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Solid Ground For Agnostics

Sarah Sentilles

Just us, Looking After Each Other.

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by Sarah Sentilles

"“I might be wrong” is one of the most important statements each of us can speak as we work to make the world more just

"But what are you now?" This is the question I have been asked, multiple times, during almost every event and interview I have done since the publication of Breaking Up with God. I was almost an Episcopal priest and now I don't call myself a Christian, and people are curious. They want to know how I choose to define myself, which label I currently accept. They want to know where to put me, where I fit. And, even more, I think they want to know where they fit. I have come to understand that the question often betrays the questioner's deep longing for belonging: if I'm not a person of faith, if I can't find a home in institutional religion, if I don't believe in God, then where is my home and who are my people?

After many bumbling (and unsatisfactory) attempts to answer the question—I'm a feminist, I'm a vegetarian, I'm a yogi, I'm a writer, I'm a theologian, I'm a farmer's-market-shopper, I'm a meditator, I'm an activist—I finally found an answer that works: I'm agnostic. Although agnostic is a philosophical and epistemological term, I claim it for primarily ethical reasons. Having put aside the question of God's existence—a question human beings can never answer—I now ask different questions: How should I live? To what causes should I devote myself? How will I make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone?

I choose to call myself an agnostic instead of an atheist because agnosticism leaves room for mystery, for not knowing, for uncertainty, for skepticism, which I have come to believe are essential to living an ethical life. As a feminist, I resisted radical skepticism for years, especially when that skepticism was directed at my own thinking. In many of the courses I took during divinity school, calls for skepticism seemed to emerge just as people on the margins were asserting their rights or daring to speak truth to power. It seemed suspiciously convenient to bring skepticism to the classroom conversation at the very moment when the dominant discourse was being challenged. It sometimes seemed the only people who were supposed to take a posture of "not knowing" were those criticizing the status quo. Nevertheless, a decade spent studying how people use certainty about God as a cover for their dirty work has convinced me that despite the risks, "I might be wrong" is one of the most important statements each of us can speak as we work to make the world more just. Remembering that you might be wrong doesn't mean you can't stake your life on your position; it simply decreases the likelihood that you will kill anyone else over it. Ultimately, this is why I call myself an agnostic.

I was set on the path toward agnosticism by my mentor at Harvard Divinity School, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, who died this summer and whom I miss terribly. For Kaufman, God is ultimate mystery. As a result, words about God will always fall short, and theological constructions need to be subjected to ongoing ethical evaluation: What effect does my God-language have? Whom does it harm? Whom does it help? How does it affect the earth and the life on it? Kaufman taught me that theology is not about getting God right, not about arriving at Truth, not about receiving information about the real God during a mountaintop experience. It's about looking around at the world and seeing what it needs. It's about confronting injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Theology isn't an abstract discipline. It's a pragmatic enterprise intent on discovering what's required for living a moral life. Theology that does not contribute significantly to struggles against inhumanity and injustice, Kaufman argues, has lost sight of its point of being.

In practice, my Kaufman-influenced version of agnosticism has deep connections to humanism. I have taken the faith I used to have in God, and I have invested it in human beings. I am convinced that humanity has everything we need to make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone—though whether or not we will choose to do so is a different question altogether.

I have encountered deep resistance to my decision to believe in humanity. Many people don't want to believe in or depend on other human beings, and there is good reason for their refusal. They read the newspaper. They study history. They see what we do to one another, to animals, to the planet. "Don't you need something bigger than yourself?" people ask me, and though I know they are primarily speaking to the fear that without God we are alone, I think their question can also be interpreted ethically. In Kaufman's system the "something bigger than yourself" is God as mystery, and it is what requires theologians to ask hard, critical questions about their ideas about God and one another. So, yes, I do think I need something bigger than myself, but I no longer think "God" is the only construct that can serve this function. I find something bigger than myself when I go outside. Or look at the stars. Or stand in the forest. Or walk through a canyon. Or look at art. Or read a book. Or go to a baseball game and look at the stands filled with other people.

In Breaking Up with God, I wrote about an episode of This American Life called "Superpowers" during which John Hodgman asks people this question: Flight or invisibility? Whichever you pick, he says, you will be the only person in the world to have that particular superpower. You can't have both. You have to choose.

I listened as people explained their choices to Hodgman. Those who selected invisibility talked about their desires to sneak into movies for free, to stow away undetected on airplanes, to listen to people talk about you when they think you're not there, to watch people when they can't see you (especially when they're naked), to steal. They wanted to be able to do what they would never allow themselves to do otherwise, and they wanted to get away with it. Those who chose flight simply wanted to be able to travel to places more easily—bars, doctors' offices, Atlantic City, Paris. They wanted to avoid taking the bus. Although the people Hodgman interviewed seemed to think of themselves as superheroes once they were granted flight or invisibility, none of them described anything generous or justice-oriented that they'd do with their special power. They were not the crime-fighting kind of superhero, they explained, because a single superpower was simply inadequate to make that kind of work possible. They reasoned they'd need other superpowers—a package of superpowers in fact—to be able to do good.

For me, the subjects' answers exposed that most of us don't really want to be the person who could save the world. Even if we're invisible. Even if we can fly. We want it to be someone else.

And don't humans' ideas about God say something similar? Isn't that part of what's behind the question "Don't you need something bigger than yourself?" Doesn't it mean: Don't you need someone else to save you?

What appeals to me most about humanism is the courageous assertion that there can be good without God, which is another way of saying, there can be good and it is up to us to bring it into being. Humanism, as Greg Epstein writes in Why the New Humanism, asks us to be the best, most honest, most thoughtful, most justice-seeking, most loving, most creative human beings we are capable of being. It's not easy. Some days it feels more trouble-free to look to an imagined God than to look to the person sitting right next to me, than to look to myself. Humanism—like agnosticism, like the Christianity I study and grew up with when it is at its best—tells me that something is required of me, something is demanded of me, of us. It nurtures in me a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us.

One of the hardest parts about breaking up with someone is the fear that I will lose the good things I felt and experienced when I was with my ex, that somehow without the other person, the best or newly discovered parts of myself will disappear, too. The challenge is to remember that all those good feelings belong to me. Breaking up with God returned my self to me, returned humanity to me. I started seeing other people in a new way. I started depending on them.

The theologian Ludwig Feuerbach argues in his book The Essence of Christianity that Christianity has taken everything good about humanity and projected it onto God. All of the good things that belong to us—love, generosity, strength, beauty, justice—we've given to God. God and humans have been mistakenly constructed as opposites, but the good news, at least according to Feuerbach, is that this situation can be easily fixed: All we need to recognize is that the qualities we've assigned to God actually belong to humanity.

I ended Breaking Up with God with a story about a man who spends his summers living on top of mountains in glass houses watching over forests, looking for smoke. He lives in a 14-square-foot cabin on top of Saddleback Mountain in California minding a piece of the Tahoe National Forest. His version of paradise. He has four pairs of binoculars, cameras. He knows the landscape so well, he says, that it's easy to see when something's amiss.

That is how I used to imagine God: high in the sky looking after me, making sure I didn't burn up or disappear or feel too alone. What comfort came with this belief. And what loss when I decided God was not in that house with the 360-degree view.

At first I thought that meant no one was in the house, but now I believe someone is on top of that mountain in that glass house watching over the world. Sometimes it's you and sometimes it's me. The only ones watching for smoke, the only ones ready to sound the alarm, the only ones who will bring water, are the people down here with us. Just us, looking after each other.

Comments (now closed)

KentT

01 Sep 2011 · 20:38 EST

Hi Sarah! It's me again. SO! You've chosen a label and it is "Agnostic." Good. "I don't know" is probably truer and at least less presumptive than "[I know] there is no God." Always good to have an open mind about things. I hope you'll talk more about why you choose to focus on all the evil that people do and have done as a result of their professed beliefs, Christian or otherwise. The impression I've gotten from your writings seems to be a matter of perspective. You focus on the evil that Christianity and those who profess it bring into the world. Christianity, therefore, is an untenable ethical and practical position to take. A completely reasonable position. What I don't hear from you is an example of a person who does good because of their faith. You allude to it in your account of your experience with All Saints but I don't see you write a contrasting account to give us your viewpoint of why you reject any good coming from those who believe in God. If you did and I'm missing it I certainly apologize. Something I will forever be grateful for in your book, "Breaking up with God" and that you remind me in this article is the rediscovery of self. On that, our stories diverge. You wrote, "Breaking up with God returned my self to me, returned humanity to me." You emerged from that break up a wonderful human being. I broke up with God but cannot lay claim to a virtuous result. But I did discover myself. In my struggle to leave God behind I left pretense behind. I discovered my "authentic self." (I know I've heard someone use that [Oprah?] and it's overused but useful.) If you are an agnostic I'm someone who is getting reaccquainted with God. But this time around I realize God is not looking for me to be some image of Himself or Herself. God made no sacrifice to redeem me so I could be like Him or Her. God wants me to be me. You convinced me of that Sarah. Thank you.

Sarah Sentilles

02 Sep 2011 · 09:58 EST

Hi Kent-- Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful response and for taking the time to read my article. I think you are right that I tend to focus on the bad things done in the name of religion, but I agree with you that there is plenty of good happening, too. It probably wouldn't hurt to speak to that goodness sometimes. Thank you for reminding me of that. I do think religion can do personal good for people (community, comfort, challenge, belonging, support, love, ethics, etc.) and structural good (liberation theology, civil rights movement, etc.). What makes me most nervous is when "God" functions as a cover or an excuse for doing bad things to other human beings, or when people try to speak for God. It sounds like you are on a powerful personal journey (another Oprah term, no?). I don't think I emerged from my break up a more virtuous person. I think I emerged more myself, which to me feels good and freeing. I look forward to hearing what comes next for you and what kind of relationship with God you discover. Thank you. --Sarah

Jo Ann (Coach Melahn)

02 Sep 2011 · 12:08 EST

Hey Sarah, Loved the article and your thoughts on this topic. I have never identified with a certain religion (eventhough my mom tried) and have called myself an agnostic since middle school. I have never been able to articulate clearly my reasons for my choice but I also have never had to defend my choice. As I read your words, I found myself shaking my head yes in agreement. Thanks for your words. I hope you are well and hope that our paths cross again soon. Love, Coach Melahn

Sarah Sentilles

06 Sep 2011 · 12:44 EST

Coach Melahn! So wonderful to hear from you and to know we share agnosticism . . . I hope you are well and thriving, and I, too, hope our paths cross soon. Seems like there's lots to talk about! All my best -- S.

patrice janda

09 Sep 2011 · 14:11 EST

Thank you for sharing your break up experience "with God". I like what you say about how we have consigned all our goodness to God. We don't want to leave God because without him we feel incomplete and too far from the best in ourselves. I guess as a species it's been hard for us to imagine ourselves as enough, as the ones ultimately responsible for doing all the caring, all the loving, and all the saving. We needed someone we imagined would watch over us, and make the world fair in a way we ourselves could not. I could say more, but I'll refrain. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you are ever in Seattle please look me up, I will host you any time. One thing I've found is, it's hard to find others who think as you do.

Sarah Sentilles

10 Sep 2011 · 15:06 EST

Patrice, Thank you for your kind words and your generous offer of a place to stay in Seattle! I will let you know if my book brings me there. I do find resistance to believing we have everything we need to make the world a better place. Easier to wait for someone else to do it, some kind of god. But it can also be an empowering realization. Thank you for taking the time to read my essay and to respond. I appreciate it! I usually post book events and other essays I've written on Facebook (if you happen to be on that site. If you don't, good for you!). You can find me here: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorSarahSentilles I look forward to more conversations. My best to you--S.