What is Religious Agnosticism?
I’ve been reading the private writings of Mother Teresa called Come Be My Light (2009) where she talks about a “darkness” that came upon her towards the end of her life. She says that “If they ever made me a saint, I would be the saint of darkness” (Mother Teresa, 2009).
It is interesting to think that someone who is so connected with a “faith” or seen as a deeply “spiritual” person should write about a feeling that God had moved away from her; she was unable to feel His presence.
Why? She didn’t know. She was agnostic.
I’ve been coming to the conclusion for many years that when we speak about God, His will for us or what He wants, we are invariably agnostic—“gnostic” means to know; “agnostic” means to not really know. Now, it’s important for me to stress that this is my opinion and probably the opinion of many other people who wouldn’t claim the title “atheist,” but they are consciously aware that when it comes to issues concerning God they don’t “know.” They have ideas, opinions, beliefs, insights, but they wouldn’t want to swear on the Bible that they actually know. Indeed, because I’m not a fundamentalist, I hold the view that what’s written in the Bible is a collection of ideas and opinions written by people at different times in history. It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t write a gospel; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote a biography of his life. And I’m agnostic about whether they actually quoted him correctly or wrote exactly about the events that took place.
I’m sure that most religious people don’t hold the aforementioned views, including all the religions in the world; indeed, they would probably call me a heretic! And that’s what I am. I wrote a book about this very topic called The Happy Heretic (2012).
If I reflect upon the changing beliefs I’ve made in my life, they revolve around my disinterest with church dogma and my growing fascination with how the divine co-creates with nature. It wasn’t a conscious formulation, as I’m presenting in this book, but rather a feeling that an exclusive preoccupation with what God is doing in our lives can take us away from realizing the human response. It increasingly seemed that the prayers I recited and the sermons I heard didn’t fit with what I was actually experiencing and believed. I developed a growing agnosticism with “churchianity” (Booth, 2012, p. 3–4).
This is what I believe today. I haven’t always had these views; there was a time when I would quote the Bible or the church teachings and if you didn’t agree I would condemn you or worse, send you to hell! I wasn’t exactly a fundamentalist, but I was extremely dogmatic. Like so many others, I believed what I was told and I learned to quote what I was told, and I quoted emphatically.
This is what I see so many people doing today, from all religions, and I happily stand in the minority of people who are called “heretics.” In the August 2015 issue of Counselor I wrote the following concerning religious extremism:
Let’s step back for a moment and examine how something as pious as a belief in God can become so twisted that it allows for the persecution, rape, and killing of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions.
Here is an excerpt from When God Becomes a Drug,
In his book To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm describes religion as “not necessarily having to do with a concept of God, but as any group-shared system of thought and action that offers the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.” As Fromm suggests, religions and belief systems seem to be divided into two camps: those that believe that human nature is essentially good and focus on our innate dignity, and those that maintain that humans are inherently evil and base.
This corresponds with my own definition of religion as being essentially a set of man-made principles about God, focusing on a teacher or prophet, in contrast to spirituality, which is the process of becoming a positive and creative person. Moreover, this definition allows us to look not only at organized religion, but also any group or belief system that either generates dysfunction or is used dysfunctionally.
When those beliefs inspire us to develop our creative potential, whether spiritually as individuals or culturally as a society, those beliefs move us forward and may be seen as healthy. When they limit or paralyze us, or are used by ourselves or others to oppress and victimize us, they can be regarded as unhealthy (Booth, 1998, p. 19–20).
And that’s my fear. That’s why I changed my mind and became a religious agnostic or heretic.
I resist the idea that people know, actually know, what God wants from us or His will for us other than in the most general way: God wants us to be loving and kind.
People have ideas about God, fine. People have opinions about how to live the spiritual life, fine. People have insights into the life of Jesus or other holy men and women, fine. But when they say that they “know,” I want to run for the hills. I particularly want to run for the hills when they say that they “know” what God wants for and from me.
An article or column cannot do justice to the themes we have touched upon, and so I hope that those of you who are interested in this topic will check out my books The Happy Heretic (2012) and When God Becomes a Drug (1998).
Booth, L. (1998). When God becomes a drug: Understanding religious addiction and religious abuse. London: SCP Ltd.
Booth, L. (2012). The happy heretic: Seven spiritual insights for healing religious codependency. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Booth, L. (2015). Spirituality vs. religious extremism, part I. Counselor, 16(4), 22–3.
Mother Teresa. (2009). Mother Teresa: The private writings of the saint of Calcutta. New York, NY: Penguin.