Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

When we were very Jung

It was about 2 years ago now when I first read Jung’s Red Book, which had been published in 2009 after sitting unpublished for nearly a century. Although I previously had a long-standing interest in Jung, reading that extraordinary text brought me to a new level of engagement with Jungian ideas, in recognition of their potential strength of connection with the Middle Way. The first fruit of that engagement was a series of blogs (1,2,3 & 4), but then there were also new reflections on Christian symbols that contributed to The Christian Middle Way, the giving of a talk at the Bristol Jung Lectures, and also the writing of a book on the interpretation of the Red Book which I am currently trying to find a publisher for (The Jungian Middle Way). The other aspect of this engagement that I want to reflect on here, though, has been increasing engagement with Jungians. Who are the Jungians? How do they understand themselves? I’m not sure I can really answer that question, but can only give you some impressions. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so baffled by a group of people who in any way shelter under the same label.

There does seem to be a Jungian community – one that gathers in major cities across the Western world for talks or therapeutic training, but that also has a significant online presence. There are a number of Jungian groups on Facebook, and one of their distinguishing features is often how vast they are. The core of that community seems to consist in therapists, but there is obviously also a wider audience from a public that has been grabbed, as I was, by the Red Book, or by earlier popular Jungian writings such as ‘Man and his Symbols’ or the autobiographical ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. Anyone with an imagination can be readily intrigued by Jung.

What I have found most baffling is the range of people and the range of their attitudes. This probably reflects the ambiguities in Jung himself. At his most clear and reflective, Jung is committed to writing only on the basis of experience, whether that takes the form of psychological evidence from patients or from his personal experience. He is unsurpassed, in my view, in his understanding of the meaning of that experience. At his best, he clearly separates archetypal meaning from projections of that meaning onto the world – so, for example, the Shadow is clearly an archetypal form representing our own hatred and rejection, which we should avoid projecting onto people or other entities, but rather symbolise in its own right as Satan or another evil figure (see my earlier blog on evil). In other places, however, Jung relaxes this distinction and drifts into metaphysical assertions (for example in the Gnostic Seven Sermons, near the end of the Red Book), or into groundless empirical assertions – famously including the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, and also including some very dodgy generalisations about gender, nationality and race.

Jungians, I’ve found, are similarly very varied. Some Jungians are balanced, sane, wise, thoughtful, pragmatic people whom I’ve been grateful and honoured to meet. Others are not so wise or discriminating. I am not going to mention any specific names, but here are some of the less balanced types I’ve encountered: the New Age intuitive who takes astrology seriously as a guide to the future; the spiritual intuitive who claims to just KNOW God; the obsessively rigorous scholar who won’t accept anything not clearly proved in the text of Jung’s writings; the pseudo-historian who has a detailed account of a past matriarchal civilisation that he believes could teach us all peace; and the self-appointed online authority who insists that I must be ‘overthinking’ and not using my feeling and intuition if I dare to criticise anything Jung said. Sometimes the Jungian community seems like the nearest we have to a substantial Middle Way community, but at other times it seems like a bunch of credulous hippies, and at other times a rather sinister cult.

It seems to me that perhaps the biggest issue creating this diversity, apart from the inconsistency of Jung’s own writings (and the tendency of some Jungians to absolutise them as a necessary source of truth), is the question of the status of intuition. Intuition is the means by which most of us are able to deal with complex experience readily. We ‘get the gist’ of a situation, or a perspective, or a person through a holistic overview that unconsciously draws on lots of previous experience of similar situations. Those of us who are more inclined to rely on our intuitions may thereby gain an advantage in understanding and preparedness, when compared to someone who tries to work everything out by laboriously matching concepts to what they sense. Intuition also gives us archetypal meaning by unconsciously formatting what we experience. So intuition is not flakey – it’s necessary and everyone uses it. Jung and Jungians, though, perhaps rely on it more than most as a source of insight into psychological forms and relationships.

The crucial issue is that of what intuition can justifiably tell us. On the one hand it can provide a ready access of meaning with which we can understand our experience. However, the problem with Jungianism at its flakiest is the way in which people feel they’re justified in deriving absolute facts directly from intuitions. The meaning gets translated directly into beliefs about the world without going through an intervening process of critical reflection. So that’s why we get people who believe in astrology, think they ‘just know’ God, or know the essential characteristics of, say, Germans, or women, through the operation of intuition. In the terms of Middle Way Philosophy, they are absolutising.

The research on intuition discussed by Daniel Kahneman also shows how unjustified this is. Kahneman compares studies done on the intuition of firefighters and stock traders. Experienced firefighters had excellent intuitions about when a burning building was about to collapse, because the conditions in burning buildings follow a predictable enough pattern to make unconsciously processed information reliable. However, stock traders performed worse than random when they followed their intuitions about which stocks would do best. In the past I’ve written a story about this contrast. The more complex the thing you have intuitions about, the less reliable they are, and the more important it is to slow down and actually think about it and consider the evidence.

Jungianism unfortunately has a bad reputation amongst many people who are scientifically or philosophically trained, because of this unjustifiable use of intuition to draw absolute conclusions. These hard STEM types are missing out on a good deal of very helpful material in Jungian thought. I would urge them to reconsider. But I also really wish that respect for empirical evidence was a more widespread and consistent feature of Jungian thinking than it is. You really don’t have to give up on the riches of Jungian meaning to expect adequate justification for your beliefs. You really can have your cake and eat it here. So perhaps we should all grow up.

 

Some other resources on Jung on this site:

Jung: Middle Way Thinkers Series

Podcast Interview with Stephen Farah: Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Applied Jungian Studies, Johannesburg

Podcast Interview with Helena Bassil-Morozow on Jungian Film Studies

Jung and Nazism

 

Picture: Carl Jung by Charles-Henri Favrod (CCBYSA 3.0)

 

The MWS Podcast 129: Peter Tatchell on Homophobia

Our guest today is the British journalist and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who is perhaps most well-known for his work with LBGT social movements and advocacy. He’s here to talk to us today about homophobia, its history, causes and what can be done about it.



MWS Podcast 129: Peter Tatchell as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_129_Peter_Tatchell
Click here to view other podcasts

The Buddha’s Breakthrough

What was the Buddha’s breakthrough? He gained enlightenment, right? Well, actually I’ve no idea. Just as I stay agnostic about the existence of God or its denial, likewise with the Buddha’s enlightenment. But recently I’ve been looking again in some detail at the sources on the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon, and been thus reaffirmed in my view that the Buddha’s breakthrough was not enlightenment (or awakening, or however else you want to translate it) at all. His breakthrough consisted in the recognition of a method.

Let’s consider almost any other case of a historical figure who discovered a new method and then successfully applied it. Do we consider their method to be their most significant achievement, or what they did with it? Let’s take Picasso: was it more significant that he developed cubism, or that he painted Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Or Gandhi: was it more significant that he developed techniques of  non-violent direct action that inspired many others, or that he made such a big contribution to the struggle for Indian independence? The further away we are in time and place, the more we are likely to see the significance of the method as far more important than the achievement. Why should the Buddha be treated any differently from that?

However, I’d say the case is actually much stronger with the Buddha than it is with either Picasso or Gandhi, because the Buddha’s method is of such universal importance. The Middle Way, understood as a principle of non-absolute judgement, can be applied by anyone anywhere to make progress from whatever point they’ve reached. By identifying and avoiding absolutisations, whether negative or positive, we can avoid delusions and thus make tangible progress, right now, being aware that absolutisations are our own projections. But enlightenment? It’s clear from human experience that we can make progress with greed, hatred and delusion, but profoundly unclear whether we could ever hope to eliminate them altogether. The description of the state of enlightenment as given in the Pali Canon also depends on metaphysical beliefs in karma and rebirth, because the Buddha is depicted as becoming enlightened by breaking them. Most importantly, no other human state is completely discontinuous. We can make breakthroughs, but they are never completely discontinuous, nor final, and never result in perfect knowledge of any kind. Belief in the Buddha’s enlightenment as an absolute is in conflict with confidence in the Middle Way.

Looking at the Pali Canon account of the discovery of the Middle Way, though, makes it clear how powerfully symbolic that discovery can be, because it involves such a dramatic puncturing of delusion. The Buddha has gone forth from the Palace where he began, and gone forth again from the cults of two different spiritual teachers, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. In each case, the social context involved people insisting that they had the whole story, and the Buddha recognised that they did not. Then he began to practise asceticism, and he describes trying to stop himself breathing and then nearly starving himself. He’s obviously in a closed, rather obsessive loop whereby absolute beliefs are violently in conflict with his body. So what makes the difference? How does he get out of that state and discover the Middle Way instead?

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.’” (MN 36:20)

He gets back in touch with a memory from his earlier life in the Palace, showing that the Palace was not all bad. This memory is an experience of jhana – of an absorbed meditative state that, crucially, could only have been developed through deep acceptance and relaxation of his body. He has moved decisively from grasping after absolute, disembodied ideals that only produce conflict, to an embodied point of view. From that will follow that he must develop in ways that are possible and realistic for people with bodies, rather than sharing the delusions of those who forget that they have bodies. Not only is his need for nourishment, and the body-awareness that forms the basis of meditative practice, part of that recognition of this embodiment, but also the Middle Way itself, with its sceptical and agnostic awareness that we cannot have perfect knowledge, but instead need to work incrementally and provisionally to integrate the energies, meanings and beliefs of our interrelated mind-body.

When he gives his first address to others following his enlightenment, the Middle Way is the first teaching he then gives:

Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata [Buddha] has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (SN 56.11.421)

The version of the Middle Way that he gives here is one applicable to his audience: that is, the five ascetics, his previous comrades, who need to recognise that asceticism is not a helpful path. But it is already clear from the Buddha’s story that the path he has discovered is one that involves the capacity to question any claimed absolute, whether that consists of a belief about oneself, about ideology, about salvation, or any other matter. To show how much the Buddha uses this wider Middle Way, in his conduct, in much of his teaching, and particularly some of his similes, is a longer discussion, but it will form part of the book I am currently writing about the Buddha’s Middle Way.

It will no doubt be pointed out that whenever the Buddha refers to the Middle Way, he also describes it as the way to Nibbana (enlightenment), as he does in the quotation above. There is a positive way we can interpret this without accepting absolute beliefs about Nibbana, which is to see Nibbana as meaning the notional end-point of the Middle Way, pand thus effectively standing, archetypally and symbolically, for the Middle Way itself and the more integrated states that it can help us to develop. Just as God can be interpreted as a glimpse of our potential integration, so can enlightenment – as long as we separate these archetypal relationships clearly from beliefs about the existence of these entities, or indeed of any absolute (revelatory) information that is supposed to come from them. So, we can easily continue to be inspired by the figure of the Buddha, even if in some ways the term engrains an unhelpful emphasis on absolutes into the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha represents the potential integration of our psyches.

Though the Buddha ‘discovered’ the Middle Way in the sense of being the first person, as far as we know, to talk explicitly about it, he did not of course create it, any more that Newton’s ability to label ‘gravity’ and explain how it works magicked gravity into being. The ways in which it can be (and has been) discovered by others with varying degrees of explicitness needs just as much emphasis as the Buddha’s discovery. Nevertheless, that discovery itself, it seems to me, deserves a lot more celebration. The first thing the Buddha ate after discovering the Middle Way was rice porridge: why not eat that ceremonially in remembrance of the Middle Way (a sort of Buddhist eucharist)? His vital recollection of his experience under a rose-apple tree makes that tree perhaps just as important in our associations as the better-known bodhi tree. Here is an example. Eat a rose apple and think of the Middle Way.

 

Pictures: (1) Buddha by Odilon Redon, (2) Rose Apple tree (Syzygium jambos) photographed by Forest and Kim Starr, CCSA 3.0

 

Creativity, reason and the seasons: representing autumn

Have a good look at the photograph above. To me, it so perfectly captures what I think of as autumn. The variety of mellow colours in the fallen leaves, the gentle sunlight, the lengthening shadows. And yet the image has been carefully constructed, so as to give an impression of a natural scene that is more autumnal than anything you’ll find out there at the moment beneath the deciduous trees of the northern temperate regions. How do I know this? Because I created it.

Earlier this week, on a murky afternoon I took my son for a walk. We went to the local park and as we walked around it I carefully gathered a variety of leaves, differing in shape, size, colour and texture. He helped, with increasing enthusiasm, and seemed most amused by trying to outdo my efforts by finding leaves that were even larger than the ones that I’d found. We carried the leaves back home and I spread them out to dry. I had an idea that I would photograph them later on, but my plans were no more specific than that.

On a morning a few days later I noticed that the sunlight coming in through the windows at the back of the house was particularly mellow and ‘autumnal’  – and that seemed like the right opportunity to do something with the dried leaves that were, by now, jumbled and curling inside a large shopping bag. With the help of a tripod, for stability, I photographed individual leaves lying on the sunlit floor of my back room; I photographed individual leaves back-lit by the sunlight coming in through the patio doors; finally, I heaped all the leaves on a well-lit part of the floor and took several photographs of the pile, making minor adjustments to the arrangement between exposures.

I immediately moved on to the final stage of the process – I reviewed the digital images on a larger screen, deleting some, in fact many, but retaining the others that seemed to have most ‘potential’. And then I applied some post-processing to these images, partly to compensate for the limitations of the hardware-software combinations of the camera that made the final image differ from my subjective perception of the scene as it appeared to me directly, and partly to accentuate features, textures, colour and shadow so that they were more satisfying to my aesthetic sensibility.

So, this morning when I was running through Southampton Common – for those not familiar with the place, it is a large public space for recreation in the city, with many paths through areas of very mature deciduous woodland – several threads of thought coincided and I realised that this photographic image that I’d made, so autumnal that it almost hurts to look at it, was a representation of nothing that could actually be found ‘out there’ in my surroundings. If a friend asked me to take them and show them where this autumnal scene lay so that they could behold it with their own eyes, I’d not be able to do this – not without reconstructing the leafy jumble on my back room floor. It would be really improbable to find the leaves from such a wide variety of tree species in one small location like this!

The creative process that led to the eventual appearance of this photograph on facebook / twitter Instagramflickr involved a sequence of deliberate choices, guided throughout by the idealised concept of “autumn” that I held in mind. I had chosen to go out at a particular time in the season. I selected certain leaves to make sure that I had a range of sizes, species and a progression of colours. I chose to dry the leaves (although this was partly down to convenience – I didn’t have the time to take any photographs while the leaves were still wet). I chose to photograph the leaves indoors, mainly so the wind didn’t blow them around, under very particular ‘natural’ lighting conditions. And finally, I rejected the images from the camera card that didn’t appeal to me, and digitally processed the surviving photos so that they looked the way I wanted them to.

My point, I think, is that this kind of practical engagement with practising a creative art such as photography reveals a lot about what I find meaningful about the idealised concept of ‘autumn’ that I’ve created for myself. Before I’d even started this mini-project I already had an idea of what this autumnal image would look like, and the steps along the way involved continual refinement, calculated manipulation of my surroundings in order to incrementally bring my creation closer to the ideal concept that I held.

In this way, the left-brain mode of awareness, of conceptualising the world as being full of tools to be manipulated in order to produce specific outcomes, is an important part of the creative/artistic process. Dumbed-down pop psychology references to “right-brain people” being the expressive, creative, artistic ones are just that – a grossly over-simplified model. The process involves an integration of the modes of both brain hemispheres, and artistic maturity is likely to depend on the ineffable openness to experience that the right-mode provides in order to challenge the left-mode certainties that can trap us in fixed ways of seeing and thinking about our view of the world.

I think I’m recommending a kind of balance here, between the different hemispheric modes. Don’t be discouraged from taking part in creative and artistic practices because you don’t “have it in you”; if this sounds like you then you might make progress by understanding that creative processes require a combination of both right- and left-modes of thinking rather than it being the preserve of one brain hemisphere alone. On the other hand, if you do enthusiastically take part in creative and artistic practices, don’t repress the idea that the left-brain mode of thinking is an essential part of it all. Although it is possible to allow the reasoning, analytic side of awareness to over-dominate and perhaps derail your creative projects by bringing about too much rigidity or obsession with technical purity, but if a healthy balance is achieved then getting stuck can be avoided and new meaning and enjoyment can arise.

To conclude, I’m going to mention a different aspect of my concept of ‘autumn’, one that I have no idea yet how to express artistically. About a year ago, I was running on one of the narrow tarmac paths on Southampton Common and as I bounced along there was a continual skittering, swooshing sound following me down the path. It was the scraping of dry leaves on the tarmac, caught in the disturbed air that I left in my wake. For a few moments, before I over-thought it, I had a sense of being one moving part of the world, gently stirring other parts of the world which then danced around me. Anyway, words don’t really do justice to that subjective experience I had, so I’ll pop it on the creative back-burner and see what happens.

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits