Agency: The Myth at the Heart of Mysticism

Mountain Lion copyI 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.


  • Shayna2

    No rational mind can argue with this.

    • Without Malice

      Maybe so, but if I had the time I would; but then Daddy always said I’d argue with a sign post.

  • Ashylan

    you been seeing too many matrix movies, you got agency on the brain and you dunno how to plug yourself out.

    you sound like a paranoid schizophrenic trying to remove consciousness from your conscience.

    • James Yakura

      Okay, now what are you saying this time?

      • Without Malice

        Presumably it will all become clear when you unplug yourself from reason, such as Ashylan has done. And then all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, and the fire and the rose will exist as one and all things will be illuminated and made clear when the code for unlocking Ashylandspeak is revealed and all men and all women will together exclaim, “ahah, that’s what he meant.”

  • Son of Liberty

    Hank this is your most thoughtful post of the last three I’ve read. I was with you most of the way until I read “…just as with the tracks animals leave, the tracks of ideas are not always central to the existence of the thing.” But if “everything from elephants to insects leaves tracks” then how are they not a central part of the animals’ existence? If you were hunting deer, wouldn’t tracks provide a vital clue as to where and when to hunt? I agree there are other things one may want to know about deer habits, but tracks are pretty important and should not be ignored. Then you go off on your bête noire, “Of course God is the big one.” But then so are parents, schools, government,friends, news, art, music and even blog writers like you. These are all leaving mental tracks inside us. Some push, pull, nudge (government does this best) or perhaps the tracks are ignored. So I agree, especially in the current media/information age, that we’re bombard with so much information (especially spend, spend, spend) that it can be difficult to see and follow the right tracks that will bring us to the quarry. I part company with you that we should “take thought to rooting it out”. That turns us into zombies. “Everything happens for a reason.” Of course it does. It has a cause. People often cry at death because they’ll miss a friend or loved one. It happens when they move away even though it’s for college or a better job. What’s wrong with that? Personally I’ve never cried at the four funerals I attended and rarely saw others cry. What’s needed is an increased ability to discern good tracks (influences) from poor ones don’t you think? Alan

    • Hank Fox

      I often try to lead into introducing what I think are new ideas by starting on more familiar ground. I had some misgivings even as I was writing this piece that the bit about animal tracks was the wrong way to lead into it — a silly non sequitur — but I lazily kept it in rather than try to think up something more germane or metaphorically parallel.

      The real meat of this piece is the idea of Agency, not tracks, so I’m not sure how to reply here. Except to explain my meaning about animal tracks: Tracks are a side-effect of living on the ground. Animals don’t leave them for their OWN benefit, they leave them because they have no choice.

      • Son of Liberty

        Thanks for the reply. I think I will understand Agency if I change the word to Influencer. You may recall the Vance Packard book: The Hidden Persuaders. I read it in high school. The information age seems to have created a cottage industry of them (persuaders). I used to trade stocks quite frequently because I was caught up in the belief that I had to act fast to
        catch the bounce. It was too nerve-wracking and so I just went with the tried and true few stocks and hung on. Life has been better for it partly because I got my free time back. I may not ever get a Wolf of Wall Street yacht, but I have my canoe (which I built 20 years ago) a lake and several rivers nearby to explore. To paraphrase the saying, I got off the rat race when I saw I was becoming a rat. Now I have more time to read and enjoy the outdoors. My current reading genre is scientific explanations for the origin of the universe and origin of species. These authors include Hugh Ross and Brain Greene. Anyway I
        agree, get the clutter out of life and mind. Read good, scientific books. Alan

        • Hank Fox

          I don’t think I mean Influencer. I mean something out there, some (nonexistent but nevertheless believed-in) mystical force or being, that notices you, thinks about you, and takes action in regard to you.

          • Son of Liberty

            Well…nonexistent strongly suggests “made up” in the mind. If that is the direction you’re going, then I’d agree. If you are suggesting belief in God is made up in the minds of beleivers, that is contrary to logic and physics to say nothing of the Bible. “Everything happens for a reason” is correct. Just because we don’t understand the reason doesn’t negate the basic physical laws of cause and effect.Consider the excuses offered to the author Theodore Dalrhymple during his conversations with criminals; “… The knife went into him…” “…the gun just went off…” These things don’t just happen, they are caused. Scientist pretty much agree that the universe had a beginning at some central point (time and place), but they cannot explain what caused that point to expand. Logical and physical evidence tells us a thing cannot cause itself. Further reading on this is “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” by Peter Kreeft. It is a bit heavy going at times but he applies logic and reason to make a compelling argument for the existance of God.

            Agree we should all stay clear of mystics and mystical forces.

          • Hank Fox

            By nonexistent I do absolutely mean “made up in human minds.” And I don’t just happen to include God — God is my main example. To the people outside religion, the made-up-ness of religion is so obvious it’s almost not worth talking about.

            Your last line, that we should steer clear of mystical forces, juxtaposed against your obvious religious faith, is both jarring and comical. You yourself are a believer in the mystical.

            I repeat: The people who toss “Everything happens for a reason” into conversation are never talking about physics. They’re talking about mystical Agency.

  • Rob Brown

    Strange. This deals with a spirituality which I, as a Christian, do not recognize or understand. Or to put it in another way, this does not reflect the God I worship and try to serve.
    And yes, everything happens for a reason.
    Q: Why did my friend get so badly hurt?
    A: He was in a car accident. Somebody made a mistake.
    Is there some kind of existential or eternal reason beyond that? I doubt it.
    Can important things come from the friend’s experience? Maybe, but, again, I would not bet on it.

    • Hank Fox

      I have never heard anyone say “Everything happens for a reason” in which they were referring to simple physics, or even human behavior. They were talking about some sort of mystical directive force.

      If you believe in God, any god, you accept the meat of the concept of Agency.

    • Without Malice

      In a world created by an all-knowing and all-powerful being, there is nothing that can happen that is not in accordance with that being’s will. No one has ever been able to demonstrate how this could not be the case.

  • We believe in agency because we’ve experienced agency. Occasionally one of those elusive mountain lions attacks someone. The lion felt threatened or it was hungry and it saw a human as prey, so it attacked. It felt no hate for its human victim and it certainly wasn’t “punishing” him – it simply did what a mountain lion does in certain circumstances, for its own reasons. It exercised its agency as a conscious being.

    Does the tornado have agency? Does the earthquake? Perhaps… perhaps not. I would argue that rather than assuming a physical phenomena has agency, the greater error is assuming that its actions are all about us. Katrina did not slam New Orleans because of “sin” but because the conditions were right at the time for a hurricane to form. Conscious or not, the hurricane did what it did for its own reasons.

    We have agency. Other conscious beings have agency. Perhaps other natural forces have agency. Their actions are for their own reasons – they’re not about us.

    • Hank Fox

      It’s rational to assume a living thing (a mountain lion) has its own reasons for doing things. Suggesting natural forces have that same capacity is exactly the sort of error I’m talking about.

      One of the effects of opening the door to that belief is that there’s no end to it, no point at which you need stop. That’s the danger — if you believe storms might be conscious and possess intent, it seems to me you can be persuaded to believe ANYTHING.

  • Reluctant_Atheist

    That would certainly explain why I have difficulty with the phrase, “I’m not religious, just spiritual”. I have no idea how spirituality is supposed to manifest itself in one’s life. Perhaps it is just the belief in “something” that sets things to rights. For me, that something is ourselves.
    My personal experience has shown that those that behave in contemptible ways will eventually do themselves in. Conversely, those who strive to be admirable win the goodwill of those around them, which tends to help the kinder of us to navigate better the rough patches.

    • Hank Fox

      Heh. We’d all like to believe that “those that behave in contemptible ways will eventually do themselves in,” but it’s contrary to the evidence that this always happens. We have an entire government populated by contemptible people, and they seem to thrive.

    • ive always been a bit put off by that one, too. “im spiritual” makes it sound like gauzy dresses and a high Joni Mitchell kind of voice, wafting over the fields…Im about as far from that image as it gets, but people insist i’m “spiritual ” so i just nod and smile and waft away…

      • Hank Fox

        Heh. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Well, if you’re a good person, you’re a Christian without knowing it.” Gag. The “spiritual” bit strikes me the same way.

        • It also forces you into a box not of your own devising. Much like being told you’re a)liberal, b) conservative, c) tall, or d)clever. Or anything else that makes you want to say “yes but…”

          the other “also” on that is, it shoulders aside anyone who is NOT a Christian, insults their particular belief system, be it altheisim, patagoniaism, or whatEVER. It assumes.

  • I think, in spite of all we say and believe (or disbelieve), man as a group animal needs belief in a higher power that is shared by a particular group, partly as a way to explain the (to him) unexplainable, and partly to comfort him by knowing other people point the same way. As that stands, there is little harm in any of it. Its the thing that defines a civilization, a culture, a way of living. without that, most people would have no clue what to do next, and that is called Chaos.

    Its their mantra, the hook they hang their hat on.

    If you look at the stories in the Bible, from creation to Adam and Eve and the flood, on and on, they have a familiar ring to them. “once upon a time…” =)
    A way of explaining the unexplainable to a primitive culture–why the sun rises and sets, what clouds are, how the universe was made or even how the planets came into existence. Remember, these apocryphal stories are cobbled together from ancient texts and arranged in a strange kind of order, not grouped but dotted here and there in a kind of time frame which may or may not be accurate–
    Every civilization from Egypt tothe Aztecs to Rome to Greece and India has had its own gods and its own myths that they totally believed in, and the images to prove it.

    include christianity in the mix too.

    i dont denigrate any of it. I may not believe in Azxtopopol or Zeus or any of the others, but the people who lived with those gods did. To them it was important. Frankly i think as atheists we would do well to recognize that there are differences in belief systems, and try not to drag ourselves into the muck of denigrating it all. As silly as it is to us, its very important to them.

    picking up her soapbox, exit stage right

    • Hank Fox

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. Can you not see the potential value of creating, for the first time in history, a culture that does NOT have a fuzzy, comforting lie at the heart of it? Trying it out, just once? Just to see what could grow out of it? This is the moment.

      Well, OF COURSE it’s important to them. But on that particular mind-drug, they built this world. The one with wars, heroin, terrorist bombers, genocide, anti-vaxxers, genital mutilation, state-sponsored gambling, and Fox News.

      I’m ready to try something different.

      • there will always be wars, and evil, and powerful people to control the less powerful. that is true of any civilization. If you watch our near relatives, the apes, they have war, they have rape, they gather together to attack other “nations”. And I’ll bet they havent a clue about a god.
        Fox news I could do without, agreed.

        and you cant ‘create” a society, it grows itself. i agree, this is the time, now that Christianity is dissolving around its own knees–but something will rise up in its place, it always does, and after the required dark age there will be an age of enlightement and someone will once again invent a god to lead them. or gods.
        [shrugs} it happens. Not a thing we can do, anyway, we’ll all be dead by then.

        • Hank Fox

          Of course you can create a society — if by society you mean culture. It happens fairly often. The thing is, it’s corporations and cult leaders who do it. We ordinary people are handicapped by the idea that it can’t be done.

          The Mormon culture was created fairly recently. The Scientology culture was tinkered up within my lifetime, as was the hip-hop culture. Lots of fractional cultures come and go all the time.

          “There will always be wars, etc.” Gah. Are you saying we already live in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing could be improved?

      • pilgrimx1

        You only think it would be different, but it would be the same old stuff in slightly different packaging.

  • I lean heavily towards the theory that imagining agency preceded and caused religion, rather than the other way round. The earliest ideas of gods are essentially just natural phenomena, imagined as having minds. For that reason, “rooting out” all false thoughts of agency from our minds is impossible. We might be able to stop believing in gods, but we’ll never get rid of things like the impulse to imagine traffic lights are working against us.

    • Hank Fox

      I’d have to disagree on that. I think all it takes is conscious understanding that we have such things in our heads, and the motivation to get rid of it and see what happens.

      • Seems like too much effort for too little gain to me. As long as you’re conscious of what you’re doing, and you know that inanimate objects only have agency in your imagination, then that should be enough.

        It would also end up taking a lot of effort to work around agency-based language. We sometimes talk loosely of, for example, a gene “trying” to create more copies of itself, even though it obviously can’t “try” to do anything at all. I’m not sure it’s possible to get rid of that sort of language entirely without turning short sentences into wordy paragraphs with less clear meaning. How would you rename “The Selfish Gene”?

        • Hank Fox

          That sort of language has been a concern of mine for years. We’ve inherited language, arts, culture, music, so much more, shaped by religion and mysticism for thousands of years. Even for we atheists, religious baggage is freighted into our heads in ways we can’t even detect without a special effort.

          It won’t happen in our lifetimes, but I can imagine rebooting language without this stuff in it, at least so that you could CHOOSE not to use it.

          As to “too little gain” … how can we know that until we try it? Plenty of people can’t imagine any “gain” in atheism.

          • As to “too little gain” … how can we know that until we try it?

            That sounds a bit too much like “you can’t prove there isn’t a benefit to it!” That’s not persuasive enough to me to justify the annoyance of having to correct myself every time it’s easier to use metaphorical language, or trying to learn to think in a way that seems to go against the grain of how the human mind naturally works.

          • Hank Fox

            Heh. In a mainstream religious environment, millennia long, I don’t think we have a very good idea of how the human mind really DOES work. If you walk around from birth with a blue filter over your eyes, you’re not able to see the colors around you the way everybody else sees them. In our case our entire society was born with the filter of religion.

            What can be demonstrated is that we definitely don’t live in a paradise, and that some large part of it is due to foggy thinking on the part of the lot of us. The very idea of war, in which women and children are killed as a matter of course, and nobody even remarks on it, continues to boggle me. What can be demonstrated is that trying something radical and new is worth doing.

            And hell, nobody has to feel forced to take part. Everything will still be there in the larger world.

  • MesKalamDug

    Perhaps Agency is an alias for Freewill. If you believe in Freewill you believe that
    things are not inevitable – that the future can be changed.

    I imagine that there are atheists who believe in freewill. To me that makes them
    visualize themselves as agents. They can change the future.

    There are no agents that can change the physical universe – not even you.

    • Hank Fox

      Interesting take, but as I mean it, Agency is the opposite of human will. It’s an artifact of human imagination, but it’s these other things out there with the ability to deliberately thwart whatever will humans have. It does things to us and/or with us in mind, and whatever power we have over it consists only of begging it or praying to it to help us.

      • MesKalamDug

        You have to believe that changing is possible before you can imagine an Agency out there thwarting your desires in those events where what you desire does not happen. Agency is the
        will(s?) opposing your will. If you don’t believe in will you will
        never invent Agency.

  • pilgrimx1

    I leave tracks, therefore I am. You didn’t disbelieve in the presence of those mountain lions because you never saw a single one; you believed because you saw their tracks. God leaves tracks, too. You can’t see him as such, but his presence is there, just like the prescence of those lions. Cut him the slack you cut them: believe in him because of the tracks.