This Just In: Atheism Trumps Agnosticism

Brian McLaren posted the following quotes on Facebook today. I think it’s time to get my 70-cent Life of Pi thrift store find down off the shelf and give it a read, especially before (and in case) I see the movie. Has anyone else read this book? And whether you have or not, what do you think of these ideas?

“Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak, speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap” (Life of Pi, 35).

“It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation” (Life of Pi, 36).


  1. I haven’t read the book, but here’s what I think about these quotes: This would all be well and good if faith was something over which I have control. Trust me, I’ve tried to do the leap of faith thing. I tried to talk myself into believing something that in the core of my being I couldn’t. I was miserable. I assume the same would be true if I took a leap of “unfaith.”

    My agnosticism (I’ve never used that word for myself, but so be it), my doubt, or whatever it is that he wants to call it, is simply the honest manifestation of who I am. To say that at some point in the future I’m going to decide to be something different is to assume I know the future, which I don’t.

  2. Wait! Hold up there! Christ is part of your god, right? Your god had doubts? Please explain how this is supposed to get the agnostic off the fence and onto the side of faith? because holy Q#RWRE if your god has doubts, why should anyone else even begin to believe?

  3. Thanks for engaging here, Jodi & myatheistlife. Just to clarify for myatheistlife’s comment, the quotes in the post aren’t my ideas, nor do I necessarily agree with them. I found them interesting and relevant to the topic of this blog, and wondered what others thought.

    Jodi, I find myself in a very similar place to the one you describe. I’m interested in calling myself a Christian agnostic, basically meaning that I choose the way of Christ for my “philosophy of life” (to quote the Life of Pi quote above), yet I acknowledge the impossibility of certainty in matters of faith.

    Here is someone else’s description of Christian agnosticism –

    This person distinguishes between “knowledge” and “belief” – I think they are trying to say that despite the limitations of what I can know, I can choose to believe something beyond what is knowable. I sort-of get this, but like you, Jodi, I find there are limits to what I can willfully believe.

    Two people commented on Facebook about this blog post, and I think their comments are really helpful in this conversation too. I’m going to copy and paste them below.

    The first comment distinguishes between belief and action rather than belief and knowing. I would say that this feels more like where I am at – as I noted above, I choose to live “the way of Christ” (action) even while I wrestle with lack of faith and limited knowledge.

    To your point, myatheistlife. The doubts I have concerning faith include doubts about any deity claims for Jesus. I’ve wondered if this takes away my ability to be a card-carrying Christian, but my limited understanding of the development of Christian thought (including ideas now called heresy but once considered valid perspectives in the church) tells me that I’m not the first self-described Christian to go there.

    But despite that, why can’t even God – whatever or whoever that may be – have doubts? In a basic etymological sense of the word, “atheism,” I too identify as an atheist. Meaning, I reject a theistic understanding of God. And ironically, if anyone fits as a non-theistic characterization of God, it would be Jesus.

    Now I know this doesn’t actually get to your main point – “if your god has doubts, why should anyone else even begin to believe?” This is a great question that I’m still pondering, and it brings me back to asking what is meant by belief anyway.

    The best I can say about my own belief is that I can identify with that idea in the quote above – going as far as the legs of reason will carry me, and then making a leap of faith. My personal leap – or belief (which, remember, goes beyond reason) – is that there is some unifying force for good in all things, and that in some way beyond my understanding but well within my ability to act, I can participate in it.

    I understand that others don’t share this belief, but I think that concluding on the other hand that all things are meaningless also takes a leap of faith, becomes a belief. Because pure reason doesn’t give us either of these conclusions as given facts, in my admittedly humble opinion.

    Push back if you like – I’m sometimes slow in responding but I always appreciate conversations like this.

  4. Here are the Facebook comments I mentioned above:

    “In other words belief trumps doubt? My recent thoughts have been along the lines of actions trump belief. So what if an agnostic’s actions speak louder than a believer’s or athiest’s? 🙂 Just thinking out loud, I enjoyed the article, thanks for the link.”


    “I have to note that, just as in the many different variations of any sense of faith, there are also variations of agnosticism. I can only speak of my own personal experience, but the definition of my agnosticism is not one of perpetual doubt, but of the awareness that regardless of what belief I have–I do not know. Not knowing does not mean that I don’t have theories; and therefore also does not imply immobility–but instead allows me to continue to search for answers. Not knowing is very anxiety producing, as not knowing erodes any sense of protection against the chaotic and absurdly meaningless nature of life that belief provides–however, belief and the illusion of knowing also makes it much easier for people to accept these as fact which can close the road of the process of the ongoing search for meaning and truth.”

  5. We always will in accordance with our faith. If our faith is strong, so is our will to act.

    “So what if an agnostic’s actions speak louder than a believer’s or athiest’s?”

    Then it is the agnostic who is the firmest believer.

  6. Thanks for bringing my comments here, I forgot the new name of your blog and was thinking it was a link to someone else… 🙂

    I was the one who said “In other words belief trumps doubt? My recent thoughts have been along the lines of actions trump belief. So what if an agnostic’s actions speak louder than a believer’s or athiest’s? Just thinking out loud, I enjoyed the article, thanks for the link.”

    I really like Jodi’s comment that “My agnosticism … is simply the honest manifestation of who I am.”

    The author said, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation” I can sympathize with the idea of needing more than doubt as a philosophy of life. I like Julie’s idea of using Christ to inform our philosophy of life. But I don’t think agnosticism must mean doubt is your philosophy of life.

    I hate to read too much into these quotes regarding what the author intends, but I feel pressure by the author to force a choice. A Revelation 3:16 idea of spitting out the doubters. I think what bothers me most is the authors conflation of doubt and immobility. Doubt does not guarantee immobility any more than belief guarantees mobility. In fact, belief is often used in place of or gets in the way of mobility in thought or action.

    I haven’t made a personal leap at this point. I’m not ruling it out nor seeking it. But I would agree with the author that doubt would make a poor philosophy of life.

    I agree with Nathan “If our faith is strong, so is our will to act.”, but I also think our actions are determined by many other things as well. So actions can and do often happen independent of faith and will, and I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the one with the most action must have the firmest faith. It would be a good discussion to have though.

  7. I haven’t read “The Life of Pi” either, by I am assuming that the author is viewing agnosticism in the same way that scientists view “Intelligent Design” theory. If you hold that some natural phenomena are simply unexplainable, that doesn’t really equip you to discover what lies behind life’s mysteries.

    I resonate with this way of thinking. If you find the idea of a god controlling/governing the universe to be unworkable with the evidence you see- try assuming that there is no god calling the shots. Maybe that will work better. Perhaps after awhile you will discover a whole new set of evidence that will lead you to re-adopt a different version of a theistic construct.

    Scientists do this all the time and there is no shame in it.

    But if you just shrug your shoulders and make no assumptions, you don’t have anything to work with.

    • In thinking about this question, I think I’ve hit on the reason I don’t really call myself an agnostic. An agnostic could most simply be called someone who doubts, and doubt is a conscious action of the mind. I don’t actively doubt other’s beliefs, nor do I actively doubt the existence of god, so I don’t think it’s fair to be lumped in as a doubter or agnostic.

      I don’t know or understand god, and that’s all I can honestly say right now. Is that because there is no god? Is it because there is a god and I don’t know or understand god? I don’t know.

      In the inclusive idea of atheism as simply absence of belief in God, I could call myself an atheist. But I don’t reject belief in god as wrong, nor do I believe there could not be a deity of some kind, so I don’t think the label fits well enough to wear it without significant and unwieldy caveat.

      I like what you said, “If you find the idea of a god controlling/governing the universe to be unworkable with the evidence you see- try assuming that there is no god calling the shots.” It doesn’t use words that try and put ideas in a neat box. But why assume there is no god calling the shots? Why not say “If you find the idea of a god controlling/governing the universe to be unworkable with the evidence you see- try assuming you don’t know.” Be open to the idea that god could exist in ways I can’t currently realize. Be open to the idea that god may not exist. Be open to the idea that we know so very little and understand even less. Let that settle in.

      Maybe rejecting doubt is a common ground we can find, but I don’t feel the need to make assumptions in order to work with something. I can work with not knowing. Assumptions are good for working out an answer or a belief, but I’m not looking for an answer or belief right now, and I’m struggling to see a reason I should look.

      • I can hear where both Nathan and James are coming from. In some ways, I think we have artificially imposed a gap between spiritual and physical truth, or faith and reason – and that there is great value in applying scientific ways of thinking to every question or problem in our lives, including those that appear beyond the reach of human knowledge. Look at all that we’ve come to understand through scientific research – weather patterns, embryology, astronomy, biological evolution being just a few. These things were once thought to be unknowable, the sole territory of God.

        Once we can explain something scientifically, we tend to assume it is no longer the territory of God, and we keep pushing God out to the edges of understanding.

        Yet even within our experience of all that we can explain scientifically, there remain facets of that experience that none of our five senses or our most powerful technological instruments can measure. I often think of birth this way, having conceived, carried, and borne two children. I know that science can explain the entire process, beginning to end. I know how this happens. Yet there are elements to this experience that seem unspeakable, incomprehensible. But still I imagine that eventually, even these elements can be understood, with a powerful-enough instrument, or a mode of perception that we have yet to learn to use.

        (To Jodi’s comment below, I sometimes wonder if “faith” is perhaps the newest and fuzziest mode of perception we humans have developed, seeing “through a glass darkly” and all that, but something we can sharpen through a scientific process of questioning and theorizing, as Nathan suggests above.)

        So, in any “unknown” in my life, I think there is value to asking questions in an active pursuit of understanding, while remaining honest about my own failings and inability to comprehend.

  8. First of all, James’ comments, both here and on Facebook, touched on a question that I’ve been asking for years: What is faith? Most of the Christians I know insist that faith IS NOT “works.” It’s not something you do. OK, then, I ask, Is it a feeling you have? No, no, definitely not a feeling, feelings are unreliable. Then is faith some words you say? Of course not! Plenty of people say the right words but do terrible things. So then it IS what you do?…

    Perhaps you’re starting to see why religion has been a frustrating thing for me. Maybe those who have faith could try to answer the “What is it?” question. I suppose it could be all of the above, in which case I’m still doomed because I can’t produce the feelings nor the words that Christianity demands. Most of the works are beyond me as well. (I say “doomed” with my tongue in my cheek, because I’ve moved past worrying that a God worth worshiping would torture me for something I can’t do)

    The second Facebook quote that you copied here brings up another idea that I’d like to take in a different direction: “Not knowing does not mean that I don’t have theories.” Whatever faith I have appears to be similar Mary Oliver’s, so allow me to bring her into the discussion. She’s a great one for saying “I don’t know” in her poetry and then turning around in the next stanza or line and saying “This is what I know.”

    For example, “The Summer Day” (
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.

    There’s also “I Happen to Be Standing” from her newest collection:
    I don’t know where prayers go,
    or what they do.

    I know I can walk through the world,
    along the shore or under the trees,
    with my mind filled with things
    of little importance, in full
    self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
    call being alive.

    Here is an NPR interview in which she reads that last poem and talks a little about prayer and theology: See also her poem “Snowy Night.”

    What I’m getting at is that it seems to me that the “certainty” people of both kinds want to tell me that there’s only one kind of knowledge they will accept as valid. You must know a certain kind of god or know that god doesn’t exist. Never mind I know some of these things that Mary Oliver knows and many things more; it seems some won’t be satisfied unless I muster up a verdict about this one particular question. To those people I have one thing to say, in the nicest possible way: You’re not the boss of me.

    • I have to laugh because if there is a God writing the story, this is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect him to do:

      He’d have me post the above comment, and then he’d direct me to pick up a magazine and read an interview of Parker Palmer. And he’d planned it all out so that months ago Parker Palmer would say to his interviewer something like, “I have my certainties, of course, but I don’t trust them, because so many of them have been derailed over the years. I do, however, trust the kind of certainty you can find in poetry. The poets have a way of nailing the truth without nailing it. It’s what Emily Dickinson was talking about when she said, ‘Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.’ I love the notion that you can see more out of the corner of your eye than you can by looking straight ahead.”

      Also, God would make Parker Palmer throw in a little something later on that sounds like the way Julia describes her faith: “Given what goes on in certain branches of Christianity, I sometimes struggle with whether I should identify myself as part of that tribe. But the truth is that I rebuilt my faith by reviewing my life through Christian lenses. Those lenses have been very valuable to me–though they are not the exclusive property of the Christian tradition. Far from it.”

      Julia, is this something like what you’re trying to say?

      The interview was printed in the November 2012 issue of The Sun magazine. Part of it is available online:

      • Yes!

        I love this – “I do, however, trust the kind of certainty you can find in poetry. The poets have a way of nailing the truth without nailing it.”

        This is why, as much as I sincerely enjoy blogging and deep philosophical conversations, I find the most profound and yet always-somewhat-escaping-me ideas in art, especially (for me) songs and poetry. This includes some of my favorite of my own works. I heard Rosanne Cash talking about songwriting once as “catching songs” out of the air, and the best ones (or the best parts of the best ones) do sometimes feel like that – like discovery much more than invention.

        And yes to the quote about Christianity as well. In my experience, the deeper I engage with my faith – which necessarily includes engaging with my doubts – I am inspired to enter more deeply into shared human experience, rather than to claim exclusive understanding through my particular faith tradition.

    • Jodi, this was great. Thank you. I loved “Snowy Night,” and I’m posting a link here for other readers –

      A particularly relevant line –
      “aren’t there moments / that are better than knowing something / and sweeter?”

      I think one thing you (and Mary) are getting at is that being fully present is a way of knowing we too often neglect. By giving my full attention to you, or an owl, or a grasshopper, or even whatever conflict is brewing in my own being, I am gaining knowledge, though it may be far from certainty.

      • A friend introduced me to Mary Oliver a few years back, before I thought I could understand poetry, and it was one of the best things for me. I even got to hear her read several of her poems last February in Seattle. She told us that after the reading she was rushing to get on an airplane to fly back to Florida so she could be at home to watch the Super Bowl. It seems she has her feet firmly planted in both the spiritual and physical worlds.

        “Snowy Night” is a recent discovery. It’s one of several owl poems of Oliver’s that I love. Another is “Lonely White Fields”:
        I think if I ever graduate from the university, I’ll celebrate with an owl tattoo that says “I love this world but not for its answers.” 😉

        Being fully present is not an easy thing for me. My mind will scamper off in several different directions. But I try sometimes.

        Oh, and the comment from Roseanne Cash–I know exactly what she means. There are parts of my writing that I enjoy most and other people seem to admire…and I feel dishonest for taking credit for them. I couldn’t write that stuff if I tried; it sneaks up on me when I’m going about my other business. Which is maybe another way of saying “you can see more out of the corner of your eye than you can by looking straight ahead.”

        Thanks for hosting a place for us to talk about this stuff!

  9. Happy New Year! This conversation came to mind this morning as I was reading another Mary Oliver poem. It’s from her newest collection, A Thousand Mornings:

    The Man Who Has Many Answers

    The man who has many answers
    is often found
    in the theaters of information
    where he offers, graciously,
    his deep findings.

    While the man who has only questions,
    to comfort himself, makes music.

    A link to the book, in case anyone is so inclined:

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