The Politics of Agnosticism

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My whole take on libertarianism is simply that I don’t know what’s best for anybody.” – Penn Jillette

This quote from Penn Jillette perfectly sums up the agnostic argument for libertarianism. Agnosticism is the perspective that basically some things are inherently unknowable. Oftentimes agnosticism is considered to be a religious topic but I would like to explore some broader epistemological implications as well.

Some days, depending upon the amount of ambient serendipity I happen to be experiencing, I may lean Deist—if the Higher Power that I worship is like Liber, the “Invisible Hand,” the Tao, epiphenomenalism, Eris or a prankish Rinzai Zen—but usually I am just radically agnostic. I differentiate this from atheism since the only thing I believe is that it is impossible to know the unknowable; therefore, the truly honest position, in my opinion, happens to be a somewhat solipsistic one.

This isn’t a bad thing though. It seems to me that if we can accept our own perceptions as self-evident, then when we look in the mirror and see that we are closely similar to those other external objects out there known as “human beings,” we may extrapolate that there is a very high likelihood that these other “human beings” may be experiencing very similar things on the inside. We may move from epistemological solipsism to empathy in this way. As such, solipsism is not necessarily a locked room; it can be a keyhole into the theory of mind, to sympathy, and to humility.

The age-old practice of confession seems like one of the simplest and oldest methods for reaffirming our own existence and placating our existential loneliness. In this way, organized religion is being quickly supplanted by modern social media. Organized religion seems like an archaic sort of Internet, a relic that offered solace for those in search of both answers to philosophical questions and a rudimentary social network. Personally, I think the Internet satisfies this better than religion, but both social media and organized religion seem to largely rely on our aching desires for confession and validation. Ultimately, we are probably better off just confessing to ourselves and vowing to do better next time, but I understand the impulse to externalize it. However, this act of externalizing, of including others in our confessions and validations, may mean subjecting ourselves to political risks.

Immanentizing the Ricktatorship?

In contemporary American politics, theocracy is often—but not always—the domain of social conservatives. Most recently, this theocratic impulse has been perhaps represented best by high profile Presidential Republican candidates like Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. For brevity’s sake I’ve recently taken to calling their ‘Theocon’ style of politics the Ricktatorship. It entails a sort of religious bigotry, where other religions—or a lack thereof, are somehow inferior to those of the Ricktatorship, all mixed with immanentizing the eschaton in some way.

Eschatology is the study of end times; beyond being somewhat phonetically similar there is no formal relationship between eschatology and scatology, but as you will read, perhaps there should be. As coined by Eric Voegelin, to immanentize the eschaton is a pejorative phrase that describes the utopian urge to bring about heaven on earth, usually by using the government to ram their particular vision of eschaton down everyone’s throats. The Wikipedia entry for “immanentize the eschaton” is particularly relevant to notions of empathy, Discordianism, and agnosticism:

Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and the beliefs held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly Communism and Nazism. He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as social alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection from society and a belief that this lack of concord with society is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. He described this alienation as having two effects:

The belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis).

The desire to implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin said, to Immanentize the Eschaton, to create a sort of heaven on earth within history.

So, in the wake of the Trotskyite infiltration of the right called “neoconservatism” since the 1950s, it seems that if you aren’t immanentizing the eschaton in some way, you really aren’t being a good social conservative.

This urge to push their vision of a Christian heaven on earth is so strong that even those social conservatives that also self-identify as libertarian—let’s call them Conservatarians—are often quick to distance their brand of libertarianism from “sinful” libertinism. Now as an agnostic libertarian, I think there is some value to be found in libertarian libertinism, however. Consider the idea that those libertines that allow themselves to be constrained only by libertarian values—that is, no initiation of force or fraud allowed—but not necessarily Christian ones, are perhaps better inoculated against moralistic manipulations like blackmail, scapegoating, etc. perpetrated by black chambers like the NSA or CIA.

Imagine a world where we only judged people based upon our personal interactions with them, a world where we dismissed rumors and hypocritical moralism. If we become more forgiving, less tabloid obsessed, more open about our behaviors and more accepting of consensual sexual taboos, then the NSA blackmail ops will fall flat. When maybe all the data collection from the likes of Facebook and the NSA will only serve to make you the star of your very own Truman Show instead of having your vices treated as crimes?

Gay Jesus? Hail Eris!

Now, speaking about sexual taboos, I’d like to explore the idea of a gay Jesus for a moment. From folklore, Jesus was an unmarried guy followed by 12 other men that loved him deeply. And turning water into wine? A straight Jesus would have turned it into scotch or beer, no? And couldn’t a carpenter 2000 years ago been today’s interior designer? Seriously though, the question as to whether Jesus was gay (or not) is being debated academically.

Please be clear, no one is mocking Jesus; I personally believe the stories about Jesus are probably a retelling of the Mithra and/or Horus myths, but if he were indeed a real person and was gay, he would join a long line of moralists and philosophers, like Plato, that very well may have been gay, and so what?

I am a straight guy that doesn’t consider gayness to be a derogatory condition, so lest I am painted as being ‘intolerant’ of Christians for simply questioning the sexuality of Jesus, please note that I am only ‘intolerant’ of Jesus in the very same way Christians are ‘intolerant’ of Muhammad, Zeus, Krishna, Shiva, etc., which is to say not at all. That isn’t intolerance; instead, I simply don’t believe in Jesus, and in the same way you don’t probably believe in Shakti or Odin.

What It Means to be a Pro-Life Agnostic

As they say, “politics makes for strange bedfellows,” and the politics of agnosticism seems no different. Let’s take for example the fact that many gays sincerely want to adopt. Likewise, many conservatives sincerely want to end abortion. So, I wonder; why aren’t gays and conservatives working together to make it easier for gay couples to adopt and save a lives? I know there is considerable debate as to when life actually begins with respect to the legality of abortion, but it does seem rather simple to me. Science would triumphantly call a single celled organism found on Mars “life,” wouldn’t it? Why not a multi-cellular organism found in a woman’s womb?

Given imperfect knowledge (i.e., agnosticism) as to when life actually begins, I err on the side of caution and assume it begins early. Does that mean I aim to ‘outlaw’ abortion? No. I hope if you’ve read this far, you understand I am particularly agnostic about the power of law to affect human behavior. Instead I am advocating on behalf of an innocent life growing inside another life. I advocate education and responsibility, not legislation.

To me, being pro-life also means opposing the death penalty, on moral grounds. If murder is punishable by death, and our representatives in the state murder someone, then shouldn’t “the state” itself (or the agents of the state that carries out the execution) be killed? I find it particularly odd to me when “pro-life” Christians support the death penalty; after all, their Good Friday memorializes perhaps the most well-known capital punishment in human history.

Again, politics would make strange bedfellows indeed if someday the anti-abortion Conservatives and the anti-capital punishment Progressives stand together as principled pro-lifers across the board. Of course, that would also means they would be against war, so hopefully the left and the right can also rally behind the peace they both claim to hold so dearly as they consider truly embracing life again, too.

And Just In Case I Missed Pissing Anyone Off, I’m Not Sure Atheists Actually Exist Either

Please understand that in the same spirit that atheists doubt the existence of God, I must actually doubt the very existence of atheists. Allow me to explain; theists claim that there is a god (or gods), atheists claim there is no god (or gods), and agnostics claim there is no way of proving either position. Throughout history there have been very smart theists, like Newton, Leibnitz, Gödel, Pascal, and Anthony Flew. There have likewise been very smart atheists, such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. But, were they really atheists? In their own words, no:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience, I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.” —Bertrand Russell

I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”—Richard Dawkins

By their very own admission, there really are no atheists, only agnostics with varying a priori probabilities that are dumbing down their language for the plebs.

(This essay originally appeared in Strange Attractor: The Discordian Libertarian Writings of Jake Shannon.)

About Author

Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon (1973 - ) was born in Colorado and has worked in a hodgepodge of professions including "Quant" (i.e., financial mathematician), serial entrepreneur, Discordian Pope, radio talk show host, Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Utah, Luchador (i.e., mexican wrestler), and Comedy Hypnotist before settling upon pursuing an unwitting vow of poverty as an independent writer, practical magician (Chaos Magick) and more importantly, as a stay-at-home dad (his greatest accomplishment by far). He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah (which still surprises him) with his lovely wife, three bright children and three loyal dogs.