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August 9, 2006

Waiting Out Religion

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 9, 2006 11:41 PM


"How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

I guess the basic answer to that would have to start by addressing the implication that "agnostics" decide things as a group. Of course they don't; no weekly meetings, no newsletter, no 12-step program, etc.

As individuals I'm sure that most agnostics use logic and common sense to decide what looks, sounds and feels right to them -- and what doesn't.

You seem to be fostering the impression that agnostics hold open the possibility that the Bible is, indeed, the true, revealed word of God. I suppose there are some who might feel that way -- or maybe most do (I'm not sure cause I missed the last meeting ;-)) but its important to bear in mind that whatever one agnostic believes is strictly one agnostic's opinion.

Posted by: whymrhymer at August 10, 2006 12:36 AM

True enough. And to that end, this agnostic calls himself such only because he recognizes the irreducible absence of proof one way or another. No one seems to care about that anymore. Or is it just me? Beginning with the assumption that I am wrong. It's a bit like turning the other cheek, in the historical sense of the phrase.

Posted by: Loranku at August 10, 2006 2:01 AM

but the absence-of-proof point is a bit unfair. First, trying to prove a negative is always tough. Second, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, 2,600 years of science -- haven't they "proven" most religious understandings (creation, the heavens, illness, etc.) wrong and "proven" that a naturalistic understanding of the cosmos not only is possible but works amazingly well, perfectly in fact? In the face of all this, the agnostics must retreat further and further -- now they look for their reason for not deciding in our lack of understanding of the moment before the Big Bang. scientists will figure that one out, but agnostics will find something else to preserve their delicious doubt. meanwhile, religions manage to come up with nothing -- no reliable proof whatsoever.

and my question about what "agnostics" -- in general or specific -- choose to question is only intended to note that they seem capable of arriving at plausible conclusions on some matters (an afterlife for Amis and his mom) but *choose* to hang on to their much beloved doubt on others (the ultimate nature of this wacky and complex universe).

does an atheist have to, as someone has written below, "prove" that there is not even a one in ten thousand chance of some sort of "intelligence" out there (smart folks in another solar system who've been messing with us, say)? Seems to me they can satisfy themselves with the overwhelming implausibility of anything god-like and then move on.

Posted by: mitch at August 10, 2006 11:58 AM

"And to that end, this agnostic calls himself such only because he recognizes the irreducible absence of proof one way or another. No one seems to care about that anymore."

And rightly so. There are a million untrue ideas that we have no proofs for one way or another. No one cares that we don't. Why should we make an exception with major religions, and care that there is no proof one way or another?

Posted by: Kristian Z at August 10, 2006 7:07 PM

Well, we care now, because other people not only care, but care enough to use their religious faith as political rationale. It's not enough to simply dismiss beliefs as unworthy of scrutiny, and move on. Analysis of beliefs is necessary for the sake of giving religiously minded people a reason to think more rationally, so the more rational frame of mind is carried through to their politics. As a result we all benefit. Disbelief must brought out in the open, and popularized by supporters, not villifiers.

Posted by: X% at August 18, 2006 10:28 AM

Though the film opened the Toronto Film Festival last fall, I have only this weekend had a chance to see Deepa Mehta's amazing latest film, _Water_. Highly recommend that everyone posting on this blog see it if you haven't yet... set in 1938 India, on the eve of Gandhi's release from prison by the British, it speaks to the religion-politics-ethics knot as it reveals the entanglements in the construction of 'truth' with the law, privilege, gender, class and religious tradition. As people here are probably aware, the film sparked massive rioting in India and the film was banned; Mehta ended up filming in Sri Lanka. Thought the following comment from Mehta in a Sept 2005 interview posted on rediff.com was pertinent here:

"Q: What is the significance of the title?

"DM: Water keeps flowing but stagnant water creates problems. Many people in the film, which is set in the late 1930s, lived a rigid life as prescribed by a religious text more than 2000 years old. Even today, people follow such texts, which is one of the reasons why there are millions of widows in India. Traditions should never become rigid. They should flow like the good water."

Posted by: JM at August 20, 2006 11:42 PM

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