On our Facebook page over the years, we’ve shared a lot of perspectives on belief and knowledge; science and religion. One thing that had generated a lot of discussion was a graphic illustrating the two axes of Belief and Knowledge. It shows, disproportionately, how there are people who believe in a god or gods, and people who do not believe, and that there are people who claim to have certainty of knowledge to back up their claim, and people who do not claim certainty, or who at least understand that what works for them may not be right for everyone else. For simplicity, these are the labels: People who believe in some form of higher power are called “theists” (from the Greek theos meaning “god”) and those who believe there is no higher power are called “atheists” (atheos being Greek for “without the gods”); people are free to define their higher power in their own terms, of course. People who claim certainty are called “gnostics” (from the Greek, again, gnōsis, meaning “knowledge”) and those who do not claim certainty ‘agnostics” (the a- prefix in Greek means “without”). People who do not claim certainty of knowledge are, for the purpose of discussion on I Am UU, agnostic, whether they are firm in their personal faith or not. This is the default and modal (most common) position of Unitarian Universalists.
There are gnostic atheists, who claim absolute knowledge that there is no god and that all religious beliefs and rituals are fiction, and equally fundamentalist theists who claim absolute knowledge and even personal contact with divine beings. Both strike me, personally, as egotistical and dangerous attitudes. It should also be said that there are aptheists (one who feels no reason or desire to believe beyond their understanding) who make the claim that no evidence could exist for the existence of a god or gods, meaning that there are some who have no belief, and still claim absolute certainty of knowledge.
Albert Einstein and Neil deGrasse Tyson both qualify as agnostics, believing that being open to the mystery and wonder of the universe was important to their work as scientists. Einstein was a theist, though, while Tyson is, by definition at least, an atheist.
Einstein once said, “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker,” which is a very liberal religion. In fact, he also said of his beliefs, “I believe in the brotherhood of man and the uniqueness of the individual. But if you ask me to prove what I believe, I can’t. You know them to be true but you could spend a whole lifetime without being able to prove them. The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.”
Tyson is on the record specifically asking to be called an agnostic, because he believes that the term “atheist” implies knowledge that isn’t available. He has said that science and religion are irreconcilable, saying, “All efforts that have been invested by brilliant people of the past have failed at that exercise.” Still, he sees no evidence that compels him to believe that the universe has any unknowable mysteries. He once wrote, brilliantly, “You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem.”
Another great science communicator, Carl Sagan, once said “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” Tradition and ego in religion have, at times, been an obstacle to cultural growth and learning; there have also been instances where the same human weaknesses in scientists have caused scientific progress to stall. This can be seen in science in the recent, (and to some, ongoing) debate about the definition of the word Planet, and how it applies to various bodies in our solar system, chiefly Pluto. The long-standing definition was too broad to exclude several other rocky objects orbiting our Sun, and so there was (is) debate about how to define the word, with the current consensus of astrophysicists and astronomers classifying Pluto as a Dwarf Planet, instead. Pluto has fans, though, who still do not want to let that consensus stand, some of whom simply prefer things not to change. There are people spending time on this debate rather than some new progress in astronomy or physics.
Just as dogmatic religion has stifled learning, ego has encroached in scientific endeavors in the past and stalled understanding. Honest science requires willingness to absorb new information. Likewise, liberal religion remain open to revelations about the workings of the universe and how new knowledge can help us be our best.
That is what marks liberal religion as different from mainstream/moderate religion and conservative or fundamentalist religions. Liberal religion, like proper science, teaches that we should start in the blue circle in all things, being open to new information and experience. Science is a process of working with assumptions about the universe until something causes those assumptions to change. Liberal religion is much the same in dealing with personal, interpersonal, and social issues. We deal with things as they are, and we are open to the experiences of others, because no one person can truly know all that it means to be a Human Being. Moderate religions are in a constant cycle of reformation, many of them in the US currently debating the issue of homosexuality, even as some have already made recent, official declarations. They make a claim f authority and hold on to it until that authority is so damaged that it must be abandoned. Conservative religion, on the other hand, seeks to hang on to such authorities long after they are proven to do harm. Liberal religion asks us to look at the world as it is and change our understanding based on what we know, even if it is different from what we “knew” some time ago.
So, liberal religion is agnostic, claiming no absolutes and being open to new ideas and information. While some of us claim some evidence exists to support our beliefs, we are discouraged from believing that the evidence of personal experience, no matter how rewarding or compelling, is proof. James Luther Adams, a Unitarian minister and liberal religious scholar in the mid-twentieth century, write this as the first of his five points for use in the defense of the importance of liberal religion: Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.
We have an obligation, as Unitarian Universalists, to keep an open mind and leave the door of understanding ajar, in almost all things. Our movement commits to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and to be responsible, we have to be willing to occasionally reexamine your beliefs in light of what you’ve learned and experienced. We also have a commitment to “spiritual growth”, and growth means change on some scale.
So, we talk about agnosticism as the natural position of a Unitarian Universalist. We know that there are UUs who are very comfortable and happy with their beliefs and their relationship (or lack there of) with the divine. The expectation, though, is that few of us would try to explain away evidence if it were discovered. We would not, as the Creationists might do, claim that the great mystery would plant false evidence to test our faith. Ours is a movement that seeks honest understanding of our place in the universe, small though it may be.