Excerpt from Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Agnostic

A Spirited Manifesto

by Lesley Hazleton

Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton X
Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2017, 224 pages

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Kim Kovacs
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Agnostic

THERE ARE SOME FOUR HUNDRED houseboats in Seattle. Many, like mine, are little more than shacks on rafts, but this may be the only one with a mezuzah at its entrance. If I were religious, the small cylindrical amulet would hold a miniature scroll inscribed with the Shema, the Jewish equivalent of the Lord's Prayer or the Islamic Shahada. But mine doesn't, partly because the scroll kept falling out when I put the mezuzah up on the doorpost, and partly because I don't believe a word of the prayer anyway. I'm not sure what happened to it. I may have thrown it out in a tough-minded moment, or it may be squirreled away at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. No matter. Most of the time I don't even notice the mezuzah, and neither does anyone else. But I know it's there, and that does matter.

Yet why should it? I am firmly agnostic, and haven't been to a synagogue service in years. Decades, in fact. So is the mezuzah an empty sentimental gesture on my part, or does the word hypocrisy apply? Could I be in denial: a closet theist, or a more deeply closeted atheist? Or am I just a timid fence-sitter, a spineless creature trying to have it both ways, afraid to commit herself one way or the other?

And there's the problem— right there in that phrase "one way or the other." It sees the world in binary terms: yes or no, this side or that. It insists that I can be either agnostic or Jewish but not both, even though both are integral parts of this multi-faceted life that is mine, as integral as being a writer, a psychologist, a feminist, all the many aspects of this particular person I am. All are part of the way I experience the world, and myself in it. Take any one of these aspects away, and I'd be someone else.

To be agnostic is to love this kind of paradox. Not to skirt it, nor merely to tolerate it, but to actively revel in it. The agnostic stance defies artificial straight lines such as that drawn between belief and unbelief, and shakes off the insistence that it come down on one side or the other. It is free-spirited, thoughtful, and independent-minded— not at all the wishy-washy I-don't-knowness that atheists often accuse it of being. In fact the mocking tone of such accusations reveals the limitations of dogmatic atheism. There's a bullying aspect to it, a kind of schoolyard taunting of agnostics as "lacking the courage of their convictions"— a phrase that raises the question of what exactly conviction has to do with courage. It's easy to forget that the inability to muster the honesty of the three words "I don't know" only leads to a radical dishonesty. The least we have come to expect is that someone be able to bullshit their way out of not knowing something, which is why the first thing taught in media training (a term that always makes me think of obedience training for dogs) is how to evade a difficult question and maintain the tattered illusion of mastery.

I stand tall in my agnosticism, because the essence of it is not merely not-knowing, but something far more challenging and infinitely more intriguing: the magnificent oxymoron inherent in the concept of unknowability. This is the acknowledgment that not everything may be knowable, and that not all questions have definitive answers — certainly not ones as crudely put as the existence or non-existence of God. At its best, however, agnosticism goes further: it takes a spirited delight in not knowing. And this delight is no boorish disdain for knowledge and intellect. Rather, it's a recognition that we need room for mystery, for the imagination, for things sensed but not proven, intuited but not defined— room in which to explore and entertain possibilities instead of heading straight for a safe seat at one end or the other of a falsely created spectrum.

What's been missing is a strong, sophisticated agnosticism that does not simply avoid thinking about the issues, nor sit back with a helpless shrug, but actively explores the paradoxes and possibilities inherent in the vast and varied universe of faith-belief-meaning-mystery-existence. That's my purpose here. I want to explore unanswerable questions with an open mind instead of approaching them with dismissive derision or with the solemn piety of timid steps and bowed head—to get beyond old, worn-out categories and establish an agnostic stance of intellectual and emotional integrity, fully engaged with this strange yet absorbing business of existence in the world.

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Excerpted from Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton. Copyright © 2016 by Lesley Hazleton. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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