Reconsidering God’s existence (or, the value of agnosticism)

Knowing and believing are separate issues.

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Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.

Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.

I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.

So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.

Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.

But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.

In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.

Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.

Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.

Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.

I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.

The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.

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Progress and relativism

If morality is relative then by what standard can we say society is or is not making progress?

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay

Saying that right and wrong are social constructs implies that actions aren’t intrinsically right or wrong. In other words, if human opinion is the essence of morality then we can’t say something is inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think.

That’s a common criticism of moral relativism. But taking this a step farther one can argue that the idea of progress makes no sense because progress implies an external standard along which a person or a society can move from a lower to a higher state. Sure, you can make progress toward your personal goals. But your goals are not universal. Other people or cultures might think your values are wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible under relativism. Every culture and every person (except maybe psychopaths) believes certain things are wrong. So it does not follow that behaviorally secular relativists must be less moral than religious people. After all, Islamists believe Allah wants them to blow people up. On the other hand, there’s no basis for a relativist to claim that their moral beliefs should be considered universal.

But if we do believe certain things are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks—and most of us do believe this—then we’re implying that morality is objective. If morality is objective, however, then how do we distinguish what really is right or wrong from people’s misconceptions?

This is often solved with an appeal to religion. God establishes right and wrong. And the Bible explains it all. Or the Koran. Or another scripture. It depends on your opinion about which scripture is the true Word of God, and how to interpret that scripture. So we’re stuck in a cycle of opinion.

Scriptures have others problems as well. Should gays and never married women who are not virgins be executed? The Bible says yes (Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Despite apologetics that try to explain it away, it’s hard to honestly say that a perfectly good deity would command such a thing. Further, if humanity has morally progressed beyond such barbarism then humans have morally surpassed the biblical God. This implies that if morality is objective then God didn’t create it.

But could the laws of morality, like scientific claims about the laws of nature, have emerged spontaneously without a divine creator? The problem is that morality necessarily entails conscious intentions, so how does one construct a convincing argument that the laws of conscious intentions emerged by chance with no consciousness or intentionality behind them?

I don’t have perfect answers to these questions. One challenge of being human is that we’re smart enough to ask questions that we’re not smart enough to answer. But I can reach a few tentative conclusions.

A non-theist must accept the implications of relativism or develop a more compelling answer to these questions. But if God exists, and if God is the source of morality, then it seems to me that the best we can do is strive to understand morality while acknowledging that our perceptions are deeply flawed, and that we are easily led astray. And religion, rather than being a corrective, has long been a great catalyst for leading us astray. Scriptures, then, are human attempts to understand God, not the inerrant revelation of God.

We should trust no one who claims to know God’s will. And one should distrust one’s own beliefs about God’s will most of all—the temptation for self-justification is too great. This means that morality is primarily about rigorous self-criticism, which includes the realization that pointing a finger at others is usually just an avoidance tactic.

 

Putting dominance over truth

Discussions are too often about dominance rather than truth seeking, argues Spencer M de Gauthier. That’s why we so often talk past each other.

De Gauthier is a former communist who literally got his ass kicked by “social justice warriors.” In the process of trying to understand what happened he discovered the Youtube videos of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, whom Cathy Newman recently interviewed on the BBC’s Channel 4.

It wasn’t really a discussion, though, because Newman didn’t listen to anything Peterson said. Instead she responded to Peterson’s nuanced statements with, “What you’re really saying is…” And then she’d insert the most simplistic and derogatory statement she could think of.

Peterson, an expert on myth and psychology, became a Youtube star after criticizing a Canadian transgender equality bill (C-16, which eventually became law). Peterson doesn’t oppose civil rights—he opposes the law’s requirement that people use alternative gender pronouns in the workplace. The government compelling you to say something, he argues, is as much an affront to free speech as the government prohibiting you from saying something.

Peterson’s critics called him a bigoted transphobe. And Peterson attracted an alt-right following leading some to incorrectly associate him with the alt-right.

It is fair to say that Peterson hasn’t done enough to denounce the alt-right—if he criticized the right’s identity politics like he does the left’s then his alt-right followers would likely abandon him. The alt-right fails to understand that Peterson’s take down of identity politics also applies to them. After all, he likes to compare Nazis to communists.

But back to Newman’s interview of Peterson. De Gauthier notes that,

What is actually happening is not a conversation or a true argument (the highest form of which is for two persons to work together to earnestly ascertain the truth), but “a dominance hierarchy dispute with an ideological overlay.”

De Gauthier compares modern day efforts to persuade others with rhetoric (or coercive shaming) rather than reason, and the relativistic view that “truth” is not universal but context dependent (and power is usually the context) to the sophists. Socrates often debated and defeated these ancient Greek bullshit artists, arguing instead that truth matters.

Though de Gauthier is talking about social justice warriors, I think the rhetorical aspect is equally true of the right. But rather than relativism the right tends to appeal to religion or an idealized past. The right’s “alternative facts,” however, are as non-rational as relativism.

Newman, like the sophists, is not engaged in a serious quest for truth. She’s engaged in a dominance display. Peterson, however, refuses to play her game. He remains calm and collected. He does not attempt dominance over her. He only tries to correct Newman’s misperceptions. As a result Newman looks foolish, but this is her own doing. Peterson doesn’t catch her when she falls, but that is a reflection of true equality: Peterson neither attacks Newman nor puts her on a pedestal.

The gender wage gap is a particular sticking point for Newman. Peterson states that there are 18 factors attributable to the gap, and while gender discrimination is one it’s not as big of a factor as progressives claim. Newman claims that Peterson was really saying that this is just the way it is and women should put up with it.

But the research backs Peterson up. Politifact states that the claim that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same job is “mostly false.” The Economist reports that for the same job, women earn 98 cents. Even the American Association of University Women concedes that their “regression analysis of earnings one year after graduation suggests that a 6.6 percent difference in annual earnings remains between women and men after accounting for all variables known to affect earnings.”

Newman also took issue with Peterson’s reference to research showing cross cultural personality differences between men and women, which interestingly are greater in countries with more gender equal. So biology does play a role with gender, but not the crude biological determinism that some on the right advocate. Peterson compares it to the rules of chess: biology sets the stage, but within that there’s a lot of flexibility.

These research findings contradict progressive ideology. People like Newman resort to personal attacks because they can’t win the argument with facts. But trying to win an argument regardless of the facts places dominance above truth.

Women owe men nothing. Men owe women nothing.

Not even respect.

© Dave DuBay

Many of us were taught as children that no one owes us anything. It’s meant to curb any sense of entitlement we may be developing.

From this it follows that we don’t anyone anything. But this assertion is sometimes seen as impudent. And that can lead to a situation where we feel obligated to others while lacking the right to set boundaries.

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. He counsels us to know what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Other people and other things are not ours. But our deliberate choices do belong to us.

Further, there are two aspects to not touching things that aren’t ours. One is not taking something that belongs to someone else. The other is refusing to accept things that we don’t want.

For example, let’s say you don’t like a choice I’ve made. And let’s say you criticize that choice using judgmental language. My choice doesn’t belong to you, and your judgement doesn’t belong to me. I can neutralize your judgement, not by striking back at you, but simply by pointing out what belongs to whom and making clear that I reject your judgement.

That is, I can refuse to touch something that doesn’t belong to me. And I can drive the point home by noting that your opinion on the matter is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant because your judgement only impacts my choice if I allow it to. If I choose to disregard your judgement then your judgment become moot.

Easier said than done, of course.

And nowhere are these boundaries more problematic than with gender roles. The sexual assault scandal has brought many men’s attitude of entitlement toward women’s bodies into painful focus.

Yes, women can say no. But a culture that supports this is necessary to make it feel like a more viable choice for women. A popular meme along these lines is:

Women don’t owe men anything.

That’s an important message to teach girls and boys from the youngest age. But it’s incomplete unless taught in conjunction with what logically follows:

Men don’t owe women anything.

The basic notion is that not owing or being owed applies regardless of our demographic profile.

There is no equality if something is not given freely.

But don’t we owe each other respect?

No.

Good manners and politeness are one thing. They smooth social interactions and are generally in our self-interest. And if we choose to be impolite then we have no right to complain if our rudeness is reciprocated.

But respect is a about holding someone in high esteem, and no one is entitled to our esteem. Nor can we say that lack of respect is disrespect. Respect and disrespect are two separate issues. That is, not respecting someone is about what’s being withheld (esteem) while disrespecting someone is about what’s being given (contempt).

And just as we don’t owe anyone respect, we don’t owe anyone disrespect. Even if someone is disrespectful toward me I don’t owe them disrespect in return. In other words, I am not entitled to revenge.

Finally, it’s often said that respect must be earned. I disagree.

Why would I want your respect?

If I don’t hold you in esteem then why should your respect be important to me?

Even if I do hold you in esteem why should I think you owe me the same in return?

Why should I jump through hoops to please you and thereby gain your respect? If you want that from me then you’re being manipulative, but your manipulation does not belong to me.

In fact, your respect will never belong to me because you can revoke it at any time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

When consent isn’t enough

Societal expectations of casual sex ignore how many people feel about sex.

© Dave DuBay

David French, writing for the conservative National Review, muses that the inevitable moment for #MeToo has arrived—an “uncomfortable” sexual encounter has been labeled sexual assault. French says this reveals “the defects of modern sexuality.”

He has no interest in defending comedian Aziz Ansari: “Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop.”

But our culture sexualizes too many things, French goes on to say, including first dates. Yet, “human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.” More specifically,

Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak.

As old fashioned as this may sound, there needs to be a wider discussion of French’s point. Not sexualizing everyday situations doesn’t mean stigmatizing casual sex—everyone has the right to live their life as they choose. But society’s acceptance of casual sex has morphed into the expectation of casual sex.

The so-called sexual revolution involved many things, and the birth control pill tops the list. The pill enabled women to have sex with much less fear of pregnancy, even to the point where some women declared that they could have sex like men—casually, promiscuously, and without emotional attachment. Never mind that such a view promotes one dimensional stereotypes about men. It also ignores the emotional aspect of sex.

Since the 1960s, pop culture’s portrayal of sex has in many way become more unrealistic. Did people today grow up thinking that they should engage in casual sex like TV stars? Did the absence of emotional repercussions on the silver screen lead people to think there would be no emotional fallout from having sex with a relative stranger?

And do women and men experience this differently? Sociologist David Buss found that although women and men engage in casual sex about as often, women are much more likely to regret it afterwards.  This is true cross culturally, and for lesbians. Buss notes that this seems to involve more than just culture.

This, of course, contradicts the popular progressive claim that biology plays no role with gender, though you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist or biologist who agrees. This doesn’t mean that biological determinism is true, or that culture plays no role. But it does mean that we need to consider the big picture.

For men modern society values quantity—the number of notches on his belt. And as we’ve seen with all the allegations of sexual assault, this can have serious consequences.

In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig writes that,

Sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.

She concludes that, “Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive.”

I would add that empathy and responsibility should be reciprocal. The initiator should be looking for signs that the advances are unwelcome. And in the absence of coercion or impairment, regret after consent is the responsibility of the person who feels regretful.

Fixing our culture is going to take a while. We can begin by educating young people that what they’ve learned about sex from pop culture is often not the way sex is in the real world. Some people are fine with casual sex but others are not, and there is a gender difference which is at least partially biologically influenced.

And we can encourage realistic expectations, such as the assumption that one’s dating partner sees things as casual unless stated otherwise. That means examining our feelings about casual sex, and if need be setting boundaries from the get go such as the old social norm of not going to someone’s apartment on the first few dates, or explicitly telling someone that sex outside of a relationship is not an option.

But individuals can’t go it alone. We need wider cultural support for people who choose these “old fashioned” norms. Pop culture will need to play a leading role.

Playing the victim

© Dave DuBay

The word victim gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s a description. Other times it’s a criticism.

People are victims, in a technical sense, when they’re the target of a crime; and in a more colloquial sense whenever they’re treated unjustly. This is situational. But certain groups encounter injustice far more often than others, and some say they’re oppressed in a pervasive way due to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, social class, and so on.

Others collect grievances, including seemingly minor offenses, or microaggressions, such an Asian-American being asked where they’re from. This can lead to the accusation that some people think of themselves as victims in a generalized sense, though the accused usually deny this.

Whether someone is playing the victim is not for me to say. But there is a red flag I often see: the desire we’ve all experienced to blame others for our dissatisfaction in life.

Tribalism is a feature of every human culture. Even toddlers form cliques. It may be biologically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean it’s our destiny. We’re intelligent creatures, and we’re capable of taking steps to mitigate tribalism.

Still, us vs. them is a compelling narrative. It’s all too easy to find an enemy—real or imagined—whom we blame for our difficulties in life. Some ideologies even find a scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the world.

Some Christians blame atheists. Some Muslims blame infidels. Atheists often blame religion. Conservatives and progressives blame each other. Libertarians and anarchists blame the government. Feminists blame the patriarchy. Men’s rights activists blame feminists. And so on ad nauseum.

There’s a failure to realize that while someone may have done something to us, and while we did not choose this situation, how we react to it is up to us.

Epictetus observed that “an ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”

He isn’t saying that the situations we find ourselves in are our fault. Circumstances, according to Epictetus, lie outside our sphere of control. But whether circumstances lead us to become dissatisfied with life and resentful of others is up to us.

In other words, instead of thinking that they’re out to get me I can decide what action I’m going to take. It’s the difference between learned helplessness and being proactive.

But blaming others has its incentives. Being persecuted puts us at the center of attention. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. And blaming others absolves us of any responsibility for acting to resolve things.

This phenomenon is magnified when we belong to an ideological group with a defined enemy. But we should be skeptical of all ideologies. None have it all figured out, and all have their weak points. But we should be especially distrustful of ideologies that blame a particular group or person for what’s wrong with the world.

Challenging our group’s orthodoxy is much harder than criticizing an outside group. It takes no courage for a political party to criticize its opponents, but it takes great courage for a party member to stand up and say, “You know, we’re not really morally superior to our opponents.”

I like the fact that Stoicism has no external enemy—not even Epicureanism. Though the two philosophies disagree, neither thinks the other is out to get them. Stoicism teaches that if I’m unhappy then it’s up to me to change that. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts it.

To be more direct, if I have an enemy then the enemy is me. So it’s my responsibility to change my own behavior.

Dia de los muertos

We would not be here were it not for those who went before us.

I was at an October Día de los Muertos event in Arizona when my phone rang. The Day of the Dead is an ancient Aztec holiday honoring those who have gone before us. Historically celebrated in August, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day when Catholicism took over. A similar process happened with the Celtic holiday Samhain. The evening before All Saints’ Day, or Hallowmas, became known as Halloween.

But Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. The Day of the Dead isn’t about scary ghosts. Though painted skulls are ubiquitous at Day of the Dead events, the purpose is to show reverence for the dead.

My father couldn’t talk long. He had a lot of phone calls to make. He told me that my grandfather had died an hour ago. It did not come as a surprise. He was 95 years old and had been in failing health for the past few months.

How you feel when told that someone close to you has died is revealing. My grandfather, whom I called Pepere (pronounced “pepay”) was my last grandparent. My mother’s father died over a decade ago, and that was cause for great sadness for me. He was a quiet, decent, hardworking man whose latter years were stolen by Alzheimer’s. Both of my grandmothers died a year later, and my childhood memories of time spent with them were replaced with an empty space.

When I learned that Pepere had died I felt a sense of relief, but not sadness. His declining health caused him great suffering, and now that was over. But I never felt as close to him as I did to my other grandparents.

The eighth of eighteen children—all born to the same woman and man—his childhood was one of work. A native French speaker who grew up on Maine’s Canadian border, he quit school after seventh grade to help support the family. After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal program to put young men to work—he served in the United States Navy throughout the entirety of World War II. After the war he married, had four children, and owned a grocery store.

Fathers from his generation were not known for close relationships with their children, especially their sons. But most modern fathers, including my father, have chosen to be emotionally available.

I can’t say I ever really knew who my grandfather was deep down. I’m not sure if he knew. It’s all in the past now. But were it not for those who went before me, I would not be here.