Fear of the Unknown, Authority, God, and other horrors and how Agnosticism helps with it all.

The premise of this presentation is that fear of the unknown is a powerfully damaging force in our world, and that the practice of agnosticism, practicing agnosticism, helps us deal with that fear in a positive way.

I am an unapologetic supporter of agnosticism over all other religious positions; I need nothing more. But in keeping with the UU idea that we can mix and match religious ideas to meet everyone’s needs; I would suggest that most would benefit from a healthy dose of agnostic candor.

Ever since the tower of babble (apparently) as noted by Lewis Carroll, words only mean what each of us says they mean, so please allow me to define some words in my own way, and I beg you to remember and apply that definition for the course of this presentation:

· By "agnostic" I mean one who does not believe it is possible to know the unknowable, the supernatural, the mind of god. The agnostic says “there may or may not be a god, or anything else supernatural, I don’t know, I don’t claim to know, and I don’t see how anyone can claim to know but maybe they can: I’m not sure.” The goal of my practice of agnosticism is to become more comfortable with not knowing.

· By “atheist” I mean one who claims to know that there is no God. The atheist says: “All the available evidence points to there being no god at all, and so that is what I believe.”

· By “belief” I mean those things we hold true, but which are difficult to prove, and which guide our lives and actions.

When Beliefs go Bad.
Beliefs are scary. The land of belief is a dangerous place, where the unstoppable force of the unknown meets the immovable objectification of that which we believe. The actions of any person or group are driven by their beliefs. Hero or villain, whistle blower or corrupt leader, feminist or rapist, force of volunteers or angry lynch mob. In each case, they are doing the same thing: That which they believe to be the right thing to do. The most heinous actions ever taken, are in complete agreement with the beliefs of the people behind them.

Villains Are People Too
Few people take the time to understand the point of view of a villain, but they always have a point of view, and it is always one that is perfectly right to them. The manifesto of the unibomber is really worth reading; it makes a very solid argument against technology, if not for the remote killing of those who teach it. It is obvious that Ted Kaczynski truly believed he was doing his part to save the world. Hitler firmly believed that the world would be better off without Jews. They, in their own minds, believed they were doing the best possible work for all humanity. Their beliefs led them to become the horrors they were.

How Much Belief Can We Afford?
Of course, we need beliefs; we must do something and we can’t always know for sure just what to do, so we must follow our beliefs. And beliefs can lead people to do things every bit as wonderful as others are horrible. But in asking the question of which beliefs to follow, I think we may fall into the trap of seeing that as the only question when there is actually another question of even greater importance: How sure are we that any given belief is right? Yes, pick a belief, but also decide how strongly to believe it.

Under WHOS God?
I hear people say “there is only one god” and “you will have no other gods before god” or that their religion will overcome all others. Non-religious people may believe in a leader "Obama will save us" or a tradition which guides their daily life. Ok, fine, I’ve got no problem with people believing that they are right and others are wrong. I also believe that my beliefs are right, and differing beliefs are wrong: If I did not think that my beliefs where right, I would have changed my beliefs to the ones I thought are right and again, believed that I was right. Just like standards, the wonderful thing about beliefs is that there are so many to choose from. The problem comes with people holding their beliefs so strongly that they are unable to change them when reality shows them to be wrong.

Fact Over Belief
And I will not say that there is anything generally wrong with continuing to believe what we have believed, or what we are taught to believe, or what reason leads us to believe... but to cling to these when our experiences clearly show our beliefs to be wrong, in the face of conflicting fact... to hold to a belief based on the unknowable even in the face of what we see around us, this is truly frightening.

She Chose Her Belief Over Her Precious Baby
There is a girl, about 14, who is living with her Grandmother because her mother is dead. I’ve talked to both of them several times, and they have told me the story of this late mother. Before the mother died, the entire family disowned her, and her husband left her, and the grandmother would not take her back, because she came out as a bi-sexual. All of them, including her own mother, disowned the mother for being bi because her church told them to believe, and they had always believed, and it seemed to them reasonable to believe that bisexuality was evil. Now… this is a grandmother, faced with a choice between her religious beliefs, what she trusts that her pastor knows from the mind of god, and the daughter she raised from a baby. The grandmother was a stay at home mom; as a girl, the mother attended a school run by the church, and spent most all afternoons and evenings at home because she was shy and introverted. No mother could say she know her daughter less well than this grandmother knew her daughter. Yet she rejected the reality of the goodness of the person she had raised, in favor of the beliefs of her second hand knowledge of the unknowable mind of god. She looked at the evidence of her good upbringing, of her goodness and believed she was evil despite that.

What Will You Believe?
The idea of belief without evidence, in the face of evidence to the contrary scares the living crap out of me. If you are willing to believe in heaven and hell because your pastor tells you they exist, are you also willing to believe in WMD's because the President tells you they exist? If you are willing to believe the devil is real simply because the evangelist and your mommy warned you about him, are you willing to believe that, I don’t know… that I'm a child molester because a rumor spreads out of control?

Dale Akiki And Why I Don't Eat At Jack In The Box
Does the name Dale Akiki mean anything to you? Mr. Akiki was a simple man, a simple minded man, with a slight deformity which made him appear strange to others. He was a kind, loving, caring person, as are many uncomplicated people. He and his wife volunteered as babysitters at the Faith Chapel church in Spring Valley, CA. A rumor was started against him… and it grew… the former CEO of Jack in the Box, whose children attended, pressured the DA in office at that time to prosecute despite a complete lack of any physical evidence. It was just a funny story that a little boy told when his mommy asked him what they did in child care after his fist day with Mr. Akiki. After 2.5 years in jail and the longest trial in SD county history, 7.5 months, he was acquitted. His life was destroyed. The CEO of Jack in the Box went on to believe that his meat was just fine and he killed 8 customers. Food poising. He lost his job. The DA went on to believe he could buy a re-election. He lost his job too. Dale still loves people, kids, and his wife who stood with him through it all. He’s afraid to leave his home.

Belief Conquers Fear
Why do people need to believe so strongly? Well, belief conquers fear. And our greatest fear is fear of the unknown. I certainly understand being afraid of the unknown. I’m scared to death of not knowing; will I keep my job? Will I be able to provide for my family? Will we find a way to keep our home? Not knowing is a mind bending fear.

Gods Plan
I hear people say: “I believe there is a god and god has a plan for me and if I follow that plan, everything will be all-right” and I don’t blame them at all for believing that. If it comforts, so be it.

The Mind Of God
But the tricky part comes from trying to follow gods plan. To follow the plan, you have to know it, and if god wrote the plan, then knowing the plan means knowing a little part of the mind of god. And I don’t see how anyone can claim to do that. More likely, those who claim to know the plan, are following a plan that someone else heard second hand from the mind of god, actually… a plan that was written down by some one a long time ago who says they talked to god. Ok, that’s fine, I don’t mind if they follow that plan. I’ve read it, it actually seems pretty good in most places (with a few notable exceptions^). But then they listen to people who interpret that plan, people who say god talked to them and I think about Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc
Joan heard voices. They told her to do things. She thought it was the voice of god. Others believed her. They were desperate to hear from someone who had heard from god. They were desperate to know the plan. They were afraid of not knowing. They were pretty sure they, themselves didn’t know, but they were ready to believe that a simple peasant did know. Maybe she did know… maybe she was schizophrenic… but an entire nation followed her into 24 more years of bloody war.

I Don't Know
We live with a fear of letting go of the idea that we, or anyone else, can ever really know the mind of god, or how the universe completely works, or what will happen to us. From my point of view, Atheists are just as religious as all the others are because they claim to know there is no god. I understand how scary it is to admit that we simply don't know one way or the other. Those who claim to know, and yet cannot explain it to me in a way I can understand, are either deluded or far more intelligent and advanced than I am. Again, I have no way of knowing! Agnostics (again, my definition) have simply come to accept not knowing, but we understand that this isn't desirable or welcomed.

You Don't Know
I fear challenging others to admit they do not know. We challenge the knowledge of others in so many ways and that sometimes provokes hostile reactions. We challenge the people who "know" that the sign in the Huston shop window was about honoring a 9/11 hijaker.

We challenge the people who "know" that climate change is absolutely caused by carbon emissions OR that it is absolutely NOT caused by carbon emissions. We challenge people who "know" what the RIGHT thing to do is. Most of all, we point out that it is the ultimate hubris for ANYONE to claim to know the mind of God. Asking people to give up the comfort of "knowing" the unknowable requires bravery.

Your Leaders Don't Know Either
I fear that people are unwilling to question authority because they (sometimes unreasonably) expect those leaders to know the unknowable when they do not. This unwillingness to question authority, due, we fear, to the misplaced belief that the leaders know "all", has lead to some of the most horrific episodes in human history. (Nazi officers "just following orders" while exterminating the jews, etc...).

Stanley Milgram Didn't Know (but people still killed for him)
The extreme willingness to follow leaders was studied by Stanley Milgram and documented in his book "Obedience to Authority". From his study, we learned, much to our shock and horror, that more than half of the people in society are perfectly willing to kill another human being when directed by an authority figure. I fear that this willingness to blindly follow is based in a fear of the unknown causing a dependence or expectation that others know better. If we could embrace the unknown, we may increase our ability to question the knowledge of others. When the fear of doing wrong is greater than the fear of not knowing, we can question authority.

Who Will We Kill For?
I fear that leaders constantly use the human fear of the unknown to bring society to the goals and benefit of those leaders at the cost of the society:

Hermann Goering, Hitlers Reich-Marshal on trial at Nuremburg after WWII said:
"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country"

Agnostics Are Used To The Unknown

Agnostics, although still scared to death of many other things, seem less affected by fear of the unknown. It often comes due to an unwillingness to reject logical thinking or to reason in advance of the facts; a determination to accept the obvious conclusions of a logical, reasoned approach to the world despite the fear that accompanies this form. Our acceptance of, and dependence on logic, of the value of clear and reasonable thought, forces us to deal with our fears. This is the scientific method, often claimed by the atheists, but which, at it’s best, is based on theories not absolutes; on correlations and probabilities never on claiming to know the unknowable. It is the deepest tenant of science than when the evidence fails to support the commonly held theory, and another theory is advanced which better fits the evidence, we change our minds.

Global Warming Is Probable, NOT Certain
Global warming is caused by human activity with a /probability/ of 85 % according to scientists. That means there is a 15% chance, in the IPCC’s own estimation, that it may NOT be caused by human activity. Of course, in this case, wouldn’t it be good to err on the side of caution? But let us not sweep away the pain of those who will be injured by radical changes in our use of fossile fuels; let us do those things we can which do not cause others great damage.

Oh, Whatever Should We Do?
I think there is a link between a peoples ability to accept matters on faith, without proof; as in religious beliefs and their desire to believe that something is in charge and that they can understand the will of that something. When it comes to climate issues, people are desperate to believe that someone understands this and can say with authority what should be done.

As an Agnostic, I have worked long and hard to accept the possibility of failure, of being wrong, of NOT knowing, of the universe being too complex for anyone to understand... It is the hight of hubris to assume any human knows the mind of God OR the workings of the universe.

Do Not Meddle In The Affairs Of Dragons...
And when you don't know what effect you will have, I feel it best to err on the side of having very small effect. So that is all I'm willing to argue with regard to climate changes. The earth has trundled along for ages unknown without us so let us pretend we aren't here and hope it will continue that way.

Teach Thought Over Belief
I respect the right of everyone to find their own way, to choose their own beliefs. But I fear that remaining silent will lead our children to question the value of human thought vs human belief and to be unwilling to accept the idea of not knowing which may lead us to a future society that fails to question assumptions, to question leadership, or to think for its self.

Reason Over Bliss
It scared me that there has been a very positive reaction to the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, an agnostic and a brilliant scientist who studied the brain and then suffered a massive hemorrhage in her own brain. She now tours the world, saying that her brain damage allowed her to feel connected to the rest of the world, to feel interdependent, and that this point of view would lead to a peaceful future. I should be clear: I have no concern with what Ms. Taylor says, it is how her words are taken that concerns me. I’ve seen comments from people saying that they wish they could have a stroke in order to feel like she does.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU (summary: Brilliant agnostic suffers brain damage and develops spirituality.) Show a frightening trend towards valuing a connection to the unknowable over even a fully functional brain.

Or Is Ignorance Bliss?
I fear that ignorance might be bliss... because I refuse to claim to know the unknowable.