Being a Witch Part One: Agnosticism

I live in a part of the country where having doubt about your religious beliefs is considered a moral failing, although arguably this is a predominate view in much of the United States. We are not talking about an agnostic position as complex as that discussed by William James, who argued, roughly, that agnostics are cowardly atheists, who don’t even own up to their disbelief in a supreme deity. James felt that there had to be a sense of urgency in how you live your life in relation to the divine, meaning that on some level you either live as if you believe in God or as if you do not. The idea that you might be able to put off the decision between belief and disbelief until such time as clear, rational evidence presents itself was abhorrent to James. It does seem problematic, however, that James imposes an undefined but presumably relatively short time period on the individual to decide on the nature of her convictions. Similarly, he is not willing to grant this period of indecision (as he sees it) any productive aspect or depth. For example, one can spend a tremendous amount of time wrestling with how to define or understand the divine and observing the wonder in one’s life without assigning it absolute meaning. This is hardly a weak or lackadaisical stance. And, one can entertain the notion of an array of kinds of knowledge, spiritual as well as “rational,” without simply being too lazy or too cowardly to leap to belief or disbelief. Maintaining an agnostic position might be described as awfully strenuous and therefore even courageous. Don’t most well-thought-out positions, ranging from disbelief to belief, require a certain amount of Mut zur Luecke (or courage to admit there are gaps in your knowledge)? In the Kierkegaardian sense, even (and especially) the firm Christian is leaping.

In this way, there is very little difference between the contemplative agnostic who wrestles regularly with spirituality and epistemology and the religious person who is willing to draw distinctions between types of knowledge and is therefore comfortable saying, for example, that knowledge of God is not the same kind of knowledge as a mother’s certainty that a child is her offspring. Kierkegaard teaches that this spiritual uncertainty is in fact what makes belief worth having in the first place. Uncertainty keeps us treading water in the seas of belief, discouraging indolence that makes believers pedantic absolutists.

There is obviously much confusion surrounding the term agnosticism. For example, few agnostics are actually waiting around for definitive clues allowing them to piece together confirmation of the existence or non-existence of God. Most seem to feel that being agnostic means living with uncertainty indefinitely. Some want to break the definitions down further to include, for example, agnostic atheism, agnostic deism, practical agnosticism, and ignosticism. Regardless of how one self-identifies, staking out and expressing a religious position is a highly personal matter. To foist a label on someone–in this case agnostic–is akin to a witch hunt. It is a way of saying an individual is an immoral person and likely to lead others astray from sound religious conviction.

Nothing could be further from the truth concerning the intentions of most agnostics I know. You can, for the record, be agnostic and respectful, even supportive, of the religious beliefs and practices of others.

In the end, it is absurd to call someone an agnostic without an awareness of the complexity of the term. Moreover, it is just plain ignorant to do so without ever having had a conversation about religion with that individual. Finally, it is downright offensive and a maligning of one’s character to suggest that as a so-called agnostic one has nothing better to do than draw others down an irreligious (and–it is implied–immoral) path.

All that said, my personal epistemological and religious orientation is just that–personal.





Tagged with:


  1. Jenn says:

    Hello Wanda,

    I must say “bravo”!

    I concur with your comments and have likewise often felt like the victim of a “witch hunt”. Other equally misunderstood terms might be Paganism, Animism, or Deism, to name a few. The questions concerning an eternal almighty entity – a higher power – and that Being’s relation to, or connection with, us has plagued thinking minds since the beginning of consciousness. The notion that there is only one absolute definite and certain “acceptable understanding” concerning the divine is ludicrous. How can any human begin to define and confine an eternal power, or initial energy force, that they cannot even fully comprehend? All of the religious texts specifically warn against this type of behavior. We are told countless times, in countless ways, and in countless texts, that the eternal is mysterious and the human mind can never fully understand the Ultimate Almighty. Questioning is difficult, but it is also required if you really want to grow your spirituality. It is unfortunate how the people who have deceived themselves into believing that they know “the one and only truth” are in fact the very people who are the farthest from the truth – the farthest from every really connecting with real spiritual understanding. I think that may be part of Kierkegaard’s leap… the knowing that we can never really know for certain; but, even without certain knowledge we can still live as moral, ethical, feeling, believing, spiritual, religious beings who desire to connect with that higher power as we can know and understand it. I am certain there is a higher power, and my understanding of that higher power continues to change and grow as I learn and grow spiritually; and, I am certain that my understanding will continue to change and grow for the rest of my life. I don’t consider myself agnostic, per say, and although I am uncertain about a definitive belief structure I am happy with my uncertainty. Perhaps that is the only difference.

     Jenn

    • admin says:

      Hi Jen,
      A lot has been written lately about the value of doubt (and the harm pedantic certainty can cause). I plan to write a longer post on this in the near future. At the same time, I wonder, where do we draw the line? In other words, even while many of us practice religious tolerance, what kinds of belief falls outside the perimeters of a spirituality we find acceptable?

      As I wrote in response to your comments about me (the author) and the site–Thanks for joining me on the broomstick highway. I’m not saying it’s the moral highground, but I do hope it’s a way to push back by putting something out into the world that creates rather than tears down.

  2. Thanks for all of your work on this web page. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

    • admin says:

      Thanks. I hope you will. This is a new endeavor, but I will soon be running (or should I say flying) with it.

  3. As a Newbie, I am constantly searching online for articles that can benefit me. Thank you

  4. Albenise says:

    the post is actually the freshest on this laudable subject. i harmonize with your conclusions and will look forward to see your approaching updates.

  5. Thanks for your nice experience to share with us. Really awesome article with plenty of informative things to be known for us.

  6. Dagmar says:

    i would like to visit every day, thanks for your sharing.

  7. philospycho says:

    As one who was raised to fear doubt regarding anything authoritative, I find a lot of freedom-and yet extreme discomfort from time to time-in letting go of certainty.
    I don’t label myself when people invite me to any one of the (seemingly) million churches within my zip code. I say that I believe that people can be good without some supernatural, authoritative Being throwing fear tactics at them just for being born human. And I leave it at that.

    I think it’s fine that people have beliefs, as long as they don’t try to push me to say that I believe the same things they do. In fact, I think that most people need religion. If nothing else, than for the sense of community and tradition. Christmas, Easter, “One nation under God,” Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Boy Scouts (to serve God and country), and Creationism and abstinence-only sex ed in schools-what would we do without these? 😛 We’ve had it so embedded in every aspect of our culture, most people would feel bereft without it. The problem is that to belong to a place of worship, you have to conform, or at least pretend to. I can’t do the pretending thing anymore, but I know people who do because it gives structure to their families/lives/moral codes.

    If pressed I will not lie or imply a lie. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” only works if *everyone* keeps their views to themselves, otherwise, the minority is silenced and shamed. I don’t like proselytizing because it encourages outgrouping, but if invited to go to church or to send my kids to a church activity, I won’t be silent because my children need to know that it’s okay Not to be “a believer” as much as it’s okay to believe (and they already get plenty of the last part from their friends and society).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *