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.

  • compl3x

    The idea of leaving one religion only to go and find another one seems quite bizarre to me. You’ve just abandoned a belief system which you’ve come to see as false, why go out searching for another one? What criteria are you going to use to ensure this new belief will be true?

    • GubbaBumpkin

      What criteria are you going to use to ensure this new belief will be true?

      Ha, you’ve given the game away already. Do you think that Alyxander Folmer is concerned with what is true, rather than what is convenient and comforting? “Go ahead sis, explore, try on new religions like they were new hairstyles.”

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Look at what his sister asks, “There are so many different ideas. How am I supposed to find the right one?
      The “right” one, not the “true” one. No mention that truth has anything to do with it.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Interestingly Japanese vessels have the word “Maru” as the last word in their name. It means “circle” because boats were imagined as floating castles — circles of defense. This reminds me of the wagon train circles that religions form to protect themselves and the knots of theology tied to hide their vacuous centers.

    You are right — it seems clear to many of us is that in the face of such a huge number or religious options, the obvious conclusion is that they are all wrong and to just subvert the game.

    • MarkTemporis

      So when the lovable cat by that name occupies a box, as it does so often, it is an example of ‘squaring the circle’?

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Holy Lindemann-Weierstrass!

        The impossible is proven by a cat?

        Does this mean pi is not transcendental,

        and God is once again all alone in that realm?

  • GubbaBumpkin

    “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.”

    ‘Allowed’? Once they’re grown up, how would you stop it? It is an arrogant sophistry to imagine it will still be in your power to control it.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    They’re looking for direction from canned entertainment. Fine. Maybe instead of Star Trek, they should look to WarGames

    A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

  • Ronald Davis

    I only wish more people could see the world and religion in this way. It would be a much better place.

    http://secularatheist.blogspot.com/

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    As an Agnostic Christian hoping in the existence of a good God, when I look at all religions, it seems likely to me that God showed us His human face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, even tough the Bible is a human religious text.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • guest

      It doesn’t seem at all likely to me. The whole ‘trinity’ doctrine is an
      incoherant mess. There’s no good reason for God to have a human face in
      the first place. The idea of Jesus as a ransom to God for our sins is
      just nasty: since when is killing an innocent man for someone else’s
      crimes justice? What kind of judge would accept such a thing? No, it’s
      all a story, made up to excuse the fact that the man they thought was
      their messiah died like an ordinary human.

  • Gilbert Anne Sullivan

    I hate the phrase ‘going forward’.

    I thought Folmer’s answer to his sister was a good one. He mentioned ‘none-of-the-above’ as an option.

    I think all religions contain something that’s valuable to human beings, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. The key will be to cut out all the parts that are nonsense and keep the rich, creamy goodness to enjoy. Some things religions are good at: building diverse communities, inspiring art and music, making people feel like their lives matter. Creating fun holidays. Comforting the bereaved. Inspiring charity.
    Of course that doesn’t mean any of them are true, but it seems like a waste just to throw them away. I like things like the ‘sea of faith’ project, which accepts religion as a man-made creation but still sees it as a valuable tool. Perhaps religion can be reformed.

    • RickRayFSM

      All the things you mention about some things religions are good at, can be done in a secular manner without any religions if you really stop to think about it. Somehow, ‘building diverse communities’ seems more divisive than good as shown by the hatred of Christians, Muslims, Jews towards each other. If you really need religion to make you feel your life matters, then you’re already in serious trouble!

    • Lars

      I have to agree with Rick in that there’s nothing inherently religious about any of the good things you mentioned. All can be accomplished on purely secular terms and none will ever be thrown away because they are human qualities, not religious. Religion is just the wrapper.

      You raise a very interesting point about religion surviving and I wonder if it will eventually go extinct, or exist only at the margins, as more and more people accept naturalistic explanations for things they’ve always attributed to God, and see that religions are designed to divide humanity, not unite it. When they realize that the way world events play out, things like earthquakes, floods, cancer, genocide, that they play out exactly the same whether there is a God or there isn’t. And while it may be easy to see the ‘Hand of God’ in your own life (I sure did), once you shift your focus outward, that divine influence begins to disappear. That absence can make you feel special or it can make you feel duped. I do think many on Patheos are trying to reform religion, and that’s great, because sometimes you have to re-imagine a belief before you can un-imagine it.

      • evodevo

        You are assuming that most of the people “out there” think. They don’t, at least the ones who are my co-workers don’t. They either don’t have the time between working two or more jobs, along with raising kids, or they don’t WANT to think – too frightening. Most cling to religion of some sort the way a small child clings to his banky. There is no way they are going to sit down (if they even had the luxury) and mull through anything. The closest they get to that is subscribing to Guideposts or listening (with relief) to some apologetics mouthed by their preacher, in answer to a question about one of the inevitable religious conundrums brought up in daily life. (Hey! Why ARE there two conflicting versions of the Garden of Eden story?!!! How come bad things happen to good people?!!! Why did my friend die from cancer, etc. even though we prayed for her and the faith healer at the revival said she was better?!!!)

        • Lars

          People don’t think the same thing all at once but I believe most people think about these things from time to time, particularly younger people, which is why I’m hopeful we’ll eventually be a post-religious nation. I know a number of people who have deconverted and others who are actively questioning. The more closed the community (and the minds behind them), the slower the process, but Darwinian theory seems to be alive and well in the supernatural world as well!

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    I think there is a third option: refusing to “debate,’ while honestly pursuing the journey.


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