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.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Iwould describe my own search for truth in this way --- I have subscribed to the basic inerrancy of the Bible, as it was originally written and understood. I also subscribe to the New Testament teaching that, their best, God's servants can only "prophesy in part", and that we must reserve to ourselves the right to stand back and evaluate what we hear. To balance our right to think for ourselves, we are well-advised to consider our proclivities, in too many cases, to believe nonsense. Near the top of the list here must be Mormonism. Rather than re-stating others' well-worn criticisms, I point to the Bible's last book, Revelation, where the Lord Jesus told even the most errant churches to repent - only. Not that he was going to send a latter-day prophet to restore them. They are restored by His words, and by God's love operating through grace in repentance.

Ephraim said...

It seems contradictory to me to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and at the same time to believe that God's servants can only "prophesy in part." God's servants could prophesy without error thousands of years ago but now they can only prophesy in part? Or God's servants always prophesied in part, but somehow weren't involved in the production of the inerrant Bible? Perhaps you can clarify this point, anonymous.

My search for truth has been largely similar to yours, anonymous, but different in a few ways. I believe the Bible to be the word of God, as it was "originally written," as you have said. However, because it is sometimes difficult to tell how the Bible was originally written and understood, I do not rely on the Bible alone nor do I trust in its inerrancy. I am, after all, not an expert in the Hebrew language or ancient Hebrew culture.

Therefore, as you have said, it is important that we "stand back and evaluate what we hear," and I also have done so in seeking truth. However, I also believe that we can trust God to reveal the truth to us just as He did to prophets of old. God is a living and unchanging God, and we can expect Him to whisper truth to us through the Holy Ghost today as He did to people in ancient days. Therefore, in our search for truth it is important to evaluate the things that we hear while allowing God to communicate with us and let Him correct us when we have ways of thinking that are in error. Like you, I have found that repentance is an important part of the process of seeking truth. I still search for truth every day and believe that I am drawing nearer to it every day with God's help.

Diogenes said...

Anonymous, you do, I think, make a good point. Exactly how much can you trust a human being to deliver "the word of God?" It is interesting that men and women under the influence of religion will do things they wouldn't do otherwise; take plural wives, for example, or abandon everything and migrate into the middle of an inhospitable desert.

In your post, you state, "we are well-advised to consider our proclivities ... to believe nonsense." The statement might also be rendered, "we are well-advised to consider our proclivities to believe religion in general." You are right, Anonymous. Even before recorded history, human beings thrived on religion of one sort or another. Clearly, for whatever reason, we like to worship. With that in mind, we should be careful what we allow ourselves to believe. This isn't to say that there cannot be true religion, but that we are inclined to believe in religion whether it is true or not.

You stated that you believe in the "inerrancy" of Bible. I might ask, "how did you come to that belief?" This is faith, is it not? You did not witness it being written, nor did you see it pass through scores of different translations. You cannot support your belief with hard, empirical data, your results aren’t controlled. But this is nothing new; if you had this hard data to back up your beliefs, it wouldn't be faith at all. So, through one process or another, you have arrived at a particular belief. That is fine - admirable, even.

But I think you make an unfortunate error in your post. You make the asinine insinuation that YOUR belief system is better than the MORMON belief system, as if somehow you have arrived at truth and therefore everyone else is wrong. In reality, you made your religious decision based on so little empirical information, you are hardly in a position to criticize people who have followed a similar process and arrived at a different conclusion. Religious arguments are moot, and they betray in their participants a breed of ignorant arrogance.

Can we refrain from denigrating other belief systems simply because they are different from our own?

voiceafx said...

Anonymous: "I point to the Bible's last book, Revelation, where the Lord Jesus told even the most errant churches to repent - only. Not that he was going to send a latter-day prophet to restore them. They are restored by His words..."

What, specifically, did the Lord Jesus say here? To summarize, He said "repent." He did NOT say, "repent, and (by the way) I'm not going to send any more prophets." Yet this is what the anonymous poster discerns from the scriptures in question.

It is definitely true that people are restored by Christ's words. Is it inconvenient for you that this book of which you speak - Revelation - was, in fact, given to "even the most errant churches" through a prophet of God?

Mikha'el said...

Anonymous, I am happy to know that you have a belief system that you feel comfortable with. I think that your first three sentences have reasonable claims that we all should consider. Indeed, wherever our source of spiritual truth, we "must reserve to ourselves the right to stand back and evaluate what we hear." Truly this is the message behind this blog. We must "think for ourselves." But as Ephraim pointed out, if God exists, it would be in our best interests to allow God to input as well, considering that great possibility.
However, I fail to see your connection between encouraging people to think for themselves and a somewhat misplaced comment about Mormonism. If I understand your comment, you are suggesting that people who practice Mormonism do not think for themselves. I am lost in the disjointedness of your concluding sentences.
Are there people with the belief system of Mormonism who do not think for themselves? Surely, just as with every belief system. Are there those with the belief system of Mormonism that have thought about it rationally? Most definitely--I have personally become acquainted with a number of very intelligent Mormons who take that challenge to evaluate themselves very seriously. With Diogenes, I say, "Can we refrain from denigrating other belief systems simply because they are different from our own?"
Diogenes brings forth the point that we need to consider the deepest reasons for faith. Where is it rooted? Is the fact that people have worshiped for ages a sign of infirmity or a hint of divinity? My guess is that both factors have influenced mankind, but my claim cannot be proven with any methodology available.
There are well-worn criticisms, not just for Mormonism, but for all belief systems, as Diogenes points out. I think it would be well worth our effort to explore some of the more common criticisms from different points of view to hopefully understand our "proclivities." I encourage you to participate. I hope it becomes an enlightening experience.
And as a side note, I think voiceafx was teasing out this idea: if we are to use sacred writ as a defense to a statement, let us not do so dogmatically, because likely, we only know “in part” as we should all still be learning.

bradcarmack said...

"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." -http://thinkersaccord.blogspot.com/2008/02/theism-agnosticism-and-atheism.html

Good call.

" there is no experiment, no observation, no methodology, and no empirical data that can prove or deny the existence of Deity."

Yes, the atheistic affirmation of God's evidence begs a warrant that I don't think many of its proponents possess.

" 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."



I would say the tool is revelation rather than belief.

" 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."

I disagree. First, you've equated that the claim to know God exists with knowing. Also, there is a subset if not the entire set of those who claimed to know that God exists whose belief or faith succeeded knowledge (revelation, specifically) rather than preceded. Faith is the offspring of knowledge (McConkie I believe) and "Faith comes by hearing the word of god, through the testimony of the servants of God; that testimony is always attended by the Spirit of prophecy and revelation."