Confronting religion as an agnostic

7 mins read

My relationship with religion can best be described as on-and-off. I was not raised as a church-goer, and for much of my life I have identified myself as an agnostic theist — that is, someone who believes in a religious deity, but acknowledges the existence of that deity as unknowable. That has pretty much been my way out of dealing with religion and faith in general, and out of having to choose between the polar camps of theists and atheists. However, I have recently started to confront a lot of mixed feelings about religion and become more curious about how and why people choose between the two.

I feel like atheism is a fairly popular way to go at Swat, at least in my social circles. In my four years here, I have met all manner of atheists — atheists who are atheist just because they feel it makes sense, atheists who are just so adamantly atheist, atheists who are 0.1percent theist, Jewish atheists … you name it. Sometimes atheism is an intellectual decision, but also an emotional one. “Religion has caused so much bad in the world,” said one of my friends. “Religious people like to talk about all the good that religion has done for the world but really, it’s done more good than bad.” When she said this, I thought of my extended family in Hong Kong, deeply indebted to the charity of the Catholic Church for sustenance and education after the Second World War, but I said nothing.

There is no doubt that many atrocities are perpetuated in the name of religious faith. Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transgender people are oppressed and genocide is encouraged under religious banners. I have been turned off from religion in the past because of a very common amalgamation of religious faith with political rhetoric. While interning in DC this summer, I went to a Baptist church with my friend and officemate. I distinctly remember one service when the pastor said, “Based on the range of ages and races here, I will guess that 40 percent of this congregation was almost aborted. Be thankful to your parents.”

I also do not deny that absolute faith can be a hard thing to muster. This is especially so in an environment like Swat, where we are encouraged to scrutinize, question and dissect everything placed in front of us. For instance, this past summer, I joined an intern Bible study group. “All these intellectuals talk a lot about post-modernism and other ideas and propose these new ways of looking at faith, but it’s all false!” said one group member, in a discussion. “There is only one truth.” I recall being incredulous and maybe a little impressed that you could have faith that strong without ever intellectually questioning it.

As much as the concept of absolute faith has annoyed me, it has also put me in awe. During the summer, I encountered an emotionally trying period in my relationship with my parents and confided about it to my officemate. After Bible study and before parting ways at the metro station, she said to me, “Emily, can you pray with me?” She pulled me close to her and in her prayer she said, “Father God, you probably know how things are going to work out, but please help my friend Emily. She’s going through some rough times, so please help her get through it and work it out. In the Lord Jesus’s name, Amen.” This one prayer seems very simple. But at that moment, I felt so incredibly moved by my friend’s earnestness and care for me — she had openly called upon the highest power to help me, and had faith that it would happen, so much so that I also felt incredibly empowered. It was probably one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

For me experiences like that really challenge the notion that religion and faith can be simply written off.

Going to church still frustrates me, but it is also an incredibly calming ritual. Over the summer, Sundays at church were a time to collect my thoughts, take refuge in quiet, and prepare myself mentally for the coming week. Is it just fear? Maybe so, although I can think of less healthy outlets for fear.

I am not quite prepared to accept an almighty Savior into my life, but I am a proponent of religion as a philosophy and guide for people to find a way to live their lives. A pastor at my Baptist church once asked, “How would a Christian deal with the end of the world?” He quoted Martin Luther, who once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” The point being, even in the face of chaos, one can still deal with it calmly and rationally without hysteria.

Religion won’t stop being a controversial topic, and my beliefs will probably keep evolving as I go through my life. But regarding religion simply as a philosophy and way of life, at the moment, is the best way I know how to reconcile my doubts and my desire for guidance in my early twenties, a time that constantly brings upheaval and change.



  1. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. “

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