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.

 

Marcus Aurelius and the gods

Stoicism is usually described as pantheistic. But Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics also refer to the gods, which sounds polytheistic. Modern Stoicism is open to non-theistic and theistic perspectives.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

God & Providence

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth (7.9).

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

An individual’s mind is God and of God (12.26).

Trusting the gods

Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life — no one’s master and no one’s slave (4.31). Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin you into whatever she pleases (4.34).

Everywhere and at all times it’s up to you to honor God in contentment with your present circumstances: you have the option to accept each event with humility, to treat each person as he should be treated, to approach each thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54, see also 12.11).

Of gods and men

The gods live forever and yet they don’t seem annoyed at having to put up with human beings and their behavior throughout eternity. And not only put up with but actively care for them. And you {Marcus is writing about himself} — on the verge of death — you still refuse to care for them, although you’re one of them yourself (7.70).

The gods are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose or by accident. Nor men either. They don’t do it on purpose. No one is to blame (12.12).

Do gods exist?

People ask, “Have you ever seen the gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?” Answers: Just look around you. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over (12.28).

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear, or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us (9.40).

If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. (It’s hard to picture a god who makes bad ones.) And why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them — or the world, which is their primary concern? And if they haven’t made decisions about me as an individual, they certainly have about the general welfare. And anything that follows from that is something I have to welcome and embrace.

And if they make no decisions, about anything (and it’s blasphemous even to think so because if so then let’s stop sacrificing, praying, swearing oaths, and doing all the other things we do, believing the whole time that the gods are right here with us) — if they decide nothing about our lives, I can still make decisions. I can still consider what it’s to my benefit to do. And what benefits anyone is to do what his own nature requires. And mine is rational. Rational and civic (6.44).

The gods and death

How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

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Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

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I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.