Why Agnostics Go to Church

A sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth

READINGS: 1. From Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead Books, New York, 1997:

For T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as: “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”

  1. From Ralph N. Helverson (d. 2007), Living in the Questions, Lindsay Press, London, 1977:

The capacity to be uncertain – and not be too unhappy about it – is a gift of the spirit. The extent to which people are free is their capacity to rest in uncertainty. For freedom is not an end, but the means to an end that is not always visible. Freedom is not an answer but the means to find answers.

THE SERMON Why do agnostics come to church? Is it because we announced this sermon title in the Belfry newsletter? I suspect not.

Let’s start by discussing what we mean by “agnostic.” Thomas Henry Huxley, famous as “Darwin’s bulldog” – the defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – coined the term in the 19th century. Agnosticism is the view that certain claims – especially about the existence of a God or divine being – are unprovable or even unknowable.

The theist says, “Yes, God exists.” The atheist says flatly, “There is no God.” The agnostic says, “It’s impossible to know for certain whether or not there is a God.”

And there are various kinds of agnostics. There are so-called “weak agnostics” who might say, “I don’t know whether or not there is a God, but it may be possible to convince me some day.” And there are also “strong” agnostics who would agree with a bumper sticker you may have seen: “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know – and you don’t either!”

And there’s something called ignosticism that says that the concept of God is meaningless. This term was coined by a Jewish rabbi, Sherwin Wine (1928-2007). The ignostic says, “Before we could even discuss whether or not there’s a God, we would have to have a coherent definition of God. Since there is no agreed-upon definition of God, and even theists say that God cannot be adequately defined, we can’t have a meaningful discussion about whether or not God exists.” Rabbi Wine’s synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan, is based on the Jewish heritage and Jewish ethics, not belief in a supernatural being. He said, “The message of the Holocaust is that there isn’t any magic power.”

And as Rabbi Wine’s Humanistic Judaism demonstrates, even though agnostics admit that they really don’t know whether or not there is a divine being, many do attend churches, synagogues, or even mosques. Why? There are, in fact, many reasons why a person who has doubts the existence of God would go to church.

Church-going agnostics ~

First of all, some agnostics hope to find sacredness in our world, even though they admit that the concept can neither be proved nor disproved. Early in the twentieth century, Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes said, “When I speak of God it is poetry and not theology.” He experienced the holy, or the presence of the divine, not in any doctrinal approach, but through his experience of nature, in community with fellow humans, in the words of the poets, and in the presence of justice, peace, loving-kindness and compassion.

So some agnostics come to church, not in any kind of certainty, but in the hope, or even the trust, that we can find something here, in community with others, that will nurture the spirit.

And second, there are people who attend church not so much for themselves – at least not at first – but for their children. They want their children to learn about Christianity and Judaism and other world religions, to be taught stories from the Bible so that they won’t grow up religiously illiterate; to be taught cooperation, kindness, and other ethical ideas. And they look for a congregation like ours because they want their children to gain this religious education in a place where their heads won’t be filled with guilt, shame or fear. They want their children educated in a place that accepts the laws of science, and lets children use their curiosity and ask questions.

But couldn’t you let a child’s religious education simply blossom on its own accord? There is a story, I recall, about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Someone, visiting Coleridge, expressed the opinion that he did not believe in giving his children any religious education. He said, “I don’t want to impose any ideas on them. I prefer to let them develop in their own way.” Coleridge seemed to change the subject saying, “Would you like to see my garden?” His visitor agreed that, indeed, he would enjoy seeing the garden. But when taken outside the visitor was unable to see anything resembling a garden. “This is simply a mess of weeds,” said the visitor. “Oh, I don’t want to impose my ideas on it,” Coleridge said, I prefer to let it develop in its own way.”

I contend that religion is like sex. Like sex education, if you don’t teach your children about religion they will still hear about it from the other kids, and they are likely to learn all of the wrong lessons. And so the focus of our Sunday school, our Faith Formation program, is to help spark our children’s curiosity. We want them to learn about the big questions, and how people throughout time and in many cultures have answered these questions. We want them to gain basic decision-making skills so that they have a solid basis for answering the moral questions they will face as they grow older. In other words, our Faith Formation program is not about indoctrination; it’s about exploration and growth.

So some parents go to church for their children, but end up staying for themselves. Because religion, as we practice it here, is inclusive, free, and we hope, intellectually honest. This is a church where you can bring your questions and your doubts, and not feel like a hypocrite, reciting doctrinal statements that no longer make sense.

The fruit of the tree ~

Why might agnostics go to church? Because we all have questions of meaning that we wrestle with; because we all experience anxiety and encounter loss; because we all need forgiveness sometimes; because we all need to celebrate sometimes; because we seek beauty, and long for community.

Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK, explains our approach to religion as Unitarian Universalists by recalling the story of Adam and Eve. According to the book of Genesis, God said to Adam and Eve that they could eat the fruit from all the trees in the Garden of Eden except from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

Even as a child in Methodist Sunday school I was disturbed that they weren’t allowed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It seemed to me, even when I was 12 or so, that knowing the difference between good and evil would be a good thing. Today I understand the Garden of Eden story to be a myth or parable. It was never a story about biology or astronomy or the geological age of the earth. So now, understanding that this is a parable, I don’t see “the tree of knowledge” to be a threat.

Yet in our tradition, Rev. Lavanhar says that there is one tree that is forbidden, and here the name of that tree is “exclusion.” That is, if someone starts to believe that they know for certain who is good and who is evil, who is in and who is out, what doctrine is absolutely true or absolutely false, we have a problem. We can eat from the trees of knowledge and tradition and religion and spirituality and

sociology and philosophy and science, but NOT from that tree that – once we eat from it – causes us to be self-righteous and believing that all the other trees are wrong or heretical or inferior. Because, Lavanhar says, eating the fruit of the tree of exclusion leads to death; death in the sense that exclusive beliefs kill community. The fruit of the tree of exclusion cuts us off from other people, other ideas and other truths.

The fruit of the tree of exclusion led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. The tree of exclusion led to racial segregation in America, genocide in Rwanda, the gay-bashing murders of Charlie Howard and Matthew Shepard, and the 911 terrorist attacks.

Many people think they have the truth, but in fact they are worshiping a very small god. I had some missionaries come to my door once, two very earnest young men. After some conversation I noticed that they were always using male language to describe their god. I asked them if their God was exclusively male. They said that yes, it was important to their beliefs that God is male. I suggested to them that any “god” that can be locked in a male body, unable to get out, unable to transcend the categories of male and female, is a very weak and small god.

Too many people worship a small god, a god that teaches male superiority, anti-gay prejudice, or the superiority of one narrow religious outlook. But here’s the danger for us. We can become self- righteous, too. Sometimes we get to that exclusive place, where we think that others are mired in mindless superstition.

I have great respect for the open-minded agnostic who says, “I don’t think we can prove it one way or the other, but I’m willing to listen.” But I have trouble with a hard atheism that says, “Those who believe in god are stupid and deluded.” Because when we get ourselves locked into that kind of position, we have become the same as the fundamentalists we abhor. That’s why I’m very cautious about “new atheist” authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. They, and talk show host Bill Mahr, make a some good points, and offer some much-needed critique of religion. But at the same time they sometimes slide into their own kind of fundamentalism, making exclusive claims for their own opinions, while demeaning and diminishing the faith of other people. In so doing, they sew their own seeds of division.

The agnostic method ~

John Stuart Mill, in his classic book On Liberty, said that it is unlikely that any idea is ever perfectly true. Even if you are mostly right, you may be partly wrong. The other person may be mostly wrong, but could be partly right. And so when others have the freedom to express their ideas, you may learn something you might otherwise have overlooked. And in the unlikely event that others are completely wrong, and you are completely right, you still will have refined your own ideas by listening to theirs. So open and free discussion is good for society. I believe this principle applies, as well, to religion. When we are willing to entertain uncertainty we are on the path to greater truth.

And so I appreciate what the Buddha once said, “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or what has come down in scriptures… or with the thought, ‘the monk is our teacher.’” Instead, the Buddha said, you should look to the lives of those who are following the path, and see for yourselves if it is working for them. Better still, you should try the Buddhist path for yourself, and test the teaching in that way. If it works in your own life, if it leads to greater contentment and happiness, then the path is worthwhile.

I have benefitted tremendously from participating in a Buddhist sangha – a meditation and discussion group in Maine. At the same time, I have also benefitted from the path taught by the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth – love your neighbor, be a peacemaker, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, comfort the sick, welcome the stranger.

Of course, Jesus cannot be divorced from his faith, his ultimate trust, in God. I agree with Rabbi Sherwin Wine that there is no agreed-upon definition of God, and I am still searching for a definition that works for me. I like Mary Daley’s insistence that we move “beyond God the Father” to

a God that transcends sexual categories. I like Spinoza’s thesis that God is Nature, and Nature is God. I like John Haynes Holmes’ suggestion that the word “God” is poetry and not theology. And, perhaps most of all, I like the Biblical statement that “God is Love.” (1 John 4:8).

My definition of God, then, is very different than the Nicene Creed’s definition, and almost certainly different from the Pope’s definition, or Rev. Billy Graham’s. Mine may be an agnostic’s definition. It’s certainly not the “Old Man In the Sky,” at any rate. And if we were to call it “the Inner Light” as Quakers do, or “the Buddha-spirit,”or “the Tao” (that is, “the Way of the Universe”), I’m fine with that, too. So I’m perfectly comfortable as a Buddhist-Christian-Agnostic. I don’t have to know for certain.

Why, then, do agnostics come to church? Love of this world, and of one another, is our best hope in an age in which we have the power to destroy the earth, whether through war or environmental catastrophe. In this congregation we don’t come expecting to agree on doctrine. We come to church to grow spiritually, to live ethically, support one another in our joys and sorrows, nurture community, appreciate beauty, increase our own hope and happiness and that of others, work for a more just society, to express our gratitude for all that we have, to love this world, and pass on our values to future generations. That, for me, is enough.