Wednesday, September 09, 2009

I Don't Know

I recently helped a friend put together an online dating profile on With the exception of a brief exploration of JDate a number of years ago, I have had very little experience with such things, but I had this feeling that I would be the best one for the job--that I would know exactly how to craft such a profile.

It turns out that knowing, however, is a big problem when it comes to the online dating world. And I'm not
talking about knowing what one wants in a mate (or soulmate, as online daters like to say). What I found while scanning hundreds of profiles (both men and women) was that an insane number of people from their late twenties to early forties claim to be agnostic when asked about their religion. Although some would disagree, and argue for a more nuanced understanding of agnosticism, the term essentially means "I don't know." It suggests that the existence of deities is unknown, and that perhaps even ultimate knowledge and realities are unknown--unable to be known.

I found this interesting because
I don't really think I've met many people in person who have claimed to be agnostic. Most people I know either believe or they don't. They are either religious or they are not. They believe in God or they don't. In other words, coming from the world of academia, I have plenty of friends who say they are atheists. But because I am close to people in both the Jewish and Christian worlds, I also know many people who say they believe in God. I, myself, believe in God, though I don't always know exactly what that makes me. But rather than look for a term that encapsulates all of the textures of my spiritual impulses, I choose to say rather concretely that I believe in God, perhaps even that I love God. I would never call myself an agnostic.

So what
I want to know, is where are all the agnostics hiding? Are they only online? Is it somehow culturally hip to present oneself as the ultimate repository of "I don't know" when creating an online personna? Is it seen as somehow pretentious to presume to know one way or another?

I don't
mean to criticize people who call themselves agnostics. I mean, looking back on the twentieth century it's easy to find plenty of historical moments that call into question the existence of God. It's just that I find it curious--the fact that I never meet agnostics in person.

Are we
becoming more and more afraid to admit that we know anything (or that we think we know anything)? But I think the more important question is this: At what point is "I don't know" translated as "I don't care"? My sense is that many people who label themselves as agnostic simply don't care to know the answer, and for reasons I can't quite articulate, I find this most troubling.

I suppose I just want to know that someone cares about the answer to such a big question.

I used
to know a man who said he hated God. His eyes would tear up as he told me how angry he was at God. For some reason I found this compelling. I loved God, and he hated God, but somehow we were on the same page. I know another man who refuses to use the labels of atheist or agnostic, and when asked what religion he is, suggests that he is nothing in an effort to resist the labels. I can almost understand that impulse as well. It used to bother me that he didn't care enough to ask whether God exists, but now I appreciate the way he has shifted the question to something that has to do with how and why we use the labels we do in order to categorize our spirituality.

Here's what bothers me (I've just figured it out): I wonder if applying the label of "agnostic" to oneself is
really just a sneaky way out of being responsible for at least making a shot at figuring it out, for asking the right questions. If certain things are unknowable, then we are off the hook when it comes to trying to figure them out, right? If we will "never know," then we never have to think about it. So there's my conclusion, for now anyway: agnosticism is perhaps the antithesis to responsibility.


Michelle said...

Great post... very thought provoking... The one person I've met that claimed to be agnostic argued that he believed that a "higher power" existed, but He didn't know who that higher power was. He also didn't seem concerned with or curious about the "unknown". There seemed to be a certain comfort in not knowing. Somehow believing in God and ultimately loving God often translates into a list of rules instead of a message of love. Not knowing who God is brings a false freedom from these rules.

As a Christian, I have found that there are no rules… What I mean is that there is freedom in Christ that comes with an amazing life. Our Creator drafted in us the desire to be in relationship with Him and when we are in that relationship there is freedom. Rules don’t matter because I was created to reflect my relationship with God and out of that relationship I can truly live the life I was created for.

Casey said...

I don't see terms like "agnostic" and "Christian" as mutually exclusive. Isn't it possible to not-know even as you believe?

In fact, isn't this quite simple? Isn't there a distinction between "faith" and "knowledge?" As to the gods, I think a great deal of people have faith, but not knowledge.

But, let me complicate things for a moment: pretend for a minute that I've had a mystical experience, and that, in my interpretation of that experience, I profess: "I have known the divine."

Now you come to me and ask if I believe in g-d or have knowledge of g-d... what will I say? I will say I know there's a god, by way of experience.

So maybe agnostics are just people who are waiting for the evidence to come in... in that sense, any "Christian" (or Jewish person?) who has not seen, but only believes, may also be called agnostic.

Interesting topic. I called myself agnostic for about three years, after a five year stint as an atheist... then I had a mystical experience; now I don't call myself anything.

Compare me to something and tell me what I am like. (see #13)

Casey said...

(Doesn't it just seem like I sit around holding my breath until your next post? Sorry if I'm giving that impression... it's sorta true though.)

One more thought: if we were talking and had plenty of time and you chose to say, "I believe in God," I would ask you what you mean by "God," and then I would listen until you ran out of breath.

Somewhere a while ago I wrote: "The question 'Do you believe in God' is not a good question; it should be replaced by 'What do you understand by the word 'God?'"


David Suissa said...

So why do they say "agnostic" online and not in person? Because in person, they might have to explain themselves or answer a few questions-- which goes back to your brilliant insight on responsibility.

Casey said...

But how can one explain what she genuinely doesn't understand? "I don't know," is, after all, an answer... no? And it's not necessarily a reflection of irresponsible ignorance. If genuine mysteries exist (and I suppose they do) then "I don't know" must be counted as an honest and responsible answer.

So then, we're back on my favorite turf: can we know G-d, or not? And if we can... who does?

Kevin said...

"Where are all the agnostics hiding?"

I don't know where they are hiding, but I think I know why they hide.

"The object of opening one's mind is the same as opening one's mouth--that one might close it again on something solid."

This seems right. To have a conviction is, in some sense, to 'grasp' an idea, to 'hold' it as one's own, and so, to CLOSE one's hand/mind around the belief.

This creates a problem in social situations: everyone wants to be seen as open-minded; and this leads to a fear: what if someone I just meet (a romantic prospective, in this case) sees me at an instant of conviction? --i.e. at the instant my mind is closed? Here is a sensible fear of being seen by someone (perhaps, in the case of dating, being seen by 'the not impossible she'!) just as one, as it were, ceases to be open-minded. And so one fears being mischaracterized--giving a first impression of being closed-minded ("Well, the first time I saw him his mind was closed"--and that, in the online profiles you describe, is the ONLY 'photo'.)

Upshot: anyone on the dating service who wishes to be seen as open-minded is under pressure to choose a 'picture' in which their mind is not closed--i.e. to shy away from expressing confident conviction (at first). Conviction is like one's body--ideally, you don't start out with it in the open, but reveal it slowly, in trust. So even if the profile-sharing person does believe, to say this might be a misleading 'snapshot' of their everyday open-mindedness--this etiquette is in force then, despite the fact that there is, as GK's quote suggests, no POINT to open-mindedness EXCEPT to reach conviction. Put differently: close-minded-ness is the object of objectivity.

In academia, though, (to go back to the mind/mouth analogy) this perpetual objectivity produces a kind of reverse lock-jaw. The person so open-minded they can't make up their mind starts to look like someone whose mouth cannot close 'on something solid'--they imagine they appear so 'objective'--but their mind, never closing, simply gapes unintelligently open.Exceptions are made (for politics, usually)
but I sense I am getting off topic, and shall stop...

Re: your last paragraph, which I think is right on:

Have you read any Brandom? His notion of what it is to say 'I know' is directly linked to interpersonal responsibility. Roughly: to make a claim ("I believe __") is to issue credit to others--to assert belief is to assert that others can count upon your claim--upon you. Epistemic activity thus amounts to a credit market, wherein we each issue our own credit to each other--issuing to, and accepting from, each other credence--creeds--belief...

Casey said...

Kevin! 10/10! Three cheers. Great analysis.

Monica said...

Thanks, Michelle!

Casey, I think it may be possible to "not know" even as you believe. I think that is probably the most accurate way to define my own position. I realized I made an error in my post. When I wrote "I, myself, believe in God, though I don't always know exactly what that makes me," what I meant to say was that I don't always know exactly "what that MEANS." Okay, so you seem to be suggesting that experiencing G-d is equivalent to knowing there is a G-d. But there's still some kind of knowledge--albeit abstract--involved. My biggest fear, as I've indicated, is that agnosticism is for most simply a declaration of apathy (or, like David suggests, a way of not having to explain oneself). But I don't believe it was for you--there are exceptions. I also find it interesting that you went from atheism to agnosticism to...nothing (that is, nothing that isn't nothing)? I like it. Levinas has this thing about true faith needing to pass through atheism at a certain point. Maybe it passes through agnosticism as well, whether it's labeled as such or not.

And maybe you're right: We shouldn't be asking if people believe in God; we should be asking what they understand by God. I am really counting on one day having this discussion with you in person.

Monica said...

Kevin--great response. I think you're totally right. But what I can't completely wrap my mind around is this idea that people want to depict themselves as being open-minded. I mean, I understand the impulse to want to do so. But I don't understand what it means to not have some sense of belief (or non-belief) and want to communicate that to someone else, especially if it is to a potential "soulmate." I, for instance, consider myself to be very open-minded, but I also have some very staunch beliefs regarding all sorts of things. And I tend to think that those things that I've closed my mouth on, so to speak, are the things that give me more character and make me more interesting to be around. I guess what I'm getting that maybe these people who all say they are agnostics online, are really hurting their chances of connecting with someone in a meaningful way. Let's face it--it's no fun to sit in a room filled with a bunch of people who don't know. There are some things I know; other people know them in a different way. But that's fine.

I've never heard of Brandom, but I'm totally going to look him up. Thanks!