Wyrd Words: The “Agnostic Chair”

Greetings! Welcome to the inaugural post of Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!


LIFE Magazine Photo Archive
Peter Stackpole, copyright 1939

As was recently addressed here on Agora, there was a site-wide series inviting practitioners of various religious persuasions to discuss their thoughts on passing their beliefs down to the next generation. What followed was a FLOOD of fantastic pieces, approaching the issue from just about every angle imaginable. When I decided to try my hand at the subject, my ideas were purely speculative.

If there is one thing that every parent in the history of EVER can probably agree upon, it’s that children have a way of turning your plans right on their head. So while I was confident that I knew how I would want to raise my children in theory, the application of  that theory is whole different ballgame. So, of course, as soon as I had written this piece the universe decided it was time for me to get some practice.

So, to give some context for this story, my family is an interesting blend of religious cultures. My father is a Pagan with Taoist leanings, married to my Mormon step-mother, and they live with a New Age roommate. When my wife, the Reform Rabbi in training, and my Heathen self come over, we all make quite the motley crew. (And by motley, I mean AWESOME.)

Now, on this particular occasion, I came over for dinner and my father almost immediately pulled me aside for a kind of “Family News” brief. There had been a bit of a commotion since the last time I’d visited, centering around one of my younger sisters. She had very recently decided that she was no longer Mormon, and while my family has always been very open and accepting, my step-mother had always insisted on raising her children in her church.

My sister had been exposed to a lot of different religious perspectives in her life, but she had always declared that she was Mormon now and forever. Her religious explorations were based in curiosity and the desire to be informed, but never out of a desire to move away from her mother’s faith. Thus I was more then a little surprised to hear about this change of heart.

I had always said that once my children were of age, they would be allowed to make their own decisions, which I would support in any way I could. My eldest younger sibling apparently saw fit to put that to the test. It was a few hours later when I got the opportunity to really talk to my little sister. I asked her about how she was feeling, how she thought the family had taken the news, why she had decided to move away from the Mormon church. What I expected was a careful dance in which I would desperately try to avoid making things worse by saying the wrong thing. Instead, what happened was I had the first entirely candid, adult conversation about religion that I’d ever had with my sister.

She told me that the family had taken it remarkably well, and that she felt she had the full support of everybody in the household. She told me about the troubling trends she had seen in the church, and her issues with some of the more morally questionable chapters of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. She had simply reached a point, at age 14, where her own sense of ethics was no longer entirely compatible with those of the church. Then came the big question.

“I knew there were other religions out there, but I never thought about actually being a part of any of them. I’ve always been Mormon, and I thought I always would be, and now I’m not sure where to go. There are so many different ideas. How am I supposed to find the right one?”

BAM! No dancing around that one. I had two choices; I could either give a cop-out answer like, “Oh, you’ll just know”, or I could give her a real, adult answer. I have too much respect for my sister to just cop out, so I told her the truth.

That’s a question that mankind has been trying to figure out for about fifty thousand years, ever since the earliest beginnings of religious belief. I can tell somebody about my own ideas and experiences, but they’re not going to mean anything to them. Every single adult in our immediate family practices a different religion. We could all sit down and talk about the myths we love, the meaning we find in them, and the things which lead us to our own chosen walks of life; but in the end it would all just be campfire stories to her.

For nearly two hours I explained different theological concepts like Pantheism, Henotheism, Polytheism, Animism, Universalism, and Monolatry. Her questions were endless and enthusiastic, and I enjoyed watching her absorb and process the new information with a speed that only hyperactive teenagers can manage. As we were winding down she hit me with another “Big Question.”

“If people have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years, how the heck am I supposed to do it?”  My sister is just about one of the biggest geeks that can be observed in the 14-year-old population, so I summarized my answer into something I knew she would instantly understand.

“Welcome to the Kobayashi Maru.”

After her giggles subsided, I explained that she was allowed to explore for as long as she liked, in whatever direction she pleased (including “None-of-the-above” as an option), as long as she held onto those core ethics which had guided her to start exploring in the first place, and never accepted anything without questioning.

My sister gave me a confident and determined nod.

“Yeah, I think I like my little Agnostic Chair. I’m gonna hang out here for a while and figure out what the heck is going on!” My sister’s mind is a tangled mess of hormonal teenage nerd, and I have no idea what she meant when she said “Agnostic Chair.” I can’t help but picture her, sitting comfortably in a corner where she can observe the various theological party-goers in their antics, just watching and trying to determine who she would like to go chat up.

Well HAIL, sister, you rock that agnostic’s chair! I’ll be sitting over on the Heathen Keg if you need me!

Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/

  • kenofken

    Figuring out a religion or spiritual path, if it is to mean anything at all, is nothing less than a journey to oneself. It is beyond absurd that we expect 14 year olds to be in any position to have that sorted out for life.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      I couldn’t agree more. She has a handle on her own sense of ethics, and they guide her to be a pretty awesome kid. Where she may or may not end up throughout the course of her exploration is (I believe) less important then that she hang onto those ethics. She’s got a lifetime to figure out the rest. :)

  • Sunweaver

    so I summarized my answer into something I knew she would instantly understand.

    “Welcome to the Kobayashi Maru.”

    HA! That’s beautiful. You can’t win (unless you’re James T. Kirk and cheat).

    • Vision_From_Afar

      “With respect, the test is a cheat, sir.”

      • Sunweaver

        Well played.

  • Mikal

    I feel I’m going to have this exact type of conversation with my daughter in a few years. Glad to hear it went well for you guys, welcome to patheos. Always nice to see another heathen in these parts.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      Thanks :) I’m happy to be here.

  • Betwixt-and-Between

    Thank you!! Thank you so much!

    You have no idea how ridiculously relieving it is to hear it put that way. I didn’t get into your sister’s situation until I was already old enough to drink, but it’s left me feeling horribly overwhelmed and burned out on belief. How can I believe anything if I might be WRONG about it, just as utterly, confidently wrong as I was before?

    But…if religion/spirituality/whatever is the Kobayashi Maru, then…I can be wrong. I *have* to be wrong. I have to be, because everybody is, and that’s the way it’s *supposed* to be. That’s just…wow. =D

    And the fact that you put it so succinctly into a Star Trek reference makes me want to dance. My username is actually a ridiculously obscure Star Trek reference itself, so…yeah.

    Also, I’m picturing the Agnostic Chair as the captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge of the USS Truthseeker.

    • Wyrd Wiles

      My “Best Man” at my wedding has another phrase on the subject that I like. If asked what his religion is, he will reply “Militant Agnostic”. If asked what that means, he will explain “I don’t know, and YOU DON’T EITHER!” :)

      I’m glad you found something of use in my piece, and I hope your Truthseeker takes you to interesting places!

      • Betwixt-and-Between

        That…is an incredibly useful term! XD

        Thanks. It already has, really–strange new worlds where *I* certainly hadn’t been before. :)
        (…and now I kind of want to turn the entire opening sequence of Star Trek into an agnostic seeker’s prayer.)

  • Agnostic Universe

    Excellent guide… “as long as she held onto those core ethics which had guided her to start exploring in the first place, and never accepted anything without questioning.” It’s better to hang back and try to figure it all knowing that we may be too simple and primitive to ever really know. It’s best we not pretend we know things we don’t. You’re an excellent guide!

    • Wyrd Wiles

      I certainly hope so. Honestly my goal was just to avoid confusing her more than she already was!

  • Bonnie Koppell

    “held onto those core ethics”- what might those be and what foundation are they based on?

    • Wyrd Wiles

      A healthy level of skepticism, a questioning mind, a love of learning, and respect for her fellow human beings and their various ways of life.
      I don’t know if one could cite a single source for their “foundation”. I think it’s a part of human instinct to strive for progress and understanding. To explore the world around us and try to make sense of our environment.

      • rabbibjk

        Not sure I agree that “it’s part of human instinct to strive for
        progress and understanding.” I don’t think that history supports that
        sense of optimism.

        • Wyrd Wiles

          The Great Enlightenment, The Industrial Revolution, the rise of Abolitionism and the fall of the western slave trade, Women’s Suffrage, The Civil Rights Movement, the birth of the Information Age…
          If there is one predictable trait of humanity, it is our inexorable charge forward. It’s not often easy, or fast, or even consistent, but we’re always progressing. As divided/conflict-ridden as our world may seem today, when you look at it in the context of history we’re really doing much better. We still have a ways to go, but humanity has a knack for getting places, even if it takes longer than expected.

          • rabbibjk

            Really! Inexorable charge forward? Always progressing? Forget the Crusades, the Inquisition- focusing on the 20th century- the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, Stalin’s murder of 20 million of his own people, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Uganda- the treatment of women in Afghanistan as well as those who support their rights? Sorry, don’t believe that human beings are instinctively oriented towards the good.

            Per Jewish tradition- I believe that we each have a yetzer ha-tov- a good inclination, and a yetzer-ha-ra- an evil inclination. Either one of these is strengthened as a result of the choices we make, but the choices are ours and the question remains- what is the motivation for those choices and what is the source of the values that informs them?

            Not instinct, for sure! Have you ever met a baby? Most selfish creatures on the planet! Goodness has to be taught, learned, and practiced.

            • Wyrd Wiles

              Like I said, we’re not exactly consistent. (Read: People can be really REALLY horrible to each other)
              The reason I still support the idea that we are progressing is because of the perception of these atrocities. If you were to ask some random Joe from the middle ages what he thought of these tragedies, they would likely give you a funny look and ask “What tragedies?”. These kinds of things were a part of life, and as long as it wasn’t happening to THEM, most people simply didn’t care that much. They had more immediate concerns.
              Things like this still happen today. The difference is that humanity as a whole is starting to figure out that this is BAD. Unlike previous ages, where they might have been horrified by the thought of war coming to THEM, we can now (generally) look at the suffering of others and recognize it as horrible even though it has nothing to do with us. Slowly (REALLY SLOWLY. TECTONICALLY SLOWLY) the world at large is becoming more empathetic.
              You’re average Joe today might not know what to DO about the conflicts in Rwanda, or Uganda, but they’re generally going to know it’s bad and that something SHOULD be done.

              I think you’ll find this article interesting. (I don’t know if it’ll change you mind on anything, but that wasn’t really my goal and it’s an interesting read none the less!)


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