In or Out?
by: John P. Frade
Originally published as a Facebook note.
Recently, I've received some criticism from people who've taken note of my position when it comes to believing in God (or "a god" depending on how you want to think about it). The position in question is that of being agnostic; that is, I have no certainty on that topic and I won't claim any kind of social, political, or religious status based on what essentially amounts to my wishful thinking on the matter.
The criticism I've encountered has come, not surprisingly, from former colleagues who are devoutly religious but also, somewhat more surprisingly, from other acquaintances who classify themselves as atheists; that is they've intellectually ruled out the possibility for the existence of god(s). Their criticism of me essentially amounts to the fact that I'm on the fence about it and I should choose either one side or the other.
The finer details of this critique aren't particularly important here but somewhat more recently, I heard a statistic from an independent polling firm (Gallup) saying that for all the things Americans disagree on these days, 90% of Americans actually do agree that there is a god or some 'higher power' (whatever that's supposed to mean) in control of the universe. I was actually quite surprised by this figure. I knew it was an overwhelming majority, but 90%? Really? 9 out of 10 people don't even have it as an open question?
These things are what inspired me to write this essay. The notion that I should choose one side or the other caused me to start thinking, not that I should make that choice, but about which side I would favor, even if it was only for the purpose of giving myself some comfort and confidence in the universe around me. According to my critics, choosing a side seems to confer this kind of warm-fuzzy feeling that non-agnostic people (over 90% of whom are believers) reportedly enjoy and apparently can't live without. So here now, I shall consider the question in the interest of figuring out which side of the fence would more likely grant me the warm-fuzzy security I so sorely lack.
After some thought on the matter, I've come up with an essential question that embodies the issue. Is it possible that the universe is sentient or self-aware? That's the question, right? If a god exists then he exists everywhere, knowing everything, seeing everything, interacting with all events. Is this possible?
For the sake of convenience, I'm going to take this self-awareness and give it to a planet. How would we 'prove' this self-awareness with regard to a planet? The first problem I run into is defining this self-awareness. What exactly does it mean for a planet to be self-aware? Assuming we can take the criteria from the previous paragraph and apply it successfully to this question as well, we'll move to the next question.
This planet, being self aware, can communicate (and has communicated). What does it mean for a self-aware planet to communicate? There are those on the planet who claim to have communicated and continue to communicate with this intelligence. Let's say that three people have received these communicated messages. A Catholic hears a bird singing, a Buddhist sees a butterfly land on his windowsill, and and a Muslim watches the sun rise. Our sentient planet has now spoken to each of these people. Each of these people draws affirmation of the planet's self-awareness from these beautiful and glorious events and interprets this affirmation as a confirmation of their respective faiths. The sunrise, the butterfly, and the singing bird are not random events to each of these people and they feel they can now take this 'proof' and insist that the message of their respective religions is the one the planet wishes to have followed. Now comes the third question.
What's the criteria for interpreting these messages? Whose interpretation is correct? Does the sunrise really mean that the Muslim is correct? What happens when the Catholic is inspired by the sunrise? Does a Jewish person finally come to understand that he should have been a Buddhist all along because he watches a butterfly alight on his windowsill?
At the end of the day, I can't come to any conclusion other than the fact that 'belief' in a god (or higher power if you prefer) is actually just a projection of our own cultural perspective. In the modern world, we're very wary of people who present detailed instructions from God and we tend to think of them usually as being delusional. We're right to do so because a person who claims to know (and believes he knows) God's wishes in detail could literally say anything and people who believe what he says could literally DO anything if they believe HIM.
In fact, assuming God is not actually making his wishes clearly known to anyone (today at least -and perhaps never has to begin with), what we're left with is the likelihood that if God exists, then he actually isn't interacting with the world at all. This is made that much clearer by the fact that all beings, even sentient beings on this planet can individually choose to do what they wish and, more importantly, can choose to assign different meanings even to the SAME set of written documents laid down by their ancestors. In short, there's no focus being imparted to the population of disciples (that 90%) who believe that a god exists. They're all over the place just like the other 10% of the population. If God is directing anything, it certainly isn't the notion of a belief in God. On that particular point he/she/it couldn't appear to be more indifferent and that point is perhaps the single most contentious issue in all of human history.
So back to the original question: if I were pushed and had to choose to go with either theists (believers) or atheists, I'm afraid the atheists would have it. There's simply no indication that a god is interacting with the planet and if he's not interacting then we're left with nothing but unfounded guesswork.
Having said all of that, let me reaffirm that I am indeed agnostic, but let me also clarify that the label of 'agnostic' is not a label to be applied to religion in particular. I'm agnostic on a lot of things. As I've said in an earlier essay, one of the only things that I actually do know, is that I've made mistakes on all kinds of things in the past. Another of the only things that I really know is that there's a whole butt-load of stuff that I don't know. Nevertheless, that doesn't even begin to keep me awake at night with worry. I sleep very comfortably with my question marks. When I get up in the morning I simply try to spend the day in an effort to go to bed with slightly fewer question marks the following night. I'll never know everything, but maybe tomorrow I'll know more than I do today.