My Beliefs as a Pagan, Part 1: An Agnostic Ethic
Most people define agnosticism as either a state of not being fully certain about one’s beliefs given the available evidence, or they define agnosticism as a state of uncertainty which runs so deep that formulating a belief is not possible. For example, a person who is an agnostic theist believes that evidence indicates the existence of a god is likely but they are not fully certain of this existence. A person who is purely agnostic and neither theist nor atheist would assert that they can not take a position on the existence or non-existence of gods because they do not feel there is enough information to formulate a position.† An agnostic atheist believes that evidence indicates the existence of god is unlikely but they are not fully certain of this non-existence.
Simply put, I am an agnostic pagan. I am not certain that my particular cosmological perspective is accurate. Consequently, I am open to the possibility that I might be wrong in my understanding and analysis of my spiritual experiences. I believe that I have no way of truly being certain, ever. My limitations as a human being tend to favor cosmological questions remaining within the realm of mystery and the unknown. My perspective is birthed at the confluence of spiritual experience and guesswork interpretation. What beliefs I build upon that confluence are speculation and I accept that.
For me, agnosticism takes on an additional dimension beyond a component of uncertainty in my cosmological perspective. My agnosticism also includes a set of behavioral standards which governs how I interact with perspectives that are different from mine and how I interact with the people who hold them. In other words, my agnosticism includes an ethic which guides my interactions with others whose spiritual paths differ from mine. My approach, ideally, is one of reserve, respect, empathy, and humbleness. I’m am not a cosmological exclusivist. I accept that others have very different beliefs from mine and that those beliefs might be as valid or more valid than mine. I am not a repository for the universe’s secrets and I refuse to behave as one.
My reasons for this ethic are threefold. First, if I can’t be certain my cosmological perspective is accurate, how can I truly be certain that someone else’s perspective is inaccurate? Put another way, I approach these issues as one small human being who’s scope of perception and knowledge is limited and consequently, much of my understanding of these esoteric matters is simply guesswork. If I’m running on guesswork, what right do I have to dismiss another person’s perspective out of hand? We both have our strengths, weaknesses, differing sources of information, differing experiences and so on. Second, from personal experience, I know that a person’s experience with spirituality and the cosmology that informs it, are often very personal in nature. These perspectives can be rich, deeply emotional, deeply intuitive experiences that run down to the core of a person’s being. Such experiences come with a deep degree of emotional vulnerability and I do not wish to tread upon and harm that vulnerability. Third, I embrace treating others with the same kindness and respect that I wish to be treated with. Having someone verbally tear apart something that is so integral to my sense of being is deeply off-putting if not painful. I wouldn’t want to visit that experience on another person. Because of these considerations, my agnosticism requires that I approach a person of different cosmology with care and respect. These understandings, commitments, and acknowledgments form the core of my agnostic ethic.
My decision to formulate and embrace this ethic was motivated by witnessing far too much hatred, prejudice, and dehumanization being exchanged between various communities of differing cosmologies and religions. There is far too much tribalism in the world, sourced from many factors. While there are indeed different levels of power and privilege accorded by group, and that difference governs how negatively one is impacted by conflict, our universal humanness too often leads to the fanning of glowing tribal embers on all sides. Innocence is a state rarely maintained. Bringing relief to this fiery entanglement and coping with the downside of our humanness starts with oneself. Derision, condescension, patronizing language, and other forms of unkindness rarely fail to accelerate tribal conflagrations and so, I embrace an agnostic ethic.
† Note: At some point in recent history, people collapsed the position of pure agnostic into atheism because they claim that pure agnostics hold no belief in gods. However, the pure agnostic does not feel they can take a position on the god question and hence, to say they are an atheist is not accurate because theism and atheism represent distinct positions on the god question. Theists and atheists represent a yes/no response, respectively. The pure agnostic says, “I don’t know.” rather than yes or no. I see this collapsing of the pure agnostic and atheist positions as nothing more than a political stratagem crafted to increase polarization on the god question. “You are either with them or us. There is no in between. Choose a side.” This is designed to obscure and/or discourage neutrality on the issue. You can see this tendency in evidence when people dismiss pure agnostics as cowards unwilling to take a side.
On a personal note, I’m always disappointed in seeing people collapse a varied and diverse spectrum of possibilities into a simplistic binary. People do this with gender and sexual orientation, too and it’s very saddening. It draws lines right across the middle of people’s lives. It’s a very hurtful practice for those who do not live on the binary.