Friday, May 7, 2010

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.”

“Agnostic” Does Not Mean “Unbeliever”

Here's 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, and it can’t be disproven.”  This does not conflict with the more formal language, above.  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.

A. Philosophical Position

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.

B. Personal Belief

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.

Proof-Claiming Theists

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.

Uncertainty and Faith

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. Autumnal HarvestMay 9, 2010 at 10:13 AM

    "That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue."

    Why is this a virtue? Normally holding a belief and acting on that belief, when there's insufficient evidence for it, is considered an error in judgment, not a virtue.

  2. Shane:

    You write:

    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.

    You believe in a god who, on the one hand, obviously doesn't want you or anyone else to know that he exists, but who, on the other hand, absolutely demands (at least according to many Christian theologies) that you and everyone else believe that he exists. I am reminded of the title of a movie from a few decades ago: "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

    When in the gospels Jesus urged people to believe, he was asking them to hold as true something unproven – often something that seemed incredible.

    Whatever Jesus urged people to believe, he didn't urge them to believe "in the gospels." Jesus wrote no gospels. He did his urging in person, by wandering around Galilee and Judea. At the time of his death, only a tiny portion of the people on the planet had even heard of him. The number of people on the planet who had at least heard of the Jewish god would have been larger, but still would have amounted to no more than a very small minority. Through my veins, and likely yours as well, flows the blood of people who would not hear of Jesus for many hundreds of years after he had come and gone.

    So the puzzlement deepens. Here we have a god who demands (or not?) that everyone believe that he exists, yet at the same time not only does not want them to know that he exists, but is apparently is rather unconcerned about whether they are even aware of the possibility that he might exist. Yet without any awareness of such a possibility, they could not possibly believe that he exists and thus fulfill his demands.

    A most peculiar god you seem to believe in.

  3. Autumnal and P.Coyle,
    At last, something we can agree on. I still feel that we cannot prove or disprove a creator god, but I feel we can disprove Christianity. Jesus proved himself a failed prophet when he stated in the oldest Gospel of Mark that there will some there still standing when his Father arrived in glory in his Kingdom, i.e., it was supposed to have happened back then, not millenniums later. Even Paul, when asked about helping the poor by his churches, responded that it wasn’t necessary. Why, because they would soon be elevated to God’s coming Kingdom. He believed that it would happen in his life time. It makes sense. Why on earth would Jesus be fervently preaching that you must prepare for the coming Kingdom, when it wasn’t going to come until Millenniums later. It simply makes no sense.
    Jesus preached that what was important was your works. After his death, the Christian scrambling to make sense of it all decided that Jesus had died for our sins. Suddenly, the Gospels are telling us that works are worthless, that excepting Jesus as your savior is the only thing that is important.
    Cardinals goaded by Constantine were forced to determine if Jesus was born divine or later became divine. Most believed he was born human and later became divine. An especially charismatic Cardinal talked them into agree that he was born divine. Since Constantine was breathing down their necks, they went along with it, but afterwards went back to teaching that Jesus was not born divine, but later became so. Again, all speculation when a god could have settled it once and for all.
    Ironically, Jesus stated that those who were going to make it to God’s Kingdom were the poor and downtrodden. Sounds a bit like most people in the US worshipping him today are in trouble because they are too wealthy to make it to this Kingdom. Jesus even went so far as to state that you should make like a slave to enhance your chances.
    Revelations states that a beast with the number 666 would be mortally wounded, but would come back to rule once again. Well, the alphabet was also used for numbers, and the numbers in the name of the hated Roman Emperor, Nero, totaled up to 666. Also, Nero died, but there were Jews who believed he was going to come back to life and rule once again. Also, there were documents later found that said the number of the beast was 665. Well, it so happens that Nero’s name was spelled two different ways, and the other way totaled 665. So, the beast was not Ronald Regan or some other name someone has come up with throughout time. It was all supposed to happen back then.
    If a god exists, and he wanted people to worship him in a certain way, wouldn’t it make sense that an entity, who could create the vast universe, would find it very easy to get his wishes across without any question as to what those wishes were? Instead, we have many different religions and even within the Christian religion, there are so many differing beliefs. So, according to Christianity, it seems that if you guess wrong, you could end up going to Hell. Simply does not make any sense. I had a Christian friend hit me with Paley’s wager by stating that when we both die, and he is right, he will go to heaven and I to Hell. The big fallacy in this reasoning is that Christianity might be the wrong religion. Muslins believe that worshipping Jesus as a god is a mortal sin. One more thing, though, the fact that a god has not come forth to be worshipped, does not mean this god doesn’t exist.

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  5. Wayne:

    One more thing, though, the fact that a god has not come forth to be worshipped, does not mean this god doesn’t exist.

    The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines "god" (lower case) as "a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship...."

    You should stop referring to your hypothetical creators as gods if they haven't "come forth to be worshipped." It ain't good English.

    If I get some time, I might share some additional thoughts about Pascal's Wager. Or not.

  6. p.Coyle
    Oh, I wasn't suggesting that a god doesn't exist if it hasn't come forth, so we both agree on that.
    You know, I didn't know that the definition of lower case as well as upper case god was a being requiring worship. That said, I normally refer to this entity as a creator. For some reason, I used creator god this time. Thanks for the correction.

  7. The whole problem with Christianity is that the whole thing is based on faith that Jesus was God. Both the Old and New Testaments are claimed to be inspired by God, but no one can prove this. Again, we have to base it on faith. So, in essence, those who worship this God are doing so on faith that this God actually exists and that this God is as described in the Bible. How about altering Paley's Wager? Let's just for fun call it Wayne's Wager. Here goes. You can worship the Christian God, and if you are right, you will go to heaven and me perhaps to Hell, however if you are wrong, then you wasted many a beautiful Sunday morning in church whereas I spent it riding my bike or hiking in the woods. :-) However, with all the research I have done, I have become convinced that the Bible is man-made, so I am really not concerned about the Hell aspect.