Just Say 'I Don't Know'

When I published a book on agnosticism (Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest) and what I like to characterize as the big questions of existence, good and evil, time and religion, I had no idea that the book would not only hit a nerve but create a rush of personal narratives having to do with faith and belief. It seemed to me that people really became ignited with the desire to explain having had God or never having had Him (Her? It?) and offering strong visceral opinions on why they were comforted and consoled by religion or were spiritual but not religious or felt religion was just above or below contempt. As a kid of the Sixties I had always thought the personal was supposed to be political but suddenly I had the dawning realization that perhaps the personal was philosophical and that Americans took matters of what to believe with as much seriousness and polarized views as they did their politics.

Not all Americans of course. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley told me she had once called herself an agnostic but had switched to calling herself an "indifferentist." Those so-called 3:00 in the morning questions that had set me on a lifetime quest she was utterly indifferent to. I suspect there are many like her. But I was one of those who always wanted answers and who figured a lifetime pursuit of knowledge and the good fortune of interviewing many of the world's brightest and most extraordinary thinkers and achievers might lead me to glimmers of enlightenment. Or, if a higher or more supernal answer did not emerge from knowledge and reason, perhaps a mystical moment might occur, a thunderbolt of illumination, a transcendent jolt, a miracle.

Do the big questions really need answers? Even the most devout believer or the most dogmatic atheist would probably concede that too many of even the most elemental questions simply cannot be answered. Einstein said, "The important thing is not to stop questioning," and, boy, did that resonate for me. Believers? Show me the proof. Atheists? Prove a negative. Neither has a cornerstone. We cannot answer many of the mysteries on earth let alone what we don't know out in the farther and unfathomable reaches of space. Studs Terkel once told me he was an agnostic, and he defined being agnostic as being a cowardly atheist. But agnosticism is all about doubt and uncertainty and the courage to admit ignorance. Suddenly Stephen Hawking writes a book and tells us we need worry no longer about how the big bang came to be some 14 billion years ago. Declaring himself an atheist, at long last, one of our planet's greatest geniuses reassures us that God didn't have to make the big bang because gravity preceded it. But, Hawking, I want to ask, how did gravity come to be?

The recent Pew poll that gave evidence to atheists and agnostics knowing, along with Jews and Mormons, more about religion in America than all others should come as no surprise. Nor should the fact that, as the wonderful science writer Timothy Ferris points out in his blurb on the back of my book, "agnostics and atheists are the group Americans trust least." Atheists and agnostics inspire distrust and even enmity among the nation's deeply faithful while there is a marked difference separating those who doubt God from those who banish God's existence altogether. Many of the atheists also have a great deal more contempt and vitriol against religion than agnostics - Richard Dawkins compared religion to child abuse and Sam Harris said science must destroy religion. Agnostics? Well, there's a whole continuum of agnosticism but there generally isn't the contempt or dismissiveness or ridicule (think Bill Maher's film Religulous) of religion. I know many agnostics who feel okay about attending a house of worship because of their kids or elevating feelings of community or comfort derived from the ritual and music. Religious belief has caused no measure of chaos, carnage and stupidity but it has also given hope, solace, cures for addiction and recidivism and a moral code for many to live by, not to mention great art and concerted action on behalf of social justice or a higher good. America is a land of religious freedom. Let people believe or not believe whatever they want so long as they do no harm.