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Can Agnosticism Improve American  Public Life?

by Richard Kezirian


There is a deeper cause for the corruption and scandals in American public life today than just human weakness and greed. The religious straitjacket in which we ensnare our politicians creates a preponderant percentage of leaders predisposed to failure.

We require of our leaders an obeisance to religious orthodoxy at a time when the truly honest person is vexed. "Anyone with an active mind," Robert Frost has said, "lives on tentatives rather than tenets." Yet, we voters reject those who are tentative on the greatest question of our lives—the question of whether or not there is a God.

Public opinion polls consistently record that 60 percent of Americans would not vote for a candidate who did not believe in God. However, given the knowledge revolution in every area, a truly open-minded person has to have theological doubts. Can we persist in electing only those who are unwilling to be forthright on the most important question of all our lives and then expect honesty from them on other matters? We will continue to be beset with a higher and higher proportion of politicians who are self-serving, hypocritical, and untrustworthy until we are also ready to accept agnostics, perhaps even atheists, as our representatives.

How can one be surprised that Dick Morris consorted with a prostitute while simultaneously championing family values, if, on the greatest question of his life, he probably compromised himself?

How can one be surprised that Jimmy Swaggart betrayed the very morality that he preached when an unswerving devotion to Jesus Christ requires a mind-set that disparages and deprecates doubting?

How can one be surprised that the Bakkers would skim the evangelical coffers of their following, if they had to be phonies on that primary theological question that does not have a final answer?

How can one not view fundamentalist evangelicals as charlatans after witnessing their immoderate, dishonest, intolerant, even mean-spirited attacks on those who are skeptical of traditional orthodoxy? It is lamentable that the deeply religious have co-opted the high moral ground, for the reasoning skeptic may not only be the most correct in our time, but also the most ethical.

Until the American public faces up to the fact that agnosticism is an equally sincere answer to the great religious question of our lives, and until the American public comes to recognize that those who acknowledge that fact publicly are worthy of trust, we are going to have evermore scandals in our civic life.

I do not mean to say that believers are never to be trusted, and that agnostics always should be. There are many truths in this world to live by, and if, after careful deliberation and consideration, one prefers an orthodox and traditional religious answer, that is commendable.

As the years progress, however, can we afford to exclude an ever-larger, sincerely candid cohort from our political spectrum? When we force our politicians to parade an unqualified belief in God, aren't we predisposing ourselves to be led by those who are evermore wily and disingenuous?

In our world of scientific, historical, cultural, and psychological breakthroughs, there is bound to be incredulity. Never in the last 2,000 years have a people been more confounded about religious issues than we are today, as the conflicting evidence mounts and becomes harder to ignore. To preclude those who doubt from representing us in public life is to disqualify an important and growing segment of our population, and is to lose perhaps the most aboveboard and perceptive segment of our people.

"Mankind are very odd Creatures," argued Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanack. "One Half censure what they practise, the other half practise what they censure; the rest always say and do as they ought." 

Richard Kezirian is Chair of the History Department at Monterey Peninsula College.

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