Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto
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A widely admired writer on religion celebrates agnosticism as the most vibrant, engaging—and ultimately the most honest—stance toward the mysteries of existence.
One in four Americans reject any affiliation with organized religion, and nearly half of those under thirty describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But as the airwaves resound with the haranguing of preachers and pundits, who speaks for the millions who find no joy in whittling the wonder of existence to a simple yes/no choice?
Lesley Hazleton does. In this provocative, brilliant book, she gives voice to the case for agnosticism, breaks it free of its stereotypes as watered-down atheism or amorphous “seeking,” and celebrates it as a reasoned, revealing, and sustaining stance toward life. Stepping over the lines imposed by rigid conviction, she draws on philosophy, theology, psychology, science, and more to explore, with curiosity and passion, the vital role of mystery in a deceptively information-rich world; to ask what we mean by the search for meaning; to invoke the humbling yet elating perspective of infinity; to challenge received ideas about death; and to reconsider what “the soul” might be. Inspired and inspiring, Agnostic recasts the question of belief not as a problem to be solved but as an invitation to an ongoing, open-ended adventure of the mind.
Coleridge, who wrote of poetic faith as “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,” and in doing so, created a defining concept not only of poetry, but of all literature. When I read a good novel I am well aware that what I’m reading is fiction, yet for the time I am in its fictional world, I accept it as real, and that alternate reality stays with me long after I close the book. It resonates with me, feeds back into me, gives me an expanded sense of both my own existence and that of
9780698194472 Version_1 CONTENTS ALSO BY LESLEY HAZLETON TITLE PAGE COPYRIGHT ONE | BEYOND EITHER/OR TWO | THE THREE-LETTER WORD THREE | IN DOUBT WE TRUST FOUR | MYSTERY PLAY FIVE | MAKING MEANING SIX | THE SENSE OF AN ENDING SEVEN | EVERYTHING AND MORE EIGHT | IMPERFECT SOUL ACKNOWLEDGMENTS SOURCES ABOUT THE AUTHOR ONE BEYOND EITHER/OR There are some four hundred houseboats in Seattle. Many, like mine, are little more than shacks on rafts, but this may be the only one with a
recognition as I talked about the dismal reduction of mystery to a yes-or-no proposition. They acknowledged a disconnect between what they sensed on the one hand and the demand for belief on the other. Longing for something more than the stark duality of belief/unbelief, they were increasingly impatient with the theist-atheist debate that had produced so much hot air over the previous decade or so. Those involved in that debate seemed increasingly trapped in their own neatly defined binary terms:
exist. Contingency is no flatterer of human existence. It involves no values, assigns no particular significance to individual being. It contradicts the human sense of self-importance and centrality, which is why so many people resist it by insisting on significance nonetheless, attributing good or bad fortune to God or to angels, to the stars or to fate. Yet as with the way we tend to see events in groups of three, what we call fortune is usually a matter of directed attention. Who remembers
has run so deep for so long that you only need to refer to God as “she” for people to be taken aback. Try using “it,” and most will react with visible shock; even militant atheists will respond with a quiver of transgressive thrill. But what exactly is being transgressed? The uncanny otherness of “it” seems to me to accord much greater respect than either “he” or “she,” though even it has its drawbacks. It still assumes an entity—something that can be described, defined, apprehended,