January 19, 2012

The Spiritual Agnostic’s Dilemma: Figuring Out How to Be a Good Man Without Religion.

Jake DiMare is discovering how to blend spiritual practices into an otherwise agnostic life. The only goal? To help keep him on track toward goodness.

Recently, The Good Men Project founder Tom Matlack posed the question: Does the Good Men Project have a mission? In his article he asks, amongst other things, why are you here? I have to be honest and answer, I don’t know … But I’m probably here for the attention.

For one thing, I think the Good Men Project web site is a little heavy on the topic of men and a little light on the topic of good. However, I can understand why. It’s hard for me to publish an article about how I am trying to be good without feeling self-indulgent.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to talk more about how I am trying to be “a better man.” I also think it is impossible to start this conversation without talking about where the drive to be good comes from. So here goes …

Sometimes, when asked about my personal religious preferences, I still like to respond with a devilish retort, like “recovering Catholic.” These days I say things like this with a smirk, mostly for humorous effect. The truth is, though I do harbor serious misgivings about organized religion in general, I don’t really feel much resentment towards Catholicism in particular.

I was born into a Catholic family and the church indoctrinated my brother and I with all of the usual sacraments (sans pedophilia). I don’t recall exactly how old I was when my mother decided attending religious services every weekend was suddenly optional. I was just old enough to know if I lied and said I was still going to church she’d give me money for the collection plate. I was just young enough that all I could think to do with this ill-gotten, extra Sunday allowance was buy a cherry coke, a donut and a pack of baseball cards at the local drugstore.

You have to appreciate, we were not one of those families who only went to church for holidays and weddings. From as far back as I can remember we attended church every single week until I had memorized everything the priest was going to say for 75% of the service. This sudden turn of events certainly came as a surprise.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, when she decided we no longer needed to attend services, my mother also explained to me the concept of hypocrisy. She’d just won a small but politically meaningful disability discrimination suit against the local hospital where she had worked until some days before the last Christmas. Many of the hospital administrators attended the same church as we did and sharing space with them seemed to make her feel more acutely ill than her case of Multiple Sclerosis did.

Before long I grew into a teenager and I was filled with all of the normal adolescent angst. I was also filled with a lot of very logical, legitimate reasons to feel anger and disappointment with the way things were turning out in life. It certainly wasn’t difficult for me to find sympathetic people to co-sign my frustrations. Around this time I also discovered atheism, nihilism, and carousing. I was, as they say, off to the races.

In my twenties it would not be unusual to find me perched on a bar stool in some seedy dive bar, swilling cheep beer while incorrectly and incoherently quoting Karl Marx as having said “religion is the opiate of the masses.” I loved regurgitating this phrase with great disdain. In my interpretation, Marx was saying: “Religion is what you get for being a fucking moron.” Like many young men, I drank too much, accomplished too little and felt far too confident in whatever thoughts rattled around the pickled grey matter between my ears. Save myself, I was convinced everybody was a fucking moron.


“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” — Karl Marx

In other words, religion is not what you get for being ignorant. Religion is what you get for being weak and powerless against a rising tide of economic oppression. Religion is a convenient way to keep you working when you should be rioting in the streets.

As I’ve aged my feelings have become slightly less hostile and contemptuous. What I believe today is most people don’t have much choice in what they think or believe. We are all, to some extent, a product of our environment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way information translates into values and beliefs.

Although my feelings about religion have grown less resentful and caustic, my level of knowledge regarding oppression, hypocrisy and the systematic institutionalization of human rights violations has grown exponentially. My understanding of what Marx meant has become far more nuanced and informed by history and experience. I’ve also become no less outspoken in my beliefs.

Today I self-identify as an agnostic, which is to say I personally believe the existence or non-existence of God is outside of human knowledge. It is certainly outside my knowledge. Agnosticism is often confused with atheism, which asserts a disbelief in any deity. Within the various sub-types of agnosticism I can be most closely defined as a theist agnostic. This means that although I don’t claim to have knowledge of the existence of any deity, I still believe in the idea such an existence is possible. I have hope God exists.

I think one of the reasons agnosticism is not very popular in western culture is because it requires a lot of humility to say “I don’t know the answer.” Saying “I don’t know” leaves me somewhat vulnerable. Westerners, particularly western men, don’t “do” vulnerable very well.

“We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.” — Robert G. Ingersoll

In my case, the God I believe might exist is the God of the entire universe. A God that is completely fine with having set the conditions for life to evolve slowly on our planet and others in an ever-expanding universe. A God who is far above the interpretation and translation of anyone on earth.

This God isn’t asking me to be good in exchange for a ticket to heaven. Instead, I should try to be good because it is the light of goodwill towards others on earth that gives life meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. Living a good life is a daily decision I try to make without regard to consequences. Believe me, it is not easy.

I still reject the stories I’ve heard about petty, vengeful gods described by mankind in various holy scriptures. I feel genuine sympathy towards anyone who gives patronage to those claiming a monopoly on God, and that the lack of fealty will cost you a place in heaven, or that religion holds the key to a better life.


For me, paying homage to any of the big three religions would be misguided good. It would make me complicit in the support of a horrifying litany of crimes against humanity. A hundred years ago I might have gone through life never knowing what atrocities had been committed in the name of God with my support. In the information age I am unable to claim ignorance of such facts.

The redirection of charitable acts and charitable giving towards religion is also one of the saddest outcomes in the history of doing good. There are literally thousands of examples of this problem, but I’ll simply point out that 16,000 children die daily from hunger while one leading church maintains an entire city in Italy.

And so I’ve come to believe it is truly disingenuous to pursue a religious life because it falls short of my own personal ideal for being good. I also think it is no less important for me to share my story than it is for someone aligned with one religion or another. I believe I should communicate my thoughts, values, and experiences in the hope someone else might discover it is possible to find redemption, values, virtue, ethics, and morality without aligning oneself with any religion.

“I ask: what does it mean when we continue to behave as though all were as it should be, calling ourselves Christians according to the New Testament, when the ideals of the New Testament have gone out of life?” -Søren Kierkegaard

My personal philosophy on life and my individual approach to spirituality have evolved along similar trajectories. Much of the recent change in my own outlook happened very quickly, in the last few years. Ironically, the catalyst for this change was the introduction of a number of key, albeit borrowed, spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

On the surface this appears to be a real dilemma. I am a devoted irreligious agnostic whose devotion to agnosticism leads me to feel compelled to share my beliefs like any religious person would share their own. Yet I roll out of bed every morning, drop to my knees and ask God for help. Before I go to bed at night I thank God for another day. If I feel anxiety or resentment creeping into my life during the day I might pray again … Or find someplace quiet and meditate.

I have learned prayer and meditation make me feel better. These practices make life seem more meaningful to me. They help me feel more connected to myself and the people I love. The fact is, they are coping mechanisms that work for me. I don’t really ask why anymore. Ten years ago my life was being torn apart by fear and anger. I’d failed miserably trying to correct my problems with booze, work, and women, when someone came into my life and introduced me to spiritual living.

At first I was quite resistant to believe that anything connected with my old ideas about God and religion could benefit me in anyway. Of course, one of the first spiritual principles I had to master was open-mindedness. It’s now five years later, and my life has literally never been better. Merely being open to the idea God might exist has helped me lead a better life.

These days I realize whether or not God exists is largely an academic question. The fact that prayer and meditation make me feel more relaxed could have absolutely nothing or everything to do with God. I also now know there is a big difference between God, religion, and spirituality. A person can have an individual relationship with God. A person can have a desire to grow spiritually while holding a conscientious objection to established religions.

But, this does lead to other dilemmas. For instance, where does a guy who is deeply irreligious go to expand his spiritual life? Are there religions that are truly focused on alleviating the suffering of the weak and the poor? That openly denounce the evils of corporate greed and government corruption? Religions that are transparent in their own financial dealings?

This knowledge can also make it difficult to talk about my personal beliefs. I certainly have direct knowledge of people I care about whose lives are ostensibly made better by participation in various religious organizations. I don’t want to tell them I think religion is the oldest scam created even though it is exactly what I believe.

—Photo cauchisavona/Flickr

* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 01/9/12


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