Talk Back 16
Why I am not an Agnostic
by David Morrese
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A friend recommended your web site to me knowing that I had, shall we say a minority position on issues regarding religion. I looked it over and was generally pleased with what I found there but was struck by one seemingly incongruous point; if you don't care, why go through all the trouble?
In past lives I have been student rabble-rouser, born again Christian, philosophy major, and aspiring hippie. I eventually settled into being a petty bureaucrat because it paid better. I'm also a vegetarian but that is for ethical reasons that have nothing to do with religion and nothing really to do with anything I have to say here. I just like to throw it out to encourage others that may be considering it.
I'm not going to go into detailed discussions about the nature of god, the ontological argument or any such thing. For one thing, it would take a book and no one but another current or former philosophy student would probably know or care about such things anyway. So I'll try to be as succinct as possible. Obviously your site is read by a general audience including one very insightful 14 year old boy that wrote a wonderful essay about the nature of religious belief and the negative and destructive impact it can have when organized and channeled. I wouldn't want to lose this group. The question isn't really complicated enough at the core to get overly philosophical anyway.
So, on to why I am not an apathetic agnostic. Well, because I care about the question. That takes me right out of the apathetic part. Since you went through all the trouble to make this site, it seems to me that you do too although I won't presume to argue with you about your own personal beliefs. Whether or not anything we could call a god exists is an important question. Not so much because of the deity itself but because of what the belief in one does to us as individuals and as groups. If there is some supernatural or hyper-natural entity loosely matching human concepts of God, It will go on with or without our belief. But for us mere mortals, belief in a God can inspire people of low conscious to do great acts of altruism, or at least prevent real jerks from acting like real jerks. The eternal reward and punishment promise can be a great motivator. It can also justify otherwise rational people to commit great acts of cruelty and injustice. Others have already mentioned the wars, crusades, and inquisitions and, lest we not forget, the religiously inspired attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. Whether or not people believe is something we should all care about.
That's somewhat different than saying that I don't care whether or not there is a god or gods. Caring about whether or not such a thing exists is actually something you can't reasonably do until after you're comfortable with the question of the god's existence or nature. If you don't think there is one or have concluded there may be but that it doesn't directly involve itself in human affairs, as you do, then you are safe not to care. But if your god is the vengeful, demanding sort, well then you had BETTER care! All I'm saying is that you can't get to the "don't care" part until after you have come to terms with the "don't know" part. I have decided the matter in my own mind so I personally am no longer looking for an answer. But I still do care about the question.
Now for the agnostic part: To say, "I don't know" in response to anything implies several things. Among these are that the question itself has merit, that the thing being asked about is defined well enough to address, at least in theory and also, that you have yet to form an opinion on it - most likely due to lack of enough information to do so. If someone asked me if humans were the only "intelligent" life in the universe, I would have to say that I don't know. It's a valid question with well-defined terms but I don't have enough information to have an opinion one way or another, nor do I think does anyone else. On this issue I could be "agnostic". If someone asked however if Blue Squirbs preferred Gimbolth or Smalgrith, I could probably say "I don't know" but what I would mean was - "What does this guy have and is it catching?" The question has no merit because the terms are not defined. Saying that I don't know in response implies that I understand the question. Since I don't, this is a lie and not an appropriate reply. The question of God is not quite as bad despite that if you asked the six billion people on the planet what God was, you would probably get about 6 billion slightly different definitions. There is enough commonality between these for us to have a general concept of what is meant though. Nonetheless, I still answer the question with "Well, if you tell me what YOU mean by the word God, I’ll tell you if I believe in it."
Actually there seem to be two or three very different types of gods in my experience that people tend to cluster their definitions around. One is your traditional Judeo / Christian / Islamic deity. This god is a supernatural manlike entity that stands apart from the universe, creating it from the "outside" and once in a while meddling in human affairs. Kind of like an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Superman. There have been a lot of gods of this type from Allah to Zeus. We're all familiar with this guy. I have several problems with this description as popular as it may be. Chief among these is that I keep asking myself where this guy came from. If the universe is so wondrous that it requires a creator, than obviously that creator is even more wondrous. So logically it too must have an even MORE marvelous creator . . . and so forth. Sometimes it's argued that the Creator simply always was but if that's the case, as the late great Carl Sagan once said, why not just skip a step that adds no real value
Another type is a Hyper-Natural Universal God. Spinoza's idea of god was much like this. (OK - I said I wouldn't get into philosophy and I mentioned a philosopher. I won't do it again. Spinoza's a good read if you're interested. Not that I agree with him but understanding diverse viewpoints makes for better scenery.) This type of god is often seen as being one and the same as the Universe in total. In a sense the universe IS god and everything in it is somehow like a fractal representation of the whole. It (the God) brought itself into being perhaps intentionally and has knowledge and possibly control of everything that happens. It gets a bit mystical from there but that's the general idea. My basic problem with this concept is that I don't see any way or any reason for the universe to either become self aware or, if it started that way any reason to divide itself into the diverse parts we see, like galaxies and earth worms, or to maintain any type of self awareness if it did. A much simpler and more likely description would be that the universe is pretty much as we perceive it with no underlying consciousness or purpose. It also makes far more sense. In order to explain the universe we see there really is no need to hypothesise that it is self aware and difficult if not impossible to explain why it would be so. I KNOW this type of God is also fictitious.
A third type is the Natural Spirit God. This is kind of a life force power, a bit like the Tao or, if you aren't familiar with that, like the Force in Star Wars. It may or may not be self-aware but it provides a pattern and purpose for all life.. It's actually a very poetic and inspiring concept. It's also simply wishful thinking. It doesn't take a lot of observation to see that life is neither purposeful or well patterned when seen from the largest perspective over time. Creatures live and die, compete, become extinct through natural and unguided circumstances. The pattern of life may not be random but it is unguided. Life is an iterative process, one bit building on the next eventually forming amazing complexity. Still, that complexity is easily explained by unguided natural processes. The Force makes for great fiction but that's all it is.
But if none of these types of Gods exist, what about the possibility of some type of God we just can't imagine? One that is simply SO immense that we cannot wrap our little human minds around it. Well, now we're back to the question of whether Blue Squirbs prefer Gimbolth or Smalgrith. The question is meaningless because it asks us to consider if something we don't know and can't describe exists. I'm sure there are lots of such things. It would be irrational to think that there are not things we don't know about but to place our ignorance about them on an altar and call them "God" is a step I'm not willing to take.
And yet still many will go back to anecdotal tales of friends or friends of friends that have had mystical experiences or narrow escapes and claim that is evidence for God. I have heard these tales too and I can only say that I've always either found much simpler (metaphysically speaking) and more natural explanations. Nothing in my experience requires jumping to supernatural causes. The supernatural is a nice, easy way of explaining everything from lightning to recovering from cancer and many have and still do so. But if we are patient, and investigate and research we can normally come up with understandable and natural explanations. But this takes time and effort and God is a very tempting and easy way out. Fortunately there have always been those that did not take it. We owe our civilization and all of our progress as a species to those that could not accept the answer that "God did it."
There is still one more thing that I think people go back to when they claim they KNOW there is a god even if they cannot describe It. That is their own personal and subjective feeling of fulfilment when they contemplate the deity. I understand this because I too have felt it. It is a very reassuring feeling, of joy and peace and love. It provides a warm contentment that fills the soul, metaphorically speaking. But if you're thinking now that I'm going to tell you this is bunk, you're partly wrong. The feeling itself is very real. And, in a way, it comes from faith in God. But the important and essential component isn't the God, it's the faith. Faith, that is belief, trust and devotion to anything, provides a sense of purpose and fulfilment and satisfaction when we act in support of the object of that faith. Young children place their faith in their mothers, their teddy bear or their imaginary friend and that faith makes them feel warm and secure. Then we are told about God and we come to see that we have to believe. In a way it's like an instant punishment and causes many to keep the faith the same as it causes many to adopt it. It is very hard to give up. I know. It's one of the hardest things I ever did.
But I did after internal struggles and doubts and much soul searching. I understood what I felt and why and I gave up my god and the feelings of faith that went with it. In a way I miss the certainty and comfort that all powerful imaginary friend provided but I had to do it. My self respect and sense of personal honesty left me no choice.
So, that's why I am not an apathetic agnostic. I think the question of god is far too important not to care and I know that god itself is an all too human fabrication.
If you wish you may label me a concerned atheist.