Another Day, Another Reporter: True and Useful Generalizations About “Agnosticism” in 700 Words or Less

Earlier I discussed a reporter who wanted my sound-bite wisdom about “denominations” in the south—whereupon I endeavored to wrestle her question into a form I could answer in 1000 words or less. Yesterday I got a companion request about “agnosticism in the south” from a reporter who writes for a paper grounded in the LGBTQ community. His questions included what agnosticism is, how prevalent it is, who would “turn away from religion for [it],” and why. Here’s my reply.

Dear Nick,

It is not possible to give precise answers to your questions because the definitions of the words are so slippery. I suppose everyone is agnostic about something. Also, the lines between “religious,” “secular,” and “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) are very slippery— no one agrees on how to draw them.

If you mean agnostic in a sense of being unwilling to publicly embrace the doctrinal claims of the loudest conservative religious voices in the south (mainly conservative Protestant, partly Catholic)—then, yes, there is a generational trend of increases in this direction. (This book has many moving parts, but the relevant chapters summarize the issues nicely.) However, it is tough to measure how much of this reflects an absolute rise in agnosticism and how much it has simply become more fashionable to speak about longstanding passive skepticism. Probably a little of both.

Some of part of this trend can be measured as a rise of people who tell pollsters they are SBNR or answer “none” to questions about their religious affiliations. But most “nones” are not agnostic about gods/spirituality/etc. They simply don’t identify with conservative church discourse. Meanwhile religion is about far more than saying yes or no to doctrines. It is about forms of social alliance, learned assumptions not least about sexuality, and more. One might believe firmly in God but be agnostic about “god hates gays” teachings—this is a trend—or be agnostic about God yet fall in line with church teachings hostile to LGBTQ’s anyway. Which is more important? Both are about religion.

Part of the trend of breaking from conservative churches is due to disenchantment or downright disgust with their leaders’ alliances with Republican elites from Nixon and Reagan through to Trump. Of course the understandable LGBTQ hostility to “Christians” (I suggest amending this to “dominant conservative Christians”) is related to this alliance, and similar trends of alienation are relevant for other groups and issues. In fact, churches overall have probably been less bad on LGBTQ issues (where one can often find liberal Christian allies) than on issues like climate change or militarism.

Of course conservative churches enjoy a numerical majority in the south and a supermajority in journalistic common sense about “who speaks for the Christians.” Still, at least a third of Christians, maybe a bit less in the south, are pretty liberal, and some are on the radical left. (Think for a minute about hip-hop music. I dislike far more than two-thirds of all hip-hip—let’s say I’m agnostic about its value—yet I love the best hip-hop. A quarter of hip-hop records or Christian congregations is actually a lot if you think about it that way.)

“Agnostic” becomes slippery here, because people from the left-liberal third of Christianity (plus adherents of non-Christian religions too, but let’s not go there today) make a virtue of being incredulous about conservative Christian ideas. In turn conservative Christians might label the liberals apostates, while they would simply call themselves thoughtful Christians—or in some cases “secular Christians” or even “Christian atheists.” One of my favorite books of Christian theology, Dorothee Soelle’s Theology for Skeptics, is overtly agnostic about doctrinal claims for the existence of a God “out there”—at least as typically conceived by fundamentalist conservatives, a group that Soelle calls “Christofascists.” The sort of atheist critiques propounded by Sam Harris are irrelevant to Soelle’s left-activist version of religion.

Many from the cohort of left-liberal religion are LGBTQ themselves or reasonably good allies, although this varies from place to place. So is crucial not to paint things (whether “the rappers” or “the Christians”) monolithically, running with a background assumption that one either embraces it all or is agnostic to it all.

I hope that helps you.  You might like to look at the above-mentioned post too. It discusses where SBNR’s fit within a larger picture, and there is a sense in which I’m writing about your “agnosticism” frame somewhat like I wrote earlier about “denominations.”

All best wishes,

Mark

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