Agnostic monotheism

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© 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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Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.