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Dear Agnostic

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Dear agnostic,

A blog post about religion. Here we go again. What is it with organized religion always trying to control others? And people trying to get others to think what they think? It seems like many just want to add numbers to their club to make themselves feel better about what they believe. And what they believe makes them feel better about life. It’s almost like religion today is just therapy for the anxiety of existence. Well, here’s the thing: I agree with this critique. If religion is a hierarchical club that tries to increase its numbers so as to control people or simply an exercise in making apologists feel better about themselves… I don’t want anything to do with it. And in fact, many Catholics see Catholicism this way, including some "hierarchs.”

So, skepticism and critical thinking led me to (1) agree with this critique, and (2) to start reading deeper thinkers and not just “apologists.” And it was discovering these deeper thinkers that made me realize that I need to take "criticism" more seriously in general, and that this goes for ALL ideas. If I’m going to be skeptical of naïveté, then I must likewise be skeptical of radical skepticism, which is just another naïve extreme. If I’m going to be critical of narratives and beliefs, then I must be critical of the narrative of hyper-criticism, which should smell like a “biased reaction” to any trained critic’s nose. I realized that I didn’t just need to “expand my horizons” and look elsewhere, although I did that as well, but that I needed to “deepen my criticism” and discover something positive about my role in the reality that surrounds me.

And so, the first thing that came to me was the question of history. Where does what people believe come from? And where does what those “religious organization people" believe come from? Where does “religion,” “science,” “secularism,” “politics," etc., come from? So, I started at the beginning and dove into the Ancient Near Eastern world and made my way through several of its texts: from the Code of Hammurabi to the Book of the Dead, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Enuma Elish, I also read the Pentateuch (first 5 scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures) alongside these texts. I spent some time with Hesiod, Homer, and Sophocles, but quickly fell in love with Plato. Plato was such a delight and such a consolation that I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since. The very grounds of political, metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological thinking burst forth in that enlightenment in a way which radically changed the history of humanity. No serious person could deny this. I at least could not deny this.

Even though I preferred Plato, Aristotle became someone I wrestled with quite a bit; although I have to say that I often relied on contemporary authors to understand him better. I came to see how formative his political and ethical influence was. But as my historical investigation progressed, the central influence of Hebrew thought became surprisingly clear. Something I'd like to return to shortly. That being said, I discovered that there is a sense in which the Roman contribution was much less intellectually formative — strictly speaking — in our commonly shared history. Its contribution was much more pragmatic. That isn't to say that it did not leave a legal legacy looming over us to this day — one of significant importance — but its cultural genius is mainly managerial and structural, not uniquely philosophical. It's contributions, such as with stoicism and epicureanism, were fundamentally of Greek origin.

Although the Greek influence on the scientific front is simply a historical fact, it was in discovering the pervasive Hebrew influence that I was thrown for a wheelspin. A profound irony unveiled itself to me when I came to the inescapable conclusion that science, on the one hand, and atheism (!), on the other, had their origins in the Torah! I further realized that Christianity's universalizing of Hebrew thought — although in a new register — is what contributed to an emerging global understanding of religion as confessional as well as to the historical appearance of agnosticism. In other words, a new western phenomenon surfaced where "religions" or the "lack thereof" became a set of options available to the modern individual.

Now, by no means am I implying that the nomadic Hebrews were Newtonian scholars, nor am I solely attributing to them the genesis of scientific reasoning (which is undoubtedly found in the Greeks, as I mentioned above). And yet, a fundamental principle, found in both Greeks and Hebrews, laid the groundwork for a series of enlightenments which spans our past. A fact of history needs to be wrestled with: ancient civilization understood the cosmos as arbitrary and chaotic. This was the patrimony with which the Greeks and the Hebrews had to contend: the debates over change in the Presocratics and the mythological landscape in which the Hebrews found themselves were precursors to "a great leap forward" found both in Socrates and the Genesis scroll.

What Plato called "the good" the Hebrews called "life itself," and both of these concepts structured the life of the polis for the Greeks and of the kahal for the Hebrews. What Plato called "the cave," the Hebrews called "exile." What Plato called "form," the Hebrews called "the name" (Hashem). Now, of course, the parallels are not always exact, but they can generally be summarized in an overarching idea; an idea which finds it's definitive expression in a single Greek word: Logos. The impact of this concept of Logos still reverberates, up to this day, in our regular speech when we engage in various scientific disciplines (psychology, geology, paleontology, etc.). But these Greek and Hebrew "enlightenments" of the past did not on their own account for science as we know it, for atheism as we know it, and especially — as is the topic of this blog post — for agnosticism.

The early Christian movement was predicated on an astonishingly new distinction made by its founder. Namely, that the religious was a distinct sphere from the political, and this becomes apparent in the very nature of the early Christian movement. This movement made an evolutionary leap — one that could be described as an enlightenment — from the unity of the religious and the political as embodied in the Jewish temple and the Roman imperium, to a "kingdom of truth" that is "not of this world." The great humanist and champion of "Reason" Joseph Ratzinger explains it thus: "Through the message that he proclaimed, Jesus had actually achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world: this is what truly marks the essence of his true path." [1] And so, I discovered that the relegation of religion to the eschatological and of politics to the ethical created the very foundations for what would later become a pluralistic democracy (and thus for the emergence of agnosticism as a cultural category).

And this is what I ultimately discovered: that the very possibility for agnosticism implies a historical dependance on a fundamentally Christian enlightenment. That a cultural context in which it is possible for me to even hold to an agnostic worldview is a context which essentially and inescapably finds its source, and even justification, in Christian principles. And so, in a sense, the agnostic — although he thinks he is being critical and enlightened by choosing to suspend judgment and/or disaffiliate from the past — does so precisely on presuppositions given to him by his Christian past. In other words, "neutrality" is a myth which agnostics uncritically accept. The point of this blog post is to encourage a deeper criticism, and therefore a more authentic enlightenment.

And so, my exhortation is for the agnostic — whose very worldview emerges from the historical foundations of democratic pluralism — not to shirk off his impetus for criticism, but to deepen it; to challenge supposed "neutrality"; to be historically sensitive; and to be critical of his own criticism. In the words of Ratzinger: "In today’s world it is clear that faith’s claim to be a public force must not be detrimental to the pluralism and religious tolerance of the state. But from this one cannot conclude that the state is completely neutral with respect to values. The state must recognize that a fundamental system of values based on Christianity is the precondition for its existence. In this sense it simply has to know its historical place, so to speak: the ground from which it cannot completely detach itself without falling apart. It has to learn that there is a fund of truth that is not subject to consensus but rather precedes it and makes it possible [emphasis added]." [2]

__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 169.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, "Christian Orientation in a Pluralist Democracy?" in Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 218.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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