Michael Krasny on agnosticism and the longing for spiritual certainty

First aired on Tapestry (18/03/12)

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Consider the agnostic: someone whose spiritual approach to the afterlife is marked by one big question mark. For some, it's the only conceivable way to approach the big questions, the phrase "I don't know" the only possible answer to life's mysteries. Agnostics don't enjoy any of the certainty given to religious believers or atheists.

Author Michael Krasny writes about both his own personal history with agnosticism, as well the general history of agnosticism in the world, in his book Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest. He spoke about his book and his agnosticism on Tapestry in a recent interview. Krasny is familiar with both sides of the religious coin: as a child, he believed in God and found comfort in the feeling that He was always near. But as he grew up, this consolation evaporated as Krasny's agnosticism grew. And though he lives a full and productive life — university professor, award-winning public radio host, author — there remains a void inside.

"'The human refuses to believe in a universe without purpose,'" Krasny quotes philosopher Emmanuel Kant. "Many of us long for that meaning or that purpose — that sense of higher purpose...and when that's not there, either in your head or your heart, that can be a very desperate thing." That's what the "envy" in Krasny's title refers to. "I envy people who have that faith, who have a spirituality that they feel very connected to," he told host Mary Hynes. "If that's absent, it's in the human heart to yearn for it."

And Krasny knows exactly the feeling he yearns for. As a young boy, he had a very strong religious faith. So what was the trajectory of his life that led to his spiritual uncertainty? "I think I lost it through cerebrality," he said. "Around senior year in high school I read omnivorously and I read Schoepenhauer and Spengler and Nietzsche and all those writers, and they really eroded my faith, made it very rocky...I had to face the fact that I didn't know what I believed." Krasny was concerned this made him "wishy-washy."

"Studs Terkel once said to me in an interview, 'I'm an agnostic and that means I'm a cowardly atheist,' but it was a little more complicated than that," Krasny said. "Intellectually, I was just kind of battered by what I was reading and what I was thinking. I began to face what this was in the writing of this book, because if there's one article of faith that I have it's that writing brings illumination."

In the sixth grade, Krasny was beaten badly by his teacher, an incident he rarely dwelled on, as he disliked thinking of himself as a victim. "But even in an unconscious way, I assimilated ideas out of, say, The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov says 'if a child can be beaten and God doesn't interfere...then how can we permit this, how can we allow belief to be as strong as it is?'" Still, it was really Krasny's intellectual pursuits that formed the crux of his spiritual uncertainty, he said. "I was reckoning with that as well, but it was mainly what I was reading that was getting to me."

Agnosticism tends to be a less publicized area of spirituality, especially when up against the more media-friendly extremes of fervent religious belief or unshakeable atheism. How does Krasny define agnosticism? "It's a word that comes to us from T.H. Huxley, a relative of author Aldous Huxley, who said we need a word to define 'not knowing,'" he explained. "'Atheism' means 'no god', whereas 'agnosticism" means 'no gnosticism'...Gnosticism being esoteric knowledge. There was a man named Robert Ingersoll who was a great agnostic, and an orator and attorney and political figure...he was a very powerful speaker who said 'there are simply things that we cannot know.'"