The “I don’t know” of Agnosticism
©2020 by Vernon Miles Kerr, vernonmileskerr.com
As a scientist of sorts, (i.e. a Software Developer and Computer Systems-Integration Engineer) I can usually suppress any of my emotional-swings toward religiosity with a healthy dose of skepticism. If there’s a “Show-me State” somewhere in the great-beyond, that’s where I came from—prior to this existence.
The only exception to my historical aversion to religion was a significant lapse during the seventies, eighties and nineties—when I was sidetracked into a fundamentalist Christian cult—the (now defunct/re-imaged) Worldwide Church of God. The method by which I was successfully lured away from my former atheistic pursuit of material wealth, was the church’s offer of unique knowledge of the future—as “miraculously” prophesied in the Bible.
The gateway drug to this religious interlude was “The Plain Truth” magazine. The “PT” was a free-of-charge, slick, well-written current-events magazine. Although, indeed free and newsy, as promised by the church’s “World Tomorrow” radio broadcast, it did have one drawback: every article concluded with a table of authorities of Bible scriptures, purportedly showing how that particular news event was predicted thousands of years ago in the pages of the Bible.
Still being a skeptical atheist at the time, I thought that I could “game” their system by reading the excellent, timely, beautifully-illustrated articles, up to—but not beyond—the point where they started talking about the Bible. It worked for a while, but as the back-issues began piling up on my bookshelf, I eventually turned to an old family Bible and began sifting through its pages, to see if their claimed prophetic correlations with the news were accurate. They seemed to be—although, in later years I realized that these citations were taken out of context, bit-by-bit, in order to appear to back-up each article’s prophetic thesis.
Beyond that gateway drug and its “special knowledge,” lay the heroin of the church’s recruitment method: the implied promise of a leadership position, or maybe even a ministry, “someday.” To my 30 year-old ego, that carrot was sufficient to alter my compass-heading away from another on-going quest for money and position, law school.
But, I never got very far in WCG’s priestly-hierarchy, thanks to of my stubborn, innate skepticism. It just would not go away. In my incultified* consciousness at that time, I simply attributed my vague doubts to Satan’s influence, and kept slogging along at it—for a couple of decades.
I have agonized over whether to use the actual name of The Worldwide Church of God, out of respect for the sensitivities of some fantastically kind people in various, existing splinter-groups which formed after the death of Herbert W. Armstrong—the church’s charismatic founder. Most of these groups still observe WCG’s traditions, like keeping the Old Testament 7th-day Sabbath and the other “Jewish” holy days—and also, observing the dietary prohibitions against eating non-ungulates and shellfish.
But even with all its “do’s-and-don’ts, doings-and-keepings” (and double, sometimes triple, tithing) I owe The Worldwide Church of God a debt of gratitude: In the end, it freed me from the blind-faith of Atheism toward something that better resonated with my skeptical mind—Agnosticism.
My experience in WCG, moved me from “There is definitely no God,” through, “There is definitely a God,” to, “Maybe there IS a God.” It also moved me from “The Bible is a man-made myth” through, “The Bible is the God-breathed, perfect word of the deity, dictated word-for-word to its authors,” to, “I suspect that the Bible is largely myth, metaphor and parable, but might be—at least partially—inspired by the deity.” True, this latter opinion admits there is a deity, which is a crack in my wall of skepticism—but, it seems absurd that so much good moral and human-relations advice could come from something exclusively derived from mere, fallible, humans.
In Worldwide’s church-culture—with its sometimes oppressive atmosphere of rather harsh oversight by a hierarchy of near-royal ministers—the bonds between those of us in the laity were uniquely strong, compared to other churches I have since experienced. Since the time of Armstrong’s death, we have now been disbursed and salted amongst dozens of other churches. Still, hundreds of us will show up for the memorial services or weddings of our former brethren and their children. The reader can get some further insight into this bond from an essay I posted to this blog a few years ago, Love Beyond Doctrines and Philosophies. I’ve often thought that this type of bond might be similar to that experienced by former denizens of some abusive orphanage.
What you have just read, is a lengthy introduction to the crux of this piece: the question of, not only the existence of a deity, but also whether it works through agents (Angels, if you will) to physically interact with humans. The three experiences I am about to relate are first-hand reports of three of my fellow church members, and one episode that happened to me, personally, only a few years ago. These are true events, as seen from the perspective of the participants. There may be non-theistic explanations for these—and they may be mere coincidence. I will leave the final conclusion up to the reader.
Tom and Bill were avid outdoorsmen; hunters, hikers, skiers. One day while hiking in the high-country of the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, they got too far from their car for what was meant to be just a simple day-hike. In the summertime-High-Sierra, days are typically a comfortable 82º but even so, nighttime temperatures can drop to below freezing. As dusk seemed to sneak up on them, they picked up their pace, in an effort to beat the setting sun back down to their parking spot.
Being in a small valley dotted by several lakes, they got confused as to which lake they had hiked by when they had entered. Trying several dead-ends without success, they began to panic. Both started praying. Soon, they spotted an old man on a white horse, beyond one of the lakes. He was motioning for them to come toward him. When they reached the point from which the man signaled, he was nowhere in sight; but they were standing on their original entry-point into the valley. They were able to make the dangerous decent to the parking lot before total-darkness set in.
Mike was sound asleep one night when he was awakened by a loud shout from a man’s deep voice: “BRIAN MCCARTHY IS IN TROUBLE!”
Mike hadn’t thought of Brian for 20 years. He didn’t even know where Brian lived. He called Brian’s mother, back in their hometown in New York. “I’m trying to get a phone number on Brian. How’s he doing these days?”
“Not, well at all,” Brian’s mother related. “He just found out he has terminal cancer, with only a few months to live.”
During Brian’s last few months, Mike was able to offer encouragement, relating his belief in an afterlife and helping Brian, an atheist, and his mother prepare for Brian’s passing.
Six years ago we had just adopted our current dog, a one year-old Pug/Rat-Terrier mix. At that puppy stage, he was a runner. Spotting any opened door or gate, even if ajar only a crack, he would joyfully take off running down the street at full speed—usually with me running at full tilt, for a block or two, to catch up with him. This propensity to fly like the wind, at every opportunity, suggsted a name for him—”Zephyr,” but it also caused me no end of tension whenever I led him out of the house.
One day, before his morning walk, I securely fastened the three clips connecting his collar, halter and leash. When we had gone a few blocks, I suddenly found my self holding his leash in one hand, and his unclipped and disassembled halter in the other. Panicking, I looked down and found him calmly walking along at my feet, blissfully unaware of his newly granted freedom. Fortunately his collar was still intact so, I quickly grabbed it with one hand and began reassembling his entire walking kit with the other—aided by my teeth. What I had just experienced was like a flash-cut in a movie, with several frames removed then re-spliced. He, too, must have experienced nothing between his walking along, held fast by his leash and halter, and his walking along the same path, totally free of restraint. If he had been aware, I’m sure he would have taken full advantage of it.
These “crazy” events raise a few additional questions. If there is a deity, why did he, or she answer the prayers of Tom and Bill, two random guys from an eccentric little cult? Is God not a respecter of persons or their religious-preferences? Why would a God, being fully aware of Brian’s death sentence, and of Mike’s past history with him, not choose simply to heal Brian’s cancer? Why would a supreme being, even be aware of a skeptical, anti-religiosity, agnostic— walking his dog? And in that unlikely scenario, why would this being choose an apparent magic trick to tantalize his already over-active, questioning mind into speculations like this essay?
To my thinking—provided that a hidden spiritual world exists—all three of the forgoing examples hint at some kind of agency, some kind of distribution of labor: messengers ( Αγγελιαφόρος in Greek, the root of which,Αγγελ, translates to our English word, angel). Those three experiences also hint at a higher-power who teaches by real-life parable, who provides just enough catalyst, in the form of these interventions, to get one to thinking.
It seems that someone in charge of the entire universe would have more important things to do.
Curiously, the thing that motivated my writing this piece, was a TV series. As I sat pondering after having watched the finale of the entire 76 episodes of Ronald D. Moore’s, 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica just a week ago—I was astounded that the philosophical conclusion seemed to match the one I had made in a SciFi piece I had just posted to this blog ta week earlier, Sky Enigma. Both, my story—a sort of synopsis for a circa 2076 documentary–and the final episode of BSG seemed to have come to the same conclusion: if there is a supreme being, it seems to leave humans on their own to come to their own conclusions about him or her, but it does send messengers to give us a little nudge, when we get too far off course.
That’s why, when I say on Twitter “I’ll pray for you.” I really do. Even with my eccentric skepticism, I have a feeling that my prayers just might be answered.
* “Incultified” is not a real word, but it should be.