Image for post
Image for post

The editors ask a simple question to begin this volume on the topic of agnosticism: Given the sea change in the religious landscape the past several years, does the traditional question, “Do you believe in God?” still have a yes or no answer? The follow-up question is: If more people knew about agnosticism, would they perhaps choose “none of the above” to the yes or nor polarity of the existence of god/gods?

Another good question: Is agnosticism merely a refusal to commit or a valid “belief” in its own right?

More good questions:

Is agnosticism a type of atheism, or are agnosticism and atheism mutually exclusive? …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

It’s easy to consider religions as immense, and old, and hide-bound — immovable monoliths. It’s easy to see them that way, and often, religious leaders strive to achieve just such a view — the patina of age providing a kind of aloof dignity to a set of ideas that might otherwise appear absurd. As a matter of fact, often new religious movements strive for just that patina effect, claiming that their very novelty is a return to the ancient roots of a particular tradition.

Let’s forget for a moment the false correlation between the ancient and the true and think instead about the basics of religion. As a matter of fact, I invite you to think with me a bit about what sort of religion you would invent if an angel suddenly swooped down and told you to found a new religion — you know, sort of like Joseph Smith said happened to him. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I see humanism as a fruitful oscillation between traditional theisms and doctrinaire atheism. We know that a violent god is a god of the immature, and that a divisive god is a god of the short-sighted and the irresponsible. We also know that “the divine” is a symbol with many meanings. After all, the Greek origin of the word symbol meant “heaped together.”

One thing that appears both historically and empirically clear is that human ideologies never work all that well. Social systems. Economic systems. Political systems. Religions. Philosophies. And on. Symbols. Heaps. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

Religion, philosophy, government . . . they all have one thing in common— all are products of the human mind. They are examples of human creativity. Judaism is a long poem. Christianity is a somewhat shorter poem. Capitalism is a short poem. Democracy is a short poem.

All are works of art, works of human imagination. Over time, individuals interact with these large poetic narratives — by being born into them; by living in their purview; by adapting to them or leaving them. Because they were here when we arrived in the world, it is easy to miss the fact that they are works of art that morph and change with the passage of time. Yes, religions and philosophies and governments are monoliths in one sense, but they are also leaves of grass — organic, touchable. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Pablo Hermoso on Unsplash

We awakened this past Christmas morning to a disturbing newsflash — there had been an explosion in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. As the day went on, the story became more bizarre: the bomb was in an old RV. A recording was playing, warning people about the bomb and counting down. Between announcements, the recording played a Petula Clark hit from the 1960s, “Downtown.” The detonation occurred when the fewest possible people would be in the area . . .

At the moment, investigators are not certain about the motives of the bomber, who clearly set off the bomb in a way designed to avoid mass casualties. What we do know is that the bomb damaged an AT&T facility, perhaps because the bomber’s father was employed by a precursor to AT&T. That’s one possibility. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

There’s a story about the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who was one of the earliest Zen teachers in the United States, just after the Second World War.

One day he began his lesson of the day with these words: “The difficulty that you are experiencing now . . . “ And he paused for effect. The American students in the room assumed he was about to tell them a great secret: how to solve a nagging difficulty. They assumed his next words would be “. . . will go away if you practice Zen.”

“The difficulty that you are experiencing now . . . “ the Zen master completed his sentence: “this difficulty will be with you for the rest of your life.” …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

In the late 1970s a research team set up a very simple experiment. The researchers wired a bulb up to a switch that turned the bulb on and off at random intervals. Next, they installed a button. The switch and the button were not in any way connected.

Then, the team asked subjects to push the button. Pushing the button and the light going on or off had no relationship whatsoever. The two were not connected. Yet, when asked, the test subjects reported their ability to make the switch work, even though it clearly often did not turn the light on. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Julien Borean on Unsplash

The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “We live in the description of a place, not in the place itself.”

Stevens (1879–1955) lived and died long before post-modernism, but as a poet and aesthetic thinker he understood the fictive universe. He loved the fictive universe. He knew it was a place to run barefooted in the metaphorical sand.

Yes, Stevens knew so well, our imagination is the place we actually live. Yes, Key West, Florida and Hartford, Connecticut are different sorts of locals with different sorts of flora and fauna, but the existential snowman in the one and the “sunken coral” in the other find their meanings in our fictive worlds. It’s all about our description of a place, not what is demonstrably there. …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

In my younger days I kept two sayings tacked up on my office wall: The composer Igor Stravinsky’s “A masterpiece is all that counts” and the Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s saying, Nulla Dies Sine Linea, “Never a day without a line.”

I’ve always been fond of quotes, the sort of thing that nowadays appears as memes all over social media.

Pliny would have been a master of Twitter. He wrote some serious lines. In addition to “never a day without a line,” he wrote some phrases that are the backbone of Latin 101: Cum grano salis, “with a grain of salt.” In vino veritas, “in wine there is truth.” Fortes Fortuna iuvat, “fortunę favors the brave.” And the slightly longer phrase, Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono. “There is no bad that will not come some good.” …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

You may have seen the recent interview with former president Obama published in The Atlantic magazine. In the interview, Obama says:

If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

An “epistemological crisis.” Not a word most folks hear every day. “Epistemology” is a term used in theology and philosophy to mean how we go about finding and proving what is real. …

About

David Breeden

Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page amazon.com/author/davidbreeden

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store