I’m Not Here to Tell You About Jesus

Do you think that God exists? If you had to choose, would you describe yourself as a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic? Now, the first thing I should flag about this question is that for most people it yields a firm answer. For thousands of years, erudite scholars have made argument after  argument on all sides of this question, but I bet that, whichever one of these options you choose, your choice is an unreserved one: you don’t tend to qualify it with “well, I could be totally wrong: there’s a lot on each side.”

Now maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, and actually agnosticism is just the box to check for “there’s a lot on both sides.” But I think agnostic means a bit more than that: it’s a term that describes a range of people running from atheists-in-sheep’s-clothing to those who think it is truly an unknowable question and either side could be equally right. In my personal experience I tend to find more of the former than the latter, but your mileage may vary.

More importantly, though, is that the agnostic is not someone who is half a religious believer and half an atheist, she doesn’t just sit astride the midpoint of that spectrum. There is an entire type of religious experience the believer has access to that the agnostic forsakes. She doesn’t worship in temple on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then stay home in disbelief the rest of the time*[1]: the act of worship is totally cut off by her self-designation. This is not because she has doubt – the religious believer also has doubt (indeed it’s the very crucible of faith). The agnostic’s doubt is different because it leads her to rationally designate herself as removed from the concept of God. And that is something a believer can never truly do.

Ok, so now let’s take another instance of agnosticism. Imagine you’re friends with a couple that’s getting divorced; let’s call them Cheryl and Adam. Cheryl has told you that not only was Adam cheating on her for years (which he denies), but he also stole all their savings to buy things for the other woman (which he also denies). Adam says that Cheryl is a spiteful and crazy liar. You’re forced to decide: do you believe Adam, Cheryl, or are you undecided (agnostic) about the question. (Assume you can’t ascertain some middle position between their claims).

So again, I want to flag that agnosticism is not merely a middle choice between two logical positions: it also implies an attitude towards the two people involved. And I’ll posit that if you’re agnostic about whether Adam stole the money or whether Cheryl’s lying, you will inevitably have to distance yourself from both halves of the couple, at least to some extent. Just picture Cheryl’s face as she denounces Adam and you responded with: “I feel awful for you, but I just don’t know who to believe.” I mean, you could pretend to agree with her, but that creates its own distance: every time she comes to you for support, there will be a part of you wondering whether she’s making it up, a part that really doesn’t give a shit about her stories because they might be totally false. Either way, not good news for you and Cheryl.

And yet, despite all that, there’s still a real appeal to this middle position. One obvious reason is that taking Cheryl’s side probably forces you to cut Adam out of your life, but even beyond that, I think there’s just a natural human instinct to believe the best of people, and it is unsettling to think your friend Adam could do something so terrible. Cheryl’s lying would be equally terrible, of course, so sometimes, in order to think the best of each person, it’s better to simply ignore the question and accept the emotional distance that choice creates. You won’t really fully present for either of them, but you can pretend the accusation doesn’t exist, talk to them about their jobs, their hobbies, dating life, maintain a kind of friendship. Being an ostrich isn’t always irrational.

So one argument people have made about Dylan Farrow’s accusation that Woody Allen raped her is that extending Allen the benefit of the doubt establishes a directly corresponding burden on Dylan. As you can see above, I don’t think that’s quite right. I think there is a middle option, this sort of agnosticism that expresses doubt while averting your eyes. I think this is what’s going on in the discourse of “it’s complicated” or “there’s evidence on both sides; who can ever really know what happened?”. There’s a desire not to judge the beloved artist Allen as a rapist without airtight evidence, a desire not to deny the heart-wrenching account of Dylan Farrow, in short a desire to think well of each party and not condemn either of them if it can be avoided.

As I hope the examples above demonstrate, agnosticism isn’t simply a matter of which box you’d rationally check on a survey. It’s also an emotional attitude to the story, an expression of your feelings, and a determiner of action. One good way to see this is to simply overlay the divorce example onto the Allen/Farrow example and picture being a close friend of both Woody Allen and Mia Farrow prior to the divorce proceedings all those years ago.  Imagine Farrow telling you the story of her daughter, shaken deeply (maybe literally shaking), utterly traumatized by having loved such an evil person, Mia herself probably unsure about what really happened, not wanting to believe her daughter’s tales of Woody’s abuse. Hearing that, how could you possibly stay close to Farrow, if you believed she might be completely wrong or (worse) lying?

Now there’s obviously a big difference between being a close friend of Mia Farrow at the time and being (for example) a stranger talking about her daughter’s rape accusation decades later on Facebook. But I don’t think that changes all that much about the meaning of the choice to be agnostic. For one thing, it’s just the case that sex abuse victims are going to observe discussion of this issue and feel what they feel about expressions of skepticism to accusations of abuse (and if you pretend a belief you don’t have, you’ll be secretly wondering if the whole thing’s bullshit, etc.). But it’s also that the main occasion we usually have to contemplate these kinds of issues is through public controversies like this one, so taking an agnostic view of the public case eventually gets applied (perhaps indirectly) to the private cases you encounter in your own life, which will often be just as complicated and difficult.

In the U.S., somewhere between 14-28% of women and 7-17% of men are victims of sex abuse. I think people have very different attitudes towards these figures if they’ve been a victim of sexual violence (or perhaps been close to a survivor) than if they’ve never experienced the issue personally. I have to admit that for a long time, my first instinct when hearing those statistics was to think that they were unreasonably high and probably reflected some sort of sampling error or unreliability of surveys or the difficulty of gathering correct data under the circumstances or whatever. I think the reason I felt this way was because it didn’t reflect my personal experience (I was not abused), and the thought that maybe one in six of the people around me were survivors was so alien to me that it felt totally crazy. After all, child molesters are such deviant psychopaths and abuse victims are so unusual and damaged (I thought) that it simply couldn’t be true that abuse was so common. If it were, abusers could be people I know and people like me could actually be victims of abuse. And that just made no sense.

Now I don’t think I would have said to someone who showed me those statistics, “Oh, I think you’re wrong; I think the real number is lower.” I think I would have said something like “it’s tough to say; gathering data is difficult. It’s obviously a terrible problem, but I’m not sure what the right numbers are.” I think I would have been agnostic about the question, and I think here too that agnosticism was a way of distancing myself from the problem. Taking a position on the question, would force me to reflect on facts that I wasn’t ready to engage with or understand, so I disengaged by foregrounding my doubt.

It should be clear at this point that I have a pretty negative view of agnosticism as a considered judgment towards sex abuse allegations. I think it distances the agnostic from a problem that is so common in part because people pretend it doesn’t exist, and I think a major feature of sexual violence is often that it casts its victims as irrational and untrustworthy and makes their accounts seem of doubtful veracity.

In saying this, I’m not saying don’t question allegations of abuse and just take them on blind faith. As with any crime, people can be falsely accused. Confabulated memories can form. We shouldn’t just rush to judgment. This means we should be critical and curious about the facts while still being supportive of the accuser. It’s important to empathize and imagine what happened and gain the fullest possible understanding. But I think concluding with “maybe; I dunno” is often a way of cutting that difficult process short rather than a careful expression of doubt. Believing a seemingly normal person is a sexual abuser is never easy, whether it’s a public figure or someone in your own life. That makes it tempting to give up and just recognize that there are claims on both sides, but I think that that agnosticism is something that really should be resisted when possible. Dylan Farrow’s rape accusation against her father is a difficult case with many facts and arguments on both sides, but that doesn’t make it an atypical abuse case. Sexual abuse is just a difficult, confusing issue where there will always be people asserting their humanity on both sides. I think it’s important to try to reach a way of figuring out these questions, rather than stopping at the point where all we can express is confusion.

* For those curious, here’s the clip from whence I stole the post’s title

[1] Cf. for you legal nerds, Dworkin’s argument against pragmatism in Law’s Empire: that it would be not just impractical but absurd to split policy outcomes piecemeal based on voting percentage (e.g 55% of a state gets Medicare but 45% does not). The implication he draws is that law has to express a coherent moral framework.


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