Feb 22, 2008

The Question of God: Theism, Agnosticism, and Atheism

I read some recent news blogs and opinion articles that present atheism as a trophy for the educated and enlightened. Some claimed “I have never met an educated believer. Has anyone ever met an educated believer?” And, in response to educated believers, “I think falling back on superstitions is a lousy way to give meaning to the world. I think ‘life has no meaning except the meaning that I give it’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.”

For the former I say this: meet me. To the latter: read on.

I offer the following thoughts as a response to those who have a different belief system than my own, asking that they consider my belief system as viable. I firmly believe that everyone makes their best judgments on these matters, given their experiences this far in their lives. I don't feel superior for having had different experiences. Having said that:

I believe in God, Lord over the whole Universe. And I know that He lives.

At this point, persons whose experiences and knowledge have led them to believe otherwise may feel that they are resisting, as Marx so called it, the “opium of the people”, and may immediately disregard further comments saying, “Ah, you can’t believe him; he is obviously flawed mentally, clinging to superstition.” It is this viewpoint that I want to address. I acknowledge that there are many apologetics to religion in general and abundant commentary on the matter. I offer this exploration as from one educated person to another, and I invite those who feel agnosticism is a solution to the question of religion to consider these thoughts.

“How do you know that God exists?” is a perfectly reasonable question, which I think should be asked by skeptics. I claim something greater than “I believe”. Even the wateriest agnostics can mumble these “I believe” words, but I claim more. I claim I know. To know something requires a source of knowledge. The scientific method, which I have used considerably, can never prove something absolutely true. It can test our hypotheses. If the hypothesis is true, it is a possible explanation, but there's no guarantee that it is the one true explanation. Alas, the scientific method can only show things are not true by eliminating poor hypotheses. And as the novice philosopher will note, you cannot prove something does not exist by showing that it is not a specific set of things. So the scientific method, as revered as it is by me, cannot be a source of finding truth. It can get us closer and closer to truth by proving things false, but it cannot get us to an absolute truth.

“Well, there is no truth. All truth is relative,” and “Science points towards the fact that God doesn’t exist,” are two common responses. The statements “there is no truth” and “all truth is relative” are absolute statements, and are therefore claiming absolute truth. Such an inherently contradictory statement would be worth re-examining and dissecting, with its epistemological and ontological implications, for those students of that thought tradition. As for the second statement, I feel that these people give science more credit than it deserves. As much as I am in awe of science, there is no experiment, no observation, no methodology, and no empirical data that can prove or deny the existence of Deity. After having used science for much of my life, I find no method or procedure that even comes close to addressing the magnitude and scope of God that can confine God into a quantifiable laboratory experiment. It could be that people that make such claim are trying to refute, perhaps, a particular individual's viewpoint as to what God is. If, for example, they believed that God was manifested in a geocentric universe, then yes, science has proved that notion of God wrong. But we must all readily acknowledge that trying to prove God through science using fallible human opinions to define His attributes is merely proving that these fallible people were wrong. There is nothing in science, in all the reading and research I have done, that even comes close to refuting the God I know—in fact, science only builds on that belief and enriches it. So we return to the question: how do I know?

The powerful scientific method, though it cannot prove us whether things are true, is not without useful analogy for understanding this question. How do I know that God exists? How do we know that nebulae exist? We have built telescopes that allow us to penetrate further into that largely unknown sky. How do we know that bacteria exist? We have built microscopes to penetrate further into that largely unknown microscopic world. Can we study the stars with a microscope? Obviously not. And only a fool would attempt to study bacteria with a telescope. It is very clear to all educated people that we need the appropriate tool for study. In matters of religion there is a tool by which we can know spiritual things.

There is a tool for us to “see.” This tool is belief. A wise man, a man who claimed to have communed with God, and as such would know how to study God, taught, “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” Of all the people who have ever claimed to know that God exists, all have believed before they knew. It follows that the only tool by which we can know if God exists is, in fact, belief: the tool that He has consistently asked that we use to start our journey.

This is where people who believe in God have the advantage over those who staunchly proclaim that God can’t exist. The former learned of God, slowly and surely, by using the only tool available for such knowledge. The latter has never tried the tool, or put it to marginal, half-hearted, or sloppy use. We know that scientists spend much time looking for evidence with their tools, and that some may spend a lifetime getting closer and closer, never actually reaching their hypothesis. But do the scientists give up? No, they keep using the tool. So it is with God. The more effort we put into using the tool, the only tool given to know Him, the more, however incrementally slowly, we will begin to know.

I recognize that there are many, very many believers who are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance in the world. I recognize that there are many who make claims about God, seeming to be fanatical, outlandish, or superstitious. I cannot defend all people’s claims who believe in God. But I can defend the only tool they have. As there are correct ways and incorrect ways of using a scientific tool, there will likewise be many differing results for attempting to use the tool of belief in God. I cannot defend all their results. Sometimes abuse of an incorrectly-used tool trumps reality. I readily acknowledge that. But, nevertheless, no matter how these people have focused their belief, their tool, they still can experience and know something that a self-proclaimed atheist cannot know: God. Often, even an incorrect use of the tool yields more results than no use at all. The more time we spend using the tool, the more likely we will be able to understand it.

I defer to a man of God, who explained a conversation he had with a man who felt no need to use the tool of belief.

I sat on a plane next to a professed atheist who pressed his disbelief in God so urgently that I bore my testimony to him. “You are wrong,” I said, “there is a God. I know He lives!”

He protested, “You don’t know. Nobody knows that! You can’t know it!” When I would not yield, the atheist, who was an attorney, asked perhaps the ultimate question on the subject of testimony. “All right,” he said in a sneering, condescending way, “you say you know. Tell me how you know.”

When I attempted to answer, even though I held advanced academic degrees, I was helpless to communicate…When I used the words Spirit and witness, the atheist responded, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” The words prayer, discernment, and faith, were equally meaningless to him. “You see,” he said, “you don’t really know. If you did, you would be able to tell me how you know.”

I felt, perhaps, that I had borne my testimony to him unwisely and was at a loss as to what to do. Then… an idea came into my mind and I said to the atheist, “Let me ask if you know what salt tastes like.”

“Of course I do,” was his reply.

“When did you taste salt last?”

“I just had dinner on the plane.”

“You just think you know what salt tastes like,” I said.

He insisted, “I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything.”

“If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?”

“Now you are getting juvenile,” was his reply. “Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. It is an everyday experience—I know it as well as I know anything.”

“Then,” I said, “assuming that I have never tasted salt, explain to me just what it tastes like.”

After some thought, he ventured, “Well-I-uh, it is not sweet and it is not sour.”

“You’ve told me what it isn’t, not what it is.”

After several attempts, of course, he could not do it. He could not convey, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt. I bore testimony to him once again and said, “I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to convey to you in words how this knowledge has come than you are to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He does live! And just because you don’t know, don’t try to tell me that I don’t know, for I do!”

My experience with God is akin to that. Just in the past week I was asked to explain what that salt tasted like. I tried and failed. I have tasted that salt, but I had no way of telling them what it is that I experience when I experience God. I have studied psychology in great depth searching for anything that can resemble this experience. There are plenty of theories about the psychology of religion, even more philosophy on the matter, and none of them capture what I have “tasted”. There have been many theories, by people who have used the tool and by those who haven’t. What I have tasted is beyond the scope of mere science, in all of its powerful forms. I will continue to search for the plentiful meaning in life, given to me through science and, even more uniquely, by believing.