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"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.