10:30

Agnosticism

We are living with a dear friend who is dying. On a daily basis we have to confront mortality and questions of belief and faith in stark terms. The end of our runway may, or may not, be some way off - but what it looks like is here and now.

When anyone asks me if I am an atheist I say ‘sort of’ – but prefer the term agnostic, in the sense elegantly put by Philip Pullman. He likened his being and consciousness to a box camera. If you open the aperture, light enters. If you keep opening it to its full extent, light floods into every corner. That is what I know. There may be something outside the box that I can’t know – so to that extent I am an agnostic.

It would be comforting for there to be an afterlife and a loving God – but for that you need faith and how can you have that when there is not a glint of evidence of anything beyond the grave – nor much evidence of a caring deity in the random lottery of life? Nothing except, and this is a big except, wonder at the vastness and beauty of it all.

If you have a faith this seems a good thing to me. A militant atheist intellectual friend disagrees. Man-up, he says, and stop believing in fairy tales. All very well for him I say, but what about the millions with miserable and hard lives without the ‘consolations of philosophy’ and a warm home. It may be the ‘opium of the people’ – but what is wrong with that? And what is wrong with the quiet being good to one another that happens around the village church? Jihad is only a warped fragment of religion.

But man-up is what I have to do and confront the moment when thinking is over. Oblivion can be comforting – but also bleak as Larkin saw:

And specious stuff that says No rational being

can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round.

 
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