Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Church Chat

In a recent comment, the Cow Whisperer asked some good questions, and I wanted to respond to them on the front page rather than in comments since, if you're like me, you never read the comments on blogs you don't happen to own :-)

I'll be talking about subjects like atheism and agnosticism, so if that's not your cup of tea you should probably skip this one. I'll put the rest below the fold for those of you who are interested.

The Cow Whisperer said:

As your resident "MethoBaptyrianist," I am confused. You call yourself an atheist/agnostic. While I confess I'm not sure what agnostic really means, it seems to me that the definition of atheist means that God is not important to you. Yet in your post, religion is the first subject that is mentioned as important enough to write about, study, and comment on. (emphasis added)
I emphasized the line "the definition of atheist means that God is not important to you" because I think it's unintentionally misleading (and interesting) in a subtle way. The way the question is phrased implies that an atheist believes God exists, they just don't think He's very important. But in fact an atheist doesn't believe God exists at all. It's a subtle difference, but one that I think gets to the very heart of the matter.

According to Dictionary.com, an agnostic is "a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable." In my mind, that means an agnostic is fundamentally humble, willing to accept that there are Mysteries that we can never fully understand, and that everything we think we know may, in the end, turn out to be wrong.

Agnosticism deals with knowledge, while atheism/theism deals with belief. You can believe without knowing -- that, after all, is the essence of "faith." That means you can, for instance, be an agnostic Christian, believing that while we can never really know whether or not God exists, nonetheless you believe that Christianity is right.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a divine being of any sort. It is the negative form of "theism", which is belief in a divine being regardless of what form that belief takes. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Aztec Sun-God Worshippers are all theists. A theist has a god-belief, an atheist does not. It's pretty much that simple.

So I used the term "agnostic atheist" (or something like that) to describe myself. Given the above, what that means is that I fundamentally don't think the true nature of an immortal, infinite God is knowable for mortal, finite humans. Whether God exists or not, I can't claim to know. However, my belief is that there is no God, and what you see around you is all there is.

In other words, I don't believe in God but I admit I could be wrong. Humility is the key, at least in my mind. People who claim to know scare me.

So if I don't personally believe that God exists (certainly not the God as described in modern Christianity), why do I consider it worth studying and writing about? You can consider a position important and worthy of study without holding that position yourself. I don't believe in Young-Earth Creationism, for example (the belief that the universe is only 6,000 years old and was created exactly as described in Genesis), but I consider knowing about it and discussing it important because Young Earth Creationists are trying to introduce that belief into public school science classes. That's important to me, so even though I don't believe as they do, I find the subject interesting and worthy of study.

Nothing has dominated human history as much as religion has. In some ways it is responsible for both the noblest achievements and most despicable horrors this world has ever experienced. It is also a subject of deep importance to people I love very much, and thus it is of interest to me. What is it about religion that is so all-consuming for so many people around the world? What does that tell us about the human condition, about how we perceive each other, about our relationship with the rest of the universe? How do people reconcile contradictions in what their faith teaches and with what their senses tell them? All of those subjects interest me.

And because I humbly admit that I could be wrong on the whole concept, it's important to me that I've carefully considered all of the alternatives. At some point you have to shit or get off the pot (and I have), but I think it's irresponsible to commit to something so important without knowing what you're talking about. If there is a God, then I would hope He would be offended at blind faith, at people who claim to believe without having a clear idea of what they're claiming to believe in. Or not, of course -- maybe He hates librarians most of all and we're pissing Him off every time we open a book. I have no idea.

Finally, I listed it as one of the important topics I want to discuss because, even though I don't believe in a God, it's a subject I never bring up with my family and friends. It's a subject I've run from, and as I said in that post, I'm tired of running. I'd like to be able to be honest with my friends and family, and not be afraid to say what I really think -- acting that way creates walls between people and I don't want to create walls any more.

So, there you have it. I've not started on "Mere Christianity" yet (though I've previously read the first third of it) as other things have had to take priority, but I hope to soon. In the mean time, I guess we'll have to count this as the first in the "Great Religious Questions" series :-)

I'd encourage anyone who wants to read further on all this to visit About.com's pages on atheism and agnosticism-- that's where I started several years back when I started thinking about the whole thing. Both concepts are a lot more varied than I'd ever imagined.

6 comments:

The Cow Whisperer said...

Wow! I made the front page! :)

Well let's see....

In my view, an existence without God is an existence without hope.

I know that many believe that "man" is inherently good, but I say "If that is so, why do children not need to be taught to be selfish, or to lie?" Certainly some will choose to live a life more altruistic than others, but I believe that happens with a concerted effort to stifle one's natural instinct to serve one's own interests. The human instinct is basically selfish.

Sure it is easy to blame religion for atrocities. There is the Spanish inquisition all the way to today's violent-minded Muslim extremists.

Show me a religious based atrocity, and I will show you someone who was acting more out of selfishness, misguided nationalism, or some other "get what I want" capacity. My take is simply that atrocities are inflicted by humans acting under freewill.

Again I say that you cannot throw out God with the flawed human bathwater. People will always be easy to pick apart.

As I tried to say in my last post (which I hope my fellow bloggers will go back and read), God reveals Himself to those who seek Him.

Sure, faith enters into the picture because you cannot KNOW. But how do I KNOW anything? How do I know that my wife truly loves me and isn't just out to have babies and not have an office job? Well, soon after the wedding, it was more about faith...just hoping that she really did, especially in the hard times when we would hurt each other while learning to live together. Now, 11 years later, I have a history with her. I know she loves me because I've continued to pursue her. To know her. To understand how she thinks (or doesn't). ;-D It is a relationship.

It seems nowadays that everyone is SO AFRAID that people out there are trying to force an agenda on them. Lots of self-serving stuff in agendas, whether the agendas come from Gays and Lesbians or from Christians, or Nazis, or Unions, or Ross Perot.

I'm not saying that if my agenda and yours don't match up that we should fight. What I AM saying is this: You don't really experience love without vulnerability. I would bet that many (if not all) atheists have at some point had that vulnerability violated, and retaliate not just at the offender but at God Himself. For me, I believe that life is riddled with evil from sources other than God. As such, I can (and should) EXPECT to be hurt...by Christians, Atheists, arthritis, OU football victories, etc. All things will ultimately let me down....except the One who is perfect. Failure to seek Him out in this life would mean I am missing out. Without meaning to sound condescending, my heart hurts for those that choose not to engage in seeking Him.

Denise said...

What a wonderful post, both the first time and the second time. It's easy to assign blame when things don't go our way. It's also easy to become complacent when things are going our way. I agree whole heartedly that you don't experience love without vulnerability and, therefore, occasional hurts. But that doesn't make me throw out love because of the possibilities of hurts and disappointments. They all work together to form a faith in that which we cannot touch or define. Without faith that there is a God, I don't know what we're doing here. I think we need to ascribe to something higher than what we are here on earth, and I choose to believe in a God who is just. We humans have the ability to choose what we want to do, believe or not believe, curse or pray, hope or despair. Mankind continues to make his own destiny (and her destiny) and God watches over us, knowing we are exercising our ability to think. We don't always make the right decisions, but we don't always make the wrong ones. I feel God's presence every day in my life, and because of that belief, I try to live the words of the Beatitudes, a wonderful blueprint for life. They are as difficult to understand today as they were 2,000 years ago, but if one ever doubts that God is basically good and wants only the best for us, then read the Beatitudes and try and find something less than altruistic in there, something that calls us to be less than God's creation. Lovely post, "cow whisperer," especially difficult in a world where not believing in God seems to be the culturally smarter path to take. But true faith is simple -- it's just there.

Jeff Hebert said...

In my view, an existence without God is an existence without hope.

If that's the way you feel, that's cool. I would just suggest to you that not everyone feels that way. Something that is essential to you and your happiness isn't necessarily essential to everyone; I imagine that to a Mormon, belief in Joseph Smith's miracles is vital, but to non-Mormons it's no big deal.

For me personally, believing in God is not necessary for feeling happy or hopeful, but if it is for you, then I respect that. I would hope you would offer the same courtesy in return, of course, but either way is fine with me :-)

I know that many believe that "man" is inherently good, but I say "If that is so, why do children not need to be taught to be selfish, or to lie?"

We also don't need to teach children to be good, honest, and loving -- and I've known kids who are just that from the get-go. Godless nomads still treat each other with respect and love -- the good is inherent just as the bad is. One of my problems with Christianity in particular is the picture of humans as inherently evil, flawed, and Fallen, incapable of any good except that allowed them by the grace of God. That, to me, is a very depressing way to think of humanity.

The human instinct is basically selfish.

I would agree that the basic instinct for some people is selfish. But for others, it's not. It depends on the person.

Show me a religious based atrocity, and I will show you someone who was acting more out of selfishness, misguided nationalism, or some other "get what I want" capacity. My take is simply that atrocities are inflicted by humans acting under freewill.

This is the "Humans Can't Win" philosophy. Anything people do that is good comes from God, and anything bad they do is because they're evil. But I don't see how you can have it that way and be consistent. If we have free will to commit evil, then we have free will to commit good, too. If we get blame, we deserve to get credit, too. And for a religious based atrocity that is not motivated by a "get what I want" capacity, I would simply point you to I Samuel 15.

Again I say that you cannot throw out God with the flawed human bathwater. People will always be easy to pick apart.

My problems with Christianity in particular have very little to do with the flaws in other people (or in myself for that matter). I first started to question my faith when I actually read the Bible, and when I started really thinking about what was being asked of me as a person of faith. I started looking around at the world around me, and I asked myself, "Is what I see consistent with a world created and supported by an all-loving, all-good, all-powerful God?" My problems with Christianity didn't start because I got disappointed by someone I thought of as Godly, or from beatings at the hands of an angry father, or from some horrible tragedy. I've arrived at my beliefs the same way most people do -- study, deep thought, careful observation, and an open heart honestly seeking answers.

As I tried to say in my last post (which I hope my fellow bloggers will go back and read), God reveals Himself to those who seek Him.

But not always. I've known people who begged with all their hearts and souls for decades for God to come into their hearts, but He never did.

However, as the Bible teaches us, God can also be proactive about it as He was with Paul. Paul wasn't seeking God, he was minding his own business and cruising down the road when WHAM! God smote him in a flash of light and put belief in his head full-fledged. He could do that for all of us ... but He doesn't.

So we have a God who could make us believe instantly without abrogating our free will (unless it is argued that Paul did not have free will) -- and who has done so in the past -- but who chooses not to. We have a God who has refused, for whatever reason, to enter into the hearts of those who devoutly wished for Him to do so. There doesn't seem to be a lot of consistency in how we can find God, and that's frustrating. If God really loves us, why is it so hard to get in touch with Him?

I tried to imagine a human father treating their children this way, leaving only vague hints about his existence around the house in the form of old letters, speaking to them only in whispers while they sleep, and moving far far away right after they're born so they have to struggle to find him. Does that somehow show he loves them more than a father who is always there, a constant presence, who can tell them right out that he loves them, who can give them hugs and kisses and comfort their pains directly? That doesn't make any sense to me.

I would bet that many (if not all) atheists have at some point had that vulnerability violated, and retaliate not just at the offender but at God Himself.

I would wager that this is no more true than it would be to say that many (if not most) Christians had some good luck come their way and went to God like a lottery winner picking up their millions, hoping for an everlasting payday. Both statements seem like condescending overgeneralizations to me -- they might happen, but I doubt it's a majority of cases.

I've read a lot of stories from atheists about their loss of faith, and most of them have come not after a sudden trauma, but rather from years (sometimes decades) of honest struggling and grappling with what is in their hearts and what their minds tell them.

Without meaning to sound condescending, my heart hurts for those that choose not to engage in seeking Him.

I think it speaks well of you that you want to help others feel the same way you do about something that has made a huge positive impact on your life, I honestly do. But I would take exception to the phrase "those that choose not to engage in seeking Him". You seem to be implying that atheists have not sought God, that they're taking some kind of easy way out. Almost every atheist I have encountered has struggled mightily with God, most having sought him with fervor over a long period of time. Most Christians I know would respond that the seeker had some flaw, that they didn't look hard enough, or long enough, or in the right way. But in my experience, they HAVE found an answer -- it just isn't the same answer you found.

And to me, that's all right too. If there is a God, then surely He will understand if not everyone could understand what He was trying to say. That those who honestly sought, but failed to find, Him would be treated not with condescension or contempt, but with the same open arms and forgiving heart as the Prodigal Son.

Part of my problem with Christianity, however, is that this is not what we are taught. Instead, we are told that those people will burn forever in the flames of Hell because they couldn't find God, even though they looked. Hard.

That doesn't seem right to me.

Denise Said:
... especially difficult in a world where not believing in God seems to be the culturally smarter path to take.

I have to admit, this makes no sense to me. In what part of America in 2006 is it even comprehensible that being an atheist is "the culturally smarter path to take"? Atheists are the least trusted minority in America -- below Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals. An atheist could never be elected President, or (I would wager) to any national level public office. Very few business leaders could come out as an atheist and expect to keep their jobs. What part of America are you living in where it would be culturally smarter to be an atheist? You'd have to be an idiot (raises hand) to want to be labeled that way.

80% of Americans are Christians. Every single President has been at least nominally Christian (Jefferson and Adams were more properly deists, not at all what we would consider modern Christians, but certainly they were not atheists). Our money all says "In God We Trust." Virtually every community in the country has multiple Christian churches. When you go to court, you're asked to swear on a Bible to tell the truth, and our elected officials are sworn in on one too.

Clearly, the smart money is on being a loud, proud Christian if you want to get ahead in this country. In fact, I am struggling to think of a place in America in 2006 where it would be culturally smart to be an atheist, and I'm coming up blank here.

Geopoet said...

Ah, there is nothing more refreshing than honesty. How often people dodge the most important questions in life to avoid any type of discomfort or suffering. Thanks for being open to where you are everybody and what you believe at this point - it's the only path to true growth, isn't it? (See Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled").

That definition of agnosticism is interesting - I always thought of it as not really having an opinion either way (Scott Peck calls it laziness born of immaturity) rather than just some level of certainty. Atheism is much stronger, a belief that there is no God based on some level of experience or knowledge. I find that interesting too because, since there is no way to actually PROVE (in a scientific sense) there is no God, it seems conversely true that there is no way to PROVE there is not a God. Perhaps Jeff captures it best in the sense of a belief, based on current experience. Certainly, if one has actually experienced what they absolutely believe is the presence of God, then this is a reality that cannot be denied without prejudice. Conversely,however, just because one believes they have not experienced the presence of God yet, does not mean that God does not exist. There is nothing in science for example that you can hang your hat on to posit a "proof" either way. So where do we look for proof?

Well, I don't think we necessarily say there must be a God because without Him, there is no hope. That's putting the cart before the horse. I think it's best to ask ourselves, "where is the ONE place that, if there is a God, we would most likely expect to find Him?" The answer to that is obvious - if in fact there is a God, we would most likely expect to find Him in the very creations he made. In fact, you'd expect these creations to have some sense of that God that simply doesn't fit the biological, physiological or psychological profile of a purely earthen basic animal trying to survive and propogate. You would expect this creature to have a sense of morality (right and wrong) that tells them to do the moral thing, even when it isn't self preservation or instinct. Of course, that doesn't mean the creature would always DO the right thing, but even if he didn't, he'd feel "guilty" for it. You would also expect this human brain to be preconfigured or prewired to receive these "transmissions" from this so-called Creator so that the Creator, if He does exist, can lead the human person to Himself. There would be a sense of "awe", of contemplating beauty and purpose, a natural ability to "pray" and a sense of consolation in the midst of solitude that, if not unique among all creatures, is certainly exceptional. You'd also thus see a belief in a supernatural being through nearly all cultures, at all times, if this is "prewired".

The ultimate end of logic with respect to this discourse, at least in many people's minds, is that the evidence is actually quite overwhelming that there is, in fact, something or someone that is leading us to Himself. We find God exactly where we'd expect to find Him, within ourselves. Such is the same conclusion of many of the greatest minds of human history, and the modern world still has nothing to disprove it (and never will).

All that being said however, it still seems quite abstract - at least until you encounter someone who has deeply and personally felt the touch of a compassionate Being that is outside of their understanding, much moreso when you experience it yourself. Which brings us to, and I'm sorry that this might offend some, to a very particular person born in Nazareth about 2000 years ago.

We all know the story, but let's just step back a minute before we get bored with it. Consider the likelihood that this God, if He does exist, would sooner or later do everything possible to bring us closer to Himself. If after planting Himself in our minds, after sending messages to prophets and doing all kinds of miracles we still didn't "get it", would He really love us (and I mean individually) so much that He'd actually humble himself, walk among us, and teach us how to get back to Himself? Moreso, would He actually allow Himself to be killed, just so He could rise from death to remove any "gaps" between us? This is exactly what happened, according to Christianity, and it's so obvious after the fact, and yet so improbable, that it shatters the imagination. Thus, we can intellectualize and philosophise all we want about a Creator, but when we look at and read about this actual living event and person called Jesus Christ, we are faced with a much more tangible choice. He was, without question, an actual historical person that almost undoubtably said and did the things described in the New Testament, as history attests. That being said, (and in the manner of C.S Lewis - Jeff you may have read this part) Jesus was either a madman, a devil, a charlatan or He was actually exactly who He said He was. What is interesting is that even the nonreligious can eliminate the first three options - yet do we dare even consider the final alternative? If we do not consider it, are we really being honest with ourselves, or just playing in the field of philosophy?

I think Jesus Himself put it best when He asked His disciples who He was. "Who do YOU say that I am?" he asked them, when the whole country was abuzz with the miracles He was doing. I think that we can cut through all the Aristotlean, existentialist and humanistic philosophies when it comes to belief in God if we answer that question for ourselves and address the ramifications of our answer. Everything else falls into place after that.

Now, some may say, Christians are being too selective - why not talk about Buddha or Confucious? All we Christians can say is that it makes no sense to talk about how you might get to Austin by going through California when I know I have to go through Texas to get there. If Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God (as He says He is), then experiencing Him will certainly reveal God Himself. And thus, over the centuries, many have experienced a personal and strong encounter with this "Son of God", whether they are alone in prayer, reading the Gospels, in the midst of the Holy Mass, looking at a Texas sky or holding a baby - right where you'd expect to find Him.

So to wind up this long-winded comment, when the intellect cannot be used but reason and honesty impels us onward to the possibility of a living God, then perhaps it is time to open the will and the heart to a greater reality. Perhaps this is why we are often called pilgrims. Happy Journeys.

Jeff Hebert said...

First, thanks to Russel, Johnny, and Denise for sharing their thoughts on this subject, I very much appreciate it. I'm glad we can discuss these things in a civil, loving way, that means a lot to me.

I've got a very long post written up to continue this dialog, but it's already well over 2,000 words and I don't think it's well suited for the way Blogger lays out comments. So, once I get it whipped into a better format, I'll probably post several different installments so the issues don't all get crowded together. That way we can keep the discussions all grouped together in an easier-to-follow way. Hope that's all right.

Thanks agin for engaging in the dialog, it's good to learn what other people think about things!

David M said...

I may need Cliff Notes for future posts on this topic and the responses. :-)

Interesting reading.

I'm curious, Jeff, about your belief in the spirit or soul and how that relates to your belief, or lack thereof in this case, in the existence of God.
More specifically, my sense is that you do believe in a spirit or soul and that a person's spirit or soul can evolve. Is that assumption correct? If so, what does it eventually evolve into.

I wrestle with that concpet myself.

Two, did I ever tell you about the book "God: a biography". I started to read it a few year's back, but never finished it. You've got me interested in picking it back up again. Essentially the story of God, as it can be extrapolated, from the Bible.