"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My stance as a fence-sitting agnostic

I think of myself as a fence-sitting agnostic. By that I mean that, although I don’t know whether or not God exists, I would very much like to know. Thus I’m far from those agnostics who say that it is impossible for anyone to know whether God exists, and also from those who claim that as a matter of fact no one knows it. I think it’s possible that some people know; all I can claim is that I don’t know myself.

Not only would I very much like to know whether or not God exists, I have a preferred answer: I’d like it to be true that God exists. This is because I think that the world would be a better place if God existed than if He didn’t—and the fact that the world isn’t a better place than it is is one reason I tend to doubt that He does.

I say this in spite of the fact that I’ve given a couple of (what I take to be) plausible arguments that a God of some sort exists, both here and here.

There are two main things that, for now, prevent me from accepting their conclusion: First, I think that whatever force they may have is in all probability defeated by the various arguments from evil. Second, I think that both the Deistic and Theistic conceptions of God face difficult problems. Why, on the Deistic view, would God create the universe and just sit by and watch things happen? Why in particular, would God refrain from making any kind of revelation? (Thomas Aquinas gives some persuasive arguments as to why it would be good for God to propose some things to be believed on faith, which can be found here.)

As an instance of this problem, consider the pervasive moral disagreements there have been between different societies and within a given society at different times. Why wouldn’t God reveal who’s right and who’s wrong, especially on the most important issues? Why, for example, would God allow the institution of slavery to endure for thousands of years without informing us of His disapproval?

On the Theistic view, there is no problem as to why God would not intervene in the course of history or make revelations: He has. The problem I have with theistic views is primarily the content of the alleged revelations. (I will confine my remarks to the Bible, as my knowledge of other sacred texts is not very great.) Of course, if one is an inerrantist who also, for the most part, tries to interpret the Bible as literally as possible, one will run into problems concerning the various contradictions and historical inaccuracies which are to be found in it. Apart from claims of inerrancy, I don’t regard these features of the Bible as being too problematic. Natural science is not without its contradictions (although they are much less frequent than they are in the Bible); it is well known that two of our most well-confirmed theories, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, are inconsistent with each other. One or both must be false, in at least some of their details, but this does not give us any good reason to deny that science is our best, albeit imperfect, means of coming to know the physical universe, still less to reject science in general on the ground that its deliverances aren’t always true.

No, my main problem with the Bible is that in reading it (and especially in reading the Old Testament), one repeatedly comes across passages such as this:

(NIV)Exodus 21: 20:21: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.”

and this:

(NIV)Samuel 15: 2-3: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' ”

and this:

(NAB)Hosea 14:1: “Samaria shall expiate her guilt, for she has rebelled against her God. They shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed to pieces, their expectant mothers shall be ripped open.”

The problem here is not that God has not revealed His will, but that His will as allegedly revealed in the Bible frequently turns out to be immoral.

Thus I face the following trilemma: Either Deism, Theism, or Atheism is true, although I find each of them problematic. I think Deism and Theism both have problems concerning moral issues, and that Theism in addition has problems concerning the historicity and consistency of its sacred texts. Atheism, on the other hand, does not have these problems, but is philosophically unsatisfying to me because it seems incapable of giving a satisfactory explanation of the existence, regularity, and relative life-friendliness of the physical universe. Suspending one’s judgment may be the only reasonable course of action in these circumstances, but when it comes to issues of such importance I would prefer come to a conclusion, as long as there is enough evidence to support it. If anyone thinks they can help me get clearer on these issues, I would greatly appreciate their assistance.


Steve said...

You do a nice job of laying out an age-old dilemma (or trilemma).

I've thought the only way to break down the problem is to give up on some assumptions about what God is like. (You don't state them here but the traditional attributes are implied: a personal deity who is all powerful, all good, etc., and who is mainly a transcendent figure but is capable of discrete interventions in our world.)

My personal exploration is to give up on the personal or agent-like dimension of the traditional idea. The actual world is just one part of a process of creation being undergone by a necessarily existing mega-entity (panentheism or perhaps panendeism).

Peter Krey said...

dear Jason,

I tried to address some of the Old Testament issues in my post this morning about the relativity of that law and on those kinds of murderous instructions. I was not dealing with your issue precisely. There I would say that God is revealed in Jesus Christ and he gives us a window into heaven and what God the Father is really like: one full of love and compassion and one who spreads a heaven of grace and forgiveness over us.
Those verses that you cite are, from my point of view, unconscionable bloodthirsty human ascriptions to God for the sake of conquest and revenge. The immorality humanly ascribed to revelation in the Old Testament has to corrected by Jesus' revelation of God.
Theism is faith grounded with Greek reasoning. But reasoning and Philosophy per se are a Greek version of religion very different from a Hebrew conception of faith in God. Belief to Plato and to a Hebrew prophet mean very different things. Reason remains a neutral stage from which to decide, while knowing God in the Hebrew sense is involvement and knowing by means of entering into the trust relationship.
Wittgenstein spoke about two different kinds of knowing, an objective, "indifferent" kind and one that enters into, participates in, and becomes completely involved in the subject. Looking at a picture, the first will see the frame and look at the surface. The second will enter the painting - I'm looking at a jug, a glass of wine, a spoon, a bowl of peaches on a folded green tablecloth in a still life. I can enter the picture, wonder if the peaches are too green to eat, whether the wine is dry or sweet, that is I can actually pass through the frame of the picture and enter its life.
Thus the Hebrew word "to know" also means to have sexual intercourse with: Adam knew his wife and she bore him a son, whom they called Seth, etc.
Some things cannot be known by the Greek way of reasoning, as powerful a tool as that is. And the two kinds of know are complementary. In my little work on Moltmann of a week ago on my website, I tried to argue with him that even science had to get into a different way of knowing nature for us to overcome our ecological crisis.
Does this help? Good faith in going into the relationship brings the experience of this religious truth in a living presence outside of the concepts of deism, theism, and atheism.
Hope to see you soon,

peter krey

Anonymous said...

Hi, VS Bandaneer here,

That you would take the biblical god as your model is unfortunate.
there are many other forms of god===
I say drop the anthropomorphic
and take up the transcendent: pure being---like a space of being, unchanging, complete, untouched by the manifestation of the world arising from it--including the notion of god.
If the world disappears tomorrow---being remains---and all things
including concepts----words, even these words---
are only forms of being, that is their sole significance--as they have no existence apart from the being from which they have arisen
and to which they return.
Our condition is being--eternally--there is no separation between the human and the rest of what is. The sense of separation --of a separate ego apart from all--
is itself a type of being--dont
be fooled----there is no separation, you are that being--it is your very condition.
Don't grab onto this or that concept and cling to it----realize
that you are that from which the concept arises---
Like a fish swimming who searches for water.
Realize that the body goes, the mind goes- the ego --all goes
---all forms come and go-accept that in some real sense, the ego and the body and mind that is clung to--is already dead----slated for demolition. If it is all gone--what's left? Everything=== being undergoes neither gain nor loss--for everything that is is being.

Give up your sole
identification with the body/mind
and extend it to all things and the source of all things--being.
Or more simply put---realize the reality in front of you and groweyond the tiny self.
These words I say here are not meant for you to cling to ---but merely an invitation to drop words and revel in being.
The corollary to all this is that
if you drop all concepts of a self
---if you remain undefined----you realize that there is no self------ and that you are freedom itself.
Completely untouched--not a person
not the world--and yet you are. And you wear the world like a garment.
There is my spiritual pep-talk--
hope it helps.