Agnostic monotheism

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© Dave DuBay

Does God exist? Many are certain He does. Others are certain He doesn’t. Then there’s agnosticism’s middle ground: I don’t know and neither do you. But agnosticism alone avoids the question.

Lately I’ve been reconsidering God’s existence. But agnosticism and deism seem like way stations rather than the destination.

Background

I view certainty and agnosticism as what you know or don’t know, and religion and atheism as what you believe or don’t believe. So I don’t think “Christian agnostic”—someone who doesn’t know if God exists but believes He does—would be an oxymoron (though I’ve never met anyone who identifies that way). “Agnostic atheism” is a descriptor I have heard people use, though.

I went from being a certain Christian until my early 20s, to an agnostic atheist for 20 years, to an agnostic monotheist.

I was raised Catholic, and in high school I thought about becoming a priest. But I had difficulty with the specifics of Catholic belief. The Church’s essential doctrines being infallible, like the evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy, sets up an all or nothing proposition in my view. You can’t be mostly infallible or probably inerrant. One error undoes the whole thing. Yet, the nativity and resurrection stories, taken literally, contain contradictions.

Besides, none of the proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. Finally, my doubt of events that seem to violate the laws of nature, plus the problem of evil, led to my loss of faith.

The quest for certainty

But atheism isn’t the certainty some may think it is, though disbelief is easier to defend than belief is. Beliefs in general, however, are inescapable—what we really know for a fact is quite limited. An analysis of any ideology will reveal initial assumptions that are assumed to be true. We can’t start with a blank slate.

The quest for certainty is about risk aversion. Embracing uncertainty makes us vulnerable. But the most important questions of life—questions of meaning, purpose, value, and so on—are not scientific.

Proof or disproof of God’s existence could create a safe space where you know you’re not wrong. But God isn’t a geometry problem—the infinite can’t be quantified. Alleged proofs are a self-made trap, and there’s no point in blaming atheists for this.

Having reasons for belief or disbelief are important, however. Most atheists have good reasons for disbelief, and I don’t begrudge them that. For example, I can’t say I have an entirely satisfying answer to the problem of evil. But most religious people also have good reasons for having faith, and I don’t begrudge them that.

Agnostic monotheism, and ethical monotheism, is what I’ve arrived at. But my belief is not Christian in the usual sense of the word.

The anthropic principle

One reason I think God is more likely than no God is the anthropic principle, the reality that statistically our life sustaining universe shouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be here if any number of things—gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, etc.—were different by only a tiny fraction.

Multiple universes solve this problem naturalistically. But is this a scientific sounding answer to an atheistic rather than a scientific problem? There’s no way to detect multiple universes even if they do exist, so we still ending up believing in something we can’t see and for which there’s no evidence. But multiple universes aren’t impossible, so there’s nothing wrong with believing in them.

That a life sustaining universe is here intentionally is another option. But while the question, “Who created the multiverse?” is valid, the question “Who created God?” is not of the same order. How the universe or multiverse could pop into existence from nothing is unclear. We can’t appeal to physics or to the example of particles that pop in and out because the laws of physics are not nothing. But if God exists He is not a natural phenomenon that could be created or destroyed. And while few atheists would accept this answer, at a minimum it’s clear that the multiverse fails to resolve the problem of infinite regress.

The problem of morality

More so, there’s the problem of morality. We all aspire to greater morality, even if we don’t believe in God. And when really pressed, most of us believe morality is objective. Almost everyone would insist that Hitler’s actions were wrong no matter what he or anyone else thought.

Morality as behaviors that evolved unintentionally implies moral relativism in the sense of something being right or wrong as a matter of context rather than as an absolute. An argument I find compelling, however, is that unless morality is objective then the notion of moral progress is moot. There must be a measuring stick if one can be said to have improved.

The abolition of slavery, one writer points out, was not moral progress if there is no objective moral standard. Instead, it was a horizontal move—American culture changed its mind and now slavery, relative to the new social norm, is unacceptable. Again, I think few people would feel comfortable with such a view.

But morality involves intentional, conscious action. So if morality is objective then it must have been intentionally, consciously created.

While this doesn’t prove God’s existence, I think if we believe in objective morality then God is the most probable explanation. This doesn’t mean we can say with certitude what all these moral standards are. We see as through a glass darkly, as the feller says.

What do I believe?

So, what do my developing beliefs look like at this point? I don’t claim this is truth with a capital T. It is my opinion, and I don’t expect anyone to adopt my viewpoint.

I think of God as having created the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe, but I can’t say I think God guided evolution—it’s far too messy with so many dead ends. Perhaps there’s not just free will but freedom given to nature to unfold on its own. But this is not deism—I believe God intervenes as an inspirational force, and even physically within the laws of nature that He created.

Finally, the Bible is a collection of 66 books written over a 1,000-year time span, and completed 2,000 years ago. I see it as a particular culture’s extended conversation, a human attempt to understand God. But I don’t believe it was dictated by God to human secretaries. Still, the Bible is the foundation of the Christian tradition, and as such the conversation that started 3,000 years ago continues today.

I still can’t say I take stories such as the resurrection literally. I don’t know if I ever will. My view that these stories are like parables is unorthodox, but perhaps storytelling was always a better approach than systematic theology.

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What’s good about identity politics?

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© Dave DuBay

Most ideologies have some element of truth. But no ideology has it all figured out. And many overstate their case, creating significant distortions.

Postmodernism is a favorite target of the right, and even some on the left. As best as I can define it, postmodernism is the claim that metanarratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are social constructs that serve the interests of those in power. So these metanarratives must be deconstructed. Deeply skeptical of any metanarrative, postmodernists sometimes claim there is no absolute truth.

It is true, of course, that our worldviews are social constructs. But calls for revolution overstate the case. Our social institutions are usually functional, even if the powerful benefit. This doesn’t mean everything is fine as it is. But it does mean that deliberate reform, which preserves what works while rectifying injustices, is usually best. Further, by the metric of human well-being, some systems really are better than others, such as science, democracy, and capitalism.

But the ideological divide in the United States isn’t really about postmodernism. Abstruse academic theories filter down into pop culture in a squishy, oversimplified, imprecise way. Freudianism’s popularity in the mid-twentieth century is one example. The claim the gender is a social construct disconnected from biology is another example.

Identity politics makes the abstract concrete. But what is identity politics? I describe identity politics as,

Advocating legal, policy, and social change to address disadvantages particular groups face due to specific characteristics, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion, etc.

Identity politics addresses important issues that need addressing. It isn’t necessarily the monster it is often portrayed as.  Writing for Areo, Dan Melo explains why he thinks identity politics is necessary. The problem, as he sees it, is that, “we have conflated the practical reality of identity politics with the theory of it” (emphasis his).

I feel conflicted over identity politics because I recognize that women and minorities face unique societal disadvantages. But I also recognize that this isn’t the full story. Worse, the behavior of social justice activists too often betrays the values they claim to stand for. The social justice PR problem is not unlike the evangelical PR problem.

In addition to promoting collective guilt and portraying members of certain groups (but not others) as stereotypes rather than as individuals, identity politics in practice encourages double standards.

Derogatory comments about a person based on race or sex are not racist or sexist if the target belongs to a privileged group (“bigotry is bias plus power”). Similar comments directed at someone from a marginalized group would likely get you fired and ostracized.

But if every human being has equal human dignity, then diminishing the dignity of any person, regardless of race, sex, gender, etc., is an implicit rejection of equality. Identity politics in practice, then, is anti-equality even if in theory it is pro-equality.

Further, identity politics in practice often involves discounting or ignoring issues that members of privileged groups face, such as domestic violence denial and blaming male victims of female perpetrators. Related to this is denying advantages that some members of historically disadvantaged groups enjoy, such as female privilege.

And truncating serious intellectual debate with spurious charges of racism, sexism, transphobia, and the like, prevents serious public debate.

Though progressives accuse white men of feeling anger over their reduced status—which in the aggregate is still higher than other groups—and while this criticism is not without merit, the above plays a larger role in phenomena such as Donald Trump’s anti-political correctness crusade.

The failure of social justice activists to treat others as they want others to treat them has, like the Christian Right before them, resulted in public disdain.

Which is unfortunate, because as Melo notes,

We conceptualize the idea of universal human rights because of identity. A planet on which no human has experienced the deprivation of life, liberty or property because of her skin color has no reason to identify any human as black or white in relation to those issues.

Though identity politics sometimes puts lived experience over facts, this doesn’t mean we should discount people’s experiences. Understanding the mathematics of a bird’s flight is important, Melo writes, but it tells us nothing about what it feels like to fly. Likewise,

Identity politics is an expression of experience, which is crucial to understanding the challenges that historically oppressed and marginalized people face.

But the genie’s already out of the bottle. The ineffective way identity politics has been practiced has already spurred competing identity politics movements such as men’s rights and the alt-right. And rather than realizing that their approach is failing, social justice activists are doubling down.

The ideological divide in this country is only going to get worse.

Jordan Peterson, and straw men for everyone

Peterson should be met with critical, but intellectually honest, thought rather than adulation.

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© Dave DuBay

People can’t stop talking about psychology professor and intellectual dark web thinker Jordan Peterson. Charismatic personalities are emotionally compelling, for better or for worse.

But I have mixed feelings about him.  I agree with Jordan Peterson’s basic psychological message: we must get our personal lives together before we try to change the world—otherwise we’ll do more harm than good. And related to this is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility.

Peterson’s straw men

But I think Peterson’s politics is too alarmist, and this detracts from his psychological message.

I disdain hysterics on both the left and the right. And I think too many people talk past each other, offering straw man arguments rather than accurately representing their opponent’s positions.

We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and I am no exception. But some are more egregious than others, and I include both Peterson and many of his critics in this category.

Peterson rose to fame when he objected to Bill C-16 (now law), which added gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. He claims C-16 would force people to use alternative gender pronouns, which if true would violate their free speech rights. He says this could result in civil fines or even jail time for those who refuse to pay the unjust fines.

Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. Further, he advanced the alarmist claim that alternative gender pronouns are “the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

Nowhere does C-16 explicitly compel the use of alternative pronouns, however. His claim is based on a slippery slope argument. Though Wilfrid Laurier University tried to censure Lindsay Shepherd for showing a video clip of Peterson debating C-16—but failed due to public pressure—this is hardly comparable to a Soviet gulag. And notably, this case involved a university, not a governmental entity.

“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s favorite boogeyman.  But this is a conflation of two different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.

Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. The best definition of postmodernism I can offer is that meta-narratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are socially constructed. And postmodernists like to deconstruct the power interests of Western society’s meta-narratives. This can include skepticism toward science and reason even to the point of denying there’s any such thing as human nature.

Marxism, however, promotes a particular meta-narrative. And that’s a problem for postmodernists.

Still, there are similarities. Postmodernists think the meta-narratives of Western society serve the power interests of white male elites. And neo-Marxists see a complex array of power struggles—the rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, whites oppressing minorities, cisgender heterosexuals oppressing sexual and gender minorities, and so on.

But while there is some agreement between postmodernists and neo-Marxists, it’s a mistake to conflate them just as it would be a mistake to conflate Christians and Muslims because both believe in God.

Progressive straw men

Peterson’s progressive critics are no better, however. They claim he opposes equality when in fact he supports equality under the law but not equality of outcome (though the latter, it should be noted, is a conservative straw man).

They say he wants gender norms to return to the 1950s when in fact he’s saying that there are scientifically verifiable personality differences between men and women, which greater gender equality amplifies rather than diminishing. And this results, on average, in different career choices.

Peterson is also critical of fascism and the alt-right, though this doesn’t stop his critics from disingenuously trying to associate him with the alt-right.

That Peterson is all about oppressive hierarchies another favorite straw man. I’ve read both of Peterson’s books and watched many of his videos, and what he’s saying is quite different.

In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson says hierarchy in some form is unavoidable because it’s built into our biology. He disagrees with the claim that hierarchy is a social construction, though manifestations of it can vary greatly from culture to culture. Peterson notes that even lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, have hierarchies. That’s how deeply biologically ingrained it is.

However, Peterson is clear that hierarchy is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It’s important to understand this because you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom if you can help it. And because societies that think they can eliminate hierarchy end up with horrifically murderous hierarchies—such as every communist country that has ever existed. As such, he opposes both far left and far right identity politics and instead advocates hierarchy based on merit.

Of course, intersectionality—the progressive belief that some people belong to multiple oppressed groups, which creates a unique experience of oppression that is greater than the sum of each oppression taken separately—unwittingly creates its own hierarchy where people compete for status by asserting they are more oppressed than others. Call-out culture—trying to lower other people’s status by publicly castigating them for oppressive or culturally insensitive behavior no matter how small (“microaggressions”)—is a prime example of social justice activists jockeying for status.

With Peterson and his critics talking past each other, we are still waiting for a serious debate.

 

Calmer than you are

There’s a scene from The Big Lebowski where the Dude is upset, and hotheaded Walter brags, “Calmer than you are.” But we all know that Walter is faking it.

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© Dave DuBay

What does it really mean to not worry about things that are not up to us?

I just completed a cross-country move to be closer to family. By any objective standard things have gone well. A week after we decided to move a job opened up, and a week later I had an offer. Within 9 days of arriving (on schedule) my significant other was offered her first choice job, and our first choice apartment came through.

So what’s to complain about?

In retrospect the events I stressed over were minor. We had to haggle with the landlord to avoid fees related to breaking our lease. U-Haul’s communication for the delivery of the U-Box was poor, creating uncertainty and last minute schedule juggling. We had more stuff than we thought, and had to make several trips to Goodwill. Avoiding an approaching tropical storm meant a detour which added a day to the drive. And our dog was totally stressed out from 5 days on the road.

Stressors like this seem minor when they’re happening to someone else. But my anxiety levels were sky high, especially because I worried that each event could derail the entire cross country move.

This is not a rational position. Every bump in the road had a simple solution, and none of the consequences were as dire as my fevered imagination would have it. In the end I expended unnecessary energy stressing over unimportant things I could not control—even though I could choose my favored solution.

Buddhists like to say that the point of practice is not to make the waves go away, but to learn how to surf. I write about taking life’s difficulties with greater equanimity not because I am calmer than you are, but because I aspire to be calmer than I was yesterday.

Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

Drifting deeper into agnosticism

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Certainty and agnosticism are about what we think we know or don’t know, while religion and atheism are about what we believe or don’t believe. My position for the past 20 years has been agnostic atheism, or “weak atheism”: I don’t know if God exists, but I doubt it. Lately, however, my emphasis has leaned more heavily toward agnosticism.

Few people are really moral relativists

There are two reasons I can’t be certain that there is no God. One is the observation that most people, myself included, reject moral relativism. If you agree that a murderer did nothing objectively wrong because what’s right or wrong is up to the individual (or to the culture) then you’re a relativist. But most of us think certain actions are wrong no matter what some people might think, which implies objective morality.

Further, Arcdigital.media editor Berny Belvedere points out that the idea of progress implies a standard of higher and lower morality. If there’s no objective moral standard then the abolition of slavery was a horizontal shift rather than a vertical incline toward a higher morality.

In my opinion, God is the most straightforward way to assert objective morality. But there’s widespread disagreement on what God’s moral standards are. You could even argue that God’s morality is relative because God could have a divine change of mind (though most religions say this wouldn’t happen). But even then God’s morality would still be the final standard.

An alternative is to use observable suffering as a metric—including the fact that in most circumstances we all wish to avoid suffering. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind, avoidance of suffering is inadequate to fully explain human morality. In other words, avoidance of suffering is a type of relativism, albeit a robust one.

Something must exist without causation

The second issue is that most of would agree that some things can exist without having been caused. The question of who created the universe (or multiverse) leads to the question of who created God, and an infinite regress. Theists say God is self-existent, but many scientists say it’s the universe that is uncaused.

But what’s the difference between an uncaused God and an uncaused universe? Conscious intelligence is a deeper question. If God exists then presumably God acts intentionally. But the universe is not conscious. Cause and effect is mindless.

The scientific challenge of claiming the universe is without a cause—even that cause and effect didn’t exist before the big bang—is falsifiability. But neither can God’s existence be proven. If God is infinite then quantification of the divine is impossible. Besides, if God could be proven like a geometry problem then faith would be unnecessary.

Deism

The belief in a conscious intelligence that created the world, including moral standards, is emotionally appealing to me. But I’m cautious about believing something just because I want to. And I cannot honestly believe all the details of Christian belief, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, and other events that suspend the laws of nature.

My inclination is to shrink God to something more palatable: a God who is powerful enough to create the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe but not powerful enough to control every detail of how it unfolds; and a God who is primarily a morally inspirational force rather than one who intervenes directly. But to a certain degree this approach seems contrived.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.