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Agnostic
Cover of Agnostic
Agnostic
A Spirited Manifesto
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“Vital” –The New York Times Book Review
“Provocative…[Hazleton] paddles the river of doubt with energy and exuberance.” –The Seattle Times
A widely admired writer on religion celebrates agnosticism as the most vibrant, engaging—and ultimately the most honest—stance toward the mysteries of existence.

One in four Americans reject any affiliation with organized religion, and nearly half of those under thirty describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But as the airwaves resound with the haranguing of preachers and pundits, who speaks for the millions who find no joy in whittling the wonder of existence to a simple yes/no choice?
Lesley Hazleton does. In this provocative, brilliant book, she gives voice to the case for agnosticism, breaks it free of its stereotypes as watered-down atheism or amorphous “seeking,” and celebrates it as a reasoned, revealing, and sustaining stance toward life. Stepping over the lines imposed by rigid conviction, she draws on philosophy, theology, psychology, science, and more to explore, with curiosity and passion, the vital role of mystery in a deceptively information-rich world; to ask what we mean by the search for meaning; to invoke the humbling yet elating perspective of infinity; to challenge received ideas about death; and to reconsider what “the soul” might be. Inspired and inspiring, Agnostic recasts the question of belief not as a problem to be solved but as an invitation to an ongoing, open-ended adventure of the mind.
“Vital” –The New York Times Book Review
“Provocative…[Hazleton] paddles the river of doubt with energy and exuberance.” –The Seattle Times
A widely admired writer on religion celebrates agnosticism as the most vibrant, engaging—and ultimately the most honest—stance toward the mysteries of existence.

One in four Americans reject any affiliation with organized religion, and nearly half of those under thirty describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But as the airwaves resound with the haranguing of preachers and pundits, who speaks for the millions who find no joy in whittling the wonder of existence to a simple yes/no choice?
Lesley Hazleton does. In this provocative, brilliant book, she gives voice to the case for agnosticism, breaks it free of its stereotypes as watered-down atheism or amorphous “seeking,” and celebrates it as a reasoned, revealing, and sustaining stance toward life. Stepping over the lines imposed by rigid conviction, she draws on philosophy, theology, psychology, science, and more to explore, with curiosity and passion, the vital role of mystery in a deceptively information-rich world; to ask what we mean by the search for meaning; to invoke the humbling yet elating perspective of infinity; to challenge received ideas about death; and to reconsider what “the soul” might be. Inspired and inspiring, Agnostic recasts the question of belief not as a problem to be solved but as an invitation to an ongoing, open-ended adventure of the mind.
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  • From the cover One

    Beyond

    Either/Or

    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...
About the Author-
  • Lesley Hazleton is an award-winning writer whose work focuses on the intersection of religion, history, and politics. She reported on the Middle East from Jerusalem for more than a dozen years, and has written for Time, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Nation, and The New Republic, among others. Her book After the Prophet was a finalist for a PEN Center USA Literary Award, and she is the recipient of The Stranger's Genius in Literature Award. Hazleton lives in Seattle.
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Agnostic
Agnostic
A Spirited Manifesto
Lesley Hazleton
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