MARCH 18, 2004
Quiet Agnosticism, Mild Disdain
Richard L. Baker, Jr.
Martin Marty argues that self-proclaimed “free-thinkers” in America have been small in number and marginal in influence -- largely bogeymen conjured by religious groups to tar their enemies and fill their coffers ("Tracking the Nones," Sightings, 2/16/04). But if free-thinkers have been marginal, it doesn't follow that free-thinking has. It's a bit like saying that, because membership in the American Enterprise Institute (or the American Communist Party or the American Psychoanalytic Association) has been relatively small, … well you get my drift. The real question is not membership numbers for these societies, but how much free-marketeerism (or Marxism or Freudianism) has become part of our inherited cultural backdrop, our everyday sensibilities, and our immediate, largely unreflective, way of taking the world. Here, I think, free-thinking has been influential.
Marty notes that those who answer “none” when polled about their religious preference are more likely to be characterized not by strident and outspoken atheism, but by “quiet agnosticism, mild disdain, [and] indifference.” But this attitude itself is a legacy of free-thinking as it flowered in the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century.
The free-thinkers' brief against religion: religion is a mere prejudice, in fact, the prejudice of all prejudices. It achieves this superlative status because (1) it is inculcated from the earliest age with the greatest force and frequency, and (2) its beliefs are the most “notional” -- that is, the least rational, the least substantial, the farthest from any real, observable matter of fact. And so religious adherents maintain their beliefs with an irrational, almost primal, ferocity. These doctrines have been drilled into them, throughout their lives, as not only true but sacred; yet reason is unavailing for their defense -- so they pound the table, not to mention those who disagree with them.
Now, through the centuries, insofar as free-thinking has worked its way into our cultural sensibilities, it manifests itself, by and large, not as strident and outspoken atheism, but as quiet agnosticism, mild disdain, and indifference. And this is especially true in a country where some separation of church and state has diminished the civil authority (and threat) of religion. In other words, the unspoken attitude of those who answer “none” is: “As long as those crazies stay in their own camps and don't come out to harass me or fight with one another, I ignore them.” But here's the litmus test: whenever and wherever the crazies are seen as coming out of their camps, the free-thinker's view of religion becomes less unspoken and more outspoken -- generally in proportion to the perceived threat.
But tacit free-thinking is not limited to the self-identified “Nones.” Every year, I teach a survey course in medieval philosophy, which attracts mostly students pre-disposed toward religious belief. Every year, we read Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, where he argues that everything we believe by faith is necessarily true (God is truth. God gives us faith. Therefore, everything we believe ... ) And every year, I look out on the same sea of incredulity. “Of course,” they say (when they finally are able to speak), “you can believe anything you want by faith -- it doesn't matter whether it's true or false. That's what makes it faith!” Faith for them, then, is not the conviction of things unseen but the conviction of anything, and the more unsupported by reason, the greater the faith.
Now I recognize that good questions can be raised about Aquinas's position. (I hear them every year.) But at the very least it maintains some connection between faith and truth. And in so doing, it exhorts us to an active and hopeful use of reason, if only because reason may help us to distinguish the true from the false, and, thus, genuine faith from its counterfeit.
But where is reason on the assumption of the free-thinker's sensibility? Perhaps -- as we pound the table and insist on our own beliefs -- nowhere to be found. But more likely, I think, reason will be found closer to home, as we sit in a pew most every Sunday -- in sloth and despair -- making its presence felt only in quiet agnosticism, mild disdain, and indifference.
Richard L. Baker, Jr. is professor of Philosophy at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.
Martin Marty's life-in-retirement has grown sufficiently complex that, with the help of Micah Marty and Ann Rehfeldt, he has tried to turn more efficient by resorting to a web-site. Hosts for his lectures, planners of programs, consultants, and researchers, can find answers to frequently asked questions answered there. It is www.illuminos.com. The first name to come up will be "Martin E. Marty." Click on it and the door opens to many links. The Micah Marty and Ann Rehfeldt lines on the home page will soon be detailed.