism gets the press. Idealism is remembered in history. Revolution always beats evolution for the battle of mens’ hearts.
But pragmatism, unlike idealism, is far more likely to work. And so, given my penchant for trying to tweak my odds of success, I have attempted to apply pragmatism to the concept of Spirituality.
To start, I looked in some detail at many different spiritual frameworks in the world. There are many differences, but I believe there are two common threads (apologies to anyone who thinks simplistic summaries of world religions are offensive):
- A moral code to guide and control groups and societies of people that can be summarized as “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
- A belief in the existence of a Spiritual aspect to reality, and a framework for approaching that aspect.
I believe in laziness, and hence pragmatically believe it’s worth learning as much as possible from others.
On the first point, there are many pragmatic arguments for following this code, and so I’m attempting to live by it(2).
On the second point, pragmatism is what led me to see it is impossible to refute the stance of theists. Pragmatism is what makes me realize there may be an evolutionary advantage to exploring Spirituality, and like Calvin above, that it is probably worth my time to don a pair of explorer’s boots and start looking.
And it is pragmatism that ultimately leads me to agnosticism.
I define the term somewhat differently that most dictionaries (which focus on the “doubt” aspect). For me, agnosticism is the willingness to be open to the existence of God(3). It’s the willingness to say “I don’t know”, but be curious to try to know. And I believe if you pragmatically look at the observations I presented in the past few weeks, agnosticism is the only rational choice.
So I have made the philosophical choice to concede it’s possible that God exists. I make no claim that it is probable or “highly likely”, only that it is possible. But I have decided to be open, and I have decided to explore what that means to me.
Dam Pragmatic Agnostics!
This stance may seem a relatively small opening, or change, from the stance of the Fundamentalist Atheist, but it’s not. It is like opening the sluice of a dam to let out one drop of water a year. Once the sluice is open two things happen:
(1) Water begins to flow. This is obvious, but visible and dramatic. The face of the rock begins to get wet and stays wet.
Once I adopted the stance of the Agnostic, once I let a drop of openness seep out, I could no longer dismiss out of hand the faith of others. To be truly open, I had (and have) to challenge myself to understand and discover more. I had to explore what was the biological concept of spirituality. How can one cultivate that sense? I started looking at the mundane and trying to explore what is non mundane or spiritual about it. As a result, spirituality began to seep into my life.
(2) Left to its own, the rate of flow will increase. In a dam, the trickle of water will wear away rock, washers, and doors. It will smooth over hard edges. It will break down barriers. What starts as trickle, with time, becomes a torrent.
For me, it’s been the same with Spirituality. What began as a small crack in my world view has expanded rapidly in the past few years. I find myself wondering more. I find myself looking closer at things I’d previously dismissed as uninteresting. I find myself taking more time to try to observe the universe, and try to see.
I find myself exploring the skyline of Manhattan and wondering how it came to be.
I find myself attending a funeral and seeing both the sadness and the beauty in the occasion.
I find myself watching the floor of Grand Central Terminal and wondering where all the people are coming from and going to. Wondering how some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan came to be dedicated to a 5-story tall empty atrium, and being so glad it is. Watching tourists create a permanent memory by photographing a commuter on the floor who will never even remember that moment. Watching people dance to avoid each other on the way to their trains, and seeing a scene of gracefulness and grace.
I find myself looking down at the wooden escalators on the first floor in Macy’s on 5th avenue, and realizing that someone cared passionately to keep them on one floor rather than replacing them with the more efficient escalators that are in the rest of the store. And that someone has to know how to care for them. And that someone else needs to make replacement parts. And that thousands of people with different cultures, different pressures, different problems, different joys, cross over them each year. And realizing that all these people share a connection through a set of wooden steps, but never know it.
The reality of this eludes words for me, but “awe” is the closest word I know of. Ten years ago, I had nothing but bitterness for the ugly world around me. Today, I believe the Universe is truly Awesome, and now I’m so thankful I get to experience it.
It’s an all encompassing emotion and feeling of peace with my surroundings, and one that really helps me through the day. And on days when I’m open to looking for it, I can see it in anything: floors, escalators, families, friends, strangers, lovers and even business deals, milestones, parties, and colors.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days – ask my wife, she’ll tell you I do. It doesn’t mean I believe in any particular instantiation of the Divine, only that the spirituality aspect of nature has become a real concept for me. By being open and trying to experience what spirituality means, I’ve been able (at times) to connect to a harmony I’ve never experienced before.
I can’t say it’ll last – the world of the Pragmatic Agnostic is not a world of certainty. But I intend to keep exploring, and I’m trying each day to be more open, to push more water through. Who knows, my mother could end up being right after all, but I’m no longer scared by that thought.
(1)While working for this company, I often thought Mike didn’t know why he was doing things – that an irrational emotional energy he could not control drove his decisions and actions. I was wrong. As I attempt to start my own business, I’ve discovered that more often than not, Mike knew exactly what he was doing, why he was doing it, and what he needed to achieve with it. He understood the importance of a sense of urgency to creating a successful venture and team, and that emotional energy is the most effective driver of that urgency – I just didn’t understand that at the time. It turns out you don’t grow a $100mm+ business by accident.
(2) One can make the argument that the rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is gameable via game-theory much as the Prisoner’s Dilemma is. If everyone abides by the rule all the time, then average value for each person is maximized. But if most everyone abides by the rule and one person doesn’t, that one person can gain a large advantage. Therefore is an incentive to appear to abide by the rule, but not actually do so. This is why I believe most religions introduce both moral punishments and some concept of eternal existence (be it Heaven or Nirvana). Why? Because if the person is caught cheating, their advantage is negated, and if you can extend the concept of existence to infinity, cheaters will always get caught. Now, one can ask in a belief system without a spiritual framework of eternal existence, what’s to stop the pragmatic agnostic from cheating slightly on this, or mostly doing unto others as he would have done unto him? The answer: nothing except transparency. The pragmatic agnostic must run naked, because otherwise the rational person will and should always suspect. Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” must be followed.
(3) As with last week, I am using “God” as shorthand for “spirituality and the existence of God(s)”, not as an endorsement of the philosophy of an omnipotent, omniscience, anthropomorphic father figure.