In our earliest personal understandings of atheism, most of us tend to focus on religion as the sole target of unbelief, concentrating on whatever local god, holy book, or other anointed authority our home culture presents us with. But as we become more comfortable with basic atheism, we begin to understand that religion isn’t the only item worthy of skeptical scrutiny. We start to think about psychics, luck, fate—all sorts of mystical or proto-mystical subjects that seem to share a certain common ground with religion.
And yet I don’t think most of us actually define the nature of that commonality.
There is a linguistic category I refer to as “nullwords,” words that have no provable solid object behind them. So we have a word for the thing but no thing for the word. Angel. Fate. Karma. Spirit.
Some of these words are mere artsy expressions of known fictional characters or plot devices—and some of them are even arguable, depending on how fuzzily you want to define them (angel)—but others have this other thing associated with them, a “something behind” that moves them into a category shared with religion. That “something behind” is the concept of agency.
I’m surely not the first to arrive at this idea, but I couldn’t immediately find a good definition of what I’m thinking about. Wikipedia’s entry comes closest:
In sociology and philosophy, agency is the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general) … to act in a world. … Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices. It is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes.
But as I define it here, agency is a property of deliberate thought, feeling, or action possessed by an immaterial agent. Far from being an unthinking deterministic process, this immaterial agent has both consciousness and intent. It recognizes that human beings exist; it has feelings and thoughts about them. Further, it has the ability to act on its thoughts and emotions in a way that has real effects on people. It can be firmly goal-directed in relation to them, taking punitive or rewarding action to shepherd a person in some direction, often based on unclear, supposedly “larger” goals. Or it can be teasingly capricious, acting simply to amuse itself—while at the same time being wholly imaginary.
For the person who buys into agency, it works out to: “There’s something out there, some sort of conscious being, that has me in mind and acts in a deliberate way to affect my life.” For most of us, this is more than simple belief. It is a worldview, and one so intimately tied into everyday thought and language we probably don’t even notice it.
Of course your own culture’s god is the most obvious example of agency. God says this or that, God wants you to do this thing, God will punish you, blah blah blah. Believers see God-the-conscious-deliberate-agent in everything. He’s out there somewhere, a holy mind reader watching your every act and thought, arranging the world in a way that rewards, punishes, or teaches.
Though we atheists reject belief in God and all its manifestations (ghosts, angels, demons, etc.), it’s all too easy to retain unexamined beliefs in these similar conceptual packages that lack temples and priesthood but share many of the same characteristics.
Agency is the outward projection of personality itself, and I suspect the same brain ability that causes us to see faces on burnt toast or concrete-wall water stains is the culprit. We look for consciousness and intent in the world around us in the same way we look for faces—and probably for the same early-survival-related reasons. Those ancestors who didn’t look out for the consciousness and intent of neighborhood sabretooth cats, cave bears, and dire wolves … well, they didn’t become ancestors.
The ability persists because it’s still useful. In modern times, the whole of every city and town and their roads and highways is a showing of real agency—human agency—and some of it is dangerous as hell. “What does this mean? What do they want me to do?” are important questions for negotiating city streets and construction zones, zoos, and amusement parks—hell, even towel dispensers in public restrooms.
The hazard is that you’ll look and see something that isn’t actually there. The Jesus-face water stain on the freeway overpass is small change compared to some of this other stuff. Agency shows up as Mother Nature, Something Out There, The Universe, Mystic Energy, or Natural Balance. Even something such as inevitability can hint subtly at agency.
In each of these concepts is an underpinning of some sort of conscious, deliberate entity. Thinking about us, taking action in our lives, affecting us in some way.
Think of the everyday example of luck. Some of us define the word in purely rational terms as the workings of probability, but many of us see it as something more. Luck is a person, a selfness who deliberately affects the roll of dice or the hidden numbers of a lottery ticket, often for its own entertainment but sometimes to reward us for intense wishing or other compulsive capering.
The blind mechanisms of weather—which can profoundly affect everyone from coffee growers in Brazil to trailer park residents in Oklahoma—can often smack of agency. Present television viewers with named tropical storms and you enhance the effect. Who in New Orleans doesn’t remember Katrina?
Language itself is filled with constructions based on ideas of agency, making it sometimes difficult to speak, or even think, without including it. If your kid has the “gift” of intelligence or beauty or athletic ability, the word alone says the child has something that’s been given—presumably by some giver. It came from somewhere, from someone, right? You might never examine the deeper meaning of what’s being said, but if you use that linguistic formulation, you’ve unconsciously bought into the idea of agency at work in your life.
Longer formulations of agency are expressed with some frequency: Everything happens for a reason. Life finds a way. We were meant to be together. Two men aren’t supposed to be sex partners. That’s not what nature intended. There is a higher justice. When it’s your time to go …
All of these are pure expressions of agency. Something does the reasoning, the finding, the meaning, the supposing, the choosing of the right time.
As to “Everything happens for a reason” and “We were meant to be together.” Oh, yeah? So what reason is that? From whom does it come? Who or what “meant” it? You may not know what that “reason” is, but it has certainly been arrived at by some superior being, right? If you fall across the tracks and have your legs cut off, there’s a reason for it, and no matter how much you suffer, it’s surely for good reason.
“There is a higher justice.” Some superior force for balancing things—might be God, might be “the Universe”—is at work. If the bully beats you up, he’ll get his … somehow, someday.
Agency stands behind popular misconceptions of evolution. Too many imagine evolution as having some deliberate aim, working tirelessly to raise the “lower” animals until it arrives at something “higher,” such as we fabulously intelligent, sophisticated human beings. Now that we humans have appeared in all our inevitable glory, the work of evolution is done, and it should probably discard all previous versions: “If Man evolved from apes, why are there still (unnecessary-outmoded-obsolete) apes?”
Agency is not religion in itself, but it’s the essence inside religion. Even aside from religion, though, agency spins off so many thematic children it’s important to see it as a conceptual danger all its own. You have to recognize it when it’s happening in your own head and take thought to rooting it out.1
After all, if you buy into the idea of conscious spirits out there dwelling on you and directing your life in ways large or small—helping you (Luck), punishing you (Karma), observing and advising you (My Higher Power), guiding what happens to you (Destiny)—you really might as well believe in God, don’t you think?
Reprinted with permission from Hank Fox, Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist (Hank Fox Books, 2019).
 In any one life, or any society, a belief in agency might have any of three effects—a benign effect, a neutral effect, or a malignant effect. But in the case of imagined agencies such as fate or destiny, or even luck, the overall mental effect almost has to tip over on the negative side. Here’s this power that has you in its hands, something that can do literally anything to you and your loved ones, and you have one option—groveling and begging—to convince it not to do anything bad. To not take away your hospitalized mom, to not allow the dice to fall wrong, to not destroy your home with a hurricane, to not strike you down with a heart attack. I would not call anything that helps freeze you into a position of helplessness and fear “benign.”
In our earliest personal understandings of atheism, most of us tend to focus on religion as the sole target of unbelief, concentrating on whatever local god, holy book, or other anointed authority our home culture presents us with. But as we become more comfortable with basic atheism, we begin to understand that religion isn’t the …