Overwhelming Religious Diversity and the Agnostic Chair

Over at Agora, Patheos’ pagan group blog/hub, there’s a nice post by Alyxander Folmer. Folmer discusses a conversation he had with his sister as she was leaving the Church of Latter Day Saints and wondering what to do next. How exactly could she pick between the religions to find the right one? Folmer, bless him, makes her problem worse:

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.”

That reference works because the Kobayashi Maru is unwinnable. That’s pretty much a judgement of the nature of religion right there. Pascal’s Wager is bunk; there is no right answer.

But in the matter of religion there is less immediate pressure, and not playing is an option:

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!”

When my father was growing up in a small southern town, evangelical Christianity was the only religion he ever saw. By the time I was growing up in a slightly larger southern town, I knew Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and atheists. We are now more aware of the overwhelming religious diversity in the world than probably at any other moment in history.

I think, going forward, we’re going to find that the only real options available to us are approaching religion in a post-modern way that rejects the idea of one true religion, or sitting out the whole debate in our agnostic chair.

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