Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Practical Atheist


The prestige enjoyed by the agnostic solution today does not stand up to colder examination. As a pure theory, it may seem exceedingly illuminating. But in its essence, agnosticism is much more than a theory: what is at stake here is the praxis of one’s life. When one attempts to put it into practice in one’s real field of action, agnosticism slips out of one’s hands like a soap bubble; it dissolves into thin air, because it is not possible to escape the very option it seeks to avoid. When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No—without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 88-9

Reflection – Well, we’ve been down this road before on this blog – click the agnosticism label at the bottom of the post if you want the full story. But it bears saying again and again; we cannot really suspend judgment on the question of God.

Intellectually, yes we can, of course. It is clearly not psychologically impossible or logically unsound to say ‘I don’t know’ about the God question or any other question. But the God question, unlike, say, the wave/particle nature of light or the average wing span of a swallow (European or African? I don’t know… auggggh!), has direct practical implications for what you and I are going to do today, doesn’t it?

If there is a supreme being—that is, One who created you, holds you in being, and who is the author and end of your life—then you had better be talking to Him/Her/It today, right? If there is a God, you had better be asking this God to show you how to live, right? If there is a God, then prayer is a priority for each one of our lives, without exception.

So if you don’t pray, you are acting as if there is no God. You are a practical atheist, even if you insist that you are an agnostic. It seems to me that there are very few agnostics who end up adopting theistic practice—a rigorous, disciplined life of prayer—while most self-declared agnostics end up living as atheists.

But this whole prayer business opens up for us a whole stance to life that does not stop when we get up off our knees. If there is a God, then the truth, the meaning, the goodness, the point of virtually everything in the universe is not ours to decide. It is ours to discover, but that’s entirely different. Columbus ‘discovered’ North America; he did not invent it. There is a whole attitude towards life that emerges from practical theism as opposed to practical atheism, a reverence, a listening spirit, a deep humility.

I will never forget the shock I had one day when I, still a layman at that point but already in my final promises in Madonna House, realized that by and large I was living as a practical atheist. Generally speaking, I made up my own mind about stuff without much serious reference to… you know, the Big Guy. It was actually a key moment of repentance in my life that led me in a circuitous sort of way to my current state of affairs (where I at least once in a while check in with Him about stuff!).

Anyhow, agnosticism is a bust, practically speaking. Either there is a God or there is not one, and our whole way of life either is based on the existence of God or it is not. It is fairly simple, even though practical atheism can slip into our hearts in myriad subtle ways. And perhaps (realizing that most of my readers are churchy-type people) that’s a good focus for this post—are we living as theists or as atheists? Is God the center of our lives… or something else? Something to ponder…