Aug 17, 2023

You're not agnostic, you're an atheist (repost)

Reflections on God and faith.

Today’s read: 6 minutes.

Reminder: We are on vacation this week, so we’re re-publishing some of our most popular Friday editions. Typically, Friday editions are behind a paywall, but we’ve unlocked these archived posts for everyone. We’ll be back with a fresh newsletter on Monday, August 21st. 

Originally published July 9, 2021

America is becoming less religious.

This trend has been in the works for a while, but it’s accelerating recently — especially among millennials and Gen Z. Check out the chart below, which illustrates the generational divide and shows the share of people who believe in God “without a doubt”:

Given that I regularly try to illuminate competing arguments on complex political issues, I often get asked about controversial subjects that aren’t directly tied to politics. One of the most common questions or requests people send to me is to write about God — whether I believe in His existence and why, or why not.

Frankly, explaining my own beliefs is probably too complicated to do in a single newsletter. But given that I grew up secular, spent my teenage years as an “atheist,” had a religious awakening in college and then studied in yeshiva in Jerusalem after college, and today am what I like to call a “semi-observant Jew,” I do have many thoughts on religion, God, and the politics of it all.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post (whose audience is probably as secular and liberal as they come) about God. It was titled “You’re Not Agnostic, You’re An Atheist.” It doesn’t directly answer all of the reader questions I’ve gotten about the existence of God, but it does reflect my views on the issue — which people seem interested in. So, this week, I went back and re-read the article, which is about seven years old. Then I rewrote it. And today, I’m publishing it below.

One of the most popular phrases I hear among my friends these days is, “I’m agnostic.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, an agnostic is defined as:

“a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.”

As of 2014, most U.S. atheists — people who do not believe in God at all or believe in a higher power other than God — fit a certain profile: young, liberal, well-educated and male. From Pew: “In the U.S., atheists are mostly men and are relatively young, according to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study. About seven-in-ten U.S. atheists are men (68%). The median age for atheists is 34, compared with 46 for all U.S. adults. Atheists also are more likely to be white (78% vs. 66% of the general public) and highly educated: About four-in-ten atheists (43%) have a college degree, compared with 27% of the general public. Self-identified atheists also tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party and with political liberalism.”

Those numbers don’t really surprise me. What is more challenging, as someone who has grown into a more religious or faith-oriented person than I was 10 years ago, is what happens when you talk to an agnostic and realize that they’re actually just an atheist.

The easiest way to do that is to ask the agnostic a simple question: “what did you do for God this week?”

It’s a question that I still ask myself, only because I remember how it once stumped me. When I heard the question for the first time, I was sitting across the table from a rabbi in Jerusalem, sparring over the meaning of the universe — and staking my flag on the malleable ground of ambiguity. I was an agnostic, I told him, because I didn’t know the truth. And neither did he: despite the curls, Black hat, yarmulke and confidence, he was pretending to know, which is why we call it “faith.” Saying it, and being disrespectful about it, made me feel good. I loathed the confidence with which he purported to so clearly understand the world.

“Ok, so you’re agnostic,” he said. “What did you do for God this week?”

The question took me aback. The reality was that I’d done nothing for God in the past week. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done something with a greater being in mind at all — maybe since my Bar Mitzvah, when I was 13 years old. And even then, I was mostly doing it for my parents, and because my brothers had done it, not “for God.”

But the point of his question struck home: if you truly are agnostic and don’t feel as if you know, shouldn’t you do some things to find out? Shouldn’t you pray and seek results? Shouldn’t you study theological literature and explore other avenues of “truth”? Shouldn’t you consult a “religious leader” and ask for guidance? Shouldn’t you act, even occasionally, as if the God that might exist actually does, just in case?

This conundrum of the atheist/agnostic vs. religious is one of great importance for both sides of the “God argument.” Perhaps the biggest flaw of the atheist position is not being able to stand on experiential data to debate God’s existence. There are plenty of believers turned non-believers, and you’d have to assume they gave God a fair shot before discovering another truth. If you came to your atheism in a biology class, though, and not in an arena of faith, then that’s about as useful as learning science in a church. There are brilliant men and women who are believers and non-believers, but the ones who open their minds to both have the strongest foundation of faith (or lack thereof).

Regardless of your beliefs or affiliation, I’m of the opinion that every person should ask themselves “why are we here and what are we supposed to do?” If your answer is, “we are here via the Big Bang and evolution, and our goal is to spread love” — awesome! If your answer is, “I’ve never really thought about it,” you should probably drop everything and start thinking.

Of course, the biggest flaw of the religious is trying to debate the intellectual side of God, an argument they rarely win in the public forum. Instead, they should be encouraging people to experiment with Him on their own, however they’re comfortable doing so, in a place where they can consult the believers they respect and look up to.

Today, I’ve come to very few conclusions of my own about the existence of God. Rationally, I believe that if you feel like the argument is 50-50, or you think there’s a “51 percent chance God exists” (as I’ve heard a friend say), your best bet is probably devoting your life to that belief. I believe the odds are close to even, and so I act accordingly. After all, if there is even a 20 percent chance that an all-knowing being is monitoring your every move to judge you for an eternal afterlife, wouldn’t you want to act as if you knew that? At least, say, 20 percent of the time?

In my own words, I’ve said for a long time that I’m an agnostic. But I said that knowing that I pray frequently, sometimes try to talk to God, say blessings over kosher food, make traditional Shabbat kiddush on Friday nights, recite the Shema each morning, sometimes look to the sky and ask for forgiveness, and do my best to have a Shabbat dinner when I can. Obviously, in these instances, I’m subscribing to Judaism, and that’s because it is the story of God I find most likely, the one I adore the most, and the one that was passed on to me by my ancestors. The rest of my time I’m usually not thinking about God very much, and I’m certainly not observing the many laws She’s been said to have made. Still, I’m giving opportunities to each and discovering success and connection in places I never thought I would.

With experience as both a person who has been enthralled with God and someone who has hated and rejected Him, I’ve accepted the raw truth of both sides: in general, they are increasingly intolerant and distanced from the other. My message to anyone who honestly strives for truth about the reality of existence and wants to feel comfortable in their convictions is to give both positions an equal opportunity for success. I take a similar stance when it comes to liberalism and conservatism: engage with the opposite ideas honestly, immerse yourselves in them, and then you can truly make an honest and informed judgment.

If you’re a non-believer, don’t pick arguments with someone you feel superior to or point to the well-documented ugliness of religion; instead, see how your arguments hold up against real scholars of God, and try experiencing that God through passages of theology you might appreciate.

If you’re a believer, don’t preach to the world about the way you’ve experienced your own God or have blind faith in the scripture you read; instead, see how your arguments hold up against highly educated atheists, and try understanding the way your God’s teachings correlate with how others experience our universe under scientific principles (note: there is certainly science in scripture and scripture in science, and this is not meant to make them mutually exclusive).

And, on both sides, we need to promote honesty. I’ve seen far too many atheists hide their convictions around religious people in order to be polite, and far too many religious people avoid their doubts about what’s being taught in colleges for fear of being judged. The result is two sides that can’t ever learn from each other, because they’re constantly playing cat and mouse.

In the end, literature has taught us most people will travel on this journey of discovery their entire lives, some seeking answers forever and others finding them rather easily. The Rambam, a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, said this quest is like standing on a dark plain on a stormy night. You’re beaten by the wind, lashed by the rain, hopelessly lost, no idea where you are. And as you stand there in total darkness, at the moment of greatest despair, there is a flash of lightning, and in that instant of lightning, you see the road more clearly than you can by day. But just as you see it, it disappears. The rest of the night is spent walking through the storm on the memory of the flash alone, the memory of the clarity that you saw so briefly.

Some people see more flashes, some people see fewer, but we’re all charting our own path along the way. It’s up to us to decide what the lightning illuminates.

Thanks for reading.

We'll be back on Monday with a fresh newsletter. Heads up, we also just released a new YouTube video of my interview with UFO skeptic Mick West.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.