Finding Faith in Uncertainty, Sacredness in the Mundane
The Paradoxical Spirituality of Agnosticism
For the longest time, I struggled to make sense of who I was and what I believed in. I am from multiple cultures, languages, and places; my family and I moved between countries and homes when I was small, and my parents come from two different worlds — southern California and rural Japan. As a result, I grew up trying to reconcile different, often conflicting, beliefs within myself. For a while, I felt deficient, as though my confusing jumble of contradictory belief systems and identities cancelled each other out so that I was nothing.
This internal conflict came to a head when I went off to college, and was completely on my own for the first time, faced with endless options and choices about what I wanted to do and what kind of person I wanted to be. Since then, I have had many new, unanticipated experiences, and as a result, my understanding of myself and the world, including my sense of spirituality, has changed and grown quite a bit. I no longer view my tendency to see things from multiple angles as a sign of “wishy-washiness,” but as a realistic recognition of the complexity and multidimensionality of existence. Embracing uncertainty in this way has allowed me to move towards a “seeker agnosticism” that views the vastness of the unknown as an endless source of awe and opportunity for new ways of understanding and experiencing the world, especially in my supposedly “mundane” day-to-day life.
In this post, I will explore this relatively recent shift in my worldview and sense of spirituality. In order to provide some context, I’ll first reflect on why I believe that this shift was necessary in the first place by considering the limitations and dangers of “certainty” in both religion and science. I’ll then take stock of the positive elements of religion and science as belief systems, and finally discuss how I wish to draw from these belief systems as I move forward in creating my own form of spirituality.
The Dangers of Religious and Scientific Fundamentalism
Many of the issues associated with science and religion seem to stem from maladaptive ways of coping with the fear of uncertainty. In this section, I will discuss these issues, and how they inform my own beliefs.
Prejudice, Overconfidence, and Fear of the Unknown
Various forms of prejudice, discrimination, and violence can be traced back to a hostility and fear towards the unknown. Religious fundamentalism, for instance, involves a view of new social trends as threats to the “purity” of tradition, and has been found to positively relate to all types of prejudice (1). Religious fundamentalists are defined by their belief that their own religious texts hold the one and only legitimate perspective of humanity and the divine, as well as their hostility towards new social trends, and a dualistic view of the world as divided into “good” and “evil” (2). More in-depth research on the link between religion and prejudice has found that compared to other religious people those who are indiscriminately pro-religious (i.e. score highly on both intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity) tend to be the most prejudiced (3), perhaps due to an undifferentiated way of thinking based in a desire for absolute certainty. This excessive certainty in one’s own worldview, and sense of superiority over all other perspectives can devolve into right wing authoritarianism and the use of violence to impose this supposedly infallible belief system onto others (4).
Similarly, although science is supposed to be based in curiosity, open-mindedness, and critical thinking, unfortunately like religion, it has also been used to reinforce and justify existing forms of narrow-mindedness and discrimination. For instance, in the early 1900’s, white men in the U.S. claimed that evolutionary theory and differences between racial groups “proved” white superiority and justified racist and discriminatory actions, such as the cultural genocide of Indigenous Americans through federal boarding schools (5). These issues of close-mindedness and prejudice continue to be relevant today, with group polarization and hostility between people with differing religious, scientific, and political beliefs.
In this way, excessive certainty and adherence to a narrow set of religious or scientific beliefs can give rise to hostility, harm, and division between groups with differing belief systems. I have certainly been guilty of prejudiced thinking towards religious and spiritual people myself. For instance, growing up, I had written off many of my mom’s spiritual beliefs as “superstitious” and unrealistic, without even trying to understand them by talking with her about them in depth. Although issues of prejudice and close-mindedness are harmful and easy to condemn from a distance, they arise from an understandable underlying desire to find comfort in your beliefs. People naturally crave meaning and purpose (6), and ready-made belief systems like religion can provide these and orient us by explaining why things happen and telling us what we should do about them. Studies have shown that people rely on their cultural worldviews, including their religious beliefs, to provide them with self-esteem and psychological security (7). However, an excessive need for security can lead to an unhealthy obsession with controlling the future. This brings me to my second, more spiritual issue with religious and scientific fundamentalism — their overemphasis on understanding the past and predicting the future can disconnect us from our sense of humility and awe at living in the unpredictable present moment.
Sacrificing Spontaneous Living for Rigid Security
As described earlier, religious fundamentalists often cling to the past and are hostile to change and exploration in the present moment. Those with excessive need for controlling the future may also turn to science and technological advancement, and may devalue ways of loosening control and finding meaning and purpose in the spontaneity of the present moment (e.g. socializing, experiencing and creating art, meditating, spending time in nature). Although it can be helpful to fall back on pre-existing meaning systems to comfort and orient ourselves during difficult times, constantly following a rigid script for how to think and act can also cause us to forget to truly live and experience the world spontaneously.
Forgetting to experience the present moment can cause significant mental suffering that can be easy to overlook. This danger is captured in the words of the late theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, who was famous for saying “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless” (8). This quote seems to me to embody the sense of hyper-rational emptiness that can result from forgetting to live and appreciate the fullness of the subjective human experience. Not too long ago, I would have agreed with Weinberg’s statement. I felt that my existence was meaningless, and that most human activities were just ways of keeping ourselves busy and distracted from this fundamental pointlessness of our lives. Choosing to view everything through this lens of apathy and meaninglessness provided me with a certain type of safety. It protected me from the daunting task of creating and searching for my own meaning.
Perhaps Weinberg’s view of a pointless universe makes sense from a purely scientific perspective; science is meant to be descriptive, not normative. It describes what we do, not what we should do. Therefore, although I believe the scientific method is a powerful tool that has helped people learn a great deal about the mechanics of our world and universe, it has its limitations. Scientific observation and measurement does not seem capable of answering certain deep existential questions (at least for now), such as the “hard problem” of consciousness (9), termed by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers: How and why do we have conscious experiences?
At times, it seems to me that people with an all-encompassing faith in science can be arrogant, defensive, and dismissive of anything that is (at least currently) outside of the reach of scientific understanding. Weinberg’s statement that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless” (8) carries a bit of this arrogance, in suggesting that we currently comprehend enough of the universe in order to make claims about the point of existence (or lack thereof), or even that our human minds could be capable of grasping “the point” of things that exist on a scale that exceeds us by many orders of magnitude. It is true that science has helped us understand far more than our ancestors may have ever imagined about our universe, but in my view, the more we know about our existence, the more apparent it seems that humanity knows next to nothing out of the seemingly infinite things there are to know.
This brings me back to my initial argument in this section — that becoming entirely consumed by a focus on what is “out there,” beyond our reach, can cause us to forget to live and experience the present moment in a meaningful and rewarding way. In other words, while I admire how science can help us discover and appreciate just how complex and amazing our existence is by seeking the answers that are “out there,” it is possible to become so lost in seeking clear-cut answers that you forget how to just “be.” Related to this, Weinberg had also once said that although religion deserved credit for giving us “requiem masses, gothic cathedrals, wonderful poetry,” he thought he “would enjoy it more if [he] thought it was really about something….It’s just beautiful poetry, and beautiful buildings, and beautiful music — but it’s not about anything” (8). In a way, I agree with Weinberg that gothic cathedrals, poetry, and music aren’t necessarily “about” something — at least not in the same way that an academic paper is. Artistic creations do not always have a clear, narrowly defined purpose that can be fully captured in a one-sentence thesis statement. However, I don’t think that makes them unimportant — although they may not be “about” something, they are still there to be experienced and appreciated, to remind us that there’s more to life than just going through the motions.
The Benefits of Belief
In the following sections, I will shift away from discussing the limitations of science and religion towards an acknowledgement of the many positives of these belief systems, as well as how I would like to learn from and incorporate them into my own worldview.
For one thing, it is important to note that religion can often be good for us. Various studies have associated religious and spiritual engagement with a wide array of mental and physical health benefits for individuals, including a 25% to 30% reduction in mortality risk (10), lower incidence and severity of depression and anxiety (11, p. 18), and improved wellbeing and self-esteem (11, p. 18). Many of these health benefits may be the result of healthier lifestyles (11, p. 17) and built-in religious coping tools such as prayer and meditation (12, p. 198–199). As is often the case with psychology, this association between religiosity and well-being is not always simple. The generally positive relationship between religion, spirituality, and health can be complicated or reversed by various mediating variables, such as whether the individual thinks of God as benevolent and loving or judgmental and punishing (13). Still, it is evident that religion and spirituality have much to offer, such as meaning, purpose, and community.
It seems possible to me that some of these benefits might also be found within a scientific belief system, as well, considering that at their core, science and religion both encourage people to approach other people and life as a whole with humility and wonder. The existential-humanistic psychologist Dr. Schneider describes some of these shared strengths of religion and science in the following passage from The Spirituality of Awe: Challenges to the Robotic Revolution:
In their essence, religion and science complement one another for the following reasons: 1) they both appreciate the mystery of existence; 2) they both prioritize a humility before the vastness of existence; 3) they both prize the depth and intricacy of existence, as well as the gift of life; and finally 4) they both cherish the contemplation of and connection with nature (14, p. 37).
This quote emphasizes humility, acceptance, and appreciation as shared core values of science and religion. To me, this involves trying to understand myself and the world around me in an accepting, non-judgmental way. It can be difficult to move away from the self-absorbed desire to be “right” and prove others “wrong,” but I have found that aspiring to a non-judgmental acceptance and appreciation of myself, other people, and nature makes it much easier to be forgiving, grateful, and self-compassionate — all of which are virtues which have been linked to greater wellbeing (12, pp. 223–229).
Taking Stock and Moving Forward: Developing an Agnostic Spirituality
As I mentioned at the start of this paper, my shift in understanding my spirituality and my identity as a whole happened relatively recently, within the past few years. I have referred to my current spiritual orientation as “seeker agnosticism,” but it feels strange to put a label on this type of orientation at all. By its very nature, seeker agnosticism embraces the unknown and seeks out new ways of understanding (15), and seems to me to be an ongoing process or experience, rather than a definitive label for describing my identity. In this final section, I would like to reflect on this ongoing spiritual transformation.
My current day-to-day life has been filled with a deep-seated sense of being “present” in a way that feels beyond words, and maybe even spiritual or sacred. I have often felt this way recently when walking across campus, appreciating how the midday winter sun casts such intense shadows from its unusually low place in the sky; and when observing the squirrels on campus as they forage and dig, so busy and immersed in their own lives; and when I wake up early enough to go outside when everything is still absorbed in the morning fog that insulates the world in an unearthly quiet. Lately, my feelings of meaning, appreciation, and awe surrounding all of these “mundane” experiences have been giving me a powerful sense of what I might best describe as spiritual “fullness,” or the opposite of emptiness. This way of experiencing the world allows me to appreciate the vastness and intricacy of the supposedly mundane aspects of life.
Sometimes it is frustrating to me that these feelings by their very nature are so hard to capture in words. I realize that my claim that I “find certainty in uncertainty” may sound paradoxical, and admittedly, although this wording may sound catchy, it isn’t entirely accurate. Perhaps rather than “certainty,” it would be more accurate to describe this feeling as a “consistent recognition” that every moment is impermanent, spontaneous, and uncertain. Although this does help me appreciate that every moment is precious, it does not protect me from feelings of confusion, sadness, or frustration in reaction to the many things that I can’t fully explain or control. In this way, my belief system doesn’t exactly manage my fear or comfort me in the same way that I might be comforted if I believed for certain that bad things happen for a reason and that everything was under the control of a loving and benevolent God. Still, my worldview lets me accept and affirm my feelings of fear, horror, and sadness in reaction to suffering and hardship. Although this can be painful, I have also found it more comforting than trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t be upset because everything happens for a good reason.
I am not trying to claim that having faith in an inherently “good” world or a benevolent God is bad — I could imagine that if I were able to truly believe in this it would be very comforting. Still, I have trouble understanding how some people can have faith with such certainty. To try to inform my own limited understanding of faith, I had a conversation with my mom, who regularly engages in religious and spiritual practices, partly based in Buddhism and Shinto. As a child, my mom used to take me to temples and shrines about once per year when we visited Japan, but until very recently, we had never had an in-depth discussion about her beliefs. I was surprised to learn that my mom’s faith in what she calls the mienai sekai (world that you can’t see) is not entirely drawn from Shinto or Buddhism, but rather from her own understanding and interpretation of a spiritual world. I was also surprised to learn that my mom considers herself much more spiritual than most Japanese people, and that her own parents (my grandparents) had not been very engaged in religion and spirituality themselves, aside from following certain traditions such as going to pray at the temple for the New Year. This took me by surprise because I had always assumed that my mom had inherited her beliefs from her parents.
Despite being surprised by certain aspects of my conversation with my mom, this discussion helped me better understand where my sense of the sacredness of the mundane might have come from. During our recent discussion, my mom told me that she believes there is a piece of the divine, or a “little bit of god” inside each of us, and growing up, she always told me to be grateful and respectful towards both living and nonliving things. This attitude is based in the Japanese view of nature as inherently sacred, and as one Japanese psychotherapist explains, because all elements of existence are a part of nature, they are “endowed with spirit, [and] every individual existence is dependent on others and all are connected in an ever-changing world” (16). This description of the sacred and ever-changing nature of all elements of existence, both living and nonliving, resonates with my sense of spirituality, meaning, and depth during my ordinary, day-to-day life.
I would like to remember to carry this sense of humility and wonder at the unknown with me as I move through this ever-changing present moment. As the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl argues in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1963), humans inherently desire and seek meaning in life, and that this can motivate us to keep living with purpose from moment to moment. For me, striving to maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder towards uncertainty has helped me embrace the extremes and paradoxes of living. The ability to love and grieve, hope and despair, feel pleasure at the beauty of the world but also pain at all its evils all at once have made life not just tolerable, but also intensely rewarding and meaningful.
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