Agnosticism: is ignorance bliss?

August 18, 2010


In 1726, in The Political History of the Devil, author Daniel Defoe wrote, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.”  Ben Franklin, paraphrasing Defoe said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Both Defoe and Franklin were giving voice to what we most loathe and/or fear. 

Personally, I loathe death more than taxes, but that’s because I’m not a conservative.  But whatever our political inclination, we tip-toe around death out of a profound sense of impotence regarding it, and because, of the two, (death and taxes) death is the most final. In fact, if you die you won’t have to worry about paying even one more cent in taxes which is why conservatives (especially religious ones) have built such finely detailed architectures around death.  Preferring death to taxes they’ve made post-death more palatable: a heavenly place with seraphim and cherubim and no IRS.

I don’t mean to be gloomy but two recent personal experiences have made me more sensitive to my mortality and that of my loved-ones. One I won’t go into because it’s awful and heart-rending enough to make an honest fundamentalist question the idea of a benevolent god. The other is just plain narcissistic; namely, anxiety at having just had a birthday represented by too many digits over 6.

As with most things a simple, straight-forward acknowledgement of death might be best; but we’re fearful creatures, so, when dealing with end-of-life issues we beat around the bush with a million euphemisms.

In a funk a year or so ago, considering our universal and mysterious end I penned a poem I titled Whatcham’callitI opened Whatcham’callit with the simple, straight-forward acknowledgement I mentioned above but then, to lighten up my meditation of the worst of events, I found myself setting down some of our oblique references to our basic taboo.  This is how the poem goes:

“She’s dead,” he said
“So’s he,” said she.

“Kicked the bucket,” he said.
“Bought the farm,”
said she.
“Under the clover,” he said.
“Crossed over,”
said she.
“Iced with a heater,” he said.
“Sleeps with the fishes
,” said she.
“Taken for a little ride,” he said.
“Gone to the other side
,” said she.
“Flat-lined,” he said.
“Out of mind,” said she.
Up to this point in the poem I merely jotted a few of those less-than-lethal terms we use to gloss over what really happens. They cover much of the verbal territory we high-tail it to for sanctuary from death by robbing it of some of its sting. But for centuries (maybe even eons) we’ve speculated that there’s more to “passing on” than meets the eye. You might say we crave an after-life, otherwise how could this one make any sense? 

For instance, Christians will meet Jesus when they cross over and Jesus will introduce them to his father.  There will be untold joy and fulfillment in (according to Revelation) a place of  “… unspeakable beauty, a city and streets of gold, gates of pearl, and precious stones” and they will again meet all those they loved in life. By contrast, who would not love that sort of place and party.

When Muslims buy the farm (according to the Koran) they will come to a place which is “…a Garden, as wide as the heavens and the earth; … prepared for those who keep their duty.”  A lush garden; very appealing to life-long desert dwellers.

For Hindus who kick the bucket heaven is not so much a place but a period of rest for souls between death and rebirth, until they achieve release from the cycle of births —which is not unappealing, especially now, given the current state of global affairs.

Native Americans are eclectic about the afterlife. Some apparently believe in reincarnation, with a person being reborn either as a human or animal, while others believe that humans return as ghosts, or that people go to another world. Still others believe that nothing definitely can be known about one’s fate after this life. This last indicates a realistic humility I think would appeal to god.  “I just don’t know,” is refreshingly honest.

Whereas some atheists seem as arrogantly certain as any fundamentalist, agnostics take the position that a simple declaration of ignorance in face of the ineffable and inscrutable is not a cop-out, but an admission of the limits of our intellects in dealing with the most persistent of mysteries. It’s a perspective not of denial, but of wonder. 

And so Whatcham’callit ends:

 “Flat-lined,” he said.
“Out of mind,” said she.

“To a better place,” he said.
“By heaven’s grace,” said she.

“Under the sod,” he said.
“To be with God,” said she.

“To Paradise?” he said.
“Would be nice,” said she.

“Could it be?” he said.
“Could it not?” said she.



4 Responses to “Agnosticism: is ignorance bliss?”

  1. Ermine Says:

    *sigh* Yet another person who does not know that theism/atheism and gnosticism/agnosticism are two very different things. You’re an agnostic, great. But you’re either an agnostic *theist* or an agnostic *atheist*, and I find fence-sitters like you who then crow about their supposedly superior position to be laughable in their ignorance.

    Please do yourself a favor and educate yourself – At the very least, simply looking it up on Wikipedia ( ) would have given you a basic understanding, and quite a few good links to follow for deeper research if you wished.

    Theism/atheism is about what we BELIEVE. Do you believe god exists, whether hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin? However you define ‘God’, do you personally think S/He’s out there? If you believe there’s Something there, even if you doubt it at times, you’re a Theist. If you are unconvinced by the paucity of real evidence and withhold your belief until you see something convincing, whether you’re -sure- or not, you’re an atheist.

    Gnosticism is about what we KNOW. Whether you believe in god(s) or not, are you sure? Do you think it’s even -possible- to know *for sure* whether (or not) a god exists, any god at all? A devout christian who claims that ‘It’s impossible to either prove or disprove the existence of god(s)’ – and I’ve seen that countless times from christians of every stripe – would be an agnostic theist. On the other hand, a christian who believed that god actually reveals Himself to people would be a gnostic theist, while an atheist who agreed with the first example would be an agnostic atheist.

    Now, you are apparently an agnostic. Great. You admit that you just don’t know for sure, so you’re already ahead of quite a lot of people – But whether you know *for sure* or not, you base your actions on an assumption one way or the other. Whether you admit it or not, you DO have a belief, even if you don’t know with any surety one way or the other. If you simply withhold your belief in any ‘Supreme Being’ until or unless you see convincing evidence, then you *don’t believe* – And that makes you an agnostic *atheist*.

    Do you think and act on the -possibility- that he does exist, or does the possibility of god’s existence not enter into your daily decisions at all? If you act in all your daily activities and decisions as if there was no god watching you, if you just ‘don’t think about it’ when tough times or moral decisions are ahead, then you *don’t believe*, and you should just be honest with yourself and admit that you’re an agnostic atheist, and join the rest of us who are already honest about our beliefs.

    By the way, I take offense at your claims of atheistic certainty and fundamentalism, especially since you’ve pointed that comment at -all- atheists, and even *you* ought to know that’s not true. If you don’t, educate yourself, please! Most atheists will freely admit that they can’t ‘prove that God doesn’t exist’. From what I’ve seen, most atheists are more than willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers – In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find ANY well-known atheists displaying that “dogmatic certainty” you’ve claimed we all display, and I challenge you here and now to provide links to any examples of it. I don’t think you’ll find much, but unlike your assertions about us, I’m perfectly ready and willing to be proven wrong.

  2. jimculleny Says:


    This is not an academic article on Atheism vs. Agnosticism. It’s merely an expression of doubt about god. It’s not a treatise.

    After reading your comment the only thing I might change is to add “some” here: Whereas (some)atheists seem as arrogantly certain as any fundamentalist…

    The article is about unclassified doubt. Categories need not apply.

  3. jimculleny Says:


    I just went to the Wiki URL you cited. Maybe you ought to read it again. The article makes no hard and fast definitions of “agnostic”, but rather is seeded with qualifiers; for example:

    –Agnosticism [can] be defined in various ways…
    –In [some] senses, agnosticism is a stance about the similarities or differences between belief and knowledge…

    There’s a lot of that in the article. There’s little particulary definitive in it. It gives classification some have made about agnosticism.

    Sounds like you’re just arguing for the sake of argument. That’s ok, but I have no axe to grind one way or the other. I’m an agnostic, whether I’m an agnostic theist or an atheist agnostic doesn’t really make or break my day. The operative principle is doubt about what ultimately makes the universe(s) tick.

    BTW I did make the change I mentioned earlier.

    Thanks for you comments

  4. Ermine Says:

    Yeah, of COURSE I must just be commenting only to argue. It certainly couldn’t be because because I disagree with your claims of “arrogant certainty” on the part of atheists, (while you arrogantly hold up agnosticism as an alternative (with ‘realistic humility’ and ‘refreshing honesty!’)), when in fact, as you appear to admit in one of your final sentences, theism/atheism is completely orthogonal to (a)gnosticism!

    Atheists are either gnostic or agnostic in their atheism – in other words many, perhaps even most (though I freely admit that I don’t know the percentages) atheists are agnostics just like you, so this “arrogant certainty” you so blithely tarred the entire group with is a complete and total straw man.

    Now that you’ve added ‘some’ with no indicator whatsoever to which ones you actually mean or any examples of this purported arrogant certainty, it’s no longer necessarily false on its face, hurrah! – It’s just completely useless as a claim.

    Yes, some atheists (many of whom are agnostics at the same time – do you get it yet?) may be arrogantly certain about something or other in their lives, but the same could be said of any arbitrary grouping of people you might choose to pick. Lefties? Cobblers? Politicians? Teachers? Garbagemen? Malaria victims? What do you know, the chances that ‘some’ of them may be arrogantly certain about *something* are about the same for any group!

    To say that any of them are “as arrogantly certain as any fundamentalist”, now that’s going to take some examples, and if you want your statement to mean anything, you’re going to need to explain how their atheism (in this case) is the source, the cause, or how it contributes in any way to the problem.

    However, it’s damned hard to be arrogant or dogmatic about atheism, since all that means is that they AREN’T theists.

    I notice that you have completely ignored my challenge to give us even ONE example of any well-known atheist being arrogantly certain about anything at all. I hear the claim made all the time, but I have yet to see an outspoken atheist who wasn’t quite openminded and almost staggeringly polite in person. But then, Richard Dawkins gets called ‘shrill, militant, arrogant, and hateful’ all the time, while I have yet to actually hear him so much as raise his voice, even in the face of some pretty extreme provocation.

    I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder to find one than it will be to just admit that you were wrong to point at ‘atheists’ as especially arrogant and certain about anything, and even more wrong to hold up agnosticism as an alternative to (a)theism, when it is entirely possible (and downright common, I’d think) to be both at the same time.

    Now, will you either accept the challenge or admit you’re wrong, or are you just going to misconstrue my motives again?

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