Friday, November 16, 2007

Why I Am An Agnostic

Over on Rubicon's blog, there is a lively debate as to existence of God, faith vs science, evolution vs creationism, and the like.

After reading all the comments, I was inspired to write this entry, which I'd originally intended to merely be a comment over there.

Rubicon said:
Atheism is not a's a belief system, one ripe with absolute inconsistencies, and one that atheists have a real hard time arguing and or proving. You can argue and or debate in a political environment, and have some hope of getting your views across...try and debate or argue with an atheist and you'll soon become the biggest loser.

That's why I'm an agnostic. I don't think there's enough conclusive proof either way to say that God does or does not exist. I think that extreme fundamentalists of all religions (note that I said fundamentalists, not all adherents of religion) and extreme atheists both are arrogant in their black and white, yes/no view of the world.

Though I'm assuredly a skeptic, I cannot comfortably close and lock the door completely on the idea of some sort of Higher Power, or God. Science cannot prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is no God any more that religion can prove the validity of its claims. So, the jury is out until something comes along that can prove it one way or the other. I'll just keep a skeptical, but open to change, mind for now.

With that in mind, let me go on to say what I do believe. One question I've pondered is why does religion exist in the first place? I've concluded that religion serves two major purposes, one benign, the other malign.

I think religion evolved among the ancients, where there was little science to understand the world around them, as a way to explain the unexplainable and to provide comfort to people as they dealt with the many hardships of life. Though science today has explained much of what was inexplicable to the ancients, much still remains unknown and unexplainable today, though it will lessen even more in the years to come. I doubt, however, that everything will ever be known to humanity. There will always be some mystery to life, however minuscule it may eventually come to be. And life will always have hardships, so religion in its benign sense can still function as a source of comfort for many people.

However, religion has most assuredly had a dark side throughout its history. And humanity has seen much more of negative religion than positive religion. Malign religion acts to control people, to keep them in line. Religion has been a perfect vehicle over the millennia for those in power to justify whatever they wanted to impose upon a nation's people, however malevolent. In ancient times, just to proclaim that "God said it" was to give unequivocal authority in a way that no secular body of laws could ever hope to accomplish. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, remains today the descendant of the original forms of malign religion in that it serves or hopes to serve as an inflexible vehicle for social control, rather than as a source of comfort....of grace, if you will.

As an agnostic, I neither revere the Bible, nor do I see it as total rubbish. I see it as a entirely human document, flawed and riddled with inconsistency. It is in no way "inerrant" or inspired by God -- indeed, if it had been, I think an omnipotent being would have come up with something better: consistent and seamless. The writers may have been inspired by their faith to write the documents that were later gathered together as "the Bible"; but that's in no way the same as being directly inspired by any supernatural being. I also think that if there is a God that He/She/It cannot be limited by the Bible or any other tangible, finite object. Indeed, many fundamentalists are guilty of bibliolatry; that is, of making an idol of the Bible and limiting God to its pages.

However, I don't think the Bible is entirely useless, either. I think it's worthy of study as a historical document, to see how the people of that time lived; their culture, literature, ethics, and psychology. It's also essential to study it to see how it's affected society and law in the years since its introduction. Whether or not one is a believer, we cannot discount its influence on modern society.

I believe that if God exists that He/She/It and Jesus are quite a bit different than what fundamentalists would have us to believe. I would think that experiencing God isn't or shouldn't be a "one size fits all" experience for believers, but that it's a personal and private thing, different for each person. Nor do I believe that some people are saved, while others are going to hell -- if there's an afterlife and/or a heaven, I believe that it's for everyone. (To read more detail into this, see my Sept. 18 entry, "Why Human Nature Doesn't Need Salvation")

I respect Jesus as a philosopher who contributed much to the ethical understanding of humanity, but I don't believe in the supernatural claims about him. I don't believe that he was the literal son of any supernatural being, the virgin birth, nor do I believe that he rose from the dead as described in the Bible. However, I don't think that disbelief in any of those things takes anything away from the core ethical principles that he taught. You don't have to believe that his mother conceived him as a virgin in order to believe in "Love thy neighbor as yourself".

To use the example of evolution vs creationism as an illustration of the black and white thinking on both sides, I believe in evolution, but I'm open to the idea that it's possible that some supernatural being/God set it all in motion in the beginning, then stood back and allowed nature to take its course. Lisa and Aielman presented this view over at Rubicon's blog:

Aielman said:

I ...realized that science and religion don't have to conflict at all, especially when you consider the metaphorical nature of the creation.

I have no problem believing that Darwin was correct, just like I have no problem believing that 6 days was a metaphor to explain to a technologically and scientifically ignorant primative man how easy it was for an infinite being like God to make the universe.

I have no problem believing that a day for someone who is outside of time, could be 40 million years for those who aren't. Or that, once creating them, that an infinite being would work within the boundaries of the physical laws in order to do his work.

Aiel hit upon one of the main weaknesses of fundamentalism in their literal approach to the Bible as a static object. To read every word in the Bible literally as if it were a math textbook, to focus on the examples and illustrations of principles, rather than on the principles themselves is to freeze it in time, removing its relevance to people today. When you read it as metaphors that illustrate principles, it has something to say to people today.

I've written quite a novel and I could write volumes more about my agnostic approach to religion, but I'll stop for now. If you're interested, read the entries under my "religion" category that will further get into some of the things I've touched upon in this entry.

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