An essay on the Higher Power and Agnosticism
by Alan Franks
If I could muster a little more zeal, I suppose I would start calling myself a committed agnostic. The obvious trouble with that would be that since agnosticism depends for its life on doubt, caution and scepticism, the position would be its own contradiction. Yet agnosticism is the place to which I keep returning with the certainty of gravity. This raises the question of how someone with such convictions, or lack of them, can begin to believe in, let alone define a Higher Power. Since childhood agnosticism has been my recurrent counterpart to a more formal faith. I have made a number of spiritual excursions, although I hesitate to call them proper journeys of inquiry.
I sometimes find myself thinking of a pinball and its jagged, unpredictable journey round the upper reaches of the board. These quests, if that is what they were, did have the erratic pattern of a ball being pinged about off the pillars and even a sense of disappointment that I should have kept on being returned to the foot of the board. There’s no getting round it; every time I’ve considered the question of belief, I have felt this leaden-legged sensation which disqualifies me from even contemplating a leap of faith. I am no more proud of this than ashamed of it. Sometimes I am intrigued by it.
I find myself responding passionately to evidence of devotion, even when it comes in the apparently restraining vehicle of a solid English hymn. Then, almost immediately, I’m levelling charges of vicariousness at myself. Why should I be affected by evidence of devotion in others while withholding the possibility of direct experience? Whatever else it is, or is not, agnosticism does not strike me as an easy option, nor a mushy abstention.
What is it that I am admiring, or indeed envying in others who differ from me? I think it is the process of all that awe, all that wonder being conveyed in a regulated form, that moves me to tears. Why? I don’t know. I am an agnostic, remember, and so there are an awful lot of questions to which I find that to be the only honest answer. But I suspect it has less to do with my own experience of that awe and wonder than with the toiling of a person’s mind and hand to make sense of the mighty imponderables.
In other words it is our struggles, our hopes, our fears that engage me and it is the working of these matters into sublime expression that affects me. Such high dramas of humanity knock me sideways every time, whether they come from the noble doubtings of Hopkins or Herbert, or from the various certainties of Wordsworth, the Wesleys or Isaac Watts. I suppose I also find myself at one here with the most famous of St. Pauls’s deans, John Donne, in his recognition of the “fettering” power of verse.
Heavens, I even sing in a choir, or rather quire, as the one I belong to performs the West Gallery music of the kind that Thomas Hardy and his ancestors played in the Wessex churches of Stinsford and Bockhampton. It’s all there in his novel Under The Greenwood Tree, in which the sometimes ragged but always enthusiastic string and wind band which has provided the quire’s accompaniment for years is ousted by the arrival of the organ, an instrument seen as more seemly by the Victorian clerisy. It’s a lusty, celebratory music, capable of divine melancholy and rich departure from orthodoxy. It is, in the words of the musician who founded and directs this modern counterpart, more happy than clappy.
When I joined, five years ago, I predictably had two related fears – quite apart from whether I would be able to pull my weight in the tenor section. The first was that I would be joining a group of ardent worshippers drawn to the music by its Biblical adherence; the second was that in such company I would feel the pangs of perjury in my throat as I sang.
Neither came to pass. As far as I can tell, though I am to diffident to go quizzing its members, the overriding appeal of the thing is the music itself. The words of course are as worshipful as those of the conventional Anglican repertoire, coming as they do from the same sources. Without them these tunes, fugues, canticles and anthems would never have been written. They are in a sense indivisible. It would be absurd to jib at this reality; better to accept, appreciate, learn, articulate.
What I cannot deny is that when I join in the singing of them I am transported by something infinitely greater than myself. I am not only thinking of the unit, which on a good day numbers nearly forty singers and instrumentalists; nor am I only thinking of the elation brought on by being an element of four-part harmony; nor again am I only thinking of the words, exacting though they can be when you are stretching or compressing their syllables to comply with the composer’s intended fit; nor, finally, am I only thinking of the object of these pieces’ reverence – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. No, I am thinking of all of them, sometimes apart, sometimes together, in some rather random rotation.
What I also cannot deny is that in having these reactions I am under the influence of powers far greater than me, my striving rationale and my seriously inadequate will. Words like transported and elated hold the key, meaning carried away, borne from yourself and such like. But then – and here comes the determined voice of the agnostic – I would say, and do say, that you don’t have to be in love to be bowled over by the power of a love song.
Naturally I have asked myself whether there is some perversity in me that will reject all notions of faith regardless of their merits and so turn into one of Richard Dawkins’s PAPs (Permanent Agnostic on Principle). I suspect many agnostics ask themselves this question and hope, as I do, that perversity would be a crude scapegoat for what is a plain failure to believe. This is an area in which I would hate to discover my own dishonesty.
Yet there are people who would have me indulge in a kind of dishonesty. Perjury is putting it a bit strong, but they would like to see me try a spot of fibbing. They are religious themselves, mostly C of E as it happens, and they are simply the people I have run into in the course of work or friendship and talked to about these matters. A fairly frequent refrain has been that if I didn’t believe (in the concepts, the Christ and the God that they believed in), then I should try acting as if I did and see what happened then.
If this doesn’t happen as much as in the past, it might be because the ones who used to have given me up as a bad job and the ones who don’t know me can spot a hopeless case a mile off. These are, to a man and woman, good people by any standards, and if I use words like decent and sincere I really don’t mean to patronise them. In some respects I envy them. But they are suggesting that I abandon my position and try theirs when I have reached mine largely by looking at theirs and realising that I cannot hold it. I never suggest to them in return that they should abandon theirs and give my better and wiser views a spin.
Why don’t I? There are several answers. One is that my agnosticism is not militant. I haven’t the will to proselytise. Neither do I like it when I am on the receiving end of such a process. I can hardly believe I am being asked to tick a box I have not ticked before as if it is some mail-order option – and by individuals of a serious cast. Then there is the automatic respect, or at least some residue of it, which people of my generation (I was born in 1948) still give the Church, and belief in general. (We paid similar obeisances to medicine, law and the rest of the professions until deep into Mrs. Thatcher’s decade.) It is perhaps surprising that the echoes have lingered into a time when atheism has made such advances into the public consciousness, thanks to Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, Nick Gisburn’s Saying No To Religion and other incitements to secularism.
Still, I was brought up by my (thoroughly agnostic) parents to allow everyone to have the faith they had and, so long as this didn’t cause hurt or damage to others, to believe what they wanted. My attempts at rage are sabotaged by European liberalism. How can one be against Voltaire who would defend to the death your right to say a thing, even if he deplored what you were saying?
Can agnosticism and belief in a Higher Power cohabit in the same individual? But of course. The first of the two concepts was the more familiar to me until I discovered a need for the second. This I did in painful circumstances. Nearly thirty years ago I was in deep trouble with alcohol and was being treated in a London clinic. It was the usual story; what had started as a recreation became a habit, and then a bad habit and then an addiction. Having compared notes with many other reformed addicts, I have not the slightest doubt that alcoholism is right up there, or down there, with so-called Class A dependency. One reason why it does not have quite the same stigma is that the drug in question is not only legal but also a substantial bringer of government revenue.
Among doctors there is a broad consensus that alcoholism results from a combination of genetic predisposition – which is the expensive way of saying weakness – and usage. In other words, you can be an alcoholic in waiting but you can’t be addicted to it without consuming the stuff. Some need only a very little to be hooked. Other drinkers may use and use and yet not be alcoholics because they never develop the dependency. It’s a complex mix of personality, biochemistry, circumstances and behaviour. Complex mix but simple solution: stop. Yes, but how? Men and women who seem to be strong, fearless and independent in other respects, try, fail, relapse, go mad, die, generally in that order. The great psychotherapist Carl Jung said that unless a patient suffering from alcoholism had a spiritual awakening, there was no hope for him/her. Again the question: how?
The process by which we were treated in the clinic is known as the 12-step programme. It was originated in America nearly eighty years ago by two Ohio alcoholics who realised that by talking to each other honestly and regularly they were able to bleed from themselves the shame and isolation of their condition. This became the foundation of their abstinence. It was a good instance of the “talking cure” which Freud advocated (though he was too early to tackle alcoholism), and of the now fashionable dictum that “a problem shared is a problem halved.” These men, known as Dr. Bob and Bill W., were alcoholics, yes, but they were also Christian alcoholics, and their twelve steps towards good and continuous abstinence are full of references to God. The principles at the core of the programme are acceptance (of your condition), the desire to change it and the willingness to allow a power greater than yourself into your recovery. One of the steps states that “we made a decision to hand our lives and our wills over to God as we understood Him.” Nothing less than that.
Not just the steps, but much of the accompanying literature is packed with the Christian imagery of redemption. Whether people such as me like it or not, the founding fathers would never have got their now burgeoning worldwide fellowship off the ground if they had not started from their position of faith. And this, ironically, is the very thing that is apt to turn the atheist and agnostic away from the meetings and back into the bar. Alcoholics at the end of their drinking and the start of something else, they’re not sure what, are often confused and enraged creatures. Confused because they can’t understand how they got so bad and why it has to be them that must give up, when there are worse cases (alcoholics always know worse cases than themselves) in the bar they have just left. Enraged because their usual (liquid) solution to everything, including confusion, has just been confiscated from them – apparently for ever. Outrageous. How dare anyone do such a thing to them?
Now tell these confused angry non-drinking alcoholics that they must embrace God and…stand well back. Many come from homes of liberal uncertainty that verges on atheism, as did I. Others whom I know are disaffected cradle Catholics who want nothing more to do with a God who has such vicious and vengeful representatives on earth. They point to the Old Testament and the tribal atrocities sanctioned by this or that version of God; or else they remember the more recent tyrannies in their own lives as pupils in a sadistic institution. They focus even more currently on a Church (Anglican) split ludicrously and tragically by homophobia and trumpet righteously that they will under no circumstances be sold religion by the back door.
When they do go along to meetings, there are the slogans on the wall, plain, unmissable, unequivocal and very, very American: Let Go, Let God; Easy Does It But Do It; One Day At A Time; I Can’t, He Can, Let Him. And next to them on the wall are the photos of Dr. Bob and Bill W., all tough-love smiles and Eisenhower haircuts. It’s extraordinary that these images and texts have survived unchanged from wartime America. The fact that they have done so, passing unscathed through the fires of bohemian Chelsea languor or Shire ladies’ Yankophobia, is a proof of their lasting relevance. They work. They get into people who need a stiff antidote to the repetitive poison of alcohol. Yet they take time, as did the alcohol, and that early resentment that many alcoholics develop about being Saved by the Lord can be literally fatal.
Personally I was furious about it, for all the reasons I have just mentioned. Didn’t they realise I am an agnostic and therefore not a candidate for God-based cures? Didn’t they see this was as much a violation of my belief system – all right, non-belief system, but that’s my business – as it would have been if I had told one of them that there was a cure available for their killer illness but that they had to give up those silly ideas about divine intervention if they were to receive it? Didn’t they know that I’d had an overdose of religion from my schooldays in Westminster Abbey, where I’d already decided that if there was a God he was either callous or useless as he’d allowed my father to drop dead one Saturday afternoon when I was 15 and he was 55?
The answer to all these questions was No. Worse than No, really. More “No, and we don’t care either. Get believing or you’re dead.” So I’d landed in a closed community where people talked incessantly of God, or else “my Higher Power,” and kept saying something called The Serenity Prayer. (It’s a wonderful form of words, as it happens, and more of it later). The counsellors came in from their comfortable, regular homes in the suburbs, or so I thought, and presided over group therapy sessions in which the idea seemed to be that everyone savaged each other psychologically, or else sucked up to the ones they feared. If someone had seen through and humiliated you yesterday, then you’d bide your time and get them back. If someone had been nice to you, you’d make sure you’d ride to their rescue if they were getting a hard time. Sometimes you sat there just hoping for the hour to pass, but that was always the time when the minute hand seemed to get stuck for hours in the last push towards the top. Maybe you tried to go invisible, just look all harmless and not say anything, because then you couldn’t cause any trouble or attract any attention; but everyone saw through that and asked you why you weren’t joining in.
We had to keep daily diaries about our feelings. Mine were so hostile to the God business that I was taken off words and put on pictures. Of course this made me even angrier, but it served me right and I think I knew it, even then. I write for a living, and naturally was trying to bring words to my rescue. I was failing horribly. At times like this, when you’re seriously in trouble, you cast about for what you know. The actors among us declaimed and emoted. It’s what they got paid for, if they were working. The lawyers tried to demonstrate that the treatment programme was technically flawed; the caterers said they wouldn’t serve the food here to rats. And so on. Later on there was a priest and that was very interesting. Everyone else assumed he’d got the Higher Power angles worked out, but he hadn’t at all. He was more at sea over this than anyone else, largely, I think, because he was shocked that an entity which he’d spent most of his life believing in should have apparently landed him in a place like this. But that is another story, and it isn’t mine.
My pictures were dreadful. It was like being on silence, which is effectively what they’d done to me. They’d turned me into a Trappist. An agnostic Trappist. I can’t draw to save my life, and that’s just about what I was being asked to do. I would love to be able to, but I only seem to be able to contemplate such a thing on my terms; in other words, don’t put in any work, don’t read about how the good ones do it, don’t approach the subject at all in any practical way for fear it will show me just how laughably big is the gap between my wish and my potential. Well, I did dreadful little matchstick men with smiles and frowns. I didn’t know what I was trying to draw because I didn’t know what I was trying to say. I hoped I could do something ambiguous and one of the counsellors could find some meaning in it. Critics sometimes appear to have a comparably obliging relationship with artists whose might, in all honestly, flummox them completely. Perhaps the counsellors could oblige here. They didn’t. I fell back onto an arrangement of shallow hills with a road running from the foreground into the middle distance to show off my powers of perspective. Three v-shaped birds in the sky. They could have been sparrows or condors. A clump of Forestry Commission pine. I now have a child of fourteen who wouldn’t have had this sort of thing in his earliest portfolio.
Then something odd and terrifying happened. I began to have visions. One vision really,
The same one repeated for several hours a day over about four days. It consisted of two rectangular areas of roughly equal size, one above the other. The top one was a ferocious azure, like an unprotected sky brought to intense heat by the sun. The bottom one was yellow, also livid and vivid. Neither of these rectangles had anything else in them, at least not to begin with. No interior activity or nuances which reward patient and respectful viewing. And goodness knows I was viewing them for an eternity. Nor did they have any sense of perspective. Just like my conscious attempts at drawing, in fact. At first I found myself thinking what a fitting consequence this was; maybe I was being mocked for my visual inadequacies.
I did know that, for whatever reason, it was very important that I continued to look at this image. I’ve said there were two rectangles, but there was no space between them and it looked as though they were on a joint enterprise. This sense was strengthened by the presence of a sort of frame around them, which made me feel I was looking at a picture; not just any old picture but one that had been framed and hung for my particular attention. It was there, right in the middle of my sight, whether I was talking to someone across the lunch table, or walking in the hospital garden, or shaving in the mirror. It didn’t get in the way, didn’t obscure my vision. It was, quite simply, there. I can’t think what to compare it to, expect perhaps some kind of memorandum – a huge transparent surtitle that never leaves the screen, no matter what else is being called up.
Of course I tried to reclaim these rectangles for the province of words. And although the experience was odd, I have to say that I felt I knew exactly what was going on. It was a desertscape, half sky and half sand. It had been pared to its most primary elements. Mercilessly so, you could say, because this was no place for anyone to find themselves. No life, no water, no shade, no sound, no company. Nothing. At the same time it came across not as heartless at all but really rather considerate for making me look at my situation in stark clarity, without a single diversion in the way. When I had become acclimatised to it a third element appeared very suddenly. This was a small pattern of leaves, right on the line between the blue and the yellow. It looked like a shrub, and that’s exactly what it was. It was growing as I watched it, and this was an extraordinarily pleasing sight. Then it vanished again, and left me feeling completely distraught. This process went on and on, the shrub there, growing visibly, and then vanished as fast as it had appeared. I think there was even a Pythonesque boot stamping it out when it dared to grow to a certain height, but I can’t be certain about this. That’s simply how it felt to me, watching this surreal comedy in which the stakes were obviously very real and very high.
Again, no prizes for guessing what was happening. The shrub-like thing was the green shoots of recovery, spelled out on an idiot board. When it prospered, I was recovering; when it vanished, I was done for. I was desperate for it to prosper. When I describe this desperation to people of faith, they tell me that what I then did was pray. The furthest I can go is to say that I asked very hard, as hard as I’d ever asked anyone for anything, for the shrub to prosper. I didn’t know who, if anyone, I was asking. I don’t think the asking was addressed to anyone, or anything, not even to the vaguest images of providential authority, but was rather a concentrated hope for the best outcome. It did flourish, in the end, after I don’t know how many thwarted attempts. And once it had taken root and was growing independently, its job was done. It, and the sky and the desert with it, went away.
I didn’t mean to turn this into an account of overcoming addiction. There are enough of them around as it is. True, the beating of the bottle does often lead to the finding of the Lord. These cliches are bound together in popular narrative, not mention Country and Western music, and there are very clear reasons for it: you beat something that looked insuperable. You got help from something stronger than yourself. You may or may not be entirely sure what that something was, but you are perfectly happy to call it the Lord. I would be perfectly happy myself if that were the way my own story went. The trouble is that it did not. In fact it hardened an unknowingness that was already present; far from making me reach in gratitude and continuing dependence for a God who had been well disposed towards my prayers, it made me more convinced that our salvation lies in our hands, and that to contract it out to a hidden, ethereal operator is a disservice to humanity. If you want to call what I was doing prayer, that’s fine. It really is your business. But for me, it now feels like a mustering of forces from wherever I could find them – above all from the experiences, strengths and hopes of a wide range of people; wide enough to include myself.
Another was the unorthodox figure of a Catholic priest called Father Tom. He was a recovering alcoholic himself, and had worked in Kenya with the so-called White Fathers, or the Society of Missionaries of Africa, to give them their formal title. He had dedicated the rest of his life to helping addicts of all sorts. Without a hint of boastfulness, he said he would go anywhere at any time to help someone in trouble, and this was nothing more than the truth. He was an old man in a hurry, and probably knew he hadn’t many years left in him. He had no time for anything that got in the way of the business in hand, which was to separate people from their demonic possession by drugs and alcohol. He used that word, demonic, in a matter-of-fact way, reminding everyone around him that the nicknaming of drink as The Demon had a very clear origin. Individuals who were decent, rational, honest became the very opposite when they had taken a skinful. So much were they altered that it was impossible to attribute the mutation to any mundane force. It had to be the Devil’s doing. There was no other explanation.
Everyone who met father Tom and understood his purpose said they had never come across a man who could read another’s psychological condition – some used the word “soul” – so instantly or so accurately. It really was as though he had x-ray vision which went straight through the trappings of dissembling, manners, tact and habitual self-deceit. Until you realised that his aims were benign, this could make him a frightening and formidable presence. The honesty could appear brutal. Because of his vocation, it was tempting to assume that he knew everything there was to be known about the function of the Higher Power in the Twelve-Step programme of recovery. If anyone had contacts with the Lord, this was surely him.
In this respect he was a glorious disappointment. Not only did he say you could make your higher power virtually whatever you wanted it to be – a group of people, your circle of friends, your experience of beating addiction – he also argued that you had already had experience of being in the hands of a power greater than yourself through being kicked about by drink, or drugs, or gambling, eating, shopping, sex, codependence, you name it. Oh yes, and religion too. Don’t forget that one, he reminded us; that was as much a source of unhealthy, immoderate obsession as any of those other potentially lethal habits of our lives. I won’t say that he suggested forgetting about Christ. Yet what he did seem to think was that where there is a too literal, too rigid demand for the formalities of observance, there too lurks trouble; above all the conflict of opposing dogmas and the dangers of getting waylaid by details which Christ himself would surely have thought preposterous.
So, not surprisingly, he was sympathetic to the notion of the story, almost the whole story of Christ’s life, work and influence, as being an allegory of redemption, even a parable that could be used as profitably as were Christ’s own. I never asked him what he thought of taking a piece of bread to be the literal, not the figurative, substance of Christ’s flesh – there really were other more pressing matters – but I can guess what his answer would have been. What I do know is that he was so ashamed by his own (Catholic) church’s protection of its paedophile priests as a higher priority than the punishment of their crimes and the care of their victims, that he shook his head in disbelief. Mankind, not God, was responsible.
A few days after Tom died, I found myself taking a group of addicts at the same clinic where I had been a patient. It was the session that he himself was to have taken, the weekly one where he concentrated on the idea that addiction is a threefold complaint, in which the spiritual strand is every bit as important as the physical and the mental. By this time I had been in recovery for five or six years. Still, sitting in for Tom felt like a dangerous joke, with him seeming to smile mischievously from the sidelines. It was explained to me that there was no-one else there that afternoon who was available to do it, but I couldn’t help thinking I was being entrusted with this mission for the sake of my own development.
It was a big group, about twenty, all of them currently in treatment. Two of them I knew to be priests, one of them a fairly senior member of the Catholic hierarchy. It struck me as such an act of fraudulence on my part, to be talking of matters spiritual to these seasoned professionals, that I didn’t know how to begin. It was a halting, mealy-mouthed display, I fear. I tried to approach the spiritual by means of negatives, saying what I thought it wasn’t, but stressing that many wiser men and women than me believed it to be vital to survival in the situations they found themselves in.
More and more I fell back onto substitute words – morale was a particularly useful one – because I just didn’t know what the word spirit meant, beyond some transcendent essence of our beings. Another useful word, which came to me with about ten minutes of the hour to spare, was the very unoriginal one of God. Still less did I know what this one meant; it had come to me in what felt like a highly secular rallying point for all manner of things that had been thrown around in the course of the session, but which themselves couldn’t be easily explained. These included luck, birth, stars, nature, destiny, goodness, inevitability, the unknown. God was a timely shorthand, but I couldn’t help Him graduate to something more specifically momentous – not that He had ever needed my assistance.
My agnosticism has always been the kind that shrinks from definitions. It is even reluctant to define the thing it is denying, for fear of having falsely acknowledged its existence in the process. Far from getting weaker or milkier in the past few years, this position has hardened in me. It is driven by what I accept looks like a paradoxical conviction – namely that our proper condition is to be without knowledge, and that, as with other areas of defiant hubris (I include addictions), acceptance of our limitations is the difficult means of living harmoniously with ourselves and with each other. Here I use the word knowledge to mean knowledge of how everything came into being – the cosmos, this planet, humanity, the three-toed sloth – and what its ultimate purpose might be.
I am aware that I must look like a Dawkins PAP (Permanent Agnostic in Principle), but I am not. I feel much closer to his TAP (Temporary Agnostic in Practice). I would be delighted if someone came along and answered all those momentous questions, even though I feel that such a person would have to provide answers to which we have still not framed the right questions. It would be wonderful if there were a team of all the talents, including the devoutest theologians and the most sceptical physicists, who could anatomise deity as graphically as Crick and Watson showed us the double helix patterns of DNA.
In the absence of such demonstration, the claim of knowledge is laughable, sometimes dangerously so. Belief, faith, sense, suspicion, hope, intuition, even near-certainty – these and other related words which accept the limitations of our data are surely the ones which should figure prominently in our considerations of God. But knowledge, no. Not unless you insist that we come equipped with this knowledge, just as we come equipped with eyesight and hearing, and that therefore our function is not to be questioning but rather getting on with that imperative fact.
If, like me, you are unable to proceed along those lines, well, we find ourselves in the best of company that includes, in no particular order, such writers and philosophers as Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell; scientists such as Emile Durkheim, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan; modern figures including David Attenborough and John Humphrys. Their presence in the ranks of agnostics may not make them right – many of them would probably accept this as the price of scepticism – but if you are travelling in country as unmapped as this, it is good to know you are in tremendous company.
The celebrity approach is dubious; you could find as many believers with household names. But the list is interesting because it contains many whose lives have been lived on the furthest boundaries of the known. And although they were of a mind to interrogate God, by no means all of them started with a desire to disprove His existence. Some, like the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, produced music with powerful religious connections. But it is the beauty and complexity of the natural world that he is evoking and celebrating, rather than any presumed creator. According to Bertrand Russell, who had been his class mate, Vaughan Williams did shift a little, from atheism while he was a Cambridge student, to agnosticism later in his life.
It is a relatively new term. The man who coined it was the natural scientist, Dr. T.H. Huxley, more popularly known as Darwin’s Bulldog because of his energetic championing of the evolutionist’s theories. Huxley first used it at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He had already made a name for himself as a scourge of traditional religion by taking Darwin’s place at an Oxford meeting of the British Association in 1860. Sixteen years later he found himself pitted against the formidable Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who had been launching vigorous attacks on Darwin and his work on the grounds that it demeaned not only religion but human dignity.
Writing Agnosticism in 1889, Huxley described it not as a creed but a method, “the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle…do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” He was a little surprised that his coinage survived, but he was delighted as well. He too invoked the influential thinkers who had preceded him, notably Descartes and the fathers of the Reformation.
“When I reached intellectual maturity,” he wrote, “and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’ – had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptious in holding fast by that opinion.”
There are some unexpected heirs to this tradition. Henry Cadbury for instance, who died in 1974. He was a Biblical scholar and Quaker, a contributor to the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In a lecture to the students of Harvard Divinity School in 1936 he said: “Most students wish to know if I believe in the existence of God, or in immortality, and if so why. They regard it impossible to leave these matters unsettled – or at least extremely detrimental to religion not to have the basis of such conviction. Now for my part I do not find it impossible to leave them open… I can describe myself as no ardent theist or atheist.”
Agnostics are often getting lumped together with atheists. Neither the devout nor the godless have a monopoly on this error which, if we were going to be prickly about it, is as lazy as bundling Christianity together with Islam. They embody different views, or visions, and Huxley was careful to include atheism in that list of allegiances from which he felt himself disqualified. If he were alive today, he would quite possibly be one of those who criticise Richard Dawkins for allegedly matching his opponents in fanatical conviction and zealous language. It may look like prevarication, but honest agnosticism is no such thing. Its lack of certainty is precisely that, and means its adherents therefore stop short of declaring there is no God. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Once again acceptance is the key, just as it is with the struggle against addiction. I am not trying to sneak in an analogy between religion and addiction by the back door, beyond saying this: acceptance of our own limitations, as well as our own potential – infinite though we might wish it – is crucial to the breaking of unhealthy dependencies.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia deals haughtily with agnosticism, stating that Huxley invented the term in order to compare his own “unpretentious ignorance” favourably with “the vain knowledge which the Gnostics of the second and third century claimed to possess…this antithesis served to discredit the conclusions of natural theology, or theistic reasoning, by classing them with the idle vapourings of Gnosticism.” This was a false classification, says the Encyclopaedia, ignoring the truth that while one of the extremists is indeed Gnosticism, the other is Agnosticism, with Theism occupying the middle ground.
If others are alarmed by our (agnostics’) lack of faith, we can be equally alarmed by their lack of doubt. It can be particularly awkward when this certainty seems to be held with none of the humility which their religion supposedly extols. More awkward still when the faith sits like a special compartment in the lives of those who pride themselves on their intellectual prowess. One such acquaintance of mine does so with open satisfaction, as if the irrationality (her own word) which helps to keep her faith in place is like a protected species of naivity. To which I wonder why it is necessary to disconnect your reasoning faculty in this area and this one alone. Might it be that you are worried about what it would bring back if you allowed it to go questing without being tethered to wishful thinking?
Pascal’s Wager – the name given to the proposition by the seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal – invites us to come to faith for pragmatic reasons. Even if you reckon that God is unlikely to exist, it runs, you may as well believe because the possible benefits of that course of action are so enormous. He is in effect saying that a bet on theism is rational. If God exists and you believe in Him, then a blissful eternity will be yours, while atheists will be consigned to another, hotter place. And if God turns out not to exist, then the theists will still have been happier than the atheists because they will have been consoled by the propsect of that blissful eternity. It’s a rather dangerous wager because it looks so plausible – just as many wagers do. Although it has proved seductive over the centuries, the hollow heart of it is surely that if faith can be said to result from pragmatism, then it is not really faith all, but pragmatism. A case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The question is: can you adopt a belief because you make a decision to do so? Personally I find it impossible. I can no more do so than I can decide to like someone I don’t like, or use my will to maintain that all trees have blue leaves.
As I say, I have been told that what I was doing as a result of that desert-like “vision” was praying. Obviously the people who told me this were believers. I can’t really object to their calling it that, even though I might think it says more about them and their own desires than it does about what was going on in me. I do accept that I was asking very hard. I have absolutely no idea who or what I was asking. In fact I don’t think there was even any notion of a recipient of all this asking. And if there was, I think the most likely one was me. I seemed to be the only person who was in a position to change my life, and if I ignored myself then I was sunk. That was certainly a rational response to my situation, but it was an emotional one as well. It had to be, since I was asking with everything I had. The rational and the emotional had no choice but to underpin each other. Did I need help? You bet I did, but the only way I would accept that it came from God is if you allow that three-lettered word to mean friends, meetings, doctors and, eventually, the evidence of my own recovery. And if you do accept that, then the word God is doubling for a bundle of thoroughly practical and secular items.
One of the reasons I don’t believe that God came into any of this is that if had, then why was He ignoring so many other equally deserving cases and letting them die miserable premature deaths from drugs and alcohol. Why, above all, did he He do this, when many such victims were sincere believers in Him? In fact one of the reasons for their plight, and their poisonous attempts at self-medication, may have been that they felt let down by Him and his apparent powerlessness in their affairs.
Where I have no problem is in agreeing with His son is on the power of parable. Wherever you look in the Gospels, with their often diverging accounts, the power of the story was central to his ministry. So central that I for one look at his life as a parable in its own right. It is a beautiful, ghastly story about many things including, ironically, the monstrous behaviour of men and women faced with something they do not wish to understand. Whenever I think of it I find myself wishing that he would save himself, rather than be so obsessed with saving the rest of us. I simply don’t understand the notion of him dying that we might live. The pity of it. I keep thinking, at various crucial points of the story, ‘Oh, back off, just a bit. You’re digging your own grave.” Which he knew better than anyone. Of course he had no choice. But then I am, as I admit, dwelling on the tale, fearing for its outcome. As the Marxist academic Terry Eagleton says in his intriguing introduction to the Gospels, Christ was nothing if not a revolutionary in an authoritarian state. His destiny was manifest.
All our lives are stories. Big, small, public, private, interesting, not so interesting. Yes, they are lives first, but we also experience them – our own and others – as narratives. When I think of that episode of mine, with the desert and the green shoots, it does have the ring of a parable. A plant is struggling for life in the desert. It grows a little, then gets annihilated and has to start again. It keeps trying, and eventually its efforts are rewarded. It even contains the suggestion of another go at life – I hesitate to say resurrection.
Such stories of renewal have been around since well before Christianity. They are stitched into the cycle of the year, the march of generations, the evolution of society. Pope Gregory for one knew the power of them when he urged his sixth century flock not to overthrow the sites of earlier, pagan worship in this country.
It was a passionate Christian poet, T.S. Eliot, who wrote, in his Four Quartets, that human kind cannot bear too much reality. At the risk of sounding like a negative version of Blaise Pascal, is it not possible that in our end is not our beginning at all, but our end? I hate to mar the shiny projection of a life that outlives this one, I really do. I also hate to contemplate myself without the people I love still alive, or even those people left without me. I don’t take any consolation from the likelihood that I will not be able to experience the grief of that second situation. Still, I can’t make my mind, or my heart or any part of me unpick the inherent contradiction of life after death. I’m sorry. I do apologise. I do so regularly, mostly to myself. But I have seen nothing, absolutely nothing to make me change my mind. Nothing that remotely amounts to evidence. Nothing for my reason, which you may or may not call God-given, to hang on to.
We are this breath-taking species in our survival, adaptibility, development and quite staggering ingenuity; at the same time we are so very, very disappointing, ripping our planet to pieces for short-term gain and a wish for dominion that is self-seeking and destructive beyond words. Somewhere in this impossible psyche is the thought, the hope, the sense, the conviction that we are special and therefore have a pass to permanence; not just in our species, which looks increasingly unlikely, but in our own selves, as individuals, which seems beyond outrageous. But it is what we do. We always have and probably always will. There is a temptation to think that because it is such an old tendency, it must be right. It is certainly how we help ourselves to cope with the tragedy (as we see it) of our transience. We do not really need Beckett, although it helps, to see that the situation is also a grim and mighty comedy.
Meaning is the justification. We must have meaning and purpose, both as humanity and as units within that humanity. But isn’t this a requirement which comes from that same insistence about going on and on? Professor Brian Cox, when he was a young nuclear phsyicist working on the Hadron Collider at CERN, lived in awe at the mystery of the universe which he was investigating. One day, he said, he and his team might well glimpse the Higgs Boson, the so-called God particle which flickers for a billionth of a second at the inmost heart of matter. But even if they did, it would only produce yet more questions to which we might never find the answer. “Meaning?” he says. “My life means something to me. So my life has meaning.”
Wasn’t Freud onto it when he talked in terms of mankind having outlived its requirement for religion? There was a time when it helped to explain both our presence and our purpose. With the Enlightenment we thrust on ourselves the burden of knowledge – the scientific kind. Certain crucial old beliefs became untenable yet we were unable to let go of them altogether. We were, to borrow Belloc, always keeping a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse.
In the work I have done for over forty years as a journalist, I have regularly interviewed people about their lives and work. Some have been famous and interesting, others famous and boring; some unknown and interesting, others unknown and boring. In the longer conversations the question of faith, or lack of it, has come up regularly. In the case of someone like Sister Wendy Beckett, who achieved unlikely fame as a TV art historian, there would be no life without faith. Here was a woman of considerable age getting up at 1.00 in the morning and spending more than a third of her waking day in prayer. She had wanted to be a nun since she was a young girl, and said she found a perfect fulfillment in this calling. From the serenity of her expression it was impossible to doubt her. After a long conversation with her I truly envied her her joy in the Lord while at the same time feeling even further from the possibility of a faith of my own.
Then there was the physicist Stephen Hawking, chronically disabled with motor neurone disease, painstakingly tapping into his computer an answer to my question about belief, and stating: “I have no belief at all in fairy tales about what happens to us after we die.” And Philip Pullman, who kills off God in his Dark Materials trilogy and is the most surprising aetheist you could find, expressing his sadness at the loss of the Book of Common Prayer. Many others, perhaps the authors and dramatists more than any other category, were endlessly intrigued by the phenomenon of faith. This they shared with the philosopher William James, brother of the novelist Henry, and author of Varieties of Religious Experience, who writes movingly and with passion about the relationship of believers to their Gods.
I share these authors’ interests in belief, or more particularly the human pehenomenon of belief and its often beautiful manifestations. Like Pullman, I don’t like to see the degradation of language, with accessibility too lazily cited as the justifcation. I even hate the thought of all those divine constructions of the King James Bible simply being neglected to death. I dislike this as much or more than the sight of a fine medieval building tumbling beyond repair. And like James I am too moved for words by stories of people who have given themselves over to a life of faith, whether this is in the ascetic and isolated manner of a Sister Wendy or an urban and embattled way like Father Tom.
The best art, music and literature that religion has produced is not only wonderful, but transcendentally wonderful. I use that word for two reasons. First, the paintings of Poussin, or oratorios of Handel, or verse of Milton can truly be said to outlive their commission, and always will. But second, by doing so, they also run the risk – a grand and thrilling one – of stimulating the senses of people who, like me, come to them with no religious assumptions or expectations. Their form and beauty are too universal to keep them from such general consumption. They are not the works of God, but of human beings who worked and worked to produce these sublime pieces from their craftsmanship.
With the spectacle of devotion, I also find myself responding above all to the human activity of it, as I would with a love story full of hope struggling with fear, certainty with doubt, yearning with self-denial. In both these areas I find myself forever wondering whether I am guilty of something vicarious or even voyeuristic – responding to the manifestation of a faith, but ignoring its origins.
Believers frequently point to great art as being either a direct result of religion or else an index of its value. The other side of this coin is of course the atheist argument that religious differences are the worst and most enduring causes of war in human history. I think both are specious. Art is certainly a result of religion in the sense that the church has been one of the greatest, and richest patrons. But the production of that art comes from the heads, hearts and hands of men and women. Likewise war. Blame mankind, not God. If there weren’t religion, who can imagine that we would never have come up with other reasons – as we do – to tear the life out of one another; land, money, labour, food, water, property, prestige. What does seem unfortunately true is that the clergy need no lessons from any other estate when it comes to waging internal war; not from government, the military, the Civil Service, the Law, the press, the stage. If I weren’t married to a religion correspondent who picks her way with scrupulous integrity through their astounding cattiness, I would not be saying this with such certainty.
I am very aware that I might be thought some spiritual party-pooper; that believers faced with my version of events will say that I do indeed have faith but am choosing to deny it. I think I have even had that response myself to other self-professed agnostics who seem to be coming so close to a system of belief as to sit there inconspicuously. What I have no trouble admitting – no, claiming – is a frequent sense of wonder about it all. I mean, absolutely everything. Who wouldn’t? Who couldn’t? Us hanging here, for a start, on this lovely, spinning, look-no-strings blue ball. Nothing else remotely like it about, at least not that we’ve seen. I’ve read books like The Elegant Universe as closely as I can for answers, but there aren’t any. There are explanations coming from the various provinces of physics, but they are all descriptive histories or evaluations of consequences. Given the massive, cavernous Whyness of it all, and given our constitutional requirement for knowledge, why wouldn’t we cast all responsibility, all credit onto one, mighty entity, creating Him, in what might just be our biggest-ever declaration of self-importance, in our image?
There is a word that describes what I feel when I find myself moved by the things I have tried to describe here; by love, even the kind I feel in the teeth of loss; landscape, weather, great friendship; my wife and children; the achieving of freedom in all its guises; art of all kinds, above all words or music whose structure draws, unwittingly or not, on the proportions of natural forms. Numinous is the word, and because it has become overworked to the brink of cliché, I use it reluctantly. But it does the job, conveying a sense of awe and wonder, which is to be found as much in the mundane as in the elevated. Often when you are least looking for it. It has a long biography, this word, carrying the sense of nodding in the Latin numen. Because the nodding was done in recognition of order, or authority, it was loaded with a sense of the divine. Perhaps nodding is more important than the slightly quaint word allows. If I say that I experience numinous feelings, I do, I think mean that I am nodding at how things are; assenting, in my case, to their grandeur, their incomprehensibility, and my absolutely massive tinyness in the whole thing.
At the risk of heresy, perhaps we should be inverting Pascal’s Wager. It would go something like this: If we decide that there is no God, we become free to concentrate on the present rather than console ourselves through our inevitable troubles by the thought of eternal bliss. It doesn’t work of course. We are not in a position to decide that there is no God, so this variation has the same flaw as his original.
My last question is for myself. Though I may agree with Huxley that agnosticism is more a method than a creed, am I not in danger of doing what believers can be accused of, and clinging to this thing as much from habit, family inheritance and certain social and intellectual expediences as from conviction. I hope not, but as I said at the beginning, it is yet another question to which, tediously, I can’t find an answer. To have certainties elude you is not strange for an agnostic. Yet I have a few. One is that the transience of our own lives, both as individuals and perhaps as species, is to be accepted, even embraced as an aid to valuing it all the more highly. Another is that stories which raise our longing for the eternal to a factual account of its existence are to be treated with, at the least, caution.
A third is that in being certain of my uncertainty, I have quite enough certainty to deal with for the present.