Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Believing Without Proof
Shane Hayes

“You can’t be both a believer in God and an agnostic,” I am told.

“Well then,” I reply, “which am I not? Because I think I’m both. I believe in a personal God who created the world and cares about his creatures, and I pray to him daily – often hourly. Am I not a believer?”

“If you say so, I guess you are. But then you’re not an agnostic.”

There, I think, is the nub of the dispute. Most people think an agnostic is one who does not believe in God. And most people who call themselves agnostics probably don’t. But agnosticism per se does not exclude belief. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “agnostic” as: “A person who holds the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.”

My simple working definition does not conflict with that: “An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not.” To state, as OED does, that nothing can be known of the existence of God is not to say God doesn’t exist. It speaks of the limits of our knowledge, not the limits of reality.

OED gives eleven definitions of “know.” The one most on point for us – and most revealing -- is the tenth: “Comprehend as fact or truth; understand with clearness and certainty. Freq[uently] opp[osed to] Believe. “ To know is to have certainty, and that’s often seen as the opposite of believing. To say we can’t know of the existence of God is not to say we can’t believe in it. I say we can’t know of the existence of God, which makes me an agnostic. But I believe in it – very strongly.

We’re not just parsing words here; we’re touching on the complexity of human nature and a distinction (almost a dichotomy) that even philosophers often miss. We are many-faceted creatures. When my rational mind – after utmost exertion -- concludes that we can’t know whether there is a God or not, that his existence can’t be either proven or disproven, my mind has done all it can. In terms of philosophical position I’m an agnostic.

But it doesn’t end there -- because I’m not a disembodied mind. I’m a human being with a physical, emotional, social, and – I submit – even a spiritual life. Here I am, on an obscure planet, adrift on the great sea of time, trying to figure out who and what I am and where I’m going, in the short term and the long term. And wondering if the long term ever ends. I have to move on. Get from here to there. Plot a course, form strategies, make assumptions, and draw conclusions from limited evidence. In evaluating my situation, mundane and cosmic, the question of whether God exists has profound relevance. Philosophy and science don’t answer it. In that department I’m an agnostic. But the imperatives of a reflective human life require that I form an opinion on what I can’t know, that I proceed as if there is a personal and loving God or as if there is not.

At age twenty I came to believe that there was no God. That was my chosen creed. So I was an agnostic philosophically, and an atheist in personal belief. Years later, without changing my philosophical position, I embraced theism and later still the Christian faith. So I am in fact an agnostic and a Christian.

Do I contend that agnosticism is the only right philosophical view and that everyone, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, should be philosophically agnostic? Here I’m a little inconsistent. I do hold that agnosticism is the most reasonable view. But if believers in God think they can prove his existence, I won’t argue against them. I would be glad if they’re right and I’m wrong. I will argue against atheist claims that they can prove God does not exist. As one who has chosen to believe, I have a strong bias in favor of the God hypothesis. I would not impose it on anyone, but I will defend its reasonableness against attacks.

The last point I will make here is important though not novel. The essence of believing is to hold as true what you cannot prove. OED in its nine definitions of “believe” uses such phrases as “have confidence or faith in… hold an opinion, think… give credence to… hold as true the existence of….” All imply an element of uncertainty.

We don’t believe in the existence of the house we live in. We know it’s there; our senses confirm its reality. We don’t believe in the law of gravity. We experience and deal with it all the time. I contend that we can’t believe in God if God’s existence is an absolute certainty. If that were so, we would be knowers, not believers, and our religion would be a body of knowledge, not a faith. When in the gospels Jesus urged people to believe, he was asking them to hold as true something unproven – often something that seemed incredible. That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue. And it should make believers tolerant of philosophical agnosticism, even if they think God’s existence as provable as gravity.


  1. People who claim there is a God are just as crazy as the people who claim there isn't one. To me, this is the definition of an agnosticism.

    All of what Shane says is true except it sidesteps the biggest issue skeptics have with religion. The quibble is not with the existence of God. It's with the nature of religion. It's that mental process that causes reasonable people's mind to snap shut and makes them fly airplanes filled with innocent people into buildings because somehow they have come to the conclusion that that's what it takes to save their immortal soul.

  2. Shane,
    Well done!! Your response to my suggestion that you could not be an agnostic and a believer at the same time makes complete sense. In fact, it appears that I am also an 'agnostic believer' since, though I do not know whether or not there is a creator, I believe that one does exist, and still pray like I did when I was a Christian, maybe a little less. Where we differ is that you believe in Christianity whereas I do not believe in any religion. I have already explained elsewhere that I feel that Jesus was a failed prophet since he predicted that the "end times" were going to happen in the life time of some of his disciples. Therefore, this pretty much nullifies Christianity for me. Whether any religion is correct, I have my doubts. Karen Armstrong wrote a very thorough well written book titled The History of god. In it, we learn about how various people like Aristotle and St. Augustine came up with their beliefs through going in their minds, through mysticism or reasoning. Since there are so many differing beliefs, I find it doubtful that a god, who created the whole universe, couldn’t make it clear how he wished to be worshiped, if at all. Those who believed in multiple gods believed that there was a different god for each unexplained force in nature such as a sun god and a god that caused the wind, etc, etc. This went away when science gave scientific explanations for these forces. Also, if there really is a creator, there is no way that we can know if he involves himself in our affairs. Some feel that He has. I have had a few incidents that make me wonder if it is due to a divine plan or just coincidence. Funny, a former acquaintance told me that he one day woke up and decided that he was in danger of going to Hell and began going to church. He knew my position and he told me that, the way he figured it, if he was wrong, we both would die and that would be that. However, if he was right, he would go to Heaven and I to Hell. Funny, I told an agnostic friend about this, and he smiled and responded that this was Paley's Wager. Paley was a minister who is known for saying the same thing. The trouble is that there is an important fallacy in his argument. You see, it assumes that Christianity is the correct religion. If it is not, then he would be wrong in his assumptions.
    Some Christians believe that God is perfect, but evidence show otherwise. You only have to look at fossil records to see that 99% of all former living creatures are extinct. If God were perfect, you would think that he would have gotten it right the first time. I guess one way to get around this would be to say that God set up evolution and let it take care of itself without intervention from him. This however goes against Genesis which states that God made it all in 6 days. That is why many Christians argue against evolution. To me they are deluding themselves since there is far too much evidence that creation occurred over billions of years.
    As it stands, I have, with difficulty, accepted the possibility that this is it and that there is no continuation of consciousness once this life is finished. At the same time, I hope I am wrong, but feel a sense of relief that there is probably no Hell either. BTW, initially there was no Satan, but when the Israelites finally realized that they were being punished by military defeats even when they followed God’s laws completely, they needed another explanation, and an evil force known as Satan provided that explanation. There real problem is that they were situated in a bad spot where they were open to attack by various enemies.

  3. Jesus and Christianity becomes a much friendlier place once we look only at the life and example of Jesus Christ. As a man, his is worth emulating. No other religion has a principal character for whom compassion was so central to his/her being. It puzzles me why Christians imported the Old Testament into their religion. So much of the evil perpetrated in the name of Christianity is based on the Old Testament.

  4. Elak,
    I wouldn't go so far as to say that those who believe or disbelieve in a creator are crazy. They are simply basing their beliefs on faith. An agnostic is simply someone who admits that he does not know one way or the other. Also, you tend to indicate that religion in general causes people to fly planes into buildings. Most people of the muslim religion believe that this is wrong. To me, it seems similar to those who joined Hitler's armys. It is a chance to feel like they are doing something important. In the case of the bombers who blow themselves up, they believe that they are destroying the people of the Great Satan and think they are going to paradise. Most muslins do not feel that way. Most muslins do not feel that they need to do so to save their souls. Most realize that this is a distortion of the truth. The Koran preaches love not hate.

  5. Yes, the god of the Old Testament was an intolerable god. The god of the New Testament was loving. Sounds like two different gods doesn't it? Well, there was a man named Marcian who also noticed this and decided that the god of the Old Testament was different from the god of the New Testament. He also believed that Jesus was the real god in spirit, but appeared to be in flesh. The idea was to fool the god of the Old Testament into thinking he was subjecting himself to suffering on the cross as a means to get the Old Testament god to relent and not sound most everyone to Hell. This actually became a religion that didn't catch on, especially since Marcian used only parts of Luke only and cut out the passages he found objectional.

  6. Elek,

    I share your horror at the spectacle of religiously motivated people practicing their faith through a strategy of mass murder of those who disagree with them (infidels). Much of what seems a theological aberration is a cloak for political ideology. The 9/11 attacks were not just against infidels but against America, the unwavering ally of Israel in its conflict with the Arab world and the Palestinians in particular. It is largely a case of political hatred donning a mantle of religious idealism. Clever zealots twist religious doctrine to make it a tool for winning converts and a propaganda weapon for waging asymmetric war.

    I don't think it is "the nature of religion," as you say, that produces terrorist movements. Religion does, at its best, produce zeal for its cause -- but zeal for the teachings of Christ (read the Sermon on the Mount) inspires love of God, love of neighbor, and even (most incredibly) love of enemies. True, Christians have -- in the Crusades, for example -- used their faith as a cloak for political and material goals; but one shouldn't blame that on God or on Christ. There is no good thing that can't be put to a bad use by a malevolent mind. The good thing, per se, is still good.

    Religion in general is not "that mental process that causes reasonable people's mind to snap shut" and commit awful crimes. Nor does it make their minds snap shut and exclude the kind of rational discourse you and I and Wayne and Anthony and John and Peter (and others here) are engaged in. If we keep the discourse going -- and look for kernels of truth in what the other guy says -- something good will come of it.


  7. The problem with religion is that it encourages, nay requires, people to accept things that their rational minds tells them can not be true. Now obviously this doesn't cause everybody to commit evil acts. It does, however, cause people to stop acting rationally. Just because this irrationality is used for altruistic purposes it doesn't mean that it isn't damaging. It can, for example inveigh against the teaching of evolution and disrespects science in general. This can be even more damaging than a few religious extremists flying planes into buildings.

    It is difficult to make generalizations about religion. However, practically all of them require acceptance of dogma that can't be questioned. This to various degrees results in diminishing of critical thinking and surrendering one's fate to the will of god.

  8. Only Human?


    You say: “I feel that Jesus was a failed prophet since he predicted that the ‘end times’ were going to happen in the lifetime of some of his disciples. Therefore, this pretty much nullifies Christianity for me.” You have raised this point several times in your comments on the blog and in your emails. I know it weighs heavily in your thinking.

    There are several arguments given by Christian apologists to establish that, contrary to appearances, Jesus did not – to use stock-market terminology -- “make a bad call,” i. e., a prediction that didn’t materialize. I discuss a few below.

    The text is: “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the Kingdom of God present with power.” Mark 9:1. What did Jesus mean by seeing “the Kingdom of God present with power”? Did that in fact mean “the end times” that you refer to? …

    [Here I have omitted nine paragraphs of exegesis -- amounting to three different arguments -- which I have sent to Wayne in the full version of this letter, too long to fit in the comment box.]

    I would like to add a final argument. It wouldn’t shake my faith in Christ’s divinity, even if he was wrong in predicting when the end times would occur. The doctrine of the Incarnation posits that Jesus was both God and man – a divine and human nature, mysteriously united. If his humanness is real, must it not contain some limitations of knowledge during his life as a man on earth? Being truly human might mean that the omniscience of the divine nature of Jesus was, in effect, partitioned off from his human consciousness during most of his struggles on earth. God willed that the human Jesus bear the limitations that are intrinsic to being human. Is that not consistent with scripture?

    Jesus, at age twelve, probably didn’t know that a caravan which included his family was leaving Jerusalem without him. He was probably unaware that for days his distraught parents searched frantically for him. As an adult preacher he had to ask at one point how much food was available for the crowd: “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” Mark 6:38. The apostles checked and reported back that there were five loaves and two fish.

    Though he had amazing flashes of knowledge, insight, prescience, and clairvoyance, Jesus lived, like other humans, with some limitations of knowledge. He admitted this when, speaking of the end times, he said: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, NOR THE SON, but only the Father.” Mark 13:32 (emphasis added). Jesus did not claim omniscience. He confessed, in that passage, an important gap in his knowledge of the future. If he made an incorrect prediction of when something would happen – having admitted that even HE didn’t know – that would not shake my faith in his divinity.

    What I’m attempting here, Wayne, is not to prove that your view is wrong, but that it may be wrong. And even if it’s right, there are rational ways to look at the reported incident and still believe that Christ was divine. If you don’t want to, you have your out -- the Bart Ehrman argument that so impressed you. Be aware, though, that all he has given you is A REASON NOT TO BELIEVE. He has not DISPROVEN the divinity of Christ or the essential truth of his Gospel, any more than Richard Dawkins has disproven the existence of God.

    If you WANT to believe in God, you can, even if his existence can’t be proven – as long as it can’t be DISPROVEN. And if you want to believe in Jesus as God-man and Savior, you can – as long as it can’t be disproven. The question is not whether there are good arguments against belief – there always are. But if they don’t rise to the level of proof (I say they DON'T) and your heart tells you to believe, BELIEVE! I think you’ve been resisting the magnetism of Christ. I think you’re powerfully drawn to Him. There are good reasons for faith. Chose those. Choose HIM.


  9. In an email Wayne said I should have broken the full text of my long comment -- which appears in abbreviated form above -- into two comments and posted it in full. Actually it would have taken three. At his suggestion I am posting the rest (the paragraphs deleted above) in this comment and the one immediately below it. Sorry the reading will be a bit disjointed. Shane

    Continued from paragraph three of my 1/4/2010 comment to Wayne:

    The MacArthur Bible Commentary says: “The event Jesus had in mind has been variously interpreted as (1) his Resurrection and Ascension, (2) the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, (3) the spread of Christianity, or (4) the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. The most accurate interpretation, however, is to connect Christ’s promise with the Transfiguration in the context (vv. 2-8), which provides a foretaste of His coming glory. That all three synoptic gospels place this promise immediately before the Transfiguration supports this view, as does the fact that ‘kingdom’ can refer to royal splendor.” This MacArthur passage is just an example of how one can reasonably interpret Mark 9:1 in ways that do not involve a missed prediction by Jesus.

    The text at Mark 13:30 is a harder case: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” This follows a recitation of end-time events and, at least as placed in Mark’s gospel, does not precede the Transfiguration. It does have all the appearances of a failed prediction, but there are verses in the preceding discourse that imply Jesus was thinking of the end times occurring long after those he was speaking to had died:

    (1) “And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” Mark 13:10. Did he think worldwide missionary proselytizing by his little band of disciples would occur before the current generation had passed away? Was he that naïve?

    (2) “Then [when the sun and moon darken and the stars fall] they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Mark 13:26. The “you” that appears in most of the prophecy changes there to “they,” indicating that others than those present would witness the most portentous end event, the Second Coming.

    These inconsistencies in the gospel narrative may indicate that Jesus was of two minds as to when the events would occur. More likely they indicate that Mark – or those whose earlier writings or recollections he relied on – were a little unclear on exactly what Jesus said about the most baffling, terrifying, and unprecedented epoch in human history: its cataclysmic final chapter. One who is not fixed like flint on the complete inerrancy of scripture will take minor perplexities like this in stride. God has willed us to live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, and imperfect churches. Perhaps he wants us to cope with imperfect scriptures too. Faith and grace are equal to that task.

    [The last four paragraphs of this letter to Wayne in comment form appears in the comment immediately below this one. Shane)

  10. [Continued from the Shane Hayes comment, just above this one, which was cut short because blog software limits length of each comment to 4,096 characters, including spaces. This follows the paragraph above that ends, "Faith and grace are equal to that task."]

    In his comment of 12/22, 11:55 a.m., elsewhere on this blog Anthony – who believes the Bible inerrant -- made this keen observation:

    “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 imminence 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.” (End of Anthony’s passage.)

    So the two above arguments say: (1) Jesus did not make a bad call if the call is interpreted correctly; (2) Even if you insist that his quoted words, in context, meant the “end times,” which didn’t materialize, those words might have been misunderstood or misreported. And if you insist on the accuracy of those quoted words, mustn’t you also concede that the reports of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost were accurate and make the alleged missed call inconsequential?

    I don’t quarrel with those who believe in Bible inerrancy. I hope they, like those who claim God’s existence can be proven, are right. But if so, my vision is flawed, because I don’t see it that way. If one doesn’t view the Bible as totally free from error, but as an invaluable source of God’s truth as understood and reported by his finest – though fallible -- human instruments, one isn’t thrown by an occasional contradiction, a slight historical inaccuracy, or a prediction – even by Jesus -- that proved untrue but may have been misreported. The Bible, though not inerrant in every line, is sound and sacred enough to make us “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ.” 2 Tim 3:15

    [This completes the long letter I wrote in response to Wayne's comments but have, through poor planning, posted in these last three comments with some portions out of order.]


  11. Hi Shane,

    My name is Jeff. Wayne told me about your blog from comments over at the friendlyAtheist website. I agree with you that it is possible to be both an agnostic and a believer. Personally, I'm an agnostic but not a believer. I consider myself an atheist but only as someone who lacks theistic belief. I don't harbor an active disbelief in God. I merely just don't happen to have a belief in God. I do find it curious that you don't think humans can know any particular attributes of God but still quote scripture as if you knew any of it was anything other than myth. It kind-of seems like you are trying to have it both ways to me.

    respectively, Jeff

  12. Forgive me if this has already been said but here is my understanding on agnosticism.

    The gnostic question is one of knowledge. Can we 'know' with any certainty that gods of any kind exist? If you can prove gods exist so as to satisfy the yourself completely then you are a gnostic. If you have any uncertainty or doubt or if you think that the question cannot be answered for some reason then you are an agnostic.

    The question of theism is about belief. Do you believe that gods or God exist? If you do then you are a theist (if you believe in the Christian God then you are also a Christian) and if you don't believe in gods of any kind then you are an atheist.

    They are two different questions, not a range that you place yourself on. Most atheists are happy to be agnostic atheists although agnostic is often left unstated because it is confusing to people who haven't really considered it. Many Christians do claim to know that God exists. I find such absolute certainty a little disconcerting and hollow when no evidence is forthcoming.

  13. Hi, Shane, interesting post. I agree that we can't prove or disprove the existence of God. However, I'd say that there's really very little in life that we can actually "prove," where by "prove" I mean show to be true with certainty by an airtight series of deductions and observations. I can't really prove with 100% certainty that there are no polar bears in my basement, or that the people who raised me are my biological parents. Still, it would sound a little strange to say that I'm "agnostic" about any of these things. I feel like the evidence is strong enough for these claims that I act like they're true. I would say that these are "beliefs" that I hold, and it's just that I have a very low level of uncertainty about them. Or, increasing the uncertainty a bit, for most major life decisions (choosing a career, buying a house), I have a more substantial level of uncertainty that I've made the right decision, but I'm still certain enough that I've committed to a certain path, and my occasional doubts aren't strong enough that I would characterize myself as "agnostic" as to whether I've made the right career choice.

    This is how I would use the word "agnostic" for myself, I'm not saying anything about how you should use it. But it makes me wonder: when you say that you're "agnostic" about God, are you really just stating your inability to construct a proof that He/She/It exists with 100% certainty? Or are you stating that the evidence for His/Her/Its existence is somewhat weaker than the evidence for other things that you accept as true, or for major life decisions?

  14. Jeff, First let me welcome you to my blog. You represent a breakthrough: Yours is the first comment by a reader outside my circle of friends. Wayne did me a great service by placing my link on The Friendly Atheist blog and inviting people to visit. I expect there will be a lot of visitors coming soon, but I’ll remember you as the first.

    I understand your philosophical status; you explain it clearly. But I’m not sure what term you use to describe it. When you say: “I consider myself [ ] an atheist but only as someone who lacks theistic belief,” did you mean to insert a “not” before “an atheist.” The sentence reads as if “not” had been inadvertently dropped where I placed the brackets.

    In any case, finding the right term to describe your status is not easy. We have to invent one. Let’s have a go at it. The best term that comes to mind is “an uncommitted agnostic” – uncommitted to either atheism or theism.

    One -- like me -- who is philosophically agnostic but has a personal belief in God is “a believing agnostic,” as my blog name indicates.

    One who is philosophically agnostic and who believes there is no God is “an atheistic agnostic” – or to use a few more syllables “an atheist AND an agnostic.”

    Those who claim God’s NONexistence can be proven are simply “atheists,” both philosophically and in terms of personal belief. To convey both facets of their mindset we might call them “double atheists.”

    Those who think God’s existence can be proven are philosophically “theists” and also, presumably, theists in personal belief. We could call them “double theists.” Some of my best Catholic and Protestant friends are double theists who, in addition to pure theism, embrace the Gospel of Christ.

    This brings me to the last two sentences of your comment: “I do find it curious that you don't think humans can know any particular attributes of God but still quote scripture as if you knew any of it was anything other than myth. It kind-of seems like you are trying to have it both ways to me.”

    My agnosticism extends beyond the question of God’s existence to the doctrines of the world’s great religions. Just as we can’t prove the existence of God, neither can we prove the doctrines of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity. Adherents make strong arguments for them, and skeptics make strong arguments against them, but I don’t think the arguments on either side generally rise to the level of proof.

    Take for example the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation: There are reasons for believing them and reasons for dismissing them as myth. To some rational minds the former reasons preponderate, to some the latter do. I don’t think either side can prove its case. No, the ridicule of the skeptic, however caustic and scathing, is not rationally conclusive.

    When I was an atheist I, like you, thought those doctrines myth. When I became a theist and believed in a God who created the world and loves his creatures, especially man, what had seemed fantastic, absurd, and risible appeared in a new light. It took me years to move from mere theism to belief that God loves his human creatures so profoundly that he might interact with them in ways that a mind, unwarmed by love, can scarcely imagine. Of course being able to imagine the Incarnation sympathetically was a great leap from believing it. After much meditation on the luminous figure of Christ, and mingling with friends imbued with his spirit, I cleared the chasm and became a Christian.

    So the philosopher-agnostic in me admits that the Bible might be riddled with myth. But that philosopher also admits that the Creator of innumerable galaxies, of the laws of Special and General Relativity, who set the universe spinning with a Big Bang, just might have been able to bring off an Incarnation, a Resurrection, an Ascension, and a scheme for redeeming the likes of us.

    Shane P.S. Continued in comment box below.

  15. Jeff,

    Here is the continuation and wrap-up of the comment I began just above this one:

    Am I “trying to have it both ways,” as you say? No. I don’t see the Bible as inerrant. I believe great truths about the mystery of human life and death glisten there – mostly pure gold, but some crude ore too, and even some dross. I don’t use scripture when arguing with an atheist about the existence of God. But when a man says, as Wayne did, that he believes in God, but can’t be a Christian because of an apparent blunder Jesus made, as reported in the New Testament, analyzing scripture is a reasonable dialectic.

    That, I guess, is a long answer to a short question. I would urge that you read the posting that appears at the bottom of my blog’s home page: “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.” It’s a good introduction to how I see these matters. Thanks again for being my first “outside” commenter.


  16. Shane, In response to your comment to me. Part 1
    In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus meets with John the Baptist, a known apocalyptic who states that the axe is at the root of the tree and is about to come through. This was an apocalyptic claim that the end was close and here Jesus is hanging around with an apocalyptic teacher. It would seem odd for Jesus to hang around an apocalyptic if he didn’t believe as such. And you already mentioned the passages where Jesus states that some will still be standing when God arrived in glory in his kingdom. Let me ask you this. What would be the point of Jesus preaching to the people to prepare for this coming kingdom if it wasn’t to come millenniums later? That just doesn’t make sense. He even says to give away all your possessions. Why, because you won’t need them in the coming kingdom and you should, therefore give away all that would keep you anchored to the earth. You already mentioned Mark 9:1 in which Jesus told his disciples “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they have seen the Kingdom of God having come in power. And Mark 13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation (i.e., presumably, the one he was addressing) will not pass away before all these things take place. In Mark 14:62 Truly I tell you, You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. In Mathew 16:27-28 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then he shall reward every man according to his works. (i.e., the coming resurrection of the dead on judgment day.) Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. Mathew 10:23 But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. Paul, when asked by one of his churches, if they should continue to help the poor, he said no because they would soon be elevated to the coming Kingdom. Check out 1Cor. 15: 12-26. Here Paul is essentially stating that now that Christ has been risen from the dead, he is the first fruits and the resurrection of the dead with every man in his order will now begin. Paul also states that if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised (i.e., the end times along with the resurrection of the dead to be judged was to happen then not millenniums later.) Are you seeing a trend here? Jesus &, Paul as well, expected this to happen soon, not in the far future. Otherwise, what would be the point?

  17. In reponse to Shane's comment part 2.
    Ok, let’s look at Revelations. 1:1 starts off “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass. Revelations talks about the Whore of Babylon. This was a reference to Rome since the Jews felt that Rome rule was like being in exiled in Babylon. It also mentions the Whore of Babylon seated on 7 hills. Everyone during the time of this writing knew that was referring to the 7 hills of Rome. Every year it seems someone will decide that the end times are coming and who the 666 beast is. But, the beast was in reference to someone back then. It was the hated Roman Emperor Nero. The alphabet was also used as numbers and, guess what, Nero’s name totaled to 666. More recently, scrolls were found that said the number of the beast was 665. 665? Well, it seems that Nero’s name was spelled two different ways and the 2nd way totaled to 665. That makes a whole lot more sense than Ronald Regan. Oh, one more thing. The beast was supposed to suffer a mortal wound but would come back. Well, it so happens that Nero had died and there were Jews who believed he would come back from the dead to rule once more. You mentioned the following:
    “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, NOR THE SON, but only the Father.” Jesus was not stating exactly the day or hour when it would occur, only that it would be in the life time of the disciples. Again, it makes no sense to warn people to prepare when it is not to happen until long after they die. BTW, every year someone claims that things are just right for the end times to occur, and the time passes and no end times. The simplest explanation is usually the most likely, and that is that Jesus was just another apocalyptic preacher and failed prophet.

  18. In response to Shane's comment part 3.
    Shane , you mention that you realize that there are some errors, but I don’t think you realize just how much there is. Mark is the oldest Gospel and scholars have determined that it was written 35 to 40 years after Jesus’ death. That means something like 35 or 40 years of oral passage of the account to get changed quite a bit. Since Christianity was competing with other religions, there had to be the temptation to guild the lily so to speak in order to make the religion more competitive. There are claims that the writers of the Gospels were eyewitnesses, but there is no mention of the writer’s name and the narrative is in the 3rd person instead of the first. All the writers were literate Greeks. The Gospels were all written in Greek. The one who wrote John was a literate Greek. John himself was known to be illiterate. It says so in the Bible.

    As far as the Christians declaring Jesus divine, they had to do something to counter the terrible thing that had happened. Jews were expecting a great military leader to free them of the cruel Roman rule, instead Jesus was crucified, a horrible death reserved for the lowest criminals. Even the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea were in disagreement as to whether or not Jesus was born divine or later became divine. The vast majority of the Cardinals felt the latter. One especially charismatic Cardinal felt he was born divine and got everyone to go along with him. After the Council, the others went back to teaching that Jesus was not born divine. The thinking didn’t change until later. My point here that this thinking was not God inspired.

    You mentioned Jesus preaching in the Temple and his parents losing him. When they found him Mary said that your father and I have been looking all over for you. OOPS. Joseph was mentioned as the father. I thought God was. You see, in Mark, there is no mention of a virgin birth and Jesus’ parents obviously do not know that he is supposed to be special.

    Remember that I do tend to believe in a creator, just not the one described in the Bible. Incidentally Autumnal has made a good point that a creator simply adds complication to the equation.

  19. My response to Shanes comment part 4 (final)
    Shane, you commented that you find it curious that those who do not assent to the notion of the Biblical inerrancy will nevertheless use the Bible to disprove either the broad truth of Christianity or the divinity of Christ. The trouble is, there is not much out there about Jesus other than in the Gospels so I have no choice but to use them. Historians know that if something is multiply attested and dissimilar, i.e., different than what most Christians believe, than it has an increased credibility. This is true of the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. They are in multiple places and they are something most Christians today would not attest to, but they did believe it was going to happen then. When it did not, John stated that the prophesy was fulfilled by the Logos or word made flesh.

    To end with something positive, Jesus certainly was a very moral man. But even that has some exceptions. He said that he had come to break up families. His moral teachings were not for the far future but for the near future when the kingdom was coming. Also, Jesus’ companionship was with prostitutes, tax collectors (who were generally regarded as corrupt and collaborators with the Romans), and sinners (i.e., those who had no concern to keep the law). This is attested throughout the early traditions of Mark, Q, M, and L (e.g., Mark 2:15-167, Matt. 11:19, 21,31-32: Luke 15:1. This is not the kind of tradition that Jesus’ later followers, concerned about his reputation, would have likely invented. Jesus’ choice to associate with sinners and outcasts make sense in light of his apocalyptic message. The kingdom would come to these people, not to the rich, eminent, powerful, and religious cf. Mark 21:31 and Matt 21:31 and its reversal of fortunes with the coming of the kingdom.

    Shane I am not trying to convert you to my way of thinking. I am only explaining why I am no longer am a Christian.

  20. Shane said: > But when a man says, as Wayne did, that he believes in God, but can’t be a Christian because of an apparent blunder Jesus made, as reported in the New Testament, analyzing scripture is a reasonable dialectic. >

    Shane there is way more than I mentioned in my 4 part response to you. There is also evidence that the Old Testament accounts are man made and that characters like Abraham were made up. If there is a God, I would imagine that he would have to be more complex than the entire universe and nothing like the petty god described in the Old Testament. As far as Jesus stating that there would still be some who haven't tasted death when God arrived in glory in his kingdom, this was multiply attested through out the New Testament. And this blunder, as you call it, essentially nullifies the Christian doctrine since it wasn't supposed to happen millenniums later but during the life time of those people Jesus was preaching to, and it did not.

  21. Shane,

    Terminology is always difficult. I'm an advocate of using the weakest (most inclusive) definition of a term (like atheist or Christian). I don't agree that "atheist" should mean someone who denies that there is a God. That excludes many people who consider themselves atheists. Similarly, "Christian" should not just mean a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. That would exclude many people (perhaps yourself) that consider themselves Christians. In both cases, adjectives should be used to describe the particular subset within the overall category. We can, of course, also come up with other words to identify some of the popular subsets (like Catholic, Methodist, etc). Within the big-tent version of atheism, it would probably be a good idea to likewise have some commonly agreed upon adjectives to describe the subsets and perhaps even some special words to identify some of the popular subsets. I also think that (a)theism should be about belief and (a)gnosticism should be about knowledge. I view these as orthogonal to each other where everybody can hold a position on both belief and what they claim as knowledge.

  22. Shane, as a follow-up,

    Theism is usually defined as a belief in an interacting God(s) that can be influenced by prayer and worship. I prefer to minimally define atheism as someone who doesn't have these theist beliefs. Since I don't have these theist beliefs, I consider myself an atheist.

  23. Jeff,

    You’re right, we’re dealing with subtle concepts. Ambiguous terms make discussion hard and argument harder. You say that “(a)theism should be about belief and (a)gnosticism should be about knowledge.” I agree. But many atheists don’t, because they claim their No God position is based on knowledge, and that the theist’s position is based on belief. In my posting “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” I make the point that both theism and atheism are beliefs.

    Yes, the term “Christian” should be as broad as we can reasonably make it – but not too broad. I’m far from fundamentalism and far from liberalism, but some evangelicals and mainstream Catholics (with whom I generally agree) are put off by my agnosticism and my view that scripture is not inerrant. The fact that I believe the essential Christian doctrines makes me a Christian, though I don’t see them as supported by proof.

    I’m inclined to agree with those who would make belief in Christ’s divinity an essential element of Christian belief and therefore of the definition of “Christian.” But I have a close friend who denies it (more or less), considers himself Catholic, and has social contact with Bishops and Archbishops who take his denial in stride. I guess the definition of “Christian” is expanding, but if it expands too far we’ll need another term to designate those who believe in Christ’s deity, which seems to many of us a vital element of the faith.

    If you believe in a non-interacting God, maybe you should call yourself a deist. “Deism involves belief in a creator who has established the universe and its processes but does not respond to human prayer or need.” The Oxford Guide to Philosophy.

    Two questions:

    Terminology aside, if you believe in a God at all, WHY NOT one “that can be influenced by prayer and worship,” as you say? Why not one that can make a real difference in your life?

    The last three paragraphs of my posting “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” proclaim the benefits of believing in a God who cares about his creatures. It would help me to know what in those three paragraphs you disagree with or find unpersuasive. Will you glance at them, as time permits, and tell me? And is there anything you agree with? Thanks.


  24. Shane,

    I left a comment about Pascal's wager on your "An Agnostic Argues for Faith" posting.

    As for Deism, I personally don't feel the need to assume any kind of creator. I'll just stick with "I don't know" when asked how the universe started.


    Some New Terms Proposed


    Thank you for a well-written comment that has made me grapple with the need for clear terms and definitions that serve the kind of discourse we’re engaged in.

    You say, “If you can prove gods exist so as to satisfy… yourself completely then you are a gnostic. If you have any uncertainty or doubt or if you think that the question cannot be answered for some reason then you are an agnostic.”

    Your second sentence seem to me a little broad before the “or” but accurate after the “or.” I’m inclined, though, to prefer my simple working definition: “An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven or disproven.”

    Your first sentence troubles me more. It is inventive and semantically defensible, I guess, to call those who say they can KNOW (prove) that God exists “gnostics.” But I think the term has too much historical and theological baggage. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun Gnostic as: “A member of a heretical Christian sect of the 1st to 3rd cents AD who claimed gnosis.” It defines gnosis as: “A special knowledge of spiritual mysteries….” One comes across the term Gnostic in that sense often in theological and philosophical writings, and even in some modern novels. I think it’s too charged with other meanings to carry the new meaning you propose without causing confusion.

    Finding the right terms to describe these different theological/philosophical and personal beliefs is a challenge. We have to invent some, and bounce ideas off each other in the process. Here are my latest efforts, revised since I wrote a similar comment to Jeff a few days ago.

    Those who think God’s existence can be proven are philosophically “theists” and also, presumably, theists in personal belief. We could call them “proof-claiming theists.” Some of my best Catholic and Protestant friends are proof-claiming theists who, in addition to pure theism, embrace the Gospel of Christ.

    Ordinary Christians, not philosophically inclined, simply believe the doctrines of their religion, assume the priests or ministers have it right, and give no thought to whether the doctrines can be proven. They are not consciously proof-claiming theists, but I think they are implicitly. That’s why most of them are shocked to hear me identify myself as a believing agnostic, though I believe pretty much what they do.

    Those who claim God’s NONexistence can be proven are “atheists” philosophically AND in terms of personal belief. To convey both facets of their mindset, and distinguish them from agnostic atheists, we might call them “proof-claiming atheists.”

    For the most part we will refer to one who denies God’s existence as simply an atheist. Only when we wish to clarify the person’s philosophical position would we use the term “agnostic atheist” or “proof-claiming atheist.”

    One -- like me -- who is philosophically agnostic but has a personal belief in God is “a believing agnostic,” as my blog name indicates. I also happen to be a Christian agnostic.

    One who is philosophically agnostic and who believes there is no God is “an agnostic atheist.” (hoverfrog, this is a term you suggested; it is better than “atheistic agnostic,” which I had proposed in my comment to Jeff, so I’ve adopted your term.)

    One who is agnostic but eschews both theism and atheism, unwilling to commit in personal belief to either, can be called “an uncommitted agnostic.”

    I’d like to know what you and others think of the above-proposed terms and the ideas and categories they define. I’ve said which category I fit into. Can you – or others who might read this -- place yourself in any of those?


  26. Shane,
    I agree that Gnosticism has historic baggage in that it was actually a religion which believed that an evil god killed a goddess, broke up her body into sparks and then created the earth and humans and entrapped these sparks into the body of the humans. Gnosticism or knowledge is imparted by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas which is nothing but sayings of Jesus. By receiving this knowledge, we can learn how to escape this evil world.

  27. A. H.,

    In your first paragraph you use the phrase “a substantial level of uncertainty.” In dealing on a purely rational plane with the question of God’s existence, and viewing all the arguments pro and con, I find that each set of arguments leaves me with a substantial level of uncertainty. Here I quote two paragraphs from my earlier post entitled “An Agnostic Argues for Faith,” which bears on this point:

    “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.” (Emphasis added.)

    The two reflections in upper-case letters leave me with a conviction that the God-hypothesis is the better one, but the counter arguments are weighty too. Philosophically I conclude that neither side proves its case. There is a significant chance that either could be right – or wrong. Ergo I’m philosophically agnostic. But I choose to believe; that is, to hold the God hypothesis as true. So I’m a believing agnostic. A couple of years after becoming a pure theist, with no religious affiliation, I became a Christian. I have been a Christian (sometimes Protestant, sometimes Catholic, sometimes a mix, but always a Christian) for forty years.

    You might want to view the two quoted paragraphs in context by reading the last article on my home page, “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”

    I wish you a happy outcome in deciding these issues of belief and unbelief. You might want to scroll up to a comment I posted here last night, captioned “Categories of Belief and Unbelief: Some New Terms Proposed.” (Please overlook the misspelling of “categories” there [blush].) What do you think of the categories? I say which I fit into; do you fit into any of them?


  28. Shane,

    I would probably fall into your "agnostic atheist" category but I'm a little uncomfortable with your wording of the definition. I feel feel the language "One who is philosophically agnostic and who does not believe in God" better describes me. My atheism isn't really something I carry around with me. I simply don't carry the God belief around with me. That is just the way I feel about it.



  29. Jeff,

    Sounds to me like you're closer to this category:

    "One who is agnostic but eschews both theism and atheism, unwilling to commit in personal belief to either, can be called 'an uncommitted agnostic.'"


  30. Shane, I don't believe in any god or gods, and I don't believe that their nonexistence can be proven, so I believe by your terms I am an "agnostic atheist."

    I have no problem is you want to categorize me thus - it's just a label, after all. But personally, I wouldn't call myself "agnostic," since I think that statement for most people connotates significant uncertainty, and a viewpoint that both God-existence and God-non-existence have substantial plausibility, wheras I do not find God-existence at all plausible.

    I don't find the "lack of belief in proof for X" to be significant enough to warrant a label, because there's very little that I can really prove. I can't prove that leprechauns are fictional, or that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that energy is conserved. Nevertheless, I have so little doubt about these things that it would be strange to call myself agnostic on these matters. My level of doubt about the non-existence of God is at roughly that level, so I would prefer to call myself an "atheist," rather than an "agnostic atheist."

  31. Technically speaking, the ONLY things that can really be proved are propositions within a mathematical formal system. Science (which deals with the real world) is about looking for evidence to rule out bad hypotheses and gathering evidence to support existing hypotheses. There is really no such thing as a proof in science. To criticize a scientific theory because it can't be proved (like the fundamentalists criticize the theory of evolution), is just to show one's ignorance about what science is all about. Anybody with an active imagination can have an idea (where if you marry it, it can become a belief) about something. Science is merely a tool to separate the bad ideas from the good ideas in a way that can be repeated, verified, and demonstrated to others. Religion doesn't work like this at all. Religious people are free to dream up (and have) anything at all about how the world works. There is no mechanism to separate bad religious ideas from good religious ideas except for various forms of human persuasion (often due to arguments from authority, the application of force, or which camp can breed the fastest). For a breeding example, the Shaker movement ended because they could not get new recruits fast enough to offset their dying off (since they were celibate). The Catholics have been much more successful with their large families.