Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comfortable with not knowing the answer

Do you call yourself an atheist?

I prefer not to use the term. Although I guess I am an atheist. I just don't believe in God. I've always liked Thomas Huxley's term, "agnostic," by which he meant it's an unknowable, insoluble problem from a scientific point of view. By my personality, I'm comfortable with not having the answer to everything. I'm perfectly happy going through my day, thinking, I really wish I knew the answer to that but I don't. I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. Most people get cognitively dissonant about having uncertainties and need to close that loop and have an answer.

That's from the Salon interview with Michael Shermer, who writes the 'Skeptic' column in the Scientific American. [Caution: Salon requires that you view an ad before you get to the good stuff. This interview is worth it.]

Here's a bit about his early experiences with religion:

I was in high school when one of my best friends talked me into being born again. So I just went along with it, and it seemed to work for me, although my stepbrothers and -sisters always gave me a hard time about being a Jesus freak.

Still, I felt that if I'm going to take this seriously, I should be proactive about it. That includes challenging people and speaking out. I even went door-to-door in Malibu. Although it was anxiety-producing to walk up to strangers' houses and say, "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Jesus." You were also supposed to tell people that you loved them. I remember telling that to a girl who actually liked me. And she took that the wrong way. I had to correct her. No, I don't mean it that way, I mean it in the agape way, the kind of love that C.S. Lewis talks about, the love for your fellow humans. I can't believe I did that. Although I guess in a way I'm doing the same thing, only now I do it through public lectures and books: "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Darwin."


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    These are very much like my views though I never went through a religious period. In these days of labels, even calling one self an agnostic seems to be problematic. Last year I told somebody in a hotel dining room in USA that was an agnostic. he immediately told the hotel manager, fortunately in a friendly banter, "Bruce, we have a commie here". I have a rough idea but not a very clear idea of what communism is. Recently, I was trying to put my granddaughter Leila to sleep by singing (my own versions of old hindi songs and Pather Panchali tunes. I tried Janaganamana, the only one of which I know all the lines and it did not work). Then one of my daughters said to Leila "Do'nt listen to him; he will make you a communist".

    However, I think that religion had a role, on the whole positive. Not everybody had or has the body of knowledge and opportunities available to Schermer. For a large number of people religion fills many blanks in life with values, rituals and vague intimations of what may be. Like anywhere else, fanatacism is bad but why disturb some thing which has been working well for the majority until some satisfactory replacement and opportunities can be found.