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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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.

A solution to the “gay wedding cake” dilemma

A baker can refuse explicit expression of a certain viewpoint but not alleged implicit expression of a viewpoint.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay

The so-called “gay wedding cake” lawsuit raises some interesting questions.

  • If a baker can refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple then can a baker refuse to bake a cake for an interracial couple if the baker’s religion says miscegenation is wrong?

It would be hard to support a baker’s religious rights in one case but not the other. But a widespread religious exemption—especially if it applies to corporations as well—would rip a huge hole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On the other hand,

  • If a baker cannot refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple then must a baker also bake a cake for an anti-gay evangelical?

Again, consistency would seem to imply that discrimination against evangelicals is also wrong.

In the end I think this calls for a legislative solution. Courts can interpret the law or strike down unconstitutional legislation, but creating new laws is tricky. Federal civil rights legislation does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, so it would be plausible for a Supreme Court justice to say they personally support civil rights for LGBTQ individuals while also saying that the baker isn’t violating federal law. Of course, the state of Colorado does have a civil rights law covering sexual orientation, so adding a large exemption to state law in favor of the baker would be judicial activism—which conservatives claim to oppose.

I’ve previously written in favor of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights legislation. But the issue of compelled speech can’t be ignored. For the government to force you to say something you disagree with does violate your free speech rights, and in some cases your religious freedom.

Here’s the distinction I draw: In most circumstances baking a cake as a business endeavor does not involve the baker’s personal expression. A wedding cake used in a same-sex wedding is usually indistinguishable from a wedding cake for a heterosexual wedding (except for the bride-and-bride or bride-and-groom on top of the cake, which the baker doesn’t usually manufacture anyway).

However, baking a cake that includes a meaningful symbol or words that convey a particular viewpoint could violate the baker’s religious or freedom of expression rights. If the same-sex couple requests the equality symbol on the cake then I think the baker should be permitted to refuse inclusion of the symbol. But the baker cannot refuse to provide a generic wedding cake. Likewise, a baker could not refuse to bake a generic cake for an anti-gay preacher, but a baker could refuse to put Romans 1:26-27 on it.

Belief & disbelief in God is just an opinion

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Religious belief or disbelief isn’t really a big deal. After all, religion and atheism are only matters of opinion.

Agnosticism is a half answer

Does God exist? How can we quantify the something that’s allegedly infinite? It’s not a testable claim.

Agnosticism, however, is about what we can know or not know for a fact. But you don’t have to know to believe or disbelieve.

Science doesn’t settle the question

Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses. The improbability of our life sustaining universe is a serious objection to atheism. Speculations such as multiple universes, where the improbable would become inevitable, are unproven. Ideas like our universe being a simulation are even less satisfying. Who created the simulation? An alien from another universe? Who created that alien?

But then, who created God? And who created the one who created God?

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Proving the multiverse exists wouldn’t settle the debate, though. Who created the multiverse? Besides, true believers already reject evolution and would reject any new scientific evidence.

Faith doesn’t answer the question

At least science is about testing propositions, not asserting opinions. But religions often prohibit tests of their doctrines.

If God exists there’s the question of what God is like. That’s where revelation and sacred texts, which are based on someone’s personal experiences, enter the picture.

I can’t deny your personal experience because it doesn’t belong to me. But because it doesn’t belong to me I can’t accept your experience as the basis of my belief. Instead I accept that it’s your perspective.

But for your or my experience to be accepted as fact requires empirical verification under strictly controlled conditions that must then be independently verified.

Besides, personal experiences and religious texts vary wildly. How you can be so certain – even to the point of condemning others – is a question anyone must answer if they’re going to claim their beliefs are facts.

Further, Christians often say the Bible is inerrant. Yet biblical contradictions are numerous. The Bible also justifies slavery and orders women to marry their rapists. So it’s reasonable to question the claim that the Bible is the word of a perfectly good deity.

Our flawed world raises more questions about God (if he exists)

The belief that God can do anything has its problems. The universe appears to work a certain way, and there are no verified instances of the laws of nature being violated. Miracles where the laws of nature are suspended either rely on hearsay or turn out to be false when rigorously tested. Atheists like to point out that amputees never regrow limbs no matter how hard they pray.

It’s not unreasonable to say God (if he exists) either won’t or can’t suspend the laws of nature. If God can’t then he’s not omnipotent. If he won’t then he’s not perfectly good.

On top of that, the design of the world could be better. Birth defects are an obvious example. Or the fact that it’s easy to choke on food or for women to develop fistulas after childbirth when a better design would prevent these raises serious questions about the omnipotence of the Designer.

But is it worth believing in a God who is not all-powerful even if he’s more powerful than anyone else? For some, yes. For others, no. It depends on your opinion.

Are progressives reversing the sexual revolution?

In Armistead Maupin’s 1978 soap opera novel Tales of the City, almost every character (gay and straight) is busy having one night stands in San Francisco. At one point, Brian and Mouse wonder if the next generation of young people will rebel by reverting to Victorianism. But it wasn’t a serious question. It was a silly question they could laugh about.

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But on second thought…

The sexual revolution, consent, and objectification

Raja Halwani, writing for Aeon.co, says that “sexual desire is objectifying – and hence morally wrong.” But he’s not a conservative Christian longing for a return to traditional values.

The left embraced sexual freedom in the 1960s. Today, only a minority of people think premarital sex is wrong, and a slight majority support same sex marriage.

Our grandparents had clarity: if you’re not married heterosexuals then sex is wrong. But as the clearly defined boundaries of the 1950s blurred, sexual assault and rape increased (though these crimes have decreased since the 1990s). And men seemed to benefit more from the sexual revolution because women still had to worry about being labeled a slut.

No means no and increasing awareness about the objectification of women were two responses. But no means no has a loophole. Some claimed that if she didn’t say yes but didn’t no then it’s not rape.

This problem lead to yes means yes. The lack of no is insufficient for consent. But what if the yes is nonverbal? Is that really yes? What if she said yes but later says she felt pressured?

It was decided that the yes must be enthusiastic. But even this is problematic. How enthusiastic? And how do you measure adequate enthusiasm?

There are more gray areas. Do these guidelines apply equally for women to seek men’s consent? If both are equally drunk (but not incapacitated) and agree to have sex, but both regret it the next morning, is only the man at fault? What if the woman initiated? What if the couple is lesbian or gay? Who’s at fault then?

The simple solution: sex is bad

We’re not achieving the clarity our grandparents had. Halwani, however, takes progressive thought to a new level: sex is wrong because sex almost always involves objectification. And, “not even love can fix it.”

So, we’ve come full circle. Sorry, Brian and Mouse, but you may have been more right than you thought.

This line of progressive thought converges with some conservative ideologies. I was raised Catholic. The Church teaches that sex is for procreation and must only happen within the bonds of sacramental marriage.

How did the Catholic Church come to that conclusion? Was it misogyny? Were the Church fathers obsessed with controlling others? These are common progressive beliefs.

But maybe, 2,000 years ago the Church came to a similar conclusion as Halwani is coming to today. Sexuality is such a delicate subject that nothing but firm and clear boundaries will minimize human suffering. Of course, we know that’s not true either, but that’s tangential.

Instead of objectification, the Church spoke about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the potential for sex to profane that temple. Both notions are concerned that sex can be dehumanizing. So the Church, like Halwani, decided that sex necessarily means compromising one’s purity, or in modern terms being objectified.

Celibacy, or voluntary asexuality today (in contrast to asexuals who actually have no sex drive), is the only way to avoid this compromise. Of course, we need babies for the human species to continue, so Catholic celibacy is for the elite. But the compromise of allowing sex for common folks must be small. Sex must only happen within a Church sanctioned marriage, and it must be about procreation (or at least not artificially close off that possibility). Homosexuality, then, is an obvious abuse of sex because it can serve no other purpose than using someone for your own pleasure.

Will Neo-Victorianism become a thing?

Will progressives latch on to Halwani’s conclusion that sex is inherently wrong? If so, what specific  sexual mores will they advocate? Only time will tell.

But I have my doubts. People like sex. The Catholic Church’s strict standards failed – sometimes with horrific consequences like the recent sex abuse scandal. Nineteenth century Victorianism  didn’t succeed either.

Instead, there might be a fringe group of voluntary asexual progressives who hold themselves up as an elite, similar to vegan’s dietary strictness. But they won’t gain mass appeal. And certainly pop culture won’t embrace Neo-Victorianism – sex sells, after all.

When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?

A person’s religion is a huge part of their identity, so criticism of religion is often taken as a personal attack. Progressives claim it’s racist to criticize Islam, conservatives say liberals unfairly single out Christianity, and atheists criticize every religion (even Buddhism).

Some people say we shouldn’t criticize religion. Yet, religious beliefs have an enormous impact on people’s lives – especially for those don’t belong to the dominant religion.

Others say we can and should criticize religion because attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. But it’s an easy line to cross. If a belief is absurd does that make the believer absurd?

At least some criticism of religion is hard to avoid, however. Christians try to convert others, and they back it up with the threat of eternal damnation. By proselytizing a believer invites a response, and that response might be critical.

And Christians in the United States led the campaign against same-sex marriage primarily because of biblical morality. There was no way for marriage equality supporters to argue their case without criticizing what Christians believe.

The same is true of Islam. The severe impact Islam has on the lives of women, religious minorities, and others in Middle Eastern countries opens Islam to criticism. Yet, in 2014 Hirsi Ayaan Ali (an ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she is an outspoken critic of Islam, which she calls a “cult of death.”

While I wouldn’t call Islam a violent religion, I wouldn’t call Islam a peaceful religion either. The same is true for Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. And atheism too. Every one of these is a mixed bag because human beings are neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful. We all have the capacity for both.

Perhaps it all comes down to how religion is criticized. I don’t go out of my way to dis religion, but neither am I silent. However, I avoid saying “you’re wrong” in favor of saying “I disagree.”

I try to minimize adjectives such as irrational, harmful, etc. Instead, I try to be specific about my objections, such as saying, “I can think of several biblical contradictions.”

I try to be friendly and humorous. I try to be open minded, which in my view doesn’t mean agreeing. Open mindedness means a willingness to listen, trying to accurately understand the other person’s perspective – even if I disagree.

Finally, there are some ideologues who only want to fight rather than engage in true dialogue. In those cases it’s best to just walk away if I can.

So Now Prayer Shaming Is a Thing

There’s a never ending list of things people are shamed for, which leads me to believe that we all need to lighten up a bit.

It’s no big deal if someone does something that I personally wouldn’t do, if someone dresses in a way I wouldn’t dress, or if someone has opinions I disagree with. Unless they try to impose it on me, or it causes genuine harm, then let it pass.

Having an agenda, however, often involves avoiding personal responsibility for imposing on others. This includes contrived excuses about the harmfulness of praying for shooting victims rather than taking action to curb gun violence (as if the two are mutually exclusive), a scientist wearing a risqué shirt supposedly driving women away from science, or disapproving someone’s bikini because it violates some people’s beauty standards.

And having been shamed, many people are quick to play up their victimization, thereby gaining social status as a long suffering member of an oppressed group.

But there’s more self-respect in standing firm and setting boundaries.

My attitude is that I can do what I want as long as I don’t mess with other people and I own my shit. But sometimes I find it hard to distinguish my fellow atheists from the moralists they decry. Yes, religion can be harmful when it encourages terrorism and promotes bigotry. Criticizing religious belief when it’s used to harm others is necessary, but praying harms no one unless it’s done to the exclusion of other measures or if others are pressured into praying when they don’t want to.

Perhaps the best religious response to prayer shaming would be, “Praying is my choice. Not praying is your choice. I’m not here to judge your choice, and I reject your judgment of mine.”

Of course, religious people who shame disbelievers for the immorality of not believing in supernatural forces are unable to say this without being hypocritical. Boundaries are always a two-way street.

The same is true for celebrities who face feminist wrath because they choose not to call themselves feminists. It would be great to see a celebrity set some boundaries by saying something like, “I choose my own labels. You are not entitled to say what I should call myself.”

What can I do as an individual to confront the endless barrage of public shaming? Minding my business is a huge part of stopping shaming from happening in the first place. This won’t stop others from poking their noses into my business, but I can choose whether to accept or reject someone else’s shaming.

Playing the victim means accepting the shaming in order to gain pity from others and to have a justification for retribution. But pity becomes a moot point when I reject the shaming. Setting boundaries reasserts my dignity, and retribution is not needed because an essential part of boundary setting is not crossing other people’s boundaries.