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An agnostic searches for answers

For Christians, Easter is a moveable feast day — this year the celebration fell about as late in the spring as it possibly can — which sparks consideration of the resurrection of Christ and all that this resurrection means for them. Many congregations hold sunrise services. The Moravians of Winston-Salem are famous for sending brass bands throughout the city during the early hours of Easter Sunday to greet this special day with music. Catholics light vigil fires outside their churches on Saturday evening and end Holy Week with a service that begins in darkness and explodes into light. Easter is the time of year when many churches welcome new members, when the fullness of the possibility of resurrection is contemplated by believers.

Like Christmas, Easter can make those who are not Christians more acutely aware of their inability or unwillingness to believe in such a personal god. Passing by churches filled with parishioners or worshippers standing in a meadow at sunrise, these non-believers may experience many reactions: scorn, indifference, a desire to believe but without the faith to do so. Atheists, whose numbers in America have grown in recent years, righteously declare that God doesn’t exist, but many more who lack faith in God travel under the uncertain banner of agnosticism.

In Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (ISBN 978-1-57731-912-2, $22.95), English professor and public radio host Michael Krasny has produced a wise and gentle look at agnosticism and religious faith. In our loud, cacophonous time, this age in which it too frequently seems that those who scream the loudest, who throw off the most crass insults, who gleefully and ignorantly deliver ad hominem attacks, Michael Krasny may seem in his call for tolerance like the Biblical voice crying in the wilderness. His restraint in terms of criticizing religious faith — coupled with his own examination of his inability to believe in an immanent god — makes this small book worthwhile reading for believers and non-believers alike.

What is best about Spiritual Envy is its mix of philosophy, faith, literature, and personal example. Krasny is more interested in exploring belief and disbelief, why some people believe and why others find belief an impossibility, than he is in winning arguments or slicing up those who disagree with him. He argues in the broad manner of a good “liberal humanist,” bringing in literary figures from Ian Fleming to Flannery O’Connor, philosophers from Augustine to Peter Singer, psychiatrists from John Mack to Ian Stevenson, poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Jim Croce.

Krasny also displays the mind of a liberal thinker — here I intend the old definition, the meaning associated with a liberal education, rather than the politics currently linked to the word — in trying to understand those whose religious faith acts as the grounding wire for life. He does indeed envy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers, and writes that he has frequently longed for their ability to find a personal god in the universe. He also speaks well and with understanding of those who do believe in that sort of god and who can’t figure out why their neighbors have so much trouble finding that faith. In fact, the only group for which he reserves a good store of scorn is for those nonbelievers who “view those who have religious zeal as evil or simple-minded.”

In our time, when a few religious fanatics and a few more atheists and secular-minded folk gain most of our attention by finger-pointing, by trying to limit free speech with the barbed wire of political correctness or religious zeal, and in a few cases, by killing those regarded as enemies, the odds are likely that Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy will be little read or heeded. We have grown unaccustomed to calls for real tolerance, to nuance in arguments, to what Krasny calls “the power of asking the right, or most reasonable and compelling, questions….”

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Many among us no longer seek to ask such questions, or any questions, of those with whom we disagree, preferring to paste our opponents over with labels and bumper-stickers. In losing all sense of proportion — and as is often the case, all sense of humor as well — a large number of Americans have bought into the argument that the political truly is the personal, that the atheist must axiomatically despise the believer, and vice versa, with little regard for their human personhood. Those whose beliefs differ from our own are no longer living, breathing fellow beings, but caricatures to be avoided, gagged, or driven from our midst.

This failure is unfortunate. Such rude judgment makes objects of our neighbors, stripping them of their humanity. Worse, and on a grander scale, it leads to the creation of armed camps, of us versus them, of labeling other Americans as our enemies simply because their vision of life and death is different than our own.

Near the end of his book, Krasny writes:

“I have been emphasizing a code of respect for others and for what they do or do not believe. It boils down to recognizing that what people believe, or how they worship or act or don’t act on their belief or nonbelief, is, as my Dad would have jauntily put it, their own damn business as long as they do no harm.”

Where’s Dad when you need him?


Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny. New World Library, 2010.  264 pages.

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