Profane. adj. 1. characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious. 2. not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred). 3. unholy, heathen; pagan: profane rites. 4. not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons. 5. common or vulgar.
Agnostic. n. 1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. 2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study. 3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality. adj. 4. of or pertaining to agnostics or their doctrines, attitudes, or beliefs. 5. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge. 6. holding neither of two opposing opinions.
We’re a little off the beaten path today. Just go with me.
For some reason, the definition of “profane” reminds me of an academic conference I recently attended. I’d given my little twenty-minute spiel, in the way we do; a guy in the audience, who had what Dave Eggers would call “creative facial hair,” was especially receptive and asked good questions. (Why do I keep making reference to Dave Eggers? I promise to stop.)
(As an aside: I use a lot of profanity in my day-to-day speech. Call me common or vulgar; I might be either one of those things. But I saw something on the internet recently that suggested that this fact might make me more likable and trustworthy to others. I’m going with that. Why? Because, fuckin-A, why else? My fictional protagonist also uses a lot of profanity. I sometimes worry that this will turn off otherwise reasonable readers. Then again, maybe they’ll understand that her potty mouth makes her more likable and trustworthy to others.)
Academic types bond over good questions. We love that shit. We sit there and secretly hope that someone will ask an unanswerable question, at which point we will respond with this line: “that’s a great question, though it’s a little outside the scope of my argument. What do you think?” And then the person will launch into a six-minute explanation of what s/he thinks. We live for it. I kid you not.
And if you don’t know how academic conferences go? I’ll tell you. We all arrive at a hotel, which is usually overpriced for what it is. We give fifteen-minute synopses (see “Synopsis,” only it’s different) of what lights our academic fires in the moment. We hope that someone will say something that we can write down, something that will change the whole trajectory of our thinking. Or, more realistically, we hope that everyone in the audience will tell us how brilliant we are. Egos stroked, we descend onto the hotel bar, where we drink beer and play a game called “spot the other academics.”
After the panel, during which I gave my Important Paper that Someone might Like to Cite Someday, I’d planned to attend what looked like a kick-ass group of papers on popular culture (my academic cup of tea)—I don’t usually plan to attend anything at these events, so even dog-earing the program and drawing a star in the margin meant something, at least for me. A friend and I stood in the hallway by the hotel elevator, waiting to get to where we needed to be and hoping for an escape route, when receptive-good-question-guy-with-creative-facial-hair approached us and said, in as many words: “There are only four people in my audience right now; it’d be great if you could attend my panel. I’m giving a paper on atheist conversion narratives, and it kind of connects with your questions about authenticity.” He wasn’t talking to my friend; he was talking to me.
Goddamn it, shit. Bloody hell, man, are you serious?
Now, this could be an opportunity for me to launch into my answer to the question of why academic-types so often seem like jerks (or, in the spirit of this post, “such fucking assholes”), but I think that probably deserves its own post. Instead, I’ll just give you a little narrative that will, I hope, show you that I try not to be one of those jerks.
Me: [thinking] Okay. Atheist conversion narratives? Right up my alley. I mean, I’m no atheist—I hate labels like that, as a matter of fact—but he had me at “conversion narratives.”
My friend: I’m bailing.
Elevator: BING. [people get on and leave the scene]
Me: I think I have to go to his panel. [thinking: I’d really like to go back to my room and work on my novel.]
My friend: Why, because he asked good questions at your panel?
Me: Yeah, and there are only four people in his panel, and I feel bad.
My friend: Good luck with that. We’ll get a beer after.
Anyway. I ended up in a panel that sounded great on paper: Literature and Religion. I mean, what’s not to love? In my own academic work, I do a lot with “literature and religion,” whatever the hell that means, so I thought it might be fun. But then I saw what the panel was really about. And I immediately fell asleep, way before anyone started talking.
Not really. But I definitely started to plan how I could get out of the room, which was just dimly-lit enough to be depressing and just warm enough to have a soporific effect, without anyone noticing or taking offense—I actually care about shit like that. Maybe my guy is talking first, and I can feign an important phone call and leave when he’s done. Nope. He’s talking last. Last. After various people ramble on about various things. Okay, next plan: I’ll sit here in the back and play with my phone until he gives his paper, at which point I’ll pay attention. Then I’ll ask a couple of good, hard questions—you know, return the favor—before I jet and get some beers.
Right. Sounds like a plan. Right?
What struck me, though, because I’m unable to truly tune out if someone is giving some kind of presentation (I’d never want to be rude that way, though I did check my social media accounts a couple of times in the course of all this, albeit behind the cover of the conference program), is that these people were conflating “religion” and “Christianity.” When this dawned on me, I looked again at the program. Oh, right. Two of them are from a university that wrote a job ad this year that would have been right up my alley . . . if only they hadn’t just fired a woman for marrying her partner.
So then I started thinking about that, as a young (seemingly impossibly young, at least from my thirty-something vantage point) woman was talking about the Trilogy and how it did or did not relate to Milton. You know, Milton. And, you know, marrying your partner and getting fired from a tenure-track job for it. And I heard various friends’ voices in my head, telling me how smart I am for not applying for that job, even though what the ad actually said, basically, at the end of the day, was that they wanted me to apply. I heard my own partner’s voice in my head, clamoring for equal rights and this and that. But ultimately, in the sanctity of this seemingly sealed room, I returned to this question: at what point in time did “religion” become the same as “Christianity?” And then I heard the young woman’s voice again. She was doing that thing that too many women do: she ended every sentence with a question mark? So then I started thinking about that and simultaneously wishing that I were anywhere else in the entire goddamn world, academic or otherwise. I started thinking more and more about beer. The things we do for kindness.
Anyway, dude with creative facial hair eventually got around to giving his paper. And it wasn’t bad, not really, but he played a little linguistic game in which “atheist” became the same as “agnostic,” and it bothered me, in spite of his visual aids, which included all of the books to which he made reference. He said something about wanting us to see how “dark the covers are.” It didn’t get under my skin so much because I identify as “agnostic,” but because he was so dismissive of both “agnostic” and “atheist”; he kept making it seem like they were the same thing, and he insisted on these faith-based arguments that I wanted to deconstruct, right there in front of what promised to become some kind of weird revival meeting. So if I’m following this, I kept thinking, agnostic and atheist are the same thing, and they’re both opposed to religion and Christianity, which are the same thing.
And it did: it became a revival meeting. I kid you not. I felt like I was in a surrealist painting at a couple of points, you know, the one where the clocks are melting. So after I asked my two pointed questions? I left and got some beers with people who know the difference between the two A’s that threaten Christianity—I mean “religion.” At dinner/beers I talked to a couple of young graduate students who needed to be reassured that, if they don’t feel like they’re doing it all wrong in the first year? They’re doing it wrong. Rites of passage. Anyway.
Hence “agnostic.” I’ll open this to you: what do you think “agnostic” means, aside from what the dictionary says? Can it apply to more than just faith/spirituality/religion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it?
Because I tell you what: lately, and in spite of my vigorous search for tenure-track employment, I’ve become agnostic about a lot of things, especially as they relate to higher education. What are we all about, anyway? Where we stake our claims to authenticity? What do we really mean when we say things like “digital humanities” and “critical thinking” and whatever else we might proclaim? Are these definitional problems, or conceptual ones? Let’s open that up to comments, too. Have at it.
For what it’s worth? I’m a profane agnostic. Define it however you want.