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Thread: On Religious Agnosticism and Labels

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    On Religious Agnosticism and Labels

    I take as a first principle in my thinking that no human being probably has credible answers to the truly "big questions" - why the universe exists, what lends it form and structure, what the ideal social orientation of a human ought to be. And yes, a religious identity or label is first and foremost a social identity, a descriptor of what communities one belongs to. The idea that religious labels reflect specific shared beliefs is not empirically sound, and indeed a bit implausible given the predictability which which children follow their parents and/or closest peers in selecting them. If you think that the label you claim makes you any more or less "correct", whether you arrived at that label through some strict logical progression or deduction or just let yourself get guided into one by society and circumstance, strikes me as more than a bit foolish. We are extremely limited in our ability to truly observe the universe, let alone interpret what we see. Our senses are not trustworthy, nor instruments meant to extend their reach while still imitating those senses with all of their strengths and limitations. On what rational basis could one choose a cosmology, when no one has an appropriate vantage point for evaluating cosmologies? Any theory of what the universe is or could be is speculation based on partial data on a single sample, the universe we inhabit. It is not a strong case. It is more akin to two goldfish arguing about what lies beyond the goldfish bowl. As an anthropologist, I long ago gave up on the idea that any culture could be seen as inherently superior to another; there being no basis for such a claim except by comparison to another culture with similar strengths and weaknesses, and more shared consensus than most people realize. That being the case, it shouldn't be surprising that I take a relativistic view toward religion also. I'm not a relativist because I think it is "most right" to see things primarily relative to one another, but because I can't conceive of a rational basis for any other approach. If there is no basis for absolutism, relativism is the only logical option even if it does not lead to emotionally satisfying certainty.

    That said, I also have no problem with religion, and am continually baffled with how agnosticism came to be semantically tied to atheism in the first place, as they seem like nearly opposite philosophical orientations to me. I am not at all averse to participating in religious life, or even accepting religious labels situationally, quite the contrary. To me, a religion is a symbolic system not unlike a language; a consensus set of narrative and ritual structures that help us to communicate with one another and with whatever other forces might be out there. Oral language is somewhat limited by the necessity of being tied to consistent definitions; the symbolism built into art, music, and ritual is more flexible, able to expand or contract wildly based on one's experiences. Religion is the complex of semiotic systems; it touches on all of the others, reshaping things from the obvious (decoration, clothing) to the intrinsic (ways of thinking, the body itself, stories). I find and have always found religious life singularly fascinating; I made studying it my focus, and engage in many different traditions simultaneously, both in professional and personal contexts, not wanting any of the richness and nuance. I am a passionate advocate of learning new actual languages, musical genres, artistic forms, etc., for similar reasons.

    In other ways, though, I am not so fond of labels, or of taking them on. People tend to label me as they do all other people, though, so I try to stick to what is most accurate. But there are plenty of labels you could stick to me with some degree of accuracy or inaccuracy. They are valuable to me mostly in terms of how they open or close doors. At the end of the day, I value plurality more than anything else, and am eager to talk to as many people as possible about as many things as possible while the short clock of my mortality plays out. But people don't like dealing with a blank canvas, it makes them edgy. So I generally try to go with whatever makes the most sense in context. That leaves "Agnostic" for the reasons described above, "Ecclectic" if I'm talking to Pagans who know what that one means (it's a good description of the way I pick up new ideas as I go along but try to synthesize them into consistent magical practices), "Christian" because socially and experientially that is unchallengeably the tradition I know best and most instinctively, "Progressive Christian" if further clarification is needed as to flavor, "Pagan" for similar reasons, and sometimes "Heretic" for what should be obvious reasons given the others. There also definitely some things that I am not, and these are much easier to define.

    That said, I should hate to think that any of these labels got between me and a good conversation, and it annoys me heavily when too much stock is put in them. In this respect, I really like the fact that I am disallowed from identifying religiously while at work. Just as well there should be no temptation, since it only puts a blockade between student and lesson in any case; unlike with fieldwork, no label is expected in that case so not providing one is less off-putting. I deeply prefer that state of mutually accepted anonymity for the most part.
    Last edited by Politesse; 07-12-2019 at 01:17 AM.

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    Cyborg with a Tiara
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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    And yes, a religious identity or label is first and foremost a social identity, a descriptor of what communities one belongs to. The idea that religious labels reflect specific shared beliefs is not empirically sound, and indeed a bit implausible given the predictability which which children follow their parents and/or closest peers in selecting them.
    It is a social identity because it reflects shared beliefs. I don’t see how to separate those when the religionists so often use their labels to divide by perceived divergent beliefs.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rhea View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    And yes, a religious identity or label is first and foremost a social identity, a descriptor of what communities one belongs to. The idea that religious labels reflect specific shared beliefs is not empirically sound, and indeed a bit implausible given the predictability which which children follow their parents and/or closest peers in selecting them.
    It is a social identity because it reflects shared beliefs. I don’t see how to separate those when the religionists so often use their labels to divide by perceived divergent beliefs.
    I disagree. A religious label is, overwhelmingly, a statement of with whom you have social relationships. They follow social networks very predictably, and do not lend themselves to "dictionary definitions" as the composition of the group is constantly changing, and beliefs constantly in flux. No label like "Christian" or "Jew" is apt to mean the same thing even to the same community over time, let alone between different communities facing different social environments, political pressures, economic realities, and cultural influences. It is convenient to assume "all X are the same", but always lazy and inaccurate.

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    Thanks for the explanation.

    You being an anthropologist, that all makes sense, and actually your views are very close to mine. I've always considered myself more agnostic than atheist, but my agnosticism doesn't actually mean anything other than 'we don't really know why the universe is here', not that 'God might exist'.

    I'd never go as far as calling myself a Christian, probably in part because I care about being consistent, but also that there's no real need for it where I live. Where people's religions are different, we just don't talk about it.

    And also like you I care less about dogma, than I do learning more about the diverse set of people and culture in this world. I try to avoid pigeon-holing myself into any particular tribe, so I can stay flexible in who my friends are.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Rhea View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    And yes, a religious identity or label is first and foremost a social identity, a descriptor of what communities one belongs to. The idea that religious labels reflect specific shared beliefs is not empirically sound, and indeed a bit implausible given the predictability which which children follow their parents and/or closest peers in selecting them.
    It is a social identity because it reflects shared beliefs. I don’t see how to separate those when the religionists so often use their labels to divide by perceived divergent beliefs.
    I disagree. A religious label is, overwhelmingly, a statement of with whom you have social relationships. They follow social networks very predictably, and do not lend themselves to "dictionary definitions" as the composition of the group is constantly changing, and beliefs constantly in flux. No label like "Christian" or "Jew" is apt to mean the same thing even to the same community over time, let alone between different communities facing different social environments, political pressures, economic realities, and cultural influences. It is convenient to assume "all X are the same", but always lazy and inaccurate.
    I get what you’re saying, and in general agree that one shouldn’t, but I find that they do. They say all Christians are of a sort when they say “we are a Christian Nation,” as if “christian” is one set of beliefs. It’s as if they want to count all the “christians” when they are declaring their argument from numbers, their majority, their hold over history or their right to pass religious laws, but then they seem to abandon their grouping when it suits them, too. That’s why I say that the social label is the label that is intended to reflect beliefs to a great large number of Christians. (And muslims and jews)

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    Veteran Member funinspace's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rhea View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    I disagree. A religious label is, overwhelmingly, a statement of with whom you have social relationships. They follow social networks very predictably, and do not lend themselves to "dictionary definitions" as the composition of the group is constantly changing, and beliefs constantly in flux. No label like "Christian" or "Jew" is apt to mean the same thing even to the same community over time, let alone between different communities facing different social environments, political pressures, economic realities, and cultural influences. It is convenient to assume "all X are the same", but always lazy and inaccurate.
    I get what you’re saying, and in general agree that one shouldn’t, but I find that they do. They say all Christians are of a sort when they say “we are a Christian Nation,” as if “christian” is one set of beliefs. It’s as if they want to count all the “christians” when they are declaring their argument from numbers, their majority, their hold over history or their right to pass religious laws, but then they seem to abandon their grouping when it suits them, too. That’s why I say that the social label is the label that is intended to reflect beliefs to a great large number of Christians. (And muslims and jews)
    I assume that when you use the words religionist/they, you are referring to atypical evangelicals and fundamentalist?

    An example from the other side of the Christian field. As I was trying to figure out if liberal Protestant views held anything for me after I had realized that the Evangelicals were basically a fraud (and maybe all of Christianity), I was going to an UMC for a while. In that church they only had one steady weekly adult Sunday school group. It was roughly 20 some people who regularly met and talked about various topic. They were very educated with many having more than a BS. But they were comfortable talking about Jesus as not God, but some sort of wise sage and reformer. These people would not do what you describe, and they would be far more likely to say "God bless the whole world".

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rhea View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    I disagree. A religious label is, overwhelmingly, a statement of with whom you have social relationships. They follow social networks very predictably, and do not lend themselves to "dictionary definitions" as the composition of the group is constantly changing, and beliefs constantly in flux. No label like "Christian" or "Jew" is apt to mean the same thing even to the same community over time, let alone between different communities facing different social environments, political pressures, economic realities, and cultural influences. It is convenient to assume "all X are the same", but always lazy and inaccurate.
    I get what you’re saying, and in general agree that one shouldn’t, but I find that they do. They say all Christians are of a sort when they say “we are a Christian Nation,” as if “christian” is one set of beliefs. It’s as if they want to count all the “christians” when they are declaring their argument from numbers, their majority, their hold over history or their right to pass religious laws, but then they seem to abandon their grouping when it suits them, too. That’s why I say that the social label is the label that is
    intended to reflect beliefs to a great large number of Christians. (And muslims and jews)
    There's no doubt that political regimes see in religion the potential for a very powerful means of control, and thoughts are the ultimate prize. So at the head of empires we often find monotheisms with very strictly worded and often legally enforced orthodoxies. But I note that these bids at intellectual control of faith are never successful over the long term. Even in the strictest of theocratic empires, "heresies" not only abound but seem to thrive in persecution. The mystical life is at the end of the day impossible to bind, and the longer a community has been in existence, it becomes exponentially more likely that there are in fact dozens of new religious constructs travelling about under the same label. Every time a new generation is born to a tradition, a chaos machine has been applied to its central ideas as the usual spread of personalities and experiences common to humanity has just been obliged to find a place in that particular symbolic web. Unlike the first generation of a faith, the second and third generations are not drawn together voluntarily but through social and familial obligation and legacy, and they will strain at the edges. I think this is why, for instance, new religions tend to hold seemingly communist ideals for exactly two generations before giving in altogether to the inertia of the market economy.

    So what unites a "religious label"? It's not the ideas, those are subject to inevitable change and evolution. Rather, they are united by people, who for any number of reasons, have found themselves in community, literal or perceived, with those who share the label.

    Which is not to say that they aren't likely to share a lot of ideas, stories, and rituals. Of course they do, that's how human communities work. We all play an imitation game and it starts with our most intimate peers. But trying to use some partisan group's theology as a definition of a macro religion is going to give you an extremely skewed view of the population, just as if you tried to do the same thing with a nation ("whose Amercian values?") an extended family ("I hate Thanksgiving") or a socioeconomic class ("You don't speak for the 'hood just cause you came from here bruh"). The shared symbolic motifs, narratives, and systems of logic that might seem to characterize a faith are a reality, but never an absolute reality.

    And placing too much emphasis on it usually entails awarding undue power and legitimacy to whatever group has the political advantage at the moment. They might fall from power at any moment, and suddenly your insistence that this theology is the only legitimate theology will seem ludicrous to any outsider. There was a time when nearly all Christians, by numbers, were so-called "Gnostic" Christians. Where are they (and their cosmology) now? In the future, a case could be made from present statistical trends that the majority of global Christians will be LDS. What would become of the common presumption of Trinitarianism, if they were to become the public face of Christianity to most people? Theology just isn't consistent means for explaining why people see each themselves as being filed under this label or that; it has little predictive value.

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    Veteran Member Treedbear's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    I take as a first principle in my thinking that no human being probably has credible answers to the truly "big questions" - why the universe exists, what lends it form and structure, what the ideal social orientation of a human ought to be.
    One of curiosity perhaps?

    And yes, a religious identity or label is first and foremost a social identity, a descriptor of what communities one belongs to. The idea that religious labels reflect specific shared beliefs is not empirically sound, and indeed a bit implausible given the predictability which which children follow their parents and/or closest peers in selecting them. If you think that the label you claim makes you any more or less "correct", whether you arrived at that label through some strict logical progression or deduction or just let yourself get guided into one by society and circumstance, strikes me as more than a bit foolish.
    I agree that it would be foolish, but it's also true for most believers. And after all, we are all human beings.

    We are extremely limited in our ability to truly observe the universe, let alone interpret what we see. Our senses are not trustworthy, nor instruments meant to extend their reach while still imitating those senses with all of their strengths and limitations. On what rational basis could one choose a cosmology, when no one has an appropriate vantage point for evaluating cosmologies? Any theory of what the universe is or could be is speculation based on partial data on a single sample, the universe we inhabit. It is not a strong case. It is more akin to two goldfish arguing about what lies beyond the goldfish bowl.
    I think most believers are presented with a tapestry of myths having very little evidence to back them up, and then choose a cosmology that seems to explain them. The myths serve as evidence of the cosmology, rather than the other way around. The atheist/agnostic is willing to accept the mystery with an open mind. But the nature of scientific investigation is to always seek the more objective view and the broader perspective.

    As an anthropologist, I long ago gave up on the idea that any culture could be seen as inherently superior to another; there being no basis for such a claim except by comparison to another culture with similar strengths and weaknesses, and more shared consensus than most people realize. That being the case, it shouldn't be surprising that I take a relativistic view toward religion also. I'm not a relativist because I think it is "most right" to see things primarily relative to one another, but because I can't conceive of a rational basis for any other approach. If there is no basis for absolutism, relativism is the only logical option even if it does not lead to emotionally satisfying certainty.
    It's emotionally satistying for me to view reality as a metaphysical question of existence/survival. To me that satisfies the definition of an absolute. Morality as well as religions are cultural adaptations rooted in perceived truths as to how best to provide for the survival of the human race. Even the theistic religions concern themselves with how to please an all powerful and "good" God. God is good inasmuch as he provides for human survival. So in principle I do think there is a "most right" to moral decision making. But that doesn't tell us which religion knows the correct answer. All cultures need to make decisions based on their relative understanding of what is best for mankind. Typically that comes to be understood as what's good for themselves.

    That said, I also have no problem with religion, and am continually baffled with how agnosticism came to be semantically tied to atheism in the first place, as they seem like nearly opposite philosophical orientations to me.
    I've come to call myself an atheist even though I have some residue of uncertainty in the non-existence of a "god". I've consigned my skepticism to the same place as my hope for ever understanding the origin of the universe. It's a place I probably cannot ever go. I can live with that because it bears no consequence. The problem I see with religion is when they use their myths in place of science, as I explained above.

    I am not at all averse to participating in religious life, or even accepting religious labels situationally, quite the contrary. To me, a religion is a symbolic system not unlike a language; a consensus set of narrative and ritual structures that help us to communicate with one another and with whatever other forces might be out there. Oral language is somewhat limited by the necessity of being tied to consistent definitions; the symbolism built into art, music, and ritual is more flexible, able to expand or contract wildly based on one's experiences. Religion is the complex of semiotic systems; it touches on all of the others, reshaping things from the obvious (decoration, clothing) to the intrinsic (ways of thinking, the body itself, stories). I find and have always found religious life singularly fascinating; I made studying it my focus, and engage in many different traditions simultaneously, both in professional and personal contexts, not wanting any of the richness and nuance. I am a passionate advocate of learning new actual languages, musical genres, artistic forms, etc., for similar reasons.
    I was brought up to be Roman Catholic. It was very nice sitting there in the pews reciting prayers in responce to the priest. But there was something very superficial and plastic about it. You acted in a prescribed way, even at the point where everyone shakes hands with their neighbor and says peace be with you. We were supposed to be sheep and not step out of strictly drawn boxes. I've never been driven to be socially active. Perhaps I have a touch of Aspergers syndrome. But it helps me maintain my objectivity, which I've come to value highly, and I am intently interested in the human condition. I'll admit there have been many disadvantages, but I'm still a loyal humanist. Kind of the non-practicing type. I can see how that would be a problem for a cultural anthropologist though.
    Last edited by Treedbear; 07-12-2019 at 08:00 PM.

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    I appreciate you for starting this thread Poli, as it gives you a better opportunity to express how you feel about religion. While my opinion may not be as deeply intellectual as yours, I do agree with much of what you've said.

    Most likely, because of my negative experiences of being raised and heavily indoctrinated into a very fundamentalist version of Christianity, I'm not very fond of most religious doctrines, and because I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, that variety of Christianity is the one I"m most often confronted with. But, despite considering myself a strong atheist, I do find many valuable things in religions. Here's a list that comes to mind:

    1 It often provides community and emotional support for its adherents.

    2. It provides a source of hope and purpose, even if that hope is false hope. We all have false hopes and dreams that will never be fulfilled.

    3. Religions often, not always, provides a system of moral structures. As long as they are inclusive and beneficial to the community, I have no problem with that. Most of the more important moral values found in religions are human universals that would likely evolve with or without religion. A good example of this would be providing charity to those in need. This wasn't something that was done in the church that I attended as a child, but here in my small southern city, it's the Christian churches that provide food banks, low cost medical clinics and sometimes they offer help for an individual in an emergency situation.

    4. Religions provide rituals, which are sometimes soothing to its members. For example, my husband's late grandmother was a Syrian Catholic. She would sit and pray her Hail Mary's with her rosary beads, sometimes referred to as "worry beads" in Arabic culture. It was obvious to me that this practice often soothed her.

    As far as your claims about art and music, it's true that much of that was inspired by religion, but I think it's probably more complicated than that. For example, I love Mozart's Choral Mass in C minor, but I don't think Mozart was at all religious from the little that I've read about his life. He was likely commissioned to write music for the church. His music was due to his genius, and not due to inspiration of religion. I think the same could likely be said about many works of great art. We don't need religion to appreciate or create art or music. But, I digress.

    I don't know for sure if Joseph Campbell believed in any gods, but he did understand the power and importance of religion, its symbolism and influence on various parts of history. He also highly criticized extreme or fundamental versions of religion, as he saw the harm and damage they could create. So, I sometimes refer to myself as a Joseph Campbell type of atheist. I don't believe in any gods, but there are things about religion to be appreciated. Plus, many ancient religions didn't have any gods. Hinduism is one example that comes to mind.

    Here are my personal issues with atheists, generally speaking based on my own experiences.

    1. We are terrible at building communities. I know this due to being a member of various atheist organizations for nearly 20 years. Almost nobody wants to take on leadership positions. Rarely is anyone willing to commit their time to a project or even to attend a specific meeting. For example, it was almost impossible to find someone to replace me after being treasurer of a humanist organization for over three years. This was very common.

    2. We are terrible at raising money. I learned when I was treasurer that only two of us ever gave more than 25 dollars a month to support our organization. It's not that people were suffering in poverty, they just didn't want to contribute more than a dollar or two when we asked for contributions. Atlanta Freethought finally had to start charging members a 50 dollar yearly fee as they never received enough contributions to keep up the maintenance on their building etc.

    3. We are a very diverse group who have very opinions about many things, including religion. While I enjoy this diversity, others become insulting if some of us don't bash religion. Well, it's just hard to herd the cats, I guess. And atheists are a lot like cats in some respects. We tend to be introverts, and are usually extreme non conformists. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does make it difficult to maintain community or even close friendships.

    And, that is why I tend to spend more time with my Christian friends. Sometimes I feel that I have more in common with them, as they are often more flexible and upbeat than my atheist friends, not that I don't love and appreciate my atheist friends.

    For me, my preferred community would be a UU fellowship. UUs are tolerant of any liberal religious beliefs, and I've known many atheist humanists that were also UU members. Unitarians strife to do charity work, and social justice work. It's just that my area has no UU groups within 50 miles. I often joke with my atheist friends that if we had a couple of Christians in our little group, we'd be a lot more organized.

    This morning I spent a little bit of time talking to a poor black woman at the local senior center, who I consider a friend. Val suffers from severe arthritis, is helping raise her grandchild as well as giving a little help to her elderly parents. Val is one of the dearest, most upbeat people I've ever met in my life. She's joyous and affectionate, despite having dealt with many difficult things in her life. I know when I'm around her, I'm gong to hear a lot about how god has been good to her, about how important her church is etc. I just smile when she talks. She's never preachy. She just finds hope, and love in her church community and her belief in a supernatural entity. I can't imagine how she wold cope without her religion. It would be cruel of me to question her about why she believes such things. Besides, I'm much more educated, and financially secure than her. What does my atheism have to offer someone like Val?

    So, to sum up. I don't believe it's religion that's the problem, it's ideological extremism that's the problem. And ideological extremism can be found in religion, politics, and lots of other human inventions. For example, alternative medicine and extreme diets can often be harmful, yet some people cling to them. Sadly, I've even known a few atheists that think religion should be wiped out through violent means. So, there are even times when atheists can be extremists. I can still like people who disagree with me, even the atheists who think I"m nuts for liking various aspects of religion.

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    Veteran Member Sarpedon's Avatar
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    My opinion on this manner is that Agnosticism is lumped together with Atheism because religious leaders regard both as threats to their power.

    They might call you a 'Heretic' for the same reason.

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