‘Agnostic’: Against Theists and Atheists

Lesley Hazleton’s brand of agnosticism simply holds open a space for contemplative thinking.

My religion is a hotly debated series of speculations. I eschew labels because most of them are an uncomfortable, imperfect fit. Into the void left behind in their wake is a bunch of anecdotal flotsam upon which spectators — my family, my students, my bartender — build a sense of what I might believe.

My father’s father was Catholic and my dad quit the church as soon as he was allowed. My mother was born a Jew, never bas mitzvahed, and skulked around as a Jew for Jesus until eventually being taken in by a megachurch. The only time I ever went to a weekly service of any kind was when I was in seventh grade on a summer trip to stay with my uncle in Philadelphia. I still feel gross for not telling him I’d rather not have gone. My wedding was a pretty pagan affair, though we did stomp on a glass blessed by a rabbi who was into supporting same-sex marriages.

Most people who know me well would say that I’m a philosophical person with strong values. To judge by my actions, one could easily conclude that I’m some kind of secular humanist. I carpool to work every day with a woman who is all about Jesus, and we are often surprised to find that we agree upon what should be done in any given dilemma about 95 percent of the time. The remaining five percent is about abortion. Even among the Southern states I have called home, my neighbors largely love me as an upright citizen, though they do not see me on Saturday or Sunday at their houses of worship.

In college, when I was anti-everything, I did a few turns at the wheel of atheism, but it was just so much work. Still, my own grandfather, who lived happily as a Jew for much of his life, recently declared at age 80 that he is an atheist. He still talks to my grandmother, who died 20 years ago, as if she is right there and they will be reunited some way some day, though he is not at all senile. I recently saw an interview with Brian Wilson (discussed in this article), where he spoke to George Harrison in this same manner and it affected me surprisingly deeply.

Patti Smith gave a reading from M Train in my city a couple of months ago and I had the opportunity to ask her a question. I told her that I was strangely moved by the consistency of her quest to care for the dead and to have ongoing relationships with them, then I asked her what she wants us to do for her when she is dead. She physically recoiled from my question, then gave a jokey, defensive answer about sending her stuff to charity instead of to a museum and proceeded onto a long tangent about how people are too attached to material objects.

When she wrapped it up and the audience started clapping, she dropped her voice a notch into the lull of the audience applause, looked me dead in the eye and said, “But seriously, pray for me”. I have few gods; Smith may be one and I will do my best to honor her request.

All of this is a part of what religious people call testimony. These are the stories I tell to convey a sense of my religion. It feels weird to say “my religion”. I usually go with “spiritual” or “agnostic”. My first year of college I attended a private Lutheran school where I was obligated to take so many required religion courses. In one of them, I learned that agnosticism doesn’t mean that you believe in god but prefer not to practice any form of worship. Agnosticism actually means a radical openness to the unknowable, a willingness to appreciate paradox and forego the pressure of making answers where there are none.

Now we can talk about Lesley Hazleton’s Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto. Hazleton is to be trusted. She’s a scholar of many kinds of religion and politics, hip to ancient texts and modern predicaments, and willing to drop obscure quotations without making a reader feel stupid. She gives her own testimony and uses her own life experiences to illustrate how one might live happily with the sense of uncertainty that would devastate a lesser mortal in search of illusions of closure. She conveys an appreciation for the mystical without ever tipping over into congealed pronouncements of dogma. In the blind alley of life, Hazleton stands on her own two feet in an exemplary manner.

She digs in her heels against atheists and believers alike, devoting a part of every chapter to unpacking the assumptions of each. Hazleton begins by dismissing the need for dichotomous thinking, but not in a Hegelian way that simply picks à la carte from both bad options to create some ideological mash-up passing as synergy. In the second chapter, she goes to town on the personalization and personification of capital-G God, and likens Pascal’s famous wager to the pitch of a sleazy insurance salesman, ending up at a beautiful reflection on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Hazleton’s main objective is simply to hold open a space for contemplative thinking, never tricking the reader down a slippery slope from reasoning to following. She’s not starting a cult or converting anybody.

Indeed, she’s a firm supporter of doubt and mystery, and argues that the eradication of these is at the root of any stripe of fundamentalism. She finishes by tackling death and the soul, the fear of those twin dragons that so often lead people into blinding comforts held out by religion. Hazleton grapples expertly with the modern dilemma of longer life and the possibility of eventually achieving immortality through science. She addresses the matter of soul in part through a linguistic consideration of the difference between “the soul” and “a soul”, and in part through her viscerally negative reaction to watching the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Agnostic is a profoundly personal work of memoir as testimony, an erudite exploration of the consequences of religious and atheistic tradition, a sound rhetorical analysis of faith-belief-religion-spirtuality-values, and an excitingly fresh take on the long shadow cast by humanity’s effort to make meaning out of itself. I found it very helpful in sharpening the vocabulary I use to describe my own spirituality, as well as for articulating and celebrating the unknowable with which we all must ultimately live.

Photo credit: Olivier D’hose

Agnostics get a bad rap as lazy or uncaring or uncommitted. I walked away from Hazelton’s book actually feeling very proud of the space I occupy in the world conversation about belief. I expect to recommend this book to many people, beginning with my grandpa and my carpooler. Not to proselytize, but people of all religious orientations really should read Agnostic.

RATING 8 / 10