How can you conceive of something you can’t conceive?

I love Lesley Hazleton's sentences.

Their slow and steady cadences comfort me, and they reflect the extremely balanced-seeming mind that creates them. Take this one, for instance: "Blessedly unencumbered by either the need to believe or the need to explain everything, the agnostic is free to experience awe without seeking to define it—to explore and interact with the world in ways that neither the rule-bound fundamentalist nor the dogmatic atheist ever dares dream of."

This complex parallel syntax, the way the em dash extends her sentence just as she begins to make her argument for an extension of the mind, is truly awe-inspiring stuff. And though the power of Hazleton's rhetorical style is undeniable, I can't say the same about the substance of her argument in Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto.

Hazleton asserts her thesis in various permutations, but the basic logic is this: "God" is beyond human comprehension, therefore it's silly to wonder if "God" exists or not. How can you conceive of something you can't conceive? Agnostics understand that they can't understand—a stance Hazleton flatters as "free-spirited, thoughtful, and independent-minded," as opposed to the "wishy-washy I-don't-knowness that atheists often accuse it of being."

Agnosticism's free-spiritedness allows it to embrace the joys of knowledge and the joys of mystery, wonder, awe, and all that is beyond knowledge, while acknowledging that, yes, it might also be true that nonbelievers could be on to something. (Here's your cake. You know what to do.)

Hazleton argues that to say one is a believer or a nonbeliever is to "see the world in binary terms," and that actively engaging in nonbinary thinking will allow you to more fully engage with the world.

At the risk of being tiresome... to say that there is binary thinking and that there is nonbinary thinking is an example of binary thinking. Everyone is fully capable of being selective about when to use the binary thinking and when not to. Likewise, people can offer a definitive "no" to the question of god's existence and still be capable of experiencing awe and mystery—in literature, in physics, or even in the ordinary joy of just looking around at stuff.

And the supposed encumbrance of the "need to explain everything" is just what the act of earnest engagement in mystery looks like and sounds like. Making a distinction between the interesting mysteries of the humanities and the shitty ones that religions package to dazzle and exploit their adherents is not evidence of a closed mind (or a "closed soul," as Hazleton might say). It's evidence of not wanting to waste what little time we have arguing about specious nonsense.

The relevant nonbinary thought here is one voiced by the late Christopher Hitchens: Why would anyone desire the existence of a deity, however ineffable or benevolent, when none is necessary? Hazleton's answer is that the agnostic's version of god—the one born of a technicality, a glitch of epistemology—has to be there because she feels it. She "delights" in "things sensed but not proven," and describes what's beyond the universe as something she "sensed might be." Such logic is frustrating because it can't be questioned. It's the because-I-say-so school of epistemological discourse. It lacks gravity.

If "god" is beyond comprehension, why should the inarticulate grunts of our body-bound lizard brain offer us any more access to it? It's inconsistent to suggest that human feelings and sensations have any more access to the divine than the human consciousness that conceived of divineness in the first place. The sense that we could be perceiving something is not the same thing as perceiving it, and to suggest otherwise deflates the true awe and complexity (or pure simplicity) of genuine mystery.

The most disappointing thing about Hazleton's book is that—contrary to her initial thesis—she really does sit on the fence of this argument the whole time. Earlier I mentioned Hitchens, the most gifted of the "Four Horsemen," a cheeky name for the quartet of so-called new atheists (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were the other three) who brought outspoken nonbelief to the main stage in the years following 9/11. At the beginning of Agnostic, Hazleton hints that she'll give those men the routing they deserve. And they do deserve one. Their voices—all male, Hazleton notes—have dominated the discussion for too long. The critique she delivers is rhetorical, but not really substantive. She basically tells them to stop being so sure of themselves, to stop thinking in binary ways. She reminds them that there are mysterious experiences in the world that are hard to explain. Okay.

On the other end of the spectrum of faith, she entreats religious fundamentalists to admit that theirs isn't the only mystery. She then points to the stars and says, "Look, the wonders of science and the cosmos are available to religious people, too!" This invitation is both condescending and unsatisfactory. Of course religious people are wowed by stars. The problem is they think a god made them.

On a certain level, an atheist sparring with an agnostic on the issue of who's more right about the wrongness of religion sounds a bit like a Bernie Bro arguing with a Hillary Clinton supporter about who's technically more anti-Trump. The distinction is thin. (And, as I mentioned earlier, Hazleton speaks and writes beautifully about religion in the seven books she's written on the subject.) But in a universe so full of dark matter, thin distinctions count. Even Satan started as an angel of light.