Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Holiday Agnog

I've been trying to think what I could say to this post by Ben since it was put up and failed in comment form; so I just winged it and the comment got too big to be a comment (and now, for a post ,I even made it longer... and more about the general topic of agnosticism). It ultimately drifts away from Ben's post is what I'm saying :-).

[In short Ben said he's missing the religion behind the season, as a fairly recent agnostic.]

Maybe it's been too long since I became a non-believer to remember well how it used to be. It seems Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays (second to Easter--I'm a sucker for the whole Spring renewal thing... and hiding eggs). I just look at them now as something like a play that a whole culture puts on each season (which is probably why we've no problem incorporating a bit of Hanukkah :-)).

We have our big four here: Easter, 4th of July (or the 24th ;-)), Halloween, and Christmas. To me they all embody different important human qualities, and hopes, purposes; all appropriately tie themselves to the rhythm of seasons. There are some almost instinctual notions in there, and it seems to me one can get the gist of the holidays as an agnostic; maybe it just takes time to reframe them. I mean, there's still great value in the play, even if it's just a bunch of actors reading lines. Sure, it can seem silly to think of the actors and fiction while watching it, but I feel we can find worth in the broader ideas without buying into the "facts", as we do with, say, Hamlet.

[Ben also mentioned studies that show religions have a health benefit]

As for such studies, I've wondered about them too. People with a lot of people in their lives do live longer; church's give a sense of community; they offer answers to big pressing questions; they can be a safety net... There are a lot of benefits to belonging to a religion and I'd not be surprised if some extend life a bit.

I know I could join a faith that even supports my family, if I wanted those benefits. By the studies I've seen, it doesn't matter which faith you join. I'm sure I could, after enough repetition and investment, come to feel this or that church is true; I've been there before. I'm sure I could also raise our children to believe in most any faith of my choosing; a parent's faith is, after all, the predominant cause of a person's faith.

My problem would be the cost (and I don't mean tithing :-)). It seems believing without objective evidence will always have a human cost, as each human, without objective evidence, can easily come to conflicting truths. Such faith eventually comes to conflict, sometimes violently, and can often blind people to new evidence (I know this may sound offensive but I'd wager, say, any LDS talking with an ardent and faithful Scientologist would find the same problem). I know people get a lot of joy from religions and many absolutely KNOW their faith is the Truth, but people get that joy and certainty even from faiths that require them to hurt others for it. I know it is often innocuous, but when it goes bad and faiths clash with no hope of surrendering to objective experiment, it really goes bad. The cost in violating that agnostic core principle seems simply too high, even if there is truly a health benefit, even if what I'm asked to take on faith seems innocuous at first.

In general, I think many people may look at agnosticism or skepticism as laziness or confusion or cynicism, but there is actually quite a demanding and, for me, inspiring principle there. The bad news is we are far from perfect truth detectors and that is something agnostics must live with: every human sees patterns where there are none; our senses and feelings leave us eternally susceptible to error; we reflexively use superstitions as coping mechanisms; we'll even rewrite memories to match our expectations. All that is well documented... if you trust the documentation ;-).

We say great truths have great value, though, so much value that to feel you know truth is to admit your disinterest in knowing truth. Every sentence we write would start with an "it seems" if we were up to wasting the effort. But, on the up side, there is honesty and humility for us in doubt. There is a resolve in the universe that you don't imagine has you in mind. There is nobility and respect in being torn apart by a tragedy, not pretending to know why it hit or if someone is, say, in a better place. There is meaning in a life that means what it says, and purpose to be found in the purpose you openly choose, and morality to be found in actions done for morality's sake, no reward and no punishment in mind.

In a way, there may even be a religious quality to my agnosticism. There is temptation and demons and hedonism for the agnostic, especially for agnostics in some cultures. Strong faith can feel really good; it can make you one of the group (or even keep you in your family). There is also the sacred for the agnostic in epistemological discipline and restraint. I'm also sure every agnostic is a sinner to their own principles; I'm guilty; no human gets through life without some sort of magical thinking (hey, it's agnostic original sin). Or maybe I'm just too used to framing things in religious terms... :-)

There, I'm done proselytizing.


Mr. Fob said...

Thanks, Scot. As I figure out what kind of agnostic/skeptic I want to be, you are one of the templates that often come to mind. If that makes any sense.

[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

The cost in violating that agnostic core principle seems simply too high, even if there is truly a health benefit, even if what I'm asked to take on faith seems innocuous at first.

That is the main thing that keeps me from any religion or religion-type organisation.

Is Halloween a bigger deal than Thanksgiving for your family?

Scot said...

Mr. Fob: "Thanks, Scot."

Hey, thank you; I hadn't really taken the time to organize why I still feel a connection to many of these holidays, and your post really made me think.

"As I figure out what kind of agnostic/skeptic I want to be, you are one of the templates that often come to mind. If that makes any sense."

Now I'm all self conscious. If you'll be a template for me too then I'll be fine with it :-).

Craig: "Is Halloween a bigger deal than Thanksgiving for your family?"

Hmm. Not really for me, but for the kids. I just kind of see Thanksgiving as a prologue for Christmas, I guess.

But I'd see Halloween as one of the big 4 here because, in addition to the fact that we spend on it only 2nd to Christmas, I see it as a better metaphor for the Fall season, Easter's opposite... though both with candy.