I lived in mountain lion country for more than 20 years. Never saw a single one. A more skeptical man might have doubted they even existed, but even if you never see a mountain lion, you can know they’re out there because — like every terrestrial animal — they leave tracks.
Tracks are probably not something an animal ever intends to leave, nor are they in any way useful to the creature that makes them. They are a side effect of just being there, the visible, undeniable evidence of a critter’s existence. Given mud, soft dirt or impressionable dust, everything from elephants to insects leaves tracks.
Ideas leave tracks too. But the tracks they leave are on the people — individuals, cultures, whole societies — that entertain them. And just as with the tracks animals leave, the tracks of ideas are not always central to the existence of the thing. Sometimes they are side effects, having nothing at all to do with the core concept.
In this case, the core concept is religion or mysticism, and one of its tracks — practically ubiquitous in our society — is something I call “agency.”
Of course there are plenty of “agencies” in the real world: the IRS, the FDA, the highway patrol, even the local library system and water district, are all agencies. They also actually exist. It doesn’t take any “belief” to know about government offices, or the real ways they impact your life. But their effects on your life are usually specific, well-defined and limited.
But in the sense I mean it, Agency means, roughly, “There’s something out there, some sort of conscious agent, that has me in mind and acts in a deliberate way to affect my life.” And THIS Agency gets into our heads and affects everything we think.
I’ll give you some examples.
Of course God is the big one. God says this, God says that, God wants this and that, God loves and watches over us, blah blah blah blah BLAH. Believers see God-the-conscious-deliberate-agent in everything. He’s out there somewhere, watching your every act and thought, and arranging the world in a way that rewards or punishes you for it.
And of course we atheists don’t believe in God, in any of His manifestations or by-blows (ghosts, spirits, guides, presences, angels, demons, etc.). But even non-religious people can — and probably do — have Agency in their heads.
Where else does Agency appear? Luck. Fate. Karma. Mother Nature. Something Out There. The Universe. My Higher Power. Even something like Inevitability hints at Agency.
People who misunderstand Evolution frequently have the idea that evolution is going somewhere, reaching for some sort of pinnacle — building more advanced animals from primitive ones, probably in order to eventually create humans, the capstone of Evolution and its whole reason for being. This is pure Agency.
In each of these ideas is the foundational underpinning of some sort of conscious, deliberate THING. Thinking about us, taking action in our lives, AFFECTING us in some way, large or small. This is an extraordinarily seductive idea, and I believe it’s woven into our very thinking … to our detriment.
If you believe there’s no such thing as God — and God is a mere subset of this broader category, Agency — you eventually have to give up all this other stuff too, don’t you? You have to give up believing in Luck, good and bad. You have to give up the idea of a benevolent consciousness at the heart of Nature. You have to give up the idea of Fate — “We were MEANT for each other.” — as well as the less-well-named insistences that pop up in daily living — “You’re SUPPOSED to cry when someone dies” … both of which freight in the belief in some sort of conscious thingie that does the meaning and supposing. And you really have to give up the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.” (*)
Honestly, I’m a bit as sea as to whether Agency arrived in our lives and thoughts as a side-effect of religion, or whether Agency came first, and our various religions are instantiations of that more basic idea. I suspect the truth is unknowable. Certainly religion is the ultimate realization of the concept, though, and the wellspring of much of it in the modern world.
Regardless, it’s important to recognize Agency when it’s happening in your own head, and take thought to rooting it out. Because if you believe in spirit-flavored things out there dwelling on you and directing your life in ways large or small — helping you (Luck), punishing you (Karma), observing you (My Higher Power), guiding what happens to you (Fate) — you really might as well believe in God, don’t you think?
(*) Something I hear almost every day at my job working with substance abusers.
Came across another one: “When it’s your time to go … ” Which indicates there IS a “your time to go”, and it’s determined by something/someone.