Tag Archives: agnosticism

Heroic Agnosticism

There seems to be a basic misapprehension, shared by traditional religion and Romantic narrative alike, that the absolutists are the heroes. Heroes stick up for what they believe in, regardless of what fate throws at them. They continue with the quest – across the oceans, deserts, and arctic wastes – they slay the monsters, and in the end they get their reward. Or, even if the hero does not get all he desires, his beliefs are at least upheld, even if he has to die for them, for the martyr too is a hero. It’s stirring stuff, constantly reinforced for us by Hollywood, by heroic literature, even by religion.

Who could question such a narrative? Nobody should underestimate the difficulties. But one of Jung’s visions in the Red Book confronts us with their full pain.

I was with a youth in high mountains. It was before daybreak, the Eastern sky was already light. Then Siegfried’s horn resounded over the mountains with a jubilant sound. We knew that our mortal enemy was coming. We were armed and lurked beside a narrow rocky path to murder him. Then we saw him coming high across the mountains on a chariot made of the bones of the dead. He drove boldly and magnificently over the steep rocks and arrived at the narrow path where we waited in hiding. As he came round the turn ahead of us, we fired at the same time and he fell slain. thereupon I turned to flee, and a terrible rain swept down. But after this, I went through a torment unto death and I felt certain that I must kill myself, if I could not solve the riddle of the murder of the hero. (p.161)Siegfrieds_deathJung is slaying, not a literal hero, but the archetype of the hero within himself. The belief that the hero will always succeed against the conditions, and that his desires and beliefs are intrinsically right according to some assumed cosmic law, is one that we may implicitly indulge every time we get caught up in the hero story. Not only do we absolutise the hero himself, but we may also identify ourselves with him. But if we are to recognise the limitations of this reassuring fantasy, we have to be able to recognise that the hero may be wrong in his assumptions. To recognise this may feel extremely painful, and the death of the hero symbolises this pain. The myths provide us with this death story as well as with the achievements of the hero, giving us the resources of meaning to be able to recognise it, but we may still have to go through that shock of dis-identification.

Jung identifies the death of the hero with the archetypal role of Christ, whose crucifixion plays a similar role: showing us that our absolutised idea of a human God must die so as to lead us on to an engagement with God that is no longer based solely on human projection. Jung puts it this way:

I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no-one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p.171)

‘The Gods’ here are symbolic of our own wider recognition – of the limitations of our current egoistic view of ourselves and of our greater potential as more integrated beings. We do not attain perfection merely by imitating, because the model we imitate may have worked in the conditions it was produced but is unlikely to work in the very different conditions of our own lives. Only integrated creativity will do, and that requires us to let go of our identification with all heroic models of imitation.

Strangely enough, though, there seems to be an even greater heroism involved in this process. What could be more heroic, itself, than killing the hero? But if we reduce this to another model of imitation, an absolute set of beliefs about how the world is and how we should act in it, then we will find this new heroism just as limiting in the end, and find ourselves in a cycle of endlessly killing new heroes. The killing of the hero needs to be accompanied by the further development of integration in experience so that we come to rely positively on that rather than on absolute beliefs about the hero. Our heroism needs to become agnostic, but such heroism can be seen, not as abandoning heroism, but as finding a deeper and more adequate form of it.

I have often been puzzled by the way that agnosticism is frequently portrayed in popular discourse, as the very opposite of heroic. As Richard Dawkins describes agnostics (quoting a preacher with approval): “Namby-pamby, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (The God Delusion, p.69). The assumption here seems to be that agnostics dare not attempt the heroism of belief, whereas I want to suggest that on the contrary, agnostics are even more heroic than the heroes caught up in their righteous assumptions. The dogmatic hero carries on against adversity in the certain feeling that God or the universe is on his side. The agnostic hero, on the other hand, has to manage without such delusory certainties, managing only with hope and embodied confidence. Nothing can be taken as determined about her success in the goals she takes up, and even those goals themselves have to be taken as provisional ones. The greatest hero ventures into the lands of uncertainty, and rather than just slaying the monsters, has the courage to question her own monstrous projections.

It is upsetting to find people like Richard Dawkins failing to recognise the heroism of agnosticism, when that very heroism is so central to science. The scientist always has to proceed in conditions of uncertainty, unless she constructs deluded assumptions of naturalistic ‘truth’ where none are available to us. The use of scientific method is distinguished for its heroic agnosticism. But this heroic agnosticism can also be a distinguishing feature of the very ‘religion’ that Dawkins so despises. The mystics, too, proceed on the basis of a faith that grows from their experience of what they call God, and have to slay their own heroic certainties in order to plunge into the cloud of unknowing. Religious believers and scientists alike may have to slay their own heroes on order to go on to a deeper recognition of human potential.

Picture: The death of Siegfried (public domain)

Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 14, Mark Vernon

In this episode, the writer and journalist Mark Vernon talks about agnosticism, its relation to theism and why he feels it’s useful to adopt such an approach. He puts the case for why virtue ethics should play more of a role in how we live our lives. We also discuss influences such as Plato, Socrates, Jung and Iain McGilchrist and how he understands the Middle Way with regards to agnosticism.


MWS Podcast 14: Mark Vernon as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_14_Mark_Vernon

Previous podcasts:

Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 2, Norma Smith

Norma SmithIn the first of a series of member profiles, retired art teacher Norma Smith talks to Barry Daniel about her life, why she became a member of the society, the middle way, the importance of art in her life, agnosticism, and the power of metaphor. With regard to the latter, she was especially enthusiastic about the work of George Lakoff. Please see link to a youtube talk he gave on metaphors as embodied meaning below.

George Lakoff: Frameworks, Empathy and sustainability

There is also a slide show version of the podcast available on Youtube.