What I learned from being an agnostic

Once upon a time, I stopped believing in a personal God, and this lasted for a couple of years. I was an agnostic (which lots of people are), meaning that I did not know for sure whether God existed or not. It’s worth noting that agnosticism is the same as atheism at a practical level; since you can’t be sure that God exists, you shape your life around the idea that he does not. I want to talk about the impact that agnosticism (or atheism) had on my life.

One of the big things an agnostic has to let go of is the belief in an afterlife. Some might argue against that point, but when you take a personal God out of the equation, all you are left with is an impersonal universe. You may have some kind of faint hope of an afterlife, in the same way that you might have the faint hope of God being real, but it’s not the same thing as believing in it. For all intents and purposes, you’re not expecting anything but oblivion when you die. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s something that can be faced.

The problem was that my own future death was going to make a mockery out of all my accomplishments in life; nothing would have any ultimate significance. Thousands of precious memories would die along with my soul or spirit or essense or whatever it is that gives us life.

But one day something clicked: life was only meaningless when it was lived for the self. A life lived for the benefit of others was vastly different. Anything you do for someone else, without expectation of reward, is meaningful; you may die tomorrow, but the impact you had on someone else’s life goes on.

I thought I had grasped something vastly important about the meaning of life. Memories are not important; personal ambitons are not important; your self is not important; the only thing that goes on without you is how you’ve treated your fellow man. Suddenly Christianity seemed so egotistical, with its emphasis on the soul surviving death. Even the selflessness talked about in the Bible is not presented without some kind of future reward. I, however, had discovered a way of life that was truly selfless.

Something still didn’t sit right, though. If you make your own ego unimportant, how can others be truly important, when they are just like you? You may impact another’s life for good, but that other person will die one day, just like everyone else after him. If there is no ultimate significance behind the self, then is my philosophy perhaps just a smokescreen? Things look even grimmer when you consider that our sun has a lifespan. One day, millions of years in the future, all life on earth will cease, and what significance will our lives have then? None.

The idea of evil was also something of a problem to me, but not in the way you might think. With God out of the picture, I did not become more evil, I became more good, because I did not have God to lean on for strength and forgiveness. I knew it was all up to me not to make a mess of my life. As human beings, we all struggle against the temptation to do wrong, but I could never quite shake the idea that there was something more to some of those wrongs than mere “bad behaviour” – something almost demonic. I couldn’t categorise every sin in my life as mere mischief. But this knowledge didn’t make sense in a universe without a God (and a devil).

Another thing that would not sit right with me as an agnostic was that popular opinion told me I should side with the pro-choicers and the gay rights people. Looking around me, it seems to be fairly constant that if you’re an atheist you’re pro-choice and if you’re a Christian you’re pro-life. Likewise with homosexuality. It’s beyond the scope of this article for me to go into any kind of debate on those issues. Suffice it to say that here I was as a lonely agnostic, still believing that the Christians had got it right.

It’s almost funny that I found myself as an agnostic who had taken hold of the entire Christian ideal for living, but left out the faith.

But the worst thing about agnosticism is the depression. It’s not a big thing, just a minor irritation that gnaws at you. I could be out on my bike, enjoying a cycle through beautiful countryside on a warm summer day. All five senses in my body are feeding me pleasure and telling me to enjoy myself, but my joy is crushed by a subtle sense of gloom that never quite goes away. It’s a nagging voice that says, “Someday you will be dead, and it will be as if you had never been here doing this.”

And that gloom, friends, is one of the reasons why agnosticism (and atheism) is the wrong philosophy of life. If you learn one thing from an experience like mine, learn this: surely man was not meant to live a depressed life. Surely the depression is a signal that I’m not living the way I’m supposed to be living, a pointer to the idea that life must have ultimate meaning. And for that to be possible, there must be an afterlife. And for that to be possible, there must be a personal God.

11 thoughts on “What I learned from being an agnostic

  1. Jeffrey Allen Davis

    You have an amazing way of explaining things in such a simple-yet powerful-way. Thank you.

  2. Eddie Mullan

    I had a revelation recently. As I sat on the bus home from work, a fly buzzed around me, but rather than swat it, I just let it buzz around.

    I realised that there was as equal a chance that I could have been that fly, as the fly could have been me- Given the chance, would the fly (being me) be doing the same thing I am right now (in life)? I didn’t think it would. My life is changing massively at the end of this month. It’s time to take risks…

  3. Darryl Sloan

    Go for it. Take risks and live a little. I followed the dream of publishing my own novel, and I risked ?2,000 on it. No regrets there.

    Keep me posted, Eddie.

  4. Eddie Mullan

    you read a brief (or ‘briefer’ the updated version) history of time? It’s compelling to say the least..

  5. Darryl Sloan

    I haven’t, no. I’m not sure what Hawking believes, but I’ve tended to stay away from much of a scientific nature about the origin of the universe, mainly because it has always seemed like a minefield of debate. Being a Christian, the debate rages even deeper, with some among us holding to a “young earth” theory.

  6. Eddie Mullan

    I think anyone who has the chance should read Hawking’s writings.

    It’s actually a genuine miracle that he is alive, as no-one with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has ever lived anywhere near the length he has.


    “Those who have not read A Brief History of Time may be surprised to find that the book has a main character. That main character is God. This was the feature of the book that the well known atheist Carl Sagan found a bit distressing. Sagan wrote the preface to the first edition of the book, but was less famous than Hawking by the time of arrival of the tenth anniversary edition, in which Sagan’s preface does not appear. God is discussed in A Brief History of Time from near the beginning all the way to the crescendo of the final sentence.”

  7. Darryl Sloan

    I had no idea Hawking was a theist; I guess I’m used to scientists in general being athiests. This could be a really interesting read. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for it at the library. Thanks.

  8. Interesting post on agnosticism. You nail it in realizing the utter lack of meaning inherent in that perspective. Why appreciate a beautiful day, or a baby? The meaning an agnostic might have in this is forcibly stolen from a theistic perspective, because there is no meaning otherwise.

    Likewise, I would have to ask you, when you say you became not evil, but more good as a result, how do you define good? What meaning is there? How do you define this?

    Otherwise, much food for thought.

  9. For the agnostic, good and evil can be defined loosely as actions that help and actions that harm. Although I believe in God, the argument that you need to believe in God in order to believe in good and evil isn’t a very solid one. As the Bible itself says that the law of God is written on our hearts. Man has an inner sense of good and evil without having to refer to a set of rules. The fact that the Bible spells many of them out is a reflection of man’s need for guidance – his corruptibility, in other words.

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