Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Agnostic Argues for Faith

Shane Hayes

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins becomes an international bestseller. The New Atheism is trumpeted by other eloquent voices: Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Stenger. Essays proclaiming there are no good arguments for God’s existence appear on Op-Ed pages of large metropolitan dailies. Three close friends surround me after dinner and declare that Christians give only inane reasons for believing in God in the face of human suffering and tragedy.

The tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism, a destination congenial to some but abhorrent to others. For me it was like Antarctica -- glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon… nothing. I endured it for most of a decade. Then, drawn homeward, I swam against the tide for years, made a grueling journey back to the island of faith – for me a lush Capri of the soul. Drifting with the tide is pleasant and easy, but is atheism where you want to go? Or stay?

What "Agnostic" Really Means

I am a Christian. And I am an agnostic. I hold as true what cannot yet be verified. An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven. Thomas Aquinas gave reasons to believe in God. I see the best of them as strong arguments but not proofs. Bertrand Russell, a great exponent of atheism, admitted he couldn’t be absolutely sure God doesn’t exist. Chapter 4 of Dawkins’ book is entitled “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God.” Almost certainly. Dawkins isn’t sure either.

Since none of us can know, the great question isn’t “to be or not to be,” but to believe or not believe. I believe. Atheists choose not to believe. I can’t tell them they’re wrong, and they can’t tell me I’m wrong. We all grope in existential darkness. I use religious faith as a compass. They think it’s worthless.

I don’t say everyone should believe. I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist. I know how different people are. What worked for me may not work for you. But believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.

The Way Out of Our Maze

We’re in this mess together -- all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accident, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging and we’re mortal. We don’t know whether there’s an all-powerful God who cares deeply about his creatures, or not. There is reason to think there is not. There is reason to think there is. Either hypothesis seems far-fetched in light of certain observable facts. From six-day creation, to creation over eons with evolution, to Cosmic Inflation, to the Big Bang theory, there is no explanation of the universe that is not from some point of view wildly improbable.

So we must have either no explanation or an unlikely one. To some rational minds the theistic view is less unlikely than the atheistic. Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Plato, or did a cause more like Plato produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos? Since the keenest powers of human reasoning leave us without proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe.

But the atheist says, “I don’t believe.” Ahh, but you do, I reply. You don’t believe in God, but you believe in No God. You believe in the hypothesis that there is no God. I believe in the hypothesis that there is a God. Mine is a religious belief. Yours an unreligious belief. But we both believe. Some atheists would rather die than admit this.

Questions We Can't Escape

I can’t say with certainty that there is a God. But I can say with certainty that if there is a God that makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life. Consider these three questions that we can’t escape, because they keep coming at us: (1) When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not? (2) Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death? (3) If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad – or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God… while we’re here?

Atheists have decided that there is no supernatural help and death ends all. Fine, but that belief has consequences. The world feels different because they view it in that light. If supernatural help is available only to those who reach out for it in faith, they won’t get that help. The joy of feeling the presence of a loving God in their lives, and connecting with him in prayer, will never be theirs. Thoughts of our mortality are more daunting if we can’t link them to thoughts of our immortality. Grief is blacker if the lost child, parent, friend, or lover is gone forever, not just gone ahead. And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done that.

Somber or Radiant?

These are a few ways in which faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits? Why not swim against the tide?


  1. Testing comment procedure.

  2. When three old friends and I spend an evening together, hours into the conversation someone always says, only half in jest: “We haven’t talked about the meaning of life, yet.” Then we do. They are, despite our common Christian background, either agnostic or atheist (as I once was). All three are intelligent and thoughtful. One is a Ph. D. and retired dean who wrote a highly successful textbook on psychology.

    They deride the “stupid, naïve, self-deluding arguments” their religious friends give to support their faith. They extol the profound writings of Richard Dawkins, the scientist who proclaims that God is a delusion and religion a virus. For some reason I am, year after year, inarticulate in that social setting. I think my belief in God is just as reasonable as Dawkins’ unbelief, and that he is wrong to proclaim God a delusion. But I hardly know where to begin, in defending my position, and I’m sure the boys wouldn’t listen long enough for me to do it effectively, over beer, chips, banter, and creeping drowsiness.

    I always think of a paper I wrote four decades ago at Princeton Theological Seminary, entitled "My Reasons for Believing in God." In it I worked out a position and a way of looking at the world that helped me move from atheism to faith and stay there.

    I am not articulate enough in conversation or debate to express what’s in that paper. I’m not a talker, I’m a writer. But I think my friends might see the issues differently if those ideas were well presented. At least they might find it is intellectually respectable to believe, even if they choose not to. So I’ve unearthed the essay, touched it up a little, and typed it out. If you or any of your readers would be willing to read my paper I would gladly mail or email it for your -- or that reader's -- critique. How does it read? Does it make sense to you – the whole or any part? What arguments are persuasive? Which fail? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusions? The readers of this blog should find both the topic and the treatment stimulating.

  3. The comment above is attributed to Ronald Pavone, who is a fictional character from a novel I wrote (not yet published). The paper referred to is one written by this blogger, and I now withdraw the whimsical attribution to Pavone. As for the paper I'm not inclined to send it out freely just yet. So consider the comment and the request for readers withdrawn. The software won't let me delete it. Pardon my change of mind. Shane Hayes

  4. Shane and Ronald, I listened, to teaching company college professor lectures on religion such as Bart Erhman’s The Historic Jesus, which pretty much blows Christianity out of the water. He was a former Fundmentalist and Evangelist who later became, I believe, atheist. I have read The History of God by Karen Armstong, a former Catholic Nun. This also, like Erhaman paints a picture of religion being man made. Very interesting stuff.

    Me, I was originally Christian, but had too many questions like why did Jesus preach back then that you must prepare yourself for the coming Kingdom if it wasn’t going to happen until milleneans later. Or why did Jesus tell his disciples that some of them would still be standing when his Father would arrive in glory in his kingdom, if it wasn’t supposed to happen then? Ministers could never give me an answer, but Bart Erhman did. So, I am now an Agnostic, but, like you, I lean towards a creator since we seem too complex for us to have come about by chance, even over millions or billions of years. An atheist friend argues, Who created the creator. He has a point. We either were created or it really did come about by chance. I did argue with my atheist friend that it takes Faith to be an atheist just like someone who believes in a creator, because science has not been able to prove one or the other, just able to show evidence that it took a whole lot longer than the 6 days as claimed in the Bible.

  5. Shane, you made the following comment by email:
    "The Bible is an interesting question, but I’m not addressing Judaism or Christianity at all in this phase of my argument. My initial concern is with the whether or not to believe in God. If the answer to that is no, the Bible is a moot point. Only when a person believes in God does religion, as I use the term, become possible."

    My Response:

    OK, this may be a bit more difficult for me to address since there is no scientific way of proving or disproving a creator. We can look at evolution, which shoots down creation in 6 days, but it does not disprove a creator, just Genesis’ creation story. Some will say that the days represent longer period of times, but that is not definitive. What is interesting is how various people have come up with the conclusion that there is a creator and a description of him. Aristotle believed that there was an unmoved mover that existed but did not involve itself in everyday human affairs. There are various religious leaders like Mohammad who went into his mind and came up with beliefs. Much of his belief is based on the Old Testament and New. However, Muslins believe that it is blasphemy to consider Jesus God. You have to read Karen Armstrong’s History of God. I tend to paraphrase it as The EVOLUTION of God.

    There are arguments that God exists and that he is perfect. However, if that is true, then evolution proves otherwise since about 95% of living creatures are extinct. Why do I lean towards a creator? Because, there are too many things that have to occur for us to exist. We have to have respiration, digestion, elimination, something that closes off our windpipe when we swallow so that food and drink does not end up in our lungs. Our nose has to have nostrils at the bottom instead of the top or we would have problems when we breathe. Oh, and even if we had all these things, it wouldn’t matter if we had no way of reproducing since once, this by chance being died, this species would be finished. I had a friend who used to get exasperated by me saying this. He was an agnostic with atheistic leanings. He would keep pounding away that evolution is a very gradual situation over a very long period of time. Heck, I remember looking at my dog’s nose that seemed to be designed. If it is by chance, why does it have to look good to be functional. Of course, the argument is that this was by chance and the mate would prefer the nose with the pretty design. I have tried to see things my friend’s way and have read books on evolution, but still lean towards a creator. Funny, since I believe religion is manmade, I can consider a creator who was learning. He created a number of living creatures and, as he learned, he improved on what he had created. That is why we had early humans that were inferior to us. Another alternative is that the creator simply set up the laws of evolution and set things on their merry way. One thing for certain, if there is a creator who created the entire universe, he is far beyond anything a human could imagine and far above the petty god described in the Old Testament. In fact, many thinkers described in Karen Armstrong’s History of God state this. BTW, check out the teaching company on line and Bart Erhman’s Historic Jesus and also The New Testament. He also has books. Oh, I forgot to mention. The guy who was on the Bible Erancy news group stated that, if there is a creator, it would have to be greater than the entire universe, and he could not believe that. That is why he became an atheist after being extremely religious.

  6. Shane,
    You state that you are a Christian Atheist. I submit to you that you can't really be both. You can admit that you don't know whether or not there is a creator, but that you lean towards that belief. You say you are a Christian, but there are numerous religions and even numerous variations within Christianity. If one is correct, how do you determine which is? It sounds like you have the same wishful thinking as me. You want a loving god and you want continuation of consciousness after death. So do I, but, unlike you, I have come to terms, somewhat, that there is the possibility that this is it and consciousness no longer exists after we die, and this could be so not only if there is no creator, but even if there is one. I had a friend tell me that he is a Christian because he doesn't want to go to Hell. He further stated that If he is wrong, we both will die and that is it, but if he is right, He will go to heaven and I to Hell. This is Paley's Wager. Paley’s Wager was made by a minister long ago and essentially states the same thing. The fallacy in it is that Christianity may be the wrong religion. And, as I stated in my comment to the other blog, in Mark, the oldest Gospel and, therefore, the more likely to be accurate, Jesus answers his disciples question as to when the end times are coming. Jesus said Verily I say unto you there are some of you who will still be standing when my Father arrives in glory in his Kingdom. The Heavenly Kingdom was going to be physically transported down to earth and the down trodden faithful would be elevated to it and Jesus would be the head and the disciples would also rule. Jesus was preaching that it was important to repent and follow his teachings so that the people would be accepted into God’s Kingdom when it came to earth. This wasn’t going to happen millennia’s later, but during their life time. Even Paul told his churches that it was not necessary to help the poor since they would soon be uplifted. In a later Gospel, Jesus’ words are similar but slightly changed. Why, because it wasn’t happening. John finally throws up his hands and claims instead that the Jesus fulfilled the prophesy by the Word becoming flesh. Sorry, but God’s Kingdom was supposed to arrive during the life time of at least some of the disciples and it didn’t happen. This makes Jesus just another failed prophet. But, he was a great and mortal man. Just not correct about his hope that God was going to bring his Kingdom to earth and rescue the Jews from the harsh Roman rule. The Jewish leaders considered him a trouble maker and the Romans considered him a rebel and a threat, so Pontius Pilot found him guilty and had him, like all trouble makers, crucified like a common criminal. This is why the Jews didn’t believe in him. They were waiting for a great military leader to conquer the Romans, not someone crucified like a common criminal. Moses said, Cursed is he who hangs on a tree. Christianity was a small minority until Constantine took it to heart. He called the Church Council of Nicaea to determine whether or not Jesus was a divine from the start. Guess what. The vast majority of Bishops thought he was a man to start and later became divine. One Bishop was quite charismatic and argued that he was divine from the start. Since Constantine was breathing down their necks for an answer, the others capitulated, but after this counsel, they went back to teaching that Jesus was not divine from the start. Funny, they had to resolve the Trinity, because it smacked of 3 gods. They finally made it out to be the great mystery how it could be three entities and only one god. Ok, I’ve run out of steam. There is much more, but I may have already said too much for one mouthful.

  7. Hmm, can't post more than 4096 characters. Something is wrong!

  8. The commentator is a compatriot. It shows that us skeptics are capable of self-criticism.

    Harsanyi: Heathen's Greetings for Christmas.

    If I were a believer, I would have commemorated the Jewish revolt against the Greek religious imperialism of the second century B.C. this month. Fun.
    You, on the other hand, are far more likely preparing to celebrate the birthday of the one true messiah, the son of God, the King of Kings, he who died for all our sins and brings peace to all mankind.
    (Lest anyone wonder why there is an enormous disparity in membership between the two aforementioned religions, you have no need to look much further than holiday marketing.)
    Unlike many of my fellow atheists, however, I'm not a fundamentalist on the issue of nonbelief. Though my rock-ribbed skepticism is, I hope, driven by reason, my unwavering desire to avoid saying "amen" in a group setting is a real driver, as well.
    "Aren't we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas?" Homer Simpson once asked. "You know, the birth of Santa."
    Like Homer, I enjoy the birthday of Jesus — or Santa. So it pains me to witness fellow atheists acting like a bunch of irritating '80s televangelists and defeating the entire purpose of unbelief by organizing, grousing, wagging their fingers and, worst of all, proselytizing.
    Take the billboards popping up in Las Vegas this year that read "Reason's Greetings" and "Heathen's Greetings."
    The man behind the billboards claims to only want to make people think — because only atheists can really think, after all. "People that drive by who have an open mind may think to themselves, 'Maybe I should question some of my dogmatic beliefs,' " Richard Hermsen, a local atheist activist, explained.
    Granted, atheists have some reason to be annoyed by the general public. A USA Today/Gallup Poll in 2007, for instance, found that more than half of Americans would, under no circumstances whatsoever, vote for an atheist.
    No group fared lower than heathens. Not Mormons. Or even the Jews — and we probably killed Christ.
    USA Today also relayed that a University of Minnesota study taken that year found that Americans rank atheists as the most disliked minority group in the entire country, topping other groups who richly deserve such honors, like journalists, for instance.
    It's this kind of close-mindedness many atheists find most annoying. For a long time, in fact, I believed H.L. Mencken's line that, "God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable."
    But then poll after poll illustrates that religious people — in the throes of ignorance, granted — are far happier, far more charitable and far from helpless.
    On an ideological front, it dawned on me long ago that though didactic Christians may attempt to limit personal freedoms, they are rank amateurs compared to environmentalist moralizers or "social justice" moralizers or economic equality moralizers of the left.
    God or no God, one of these groups generally believes in free will and the others generally believe taking is an ethical pursuit.
    Other curiosities invaded my thinking, as well. It is common, for instance, for free-thinking acquaintances of mine, ones who sneer at the very thought of Christianity, to buy into every half-baked mystic-sanctioned cure available.
    These same folks who have no compunction comparing evangelicals to the Taliban demand I demonstrate more deference to the misogynistic, homophobic and anti-intellectual theocrats elsewhere in the world. For peace.
    So while, today's nonbelievers tend to focus on the ugliest aspects of organized faith — and there is no dearth of opportunity — they ignore that this nation's tradition of liberty, economic freedom and unmatched tolerance (sure, we could always use more) was driven and tethered to Christian ideas.
    Maybe, it's not worth believing. But it's worth a holiday, at least.

  9. As I was struggling to figure out why the software wouldn't allow me to copy and paste Dave Hasanyi's column in here, I had neglected to mention that I was actually posting an op ed piece from David Harsanyi who is a columnist at the Denver Post newspaper. Here is his email address.

    E-mail David Harsanyi at

    For the record, I am still not exactly sure why the software eventually determined to allow me post Dave's column.

    Dave has a Hungarian name and he is in fact named after "Harsány" a small village in north east Hungary where my mother was born. She is also buried there. She died in Los Angeles but she is burred in Harsány. She left a bunch of money to the Catholic church in Harsány and they built a memorial crypt for her in the basement. My mother is largely responsible for me being a non-believer. In her world, religion was for other people. It was all just a show, just like it is now with her crypt thing. She never actually believed any of it.

  10. This responds to Wayne D's first comment, above, the one posted 12/22/09 at 11:55 a.m.

    I just have two observations:

    1) I find it curious that those who do not assent to the notion of Biblical inerrancy will nevertheless use the Bible to disprove either the broad truth of Christianity or the divinity of Christ. Wayne's comments about the former minister who could not reconcile Christ's statement about the immanence of the last days with the historical reality that these latter days did not occur is a good case in point. If the Bible is full of errors, why not posit that Christ's words in this regard were wrongly reported? Or, if one wants to take the gospels, particularly Mark, as the best historical written record we have, then why not give the same credence to the reports of His miracles and resurrection as one does to His purported words about the last days? Some standards of consistent Biblical exegesis need to be employed.

    2) My second comment is that we are not the first to read the gospels. The most brilliant and learned minds in history have read the same, and were not unaware of the seeming contradistinctions. If one is truly interested in these subjects, it might be a good idea to see what others have had to say. Biblical interpretation is a tricky business. OK for devotional purposes, but usually deadly to the virtue of faith.

    This is not a criticism of anybody. Just a few off the wall observations.

    Lack of time is the single limiting factor in getting discussions going on your blog. For example, I'd like to write extensively on why I think Prof Ehrman (whom he extols) discovered nothing, but repeats old and false chestnuts that he runs together as a pastiche of original research. He's a good lecturer but a notoriously unreliable scholar. I'd like to respond to the canard that the Catholic Church did not want the Bible translated in order to keep it from ordinary laymen (a falsehood that has been refuted a million times over, to the extent I'm surprised that it is still repeated), and an extended analysis of the end times in the preaching of Jesus. But this is major apologetics for which I've lost the taste and time.

    Is it too ironic to say, "Merry Christmas" at this point?


  11. Elek, I really enjoyed your comments about not being a fundamentalist in religious (non)belief. I like your humour and clear thinking, and don't even mind the occasional dig in the ribs. Many moons ago I really enjoyed reading David Hume, Bertrand Russell, H.L. Mencken. In fact, I still do, as they are much more literate and rigorous in their thinking than the modern pool of atheists who strike me as blowhards. When I intellectually analyzed their arguments against those of people like Arnold Lunn, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Newman--that, along with a myriad of personal experience, I was convinced that the atheists were wrong and the Little Flower, St Therese, was right.

  12. Anthony,
    Though I don’t subscribe to the Bible’s inerrancy, there are very limited outside sources that you can go to. The general rule is that the oldest sources are most likely to be the most accurate. Mark is known to be the oldest gospel so that one is most likely to be the most accurate. That said, it was written around 40 years after Jesus’ death which means we cannot really determine how accurate it is since it was passed down orally for all that time. A kid’s birthday game called telephone comes to mind. Someone whispers a message in another’s ear and then he passes to someone else. By the time it comes back to the originator, the message has completely changed. Imagine this happening over 40 years time and to other people with other languages and through people who realize there are other competing religions which temps them to guild the lily by making Jesus even more impressive. To make matters worse, except for John, none of the gospel writers say who they are and they do not write in the first person, which makes the claims that some of them were eye witnesses very suspect. Still, this is what the Christian religion is based on, so I have no choice but to use it in my argument. It is obvious that Jesus was fervently preaching that the people must prepare themselves because God’s Kingdom was soon to come. In Mark 9:1, Jesus states the following: 1And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power. (This is so obvious that it was supposed to happen then instead of millenniums later.)

    In a later Gospel, they change this slightly because nothing yet has happened, and in John, the claim is made that the prophesy has been fulfilled because the word was made flesh. Sorry, but Jesus said the Kingdom was coming in their life time and it didn’t happen. BTW, it is claimed that this John is the beloved disciple of Jesus, but there is a huge problem. Elsewhere, in one of the other gospels, it states that John was illiterate and this John is a literate Greek writer. All the gospels were written in Greek.

  13. Anthony
    Yes, there were other great minds who first read these. The Catholic church comes to mind when they declared a heretic the one who first translated the Bible from Latin into a language that the people could read. Why is that? I think that the Church was trying to protect their power structure. If anyone could read the Bible for themselves, why would they need the church? Also, they would be able to make their own minds up. If they realized that Jesus indicated that God’s Kingdom was coming then, I’m sure they wouldn’t want anyone else to determine that. Hey, Emperor Constantine called all the Cardinals together at Nicaea because there was uncertainty as to whether or not Jesus was born divine. Most of the Cardinals believed that Jesus was not born divine but became so later. However, one especially charismatic Cardinal convinced them to agree that Jesus was born divine. Since Constantine was breathing down their necks, they simply went along with it. However after this council, they all went back to preaching that Jesus was not born divine. You say Biblical interpretation is a tricky business, but it isn’t hard to see that Jesus is preaching that the rich and powerful are going to be soon put down and the poor and meek are going to be elevated to God’s Kingdom which is coming down to earth. Even the Jewish leaders thought this was blasphemy and Rome took its usual stance against a rebel. They had a quick hearing and then sent him away to be crucified to put a stop to this dangerous rebel who was working up the people. Paul is asked by one of his churches if they should continue to help the poor and he responded that they would soon be elevated to God’s Kingdom. Paul even goes so far as to say that you shouldn’t bother to get married because of the coming Kingdom.

    I’m afraid that most of us just take what our parents and the church spoon feeds us. It is called faith. Very few of us question what we have been told. I know that I was one of these people and I would defend Christianity tooth and nail. However, my questions were never properly answered by religious people. Instead it turned out that a simple phrase by Jesus that it was supposed to happen back then while some of his disciples were still alive has blown Christianity out of the water for me. The Jews were expecting a strong military leader that would overthrow the Roman rulers, THEN, not millenniums later. To them Jesus wasn’t that person and, to make matters worse, he was crucified like a common criminal. Even Moses made the statement “Cursed is he who is hung on a tree”.

    All and all, I still enjoy Christmas. It is a period of time when people are nicer than usual to one another and the music is great too. So, ironic or not, I say back at you. Here’s hoping you have a very nice Christmas as well.

  14. In response to Elek's first comment.

    I agree with you that some athiests are acting a lot like the evangelical right wing Christians. I also agree that it is probably because they have sat back and put up with arrows slung by the religious right for way too long, so I can understand why they would finally come out with both fist swinging. Unfortunately, this really fails to achieve what a cool headed approach would.

    Funny, you made a comment against the athiestic billboard saying it only wants to make people think, as though they are the only ones who can. I'm not so certain that is the way they mean it. You see, most religious people have these beliefs because they were instilled by their parents. I was the same way. I believed and anyone who didn't just didn't know what they were talking about. So, the bill board is not going to get people to "change their thinking" if they are true believers. It wasn't until I started having questions, which religion could not properly answer, that I finally discovered the answers in nonreligous sources and eventually changed my thinking and became an agnostic. Christan religion has a powerful message which states that if someone goes against the "word of God" in the Bible, you are not to listen to them because they are false prophets and probably sent by Satan.

    I'm curious as to what led you to become an athiest, especially since we cannot scientifically prove or disprove a creator. I am agnostic because I reason that the universe and life came about either by a creator or by chance and I have no way of scientifically proving one or the other. That said, I have creator leanings only because I feel we are too complex. The evolutionist will argue that we came about by chance over a very long period of time. True, but it appears to me that too many things had to occur at once. You have to have digestion, elimination, circulation, respiration, some sort of control center like a brain and a means to reproduce. We could have all but reproduction and the species would die of old age and then everything would have to occur at once all over again plus a means of reproduction. If I practiced any religion, it would probably be theism. However, Christianity is more fun since they have great music and arts.

    Funny,you mention that some folks have no compunction comparing evangelicals to Taliban. Well, in some ways they do compare. I would be very afraid if evangelicals ever seized power of the U.S. There is no telling what they might do. The Taliban stone woman for adultrey. So did early Jews and the Catholic Church would burn people at the stake for disagreeing with them or for being declared a witch. Wonder what evangelicals would do to homosexuals.

  15. This is a test before writing something. There is much thoughtful discussion on this site. I think Shane's point about faith is critical. How faith is so inmportant in our lives.I think religion touches something inportant in my life that cannot be satisfied without it. There is much to swallow but to me the core is Christ. It is difficult to believe when one sees the immensity of it all- the universe, the stars, the other planets - and to think of all this there is a God and that God for me is Christ.I can understand how Shane could be an agnostic and yet too still a Christian although I realive it is so difficult to fathom and in so many ways requires a leap of faith.

  16. In response to Peter K.

    Hi Peter. I agree that religion does touch something in our lives. We all seem to need something and we usually follow the religion of our parents. Yes, Jesus was a very moral and good person. But, I believe that was all he was, i.e., not a god. Jesus was preaching fervently that you must prepare for God's coming Kingdom. Why would he be doing that if this Kingdom was not going to be coming until Millenniums later? Well, fortunately, his disciples asked him when it was going to happen, and Jesus responded in the oldest gospel of Mark, “Verily I say unto you, there will be some of you still standing when my Father arrives in glory in His Kingdom. Paul was asked by one of his Churches if they should help the poor, and Paul responded no because they would soon be raised up to this kingdom which was going to come down to earth, and the rich and powerful were going to be put down. Peter, it was supposed to happen then. Since it did not happen, I can only assume that Jesus was simply another failed prophet and, therefore, not God.
    As far as Shane’s position goes, he calls himself a believing agnostic. I can only assume, since he hasn’t responded yet to my comments, that he means agnostic with a leaning towards a creator. That is my stance. The difference is that, unlike Shane, I don’t believe in the creator described in the Bible. You said that it is a leap of faith. I strongly disagree. Since there is no scientific way, as yet, of proving or disproving a creator, taking a stance on either, end, i.e., for or against a creator, requires faith. That is why I consider myself an agnostic. That said, I lean towards a creator because, just looking at ourselves, we could not exist if we did not have all of the following: digestion and a flap to prevent food going down into our lungs, elimination, circulation, respiration, & reproduction. We could have all but reproduction but then that living being would eventually die and we would have to start all over again. If there really is a creator, he, she, it would be more complex than the entire universe and would look nothing like us nor would he be petty like the god described in the Old Testament. BTW, atheists will argue that if there really is a creator, then who created the creator? I consider this is a valid point which is another reason I consider myself an agnostic, which is someone who doesn’t know whether or not there is a creator. Also, God is said to be infallible. If that were the case, why have 99% of all creatures gone extinct? If there is a creator, then fossil evidence shows that he was experimenting. When one creation died off this creator would try to improve on this creation. Look at the first humans before our species came along. They were more primitive than us. Another possibility is that a creator started it all and set up evolution and then stepped aside.

  17. Response to a Wayne D. comment:

    Wayne: I fully understand both your position and that of your friend about Jesus. The path that I have chosen is to not deny Christ's deity but to place it in a category that suggests that such a "role' for Jesus is not necessary for me to adore and love him as my lord and master. Consequently, while i have my serious doubts about the deity of Jesus, it takes nothing away from the love I have for Him as both a human, and the Savior for so much of mankind through his exemplary life on Earth.

    The history of Jesus as written in the New Testament is very subjective in my opinion and ,as archeology reveals new sites from the period of Jesus' life and documents are found corraborating much of the history placed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries [a.d.] dustbins the four gospels that we are most familiar with again come into question for many reasons.

    Importantly, while I had certain doubts on the matters like the deity of Jesus many years ago, today those doubts can be expressed in a forum wherein respected fathers of the Church are like-minded on so many issues that were closed only 50 years ago. The same openess as to the Church's history, however, has also acted as a bulwark - for me - in my own belief in the Existence of God. My faith along the lines of a Creator are ,perhaps, stronger today than they were during my years of adolescence and early middle age. And as I understand the sciences that I continually pursue I am fortified by the conclusions of those sciences in areas that one would normally not expect such revelations to emerge.

    In other words the vastness of space and the seeming unlimited expanse of the universe reinforces rather than diminishes my belief in a God.


  18. Response to an Anthony M. comment:

    I understand your impatience, Anthony, but the foundation of our faith is really FAITH ITSELF. For all of our progress as a planet that progress does not speak to our humanity. I was perhaps rightly criticized for declaring that the references to scriptures was a cyclical argument - just a couple of years ago. But isn't it so? Except for the belief by some Catholics that the sacred scriptures were "INSPIRED" where is the argument that makes Gospel A better than Gospel J or more accurate? If Bishop Iraneus [editor in chief] liked a certain gospel it made the finals ;if not, it was relegated to "the dustbin".

    And Iraneus? Why do we Catholics have such a dependency on what he decided ? Inside our kimono we play our own game - but the world at large -increasingly secular - asks simple but brutal questions and the answers just don't do it. I see the Church retrenching responsibly but others either don't see it or deny that the retrenchment is enough.

    Whether it is because the end is near or by mere coincidence - it seems that archeological digs are unearthing an incredible volume of new evidence that the history we all studied in terms of the past is very subject to substantial change. the enemies of the Church -always looking for weakness in our institution , point to these finds as proof of our "hiding the truth"; a bolder defense with some retrenchment that reflects reality is in order.


  19. Response to a Wayne D. comment:

    Wayne: Believe it or not I am very close to your thinking -- having the same disdain for manmade writings -- UNLESS -- they were unusually accurate. I've seen the pettiness in both science and religion and it's always a "he said, she said," with all parties holding up their hero as "the God of Gods".

    Differently from your conclusions, however, is that faith transcends religions, not guaranteeing the existence, but allowing those of us to choose this alternative. Gnostically, my sense is that a Supreme Being exists --distant perhaps and not in contact the way man might like but, and again in my vision, there is too much in my life and in the lives of others that I have known for me to exclude the existence of a God -- not necessarily the God of Abraham or of my catholic teachings -- but certainly the God who has created and manages the universe.

    In reading religious and scientific books on this subject i admit to some modification in my thinking -- but, and this is ironic -- only the timing of man's creation has been modified. The story of creation hangs together for me -but not because of a single source, but ,rather ,because the sources I have used appear to have a common thread back to creators and a Creator.


  20. In response to John F's comment to me.
    John, I respect your faith. I once had similar faith but, through much research, have determined that religion is man-made. To be honest, I no longer know whether or not there is a continuance of consciousness after death. I certainly hope there is, but have accepted the possibility that this may be it. There may be a creator, but that does not guarantee that we will continue to exist after we die. One thing I am certain is that Jesus was a good moral man, but not God or divine. One of the reasons I believe this is because Jesus was preaching to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. In Mark, the oldest and most likely the most accurate Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus when it is going to happen and Jesus responded that some of them would still be standing when his Father arrived in glory in His Kingdom. To me that made more sense than the belief that it was going to happen millenniums later. Since it didn’t happen, that pretty much blew Christianity out of the water for me. Jews were expecting a savior who would be a great military man who would defeat the Roman rulers. When Jesus ended up being crucified like a common criminal, the Jews could not except him. Moses said “cursed is he who is hung from a tree”. Jesus was crucified as a rebel against the Roman government. Christians had to explain it so they declared that Jesus died for their sins. Christianity didn’t take off until the Roman emperor, Constantine decided that it was politically beneficial to make it the religion of Rome. He called the Counsel of Nicaea. At that counsel, most of the cardinals believed that Jesus was not born divine but later became so. However, one cardinal who, was especially charismatic, talked them into declaring that Jesus was born divine. Since Constantine was breathing down their necks, they went along with it. However, after the counsel, these cardinals went back to teaching that Jesus was not born divine but was later made so. John, if there is a creator, I believe that this creator is so far beyond what we could imagine and is doubtfully anything like the petty deity described in the Old Testament.

    I only tell you this to explain why I feel as I do and am not trying to convert you to my way of thinking. In fact, it is easier to think as you do. However, I am interested in truth.
    Wayne D

  21. In response to John F's 3rd post, which is the 2nd to me.

    Funny, except for the fact that you weren’t sure about Jesus being God, I had you pegged as pretty much a devout Catholic.

    You are right that faith does not make it so.

    The problem with the stories of Jesus is that the oldest Gospel was written about 40 years after Jesus’ death, so there is no way to determine accuracy of the oral stories of Jesus that the written stories came from. What is known is that the originals have been lost and that we only have copies of copies. We do know there are errors in copying and often changes made by scribes. Also, we know that Christianity was competing with other religions and there was the temptation to gild the lily when giving accounts of Jesus. We also know that there are Pauline epistles which were written much later by someone other than Paul, such as the Pastoral epistles.

    I do wonder whether or not if some things that happen in our lives are due to divine intervention. However, there is no real way to determine whether or not they are actually due to divine intervention or just coincidence.

    I to lean towards the existence of a creator, but have no way of knowing for sure and cannot determine why this creator, if it exists, created us are what it is like. Karen Armstrong wrote a book titled The History of God. You could pretty much call it the Evolution of God. It starts out with Aristotle using intellectual reasoning to describe God as the unmoved mover., i.e., God is so perfect that he cannot change, but that he change things around him. Mohammed went inside his mind and came up with his ideas of God, but he also had the Bible as reference. Some used intellect and some mysticism. Funny you should mention Abraham. The book I am currently reading, The Unauthorized Version, indicates that Abraham probably didn’t exist.

    The creation story in the Bible is obviously by someone who doesn’t know what we know today.

  22. To All - but in particular to Wayne D. whose comments I appreciate even though they are not convincing to me on the existnece of God. For many a Catholic education was a blessing and for many more it may have been a curse: FOR ME IT WAS BOTH. But I also had the experience of undergoing this education in more than one country and by having my US education conducted by who I consider enlightened teachers - the Christian Brothers of St, John Baptist de la Salle - a religious order but not one steeped in unreasonable positions that they palmed off on unprepared students. As a part of that education we had mandatory religious courses; two in particular were, in my mind, outstanding and one - a GIFT.

    That gift course was "Apologetics" - given in the last year of our matriculation and a course which compelled many of my fellow classmates to think about the God of our religion but, more importantly, the sense or lack thereof, of believing in a God.

    I have often thought about this course while listening to the banal arguments of fellow Catholics about how we are the one true religion and by being in very undeveloped countries whose inhabitants had a fervent belief in "God". These undeveloped countries in both South America and Africa mostly knew little or nothing about Christianity or Catholicism: in most cases the great explorers had never penetrated their jungles or spoken ot their elders or leaders. Missionaries had not gotten that far. They believed in the existence of a supreme being which in their tongues was "God". That period [my time in the undeveloped countries]was the early 1960s and later in 1988 on a small island in the Indonesian Archipelago.

    The simple course in Apologetics came back to me often - in a rush of emotion. My own research into the plausibility of creation vs. evolution took a different direction - one that easily defeated the argument for the neo-Darwinian position on evolution but encountered the same difficulties being discussed in this correspondence and its attendant 'blog' - as to the existence of God. I believe that my arguments are sound - much like a criminal investigator - arriving at 'The Conclusion' by using circumstantial evidence - strong, mind you, but circumstantial nevertheless.

    At some point I shall be happy to articulate these arguments in more detail but suffice it to say I am as super-convinced of these arguments - leading to His existence, as I was on the small island in Indonesia in 1988.

    Ironically, you make a point that we all ponder [at least most of us] and that is the occasional doubt as to whether our human minds are capable of even beginning to grapple with the implications of a "Does He or Doesn't He" scenario as we contemplate death - maybe the last frontier. John

  23. John,
    Most Catholics I know are so indoctrinated by the Catholic doctrine that they will not explore further to see if there is other possibilities. I had a friend who would argue with me basing her argument on the Catholic web site. You appear to be the exception. I will be most interested in your arguments in favor of a creator. As you know, though I am an agnostic, I lean towards the existence of a creator. However, I keep an open mind and read books on evolution.

    Nova had a great 2 hour program on evolution this evening, “What Darwin Never Knew.” What Darwin didn’t know was that every living thing is controlled by genes. One of the scientists on the program was Carroll who has a great book on genetic evidence of evolution. The name of it slips my mind. So many embryos initially look identical. After a certain amount of time, they begin to look closer to the species it came from. This genetic evidence tends to show that life all evolved from a common ancestor. Evidence shows that land animals have come from fish and the whale shows evidence that it came from a land animal.

    As I no longer subscribe to the Christian doctrine, I know longer can say for certain that, if there was a creator, it follows that there is a continuance of consciousness after death. Even though a creator may have created us, it doesn’t mean that He has provided us with continuance of existence after our death here on earth. There are those who have supposedly died on the operating table who then go through a tunnel and see loved ones who have died before them. However, since some see their lives passing before their eyes when they are dying, this movement through a tunnel into a bright light may simply be remembrance of being born. Also, the whole experience may not actually be true since the brain may not have stopped functioning, but is just reacting to the lack of oxygen. Astronauts being spun around at a rapid rate, to help them to adapt to high G, have had the same after death experience. The cause is obvious. Lack of oxygen to the brain. One operating room put a neon sign that can only be seen by someone supposedly leaving their body. Those having this experience, when asked, say they did not see the neon sign. James Randi, the skeptic, had such an experience in which he found himself up on the ceiling looking down at his body lying on the bed with his cat next to it. When he later told his wife, she exclaimed that that could not be since the cat was locked in the basement. So, I no longer hang my hat on these experiences as evidence of life after death.


    Richard Dawkins has a new book, The Greatest Show On Earth The Evidence for Evolution. I have included the site which gives an extract from chapter 1. Essentially, he states the following: "People who reject the theory of evolution should be placed on a level with Holcaust deniers." This is essentially aimed at the 'creationists' who believe that man and the entire universe was created about 5 or 6 thousand years ago and that evolution never occurred. Dawkins goes on to say that there is way too much evidence to show that evolution did occur and that even the Catholic Church agrees. However, they still teach that we came from Adam and Eve even though fossil evidence shows that we evolved from lower forms of animals. When he confronts them with this, they respond that Adam and Eve is just symbolic. To this, Dawkins responds that he wonders how many parishners actually know that. Dawkins goes on to state that statistics show that 40% of Americans do not believe that we evolved from lower forms of animals, and that concerns him.

  25. Wayne,

    Your last three paragraphs can be summarized by "Pascal's wager" which states that if reason cannot be trusted, it is a better "bet" to believe in God than not to do so.

    My criticism of Pascal's wager is that if God gives favor according to one's beliefs, then how do we know which set of beliefs to believe? Perhaps the Islamic set of beliefs is the right one. Perhaps the Hindu.

    It is also possible that God disfavors people with theistic beliefs, therefore it is a better bet not to believe. Perhaps only atheists go to heaven. It is all just a game of "What ifs". The only reason "Pascal's Wager" has any currency in Christendom is that we live in a society where Christianity is the default religion so that is how people "bet".

    You do have a little point that since we live in a Christian society, one might be happier "fitting in" as a Christian but things are getting better for atheists every generation. I don't experience atheism as a black cold void. I enjoy live and try to live it to the fullest.



  26. Jeff,
    I'm very familiar with Pascal's wager. In fact, I posted it either here or on the friendlyatheist board. I learned about it years ago. I was having a discussion with a friend who was Christian and I had recently gone from Christian to agnostic. My friend had told me that one day he woke up and feared he was going to Hell, and immediately joined the church. He told me that if he was wrong, we both would die, but if he was right, he would go to heaven and I to hell. I told this story to my agnostic friend who responded that my friend was using Pascal's wager and that the falacy in this view is that the Christian religion could be the wrong one. I've since read that Muslins consider praying to Jesus as a god is blasphemous. Therefore, my friend could be in trouble. Though I am agnostic with leanings towards a creator, I also do not think this creater, if it exists, requires me to worship it, since it has not made it clear. If it had made it clear, everyone would know and there wouldn't be so many different types of religions and so many differing beliefs in a religion such as Christianity. I'm with you on the philosophy to live life to the fullest. From time to time, I do wish I could call on a higher power, and that may be a throw back to my Christian days. Speaking of dark and cold. PBS ran a series on the history of atheism, and the 'tour guide' tried to find plaques and buildings displaying the names of former atheists, but had no success. The whole program seemed dark, which made atheism seem dark as well. On the other side of the coin, you can go to great Catholic churches in Italy, etc., and see great inspiring works of art. The interior of a church I entered in Switzerland was mindblowing. So, in spite of the bad, there are a number of good things to be said for religion. It can be a place to go to for solace when things are not going right. Also, the belief in an afterlife can be comforting. What I never liked about Christianity is the fear that I could end up in hell. So, since that is no longer a concern, it does somewhat make up for the possibility that conscience no longer exists when we die. I just live life like this is all there is.

    All the best,


  27. Jeff,

    You say: “Your last three paragraphs can be summarized by ‘Pascal's wager.’" You’re right that Pascal’s Wager is in there, but it’s a small part of my argument. In fact it’s only one-sixth of the penultimate paragraph, which I reprint here, adding numbers to the key sentences. (I print them in upper case letters because the software does not allow italics or underscoring.):


    The first five of the six sentences point out the negative mental and emotional impact of atheism and have nothing to do with Pascal’s Wager. They speak of THE DETRIMENTS OF ATHEISM EXPERIENCED DURING THE LIFE OF THE ATHEIST. Those sentences also imply advantages – blessings, in a sense – that a THEIST, who loves God and reaches out to him, WILL ENJOY ALL HIS LIFE, EVEN IF HE LOSES THE WAGER AND DEATH ENDS ALL.

    You may say that the joy and inflow of strength which I delineate for a practicing theist are illusory. But since no one knows whether there is a God or not, no one knows that a theist’s beliefs are illusory. So no one should deprecate or ridicule them. As an agnostic I think you’ll concede this.

    Pascal’s Wager is a separate issue that I will address in a separate comment.


  28. Shane,

    If you find joy and an inflow of strength through your theistic beliefs, then that's good. I wish you well. I just say that it is possible for someone who doesn't benefit from those advantages of theistic belief can learn to draw joy and have an inflow of strength through other aspects of life. Different things work for different people. Just because theistic belief is the vehicle that works for you, doesn't mean its the only vehicle possible for everybody.


  29. Shane, yes it is bleak to not have a god to call out to and the possibility that, once our love ones die, we will never see them again and that we will soon die and that is all there is. However, this is a strong possibility. Religion may be based on nothing more than hope. I guess, if you believe, it makes you feel better about death or a bad situation in your life, but there is again that strong possibility that it is nothing more than a placebo. I myself am aware that there is no continuation of consciousness after death. I don't like it, but there is also the relief that there is no possibility of eternal torture either. Unfortunately, I am a seeker of truth, and if this is the truth, then so be it. I would rather know than live with a fraudulent belief. So far, the more I read, the more I feel that religion is manmade. I will admit though that I do hold out the hope for the possibility, that in spite of religion being false, there is still an afterlife. Maybe some of the "after death" experiences are real, but there are indications it is nothing more than lack of oxygen to the brain. So, I am not holding my breath. Even though I believe that there is a strong possibility that there is not continuation of consciousness, I am still happy and I am enjoying life to the fullest, and I am willing to bet that most atheist are too. Many have stated that science is actually more exciting than the belief in the supernatural.

  30. Shane,
    I meant to say "I myself am aware OF THE POSSIBILITY that there is no continuation of consciousness after death.

  31. Shane, you mentioned that the son did not know the hour or moment when the end times would occur, and I argued that Jesus only gave a general time period. I just learn something new. Prophet is a word that came from the Greek and it means forth not forecast, i.e., a prophet is not forecasting the future but is presenting the word of God. Since Jesus was a prophet, that is eseentially what he was doing, and God knew exactly when the end times were coming.

  32. If any of you believe that Christianity has no negative impact on scientific thinking, check out this video that is going viral on the Internet.

    I think I'll just sit around and let Jesus take care of me.

  33. Elek,

    You say: "I think I'll just sit around and let Jesus take care of me."

    I don't think that will work for you.

    Actually it won't work for any of us. Some sage, probably a saint, once said, "We should pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on us."

    I haven't had a chance to watch the video, but hope to. Thanks for recommending it here.


  34. Elec,
    I did watch the video, and found it to be nonsense and a fairy tale. It tends to unrealistically make nonbelievers into something evil and is patronizing in that it tries to insist that belief in Christianity is the correct belief. All I can say is the Christian apolgist who made this should be ashamed of himself.

  35. More reason to be skeptical about Christianity.

  36. If you press Pat Robertson on how he KNOWS that The Devil did business with the Haitian slaves who performed the voodoo rituals 200 years ago, and that this pissed God off, he will probably end up saying that he "just believes" it. If that is the case, then I guess Roberson would also be a believing agnostic.

  37. You will love Rachel Maddow's comments on Pat Roberson.

    Also, they played the tape of Robertson in the news saying that the Haitians had made a pact with the devil. The announcer said, "not really". It seems that they were doing a religious dance to build up the courage to rebell against their slave owners. BTW, in the Old Testament, it seems that it was A-OK to have slaves. There is even statements on how you are supposed to act as a slave. I don't remember the passages, but I could look it up in Sam Harris' book, Letters to a Christian Nation. Sam really did not hold back any punches in this book.

  38. Elec,
    That video of an atheist forcing his belief on christian students was fiction. The following is not:
    John Freshwater Still Causing Trouble in Ohio
    Posted in Education, General, Science at 7:34 pm by Hemant Mehta

    The New York Times has an update on Ohio teacher John Freshwater, the public school teacher who doesn’t even try to keep his Christian beliefs to himself, opting instead to hinder their education with it:

    Mr. Freshwater, an eighth-grade public school science teacher, is accused of burning a cross onto the arms of at least two students and teaching creationism, charges he says have been fabricated because he refused an order by his principal to remove a Bible from his desk.

    To some, Mr. Freshwater is a hero unfairly punished for standing up for his Christian beliefs. To others, he is a zealot who pushed those beliefs onto students.

    But no one is denying that he shares his Christian beliefs with students, telling them the science they learn is incorrect and they should look to the Bible for “real” information.

    “Science is wrong,” Mr. Freshwater was reported as saying, “because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, and so anyone who is gay chooses to be gay and is therefore a sinner.”

    A third teacher testified that Mr. Freshwater advised students to refer to the Bible for additional science research.

    That should not be happening in a public school. You should have to pay good money at a private school to get corrupted at that level.

    This man has no business being in a classroom. He’s just wasting taxpayer money by keeping this issue going when he ought to know that he crossed a line many times over.

    Thankfully, a few Christians are well aware of this:

    The family of Zachary Dennis, one of the two students who say they were branded by Mr. Freshwater, said they were eager for the matter to be closed. “We are religious people,” Jennifer Dennis, Zachary’s mother, said in an interview. “But we were offended when Mr. Freshwater burned a cross onto the arm of our child.”

    After teachers and students criticized Zachary for speaking up, she said, the family sold its house and moved.

    “We are Christians,” she said, “who practice our faith where it belongs, at church and in our home and, most importantly, outside the public classroom, where the law requires a separation of church and state.”