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Monday, June 27, 2005
Agnostics and Manichaeans
In 242 AD, the Babylonian prophet Manah proclaimed a revelation about the nature of the divine and mortal realms. In his view, various spirits created the world in the course of an unrelated power struggle, and then an evil spirit imprisoned beings from the realm of spirit within it. These beings are the spiritual portion of humanity. Manih claimed that once we humans learn the secrets of the divine, we can then ascend beyond this crude prison into the grace of the God of Light. The Manichaean is a sort of gnostic; claiming personal knowledge of the divine realm which he has attained through study and meditation.
Meanwhile there are two definitions of "atheist" depending on how one parses the Greek. One believes that there are no gods: he is athe-ist. The other counts himself outside the set of those who believe that there are gods (theists): so he is a-theist. The athe-ist is a subset of the a-theists; the other subset of a-theism, who don't believe one way or another, proclaim themselves agnostic. This one says that he does not gno, or know, whether there are gods or not. So the opposite of "agnostic" isn't "theist"; the opposite is "gnostic" - like the Manichaean.
A long time after 242 AD, as measured in this world of flesh, I posted this comment on Ace's site in reaction to Dianna the Christian:
From the standpoint of what Christians hold dear, agnostics and Manichaean gnostics are similar - far more similar than either are to, say, Muslims. Specifically, the agnostic and the Manichaean share against the Christian common opinions on the nature of God.
The Christian believes that God is both merciful and just. The Christian has further (in his/her holy texts) proposed a means by which God has proven His mercy and justice. The Christian further believes that God has reached out to us through history and continues to call His own during the present.
Obviously the agnostic cannot claim to share the knowledge of a Manichaean. But a Christian won't care. Christians don't think of their faith as a religion. To a Christian: religion is man reaching to God, and Christianity is God reaching to man. God is assumed. So to Christians the doubts of agnostics and certainties of Manichaeans are irrelevant. All that matters is what agnostics and Manichaeans say about God, and how such claims stack up against the claims of Christian doctrine.
A non-Christian may doubt that Christian claims are possible; he may doubt that the Christian claim about the way God chose to exert his mercy and justice is truthful; or he may, on the assumption that the Christian claim is true, doubt that this method is in fact merciful or just. The non-Christian reaction to a claim like "religion is man reaching to God; Christianity is God reaching to man" is likely one of derision. But that is also beside the point.
Having explained the Christian view, how do Manichaeans view the divine? In Dianna's words -
To defend the Manichaeans, they don't believe that the God of Light is omnipotent. His creation of a rival would be a contradiction of omnipotence and therefore an insanity - if they believed in omnipotent gods. Manichaeans instead believe that the God of Light, to whose party they belong, created an opponent of finite (albeit great) powers in this universe. The God of Light then identified some rules by which mortals of this universe can go back to God, rules which he will not and this adversary cannot change. There is no contradiction here.
Now, these rules of Manah involve disassociation from worldly concerns. They don't propose charity or even decency to one's neighbour. In the example of the God of Light, Manah, and Jesus, a Manichaean would probably support the dissemination of true knowledge as a worthy cause. Otherwise, by worldly standards, the gods are amoral. People should aim for the domain of the God of Light because it is the best of the alternatives. If the Manichaean god exists, then he is not good by worldly standards. The Manichaean would riposte that it doesn't matter, and that this is just how the universe behaves.
Agnostics by definition can't rule out the existence of God. A "god" to the agnostic is simply a being so powerful relative to humanity that humans cannot hope to hinder its plans. Any sufficiently mighty alien race would suffice. Such a "god", like the Manichaean god, wouldn't have to be omnipotent. And, also like the Manichaean god, this being would be unlikely to care about what was moral or even helpful to humanity, any more than we care about the bugs in our yard. Those agnostics who are not humanists could perceivably say that our duty as humans is to find out which alien being promises us the best and longest-lasting personal happiness, and to support that one.
The only difference between the cosmologies of Manichaeans and agnostics is that the Manichees thought that they had found a few such beings. (And since they stuck their necks out, they all got defeated and - following Galilean astronomy - proven wrong. But that's a postscript.)
Christians on the other hand deeply believe that the Cosmic Gardener has taken a fancy to the cockroaches therein, and cares more about them than he cares about, say, the bluebottle flies. They are entitled to this belief, but it is vanishingly improbable.
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