Don’t call it an -ism.
“I hate the word agnosticism—as though we need one more -ism in the world,” says Lesley Hazleton , whose most recent book, Agnostic: A Spiritual Manifesto, argues for the legitimacy and humanity of the religious stance so often derided as wishy-washy by atheists and fundamentalists alike.
But Hazleton rejects this black-and-white view of faith, just as she rejects the illusion of certainty that often breeds prejudice in so many of those dreaded -isms. She speaks eloquently on the dangers of conviction and the virtues of doubt, through a mid-Atlantic accent that seems lifted straight from an old Katherine Hepburn film.
Hazleton was born in England but currently lives in a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle, having spent some of the interim reporting from Jerusalem, immersing herself in religions to which she doesn’t subscribe and writing about the places where the personal and political intersect. DOPE caught up with Hazleton, who blogs as the The Accidental Theologist, to learn a little more about her approach to faith as outlined in her empoweringly uncertain manifesto.
DOPE MAGAZINE: Many of your previous books looked at religious figures through a historical context, so how was it different writing your version of a manifesto?
LESLEY HAZLETON : I thought, okay, a manifesto, I’ll just rattle this off in a matter of months, because surely that’s how manifestos are written. Then when I started working on it, I realized I have to basically invent a whole new way of talking about this, because it doesn’t really exist yet. The agnostic stance has been defined by its opponents—adamant believers and adamant non-believers—who think being agnostic is sitting smackdab in the middle of a straight line, or straddling a fence with a spike sticking straight up your ass.
I can’t think of a more depressing way to think of the world than thinking of it as a straight, two-dimensional line. I decided to leave that line on the ground and take off from there, to make it three-dimensional, or four, or five. I was faced with creating a language to think about all this. That was daunting.
Q: What are the values of the agnostic stance?
A: It’s open, it’s curious; it never allows you to fall back on an easy position. It is difficult, and therefore interesting, and always challenging. Doubt, which most people seem to be terrified of, is essential to it. I think it’s incredibly dangerous when people are convinced that they’re right. I think conviction is very, very dangerous, because it’s a dead-end of thought. You’re not thinking anymore. You’re sure you’ve got it right, and they’ve got it wrong.
Again, it’s this binary mode of thinking—yes or no, God exists or does not exist, which is such a dumb question because it presumes we all know what we’re talking about when we use that three-letter word, which itself is a kind of pet name for everything we don’t understand. It’s metaphysical shorthand for everything we don’t grasp but sense—a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, a sense that we can’t take our existence for granted. When you take something for granted, you stop thinking about it. To me, thinking is being alive, questioning is being alive. Doubt is being alive.
Q: What do you see as the benefit of accepting the mystery of those questions?
A: It’s not accepting the mysteries, but delving into them. I write to explore. It’s exciting; it takes you places you didn’t know you could come to. Really, it takes me to infinity, which I know terrifies most people. But I find it immensely consoling that I’m less than a speck in what we call the universe, as though there’s only one, as though the universe we can see is the absolute limit.
I remember writing that mine is a very strange kind of manifesto, because most manifestos are written to say “this is how things should be,” and what I wrote doesn’t provide answers. It explores, finds more questions, and asks you to go further. That, to me, is the delight of it. Imagine if you had all the answers! You might as well be dead. What’s to live for, or to think about? When someone thinks they know it all, you know how incredibly boring they are?
“When you take something for granted, you stop thinking about it. To me, thinking is being alive, questioning is being alive. Doubt is being alive.” – Author Lesley Hazleton