My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.


HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

8 thoughts on “My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

  1. Hi Howard,

    I’ve read your piece about the conversation you had with your brother three times now. I think it proves some profound concepts and reflects on the nature of faith in God. I found it really helpful, particularly because it doesn’t strive for fundamentalist certainties.

    Many Christians I know are fundamentalists, because they think it is heretical or sinful to say, “I’m not sure.” And yet time and again they have to revise their God concept because reality did not allow them to hold onto the incompatible model.

    I think we all seek certainty and to contain the knowledge vital to our being in formats that are accessible and controllable. But God by definition is beyond such certainty and control. We decide God has to act in a predictable way, that He could not allow such and such to happen, and He roars, “Why not! My ways are not your ways!” As CS Lewis put it, God is not tame! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

    So, I am with you in the practice of prayer, although our practices are overtly different. Prayer is the expression of our belief that God exists, it is a position of faith, that is, not in control, not knowing, but trusting that the God of our fathers, the One revealed in Scripture, is as He claims to be: the I Am, pure existence, the God of faithfulness, justice and …… love!

    Again, CS Lewis once said that life’s experiences do not logically present such a deity, so the fact that we believe in a God who is righteousness, holy and good can only be because of revelation. We are surprised by joy when we pray and bless the LORD, when we experience the numinous awe that comes in the desert, or by the ocean or in the mountains or a forest. What you call ‘the still, small voice’.

    I am comforted that both love and faith are active verbs. I choose to act out of them, not because it makes sense, but because it gives zest and edge to every aspect of living. I often reflect on the words attributed to Francis of Assisi, ‘Make me a channel of your peace’ – and you could add love or grace or forgiveness. Is prayer an act of letting go and clearing the pipes so God can flow through us to the benefit, the blessing of others? I hope so – I don’t know so!

    We should talk about this matter sometime. I remember once you set me up and asked me, in front of witnesses, was it my Christian duty to convert you. I think I said that it was not, and what I sought was to seek truth honestly with another fellow – to seek to know more of God. If I didn’t, I should have, and that is all I seek. You challenge me, sharpen me and delight me in so many ways!

    Grace and shalom


    Stephen Leslie, on iPad



    • steve

      my belated response

      firstly and mostly – my thanks for reading and rereading and responding so thoughtfully

      I wrote and posted with you in mind
      you always have something fresh and deep to say
      you’ve never failed me

      did I really set you up?
      I might be mischievous, but that sounds positively malicious!

      you are right, I lack fundamental certainties
      I wish I had them but I expect i’d mistrust my own certitudes, if indeed I had any

      I recall my medical school fiend , tony, (who became my work partner), saying early in our friendship he envied me my faith – for its presumed certainty
      he lacked an anchor in the universe and he saw that I had one
      of course my anchor was a tradition couched in love, not an intellectual construct
      he it was, not my brother, who coined ‘Godfearing agnostics’

      for my part I observed my Uncle Abe, who seemed to have a perfect faith
      he was not an intellectual man, but simply a loving and widely beloved man
      everyone who knew him treasured him
      and he kept his faith simply and happily, and without evident question or doubt
      I loved him and I honour his memory

      your thought on prayer clearing pipes to create a conduit in us for God are unexpected and fresh and thought-provoking

      I do think love and grace exist somewhere in this search of mortals to know Him
      my Uncle Abe reinforces this feeling

      as for grace, that’s an element I failed to address, but i’m sure that knowledge of inner peace that is so redemptive is also revelatory in its effects
      grace feels to me unarguable as evidence, equally with revelation

      neither, of course, can convince another

      and I feel that the drive to convince another lacks respect for the spiritual autonomy of that other
      I never senses that in steve leslie

      bless him




      • One more thing: in the Review section of last Weekend Australian, Costica Bradatan reviewed
        Unbelievers: an emotional history of doubt, in which the author, a Christian theologian, praises atheism as “philosophically serious and ethically respectable”
        I found the review relevant to our conversation



  2. I really enjoyed the mental and metaphysical gymnastics here. A lot of this I can associate with yet I consider myself at best an agnostic. One day we will all find out who was right and who was wrong. Unless we were right to be agnostic. In which case we will never know. If you see what I mean.


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