Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Theological Eccentricity
(Explaining It to a Friend)
by Shane Hayes

This is an email I sent last May to an old friend and frequent correspondent. It was part of a multi-party multifaceted exchange that led someone to suggest my starting this blog. It announces several of the themes enlarged on in the postings below.


In your email of 5/17/09 you said, among other things:

I am also a bit confused by your reference to agnosticism - since it is not pure atheism - but an admission or statement of "not knowing God" or that “God cannot be known." Isn´t the first question out of the Baltimore Catechism "why" and the first part of the answer "to know"?

Thanks for your comments and reflections. This was the part of my letter you found confusing:

To further compound my theological eccentricity I am also an agnostic, philosophically. Not an atheist (though I once was) but an agnostic. “[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.” That quote is from my essay “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”

I don’t say we can’t “know God” or that “God can’t be known.” I say his existence can’t be proven. Since we can’t know whether there is a God or not, we must choose to either believe or disbelieve. Those who disbelieve are atheists. Those who believe are theists. A theist can “reach out to God” in faith and form a vibrant sense of God’s presence in his life; the faith can be so strong that it banishes all doubt and so compelling that he would die for it.

Here’s my agnostic view (with which Christians who claim certainty disagree): Our religion is based on faith, not on knowledge; on believing, not on knowing. Only after we pierce the veil of death will we stop believing that there is a God and begin to know there is a God. The atheist says no, when you die you will know nothing, you will cease to exist. I believe the atheist is wrong, but I won’t know he is wrong until I pass through death into another life. In that sense I am a believing agnostic. Maybe I should call my book The Believing Agnostic.

You mention The Baltimore Catechism, which we were taught from in Catholic grade school. In answer to the question “Why did God make us?” it says: “God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in heaven.” I believe that is true, but I don’t yet know that it is. I don’t think Christ called us to know, he called us to believe. He said to Mary by the tomb of her brother Lazarus: “’… whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, he who is coming into the world.’” I believe that too.

Why do I even mention that I’m an agnostic and raise the issue of knowledge versus faith? To make the point that agnosticism, as a philosophical position rightly understood, is no barrier to faith. An agnostic can become a believer without shedding his agnosticism. We don’t have to argue him out of it and prove there is a God, to win him over. Religion is not for only those who think God’s existence can be proven and known beyond any doubt. It is also for those who see weakness in the “proofs” of God’s existence and weight in the arguments against it. So long as the latter, like the former, are less than proofs, we can believe in spite of them.

It took years for that to dawn on me when I was an atheist. Until I could see that it was intellectually respectable to believe I was imprisoned in atheism. The Gospel couldn’t penetrate the rational walls that seemed to shut it out. These agnostic arguments I make were liberating for me. To disprove the atheistic position and prove the theistic one is much harder than to show that no one -- on either side -- knows, so belief is a matter of personal choice. It is just as rational to believe there is a God as to believe there isn’t. Moreover the benefits of believing far outweigh the benefits of not believing.

This line of argument raises a lot of questions I can’t answer in a letter like this (already too long). But I’m confident I can answer them, and that the approach I will take in my book (or booklet) is a needed, though tiny, supplement to the splendid outreach of the Christian churches. That outreach generally targets the apathetic and indifferent rather than hardcore unbelievers. Newsweek’s cover story announced in April that “the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Hardcore unbelievers – witness the New Atheism -- are multiplying at an alarming rate. Something beyond traditional outreach is needed to penetrate their defenses. Having been one of them for eight years I speak their language better than those who have never strayed from the faith. In any case I feel a growing urge to try.

I make this sound consequential. It is, but only for me. The odds against publication are high. Should this deter me? No. Only the writing part is in my power. I will attend to that.



  1. Ok, let’s assume there is a god. What makes you so sure that the Christian religion describes this god? Why not Bhudhism? That makes sense that we keep getting reborn until we get it right. From what I can see, we usually end up following the religion our parents followed. In India, they tend to follow Hinduism.

    You said that it is just as rational to believe in a god as to not believe, yet you then turn around and say that people are converting to atheism at an ALARMING rate. You further said that it is better to believe than to not. Well, that all depends. Naturally, it feels good to think that consciousness continues after death. Since I no longer believe in Christianity, I am well aware of the possibility that there may not be any continuance after death and that bothers me. However, in the same instance, there is a relief that there is no longer a fear that I could end up in Hell. Also, I actually prefer the fact that I believe that Christianity is not factual. You see, I prefer to know the truth rather than live a fantasy.

  2. Shane,

    Count me in as a customer if you ever get your book published (or a reader even if you don’t get it published).
    You seem to be wanting to do for theism what I want to do for atheism. Make it more palatable for more people. I’m an advocate for a “watered down” definition of atheism as you seem to be for theism. My only real difference with you seems to be in the assignment of probabilities in what we believe in or not. I grant that for the case of the existence of deities, the assignment of probabilities is purely subjective. You may think the likelihood is high because you can more easily imagine a world organized around there being deities. I can just as easily say that the likelihood is small because I can more easily imagine a world not organized around there being deities. I would, though, argue against a “candy shop” approach to what a person should believe in. Don’t just believe something because it tastes better. A little skepticism is healthy.


  3. Jeff, what is your "watered down" definition of atheism? The "canonical" definition seems to be "Lacking belief in any god or gods," and I'm not sure how you can water that down.

  4. Autumnal Harvest, that is essentially my definition. This is contrasted to other definitions of atheism I often hear such as the following:

    "belief that there is no God/gods".
    "assertion that there is no God/gods".

    This draws distinction to the concept of not having a belief versus having a contrary belief. Thus, some people try to claim that atheism has to be a belief system in itself while others (such as myself) say that atheism is merely the lack of a theistic belief system.

    Some people think the "lack of a theistic belief system" definition of atheism is too watered down. I like it, though, because it would be a "big tent" definition of atheism. For political reasons, many theists like to define atheism very narrowly so that as few people as possible will identify with the label. For political reasons, I like to define atheism as broadly as possible to get as many people as possible to identify with the label.

    Note that theism is the belief in interacting God/gods. With my watered-down definition of atheism (lack of a theistic belief system) , a Deist (who only believes in a non-interacting God) could be considered an atheist.

  5. Jeff,

    First, thanks for the kind words about interest in my book. Good to hear that.

    Yes, I guess we're both into simplification, of a sort. I want to remove obstacles to the most basic kind of belief. Many reject the essential (a connection with God) because they think it has to be wrapped up in a lot of inessentials (a great web of dogma and history) that they can't abide. I want to define and present the purest form of belief in a personal God as a very live option for non-theists.

    Your current discussion with Autumnal Harvest (A.H.) is subtle and interesting. My objection to your "big tent" definition of atheism is basically that it would include uncommitted agnosticism (not a denial of God), which I think is quite distinct from asserting that there is no God (e. g., Victor Stenger: "Science shows that God does not exist"). Blurring the two into one definition makes it harder, in debate, to speak clearly about important differences, though I can see how it advances your political cause.

    I'll be interested in whether A.H. agrees with your distinction between simply not believing, on the one hand, and disbelieving, on the other; also on whether he agrees with my argument that we need different terms for different mindsets, if we're going to argue intelligently about these issues. Eventually I'll do a short posting about my proposed terminology.


  6. Shane,

    Historically, the term "atheism" has been defined as you advocate. The issue is that there are a large number of people who find nuance in their stance on belief and fall outside the traditional definition. Many of these people are currently calling themselves atheists. The question is should the label "atheist" be relaxed a bit to include these people that are currently calling themselves atheist, or should these people be convinced to call themselves some other phrase. Should a linguistic term evolve its meaning to keep up with change, or should a new term be invented? Its an important topic and I'm glad you are a part of the discussion.


  7. Jeff, that makes sense. I think it's just that at the "Friendly Atheist," I heard the "lacking belief in a god or gods" so often that I've come to think of that as the "canonical" definition.