Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Agnosticism and the working writer

with 3 comments

Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on June 6, 2011.

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

3 Responses

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  1. Putting aside the larger discussion of agnosticism, I love the sentiment expressed by the last paragraph and think it deserves a dedicated post of its own. There’s a lot I’d like to say in response to this, but I’ll try to focus on something specific.

    As someone who values reason and watches enough political news to have lost all sympathy for those who continue to promote dogma (a convoluted way of saying I’m a perpetually frustrated secular liberal) I can imagine how difficult it’d be for me as a writer to portray even a religiously moderate character without some less-than-conscious bias seeping in.

    On the other hand, I myself _was_ such a religious moderate—an unusually liberal one, admittedly—until age 19, which means I can remember a time in my own life when the foundation beneath my beliefs simply wasn’t as rational as [I hope] it is now. But the motivations behind my former self are still clear to me, and what is empathy if not the understanding of motivations? As demonstrably faulty as my reasoning was in those days, I can recall what it felt like to be honestly unaware of those faults, and I’d imagine that considerations like those are what allow a novelist to portray even the most odious character with fairness.

    It’s appropriate you brought up Hitchens, because despite the reputation he cultivated as a rigorous “anti-theist”, he famously said on multiple occasions that if, hypothetically, he found himself in some scenario in which he could truly eradicate all superstition and dogma, bringing this whole nasty culture war to an end, he likely wouldn’t do it.

    That, to me, is Hitch at his most endearing. He may have eagerly rubbed elbows with scientists and stone-cold empiricists, but he was, ultimately, a product of the humanities. In a lot of ways he was like a journalist exploring a world that was, itself, artfully written prose, giving his reporting the subtly romanticized tone of a novel. And like a novelist, I think that deep down he had a remarkable empathy for even those he disagreed with most vehemently, because to him, there was a joy in the chaos that comes from conflicting motivations. Writers and readers alike know that those conflicts will always be more rewarding than any resolution, and I suspect that to Hitch, that applied just as much to the real world.

    Alex Varanese

    November 30, 2013 at 11:53 pm

  2. Thanks for the story about Hitch: I hadn’t heard that one before. It reminds me of something I was recently thinking about Richard Dawkins. At times, he annoys the hell out of me, but when I think about the forces of self-righteous fundamentalism against which he’s opposed, I’m glad he’s around to face it in such an articulate and uncompromising way.

    And I have a lot of sympathy for religious moderates—I’m married to one, among other things—which may be why I made the lead character in one of my novels a devout, if doubting, Mormon.


    December 2, 2013 at 9:40 pm

  3. Great article


    July 21, 2019 at 8:13 pm

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