Concluding the Debate: Which One of Me Won?

Today I’ll finish reporting on a debate about the existence of God, in which I took both sides of the argument. I have become convinced that, in general, if a person cannot persuasively argue for both sides of a controversial issue, then he or she does not adequately understand that issue. So I tried to practice that principle a few weeks ago at a Unitarian Universalist church, and I had some fun in the process. When you read my posts quoting the debate, remember that debates tend to be feisty, so these entries are different in tone from most of my other blogs.

I began my presentation by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris” (Chris is my nickname), and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” In last week’s post, Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion gives people “sturdy support” in dealing with challenging life issues. The pastor concluded:

“Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan. (See The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 109.) Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.” (See http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm.)

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life. His claim that God created the universe is based on flimsy speculation and taking the word of assorted mystics about highly ambiguous religious experiences. It’s ironic that mystics often say they can’t even begin to put their spiritual experiences into words, and then they turn around and draw all sorts of theological conclusions from those experiences.

“I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend, as a general rule, to be morally superior to us ‘heathens,’ and they are not. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion ‘you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.’

“Thank you for listening. I hope you will agree with me that there is very little evidence that a personal God created the universe.”

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.” (For the context of this discussion of fine-tuning, see my October 14 and 20 posts.)

“When I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without any deliberate cause. This is not a faith-based argument. The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence.

“When Dr. Schriner presents evidence that believers are no more moral than non-believers, it makes me sad but it is completely beside the point. Perhaps the human tendency to be selfish and unloving is so strong that religion has not overcome these faults in most people. But those who truly open themselves to God’s presence are changed for the better. I’ll again quote the atheist, Daniel Dennett, who says that from a sincere theist’s point of view, ‘God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love” (Breaking the Spell, p. 250).

Those who are open to God’s love do become better persons. The tragedy is that so few of us fully accept this boundless grace. But we always have the freedom to open our hearts to redemption, and perhaps some who are here today will embrace this possibility. At least I hope you will agree, based on a preponderance of the evidence, a personal deity did create the universe.”

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, “Now I can see who is right about deity.”

Many people believe they have attained The Truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no “tie-breaker,” no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about god is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Does ultimate reality have personal qualities, or should we think of it impersonally, in terms of an It rather than a Thou? Each of us makes our choice – yes, there is an invisible person hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits despite their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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Theism Fights Back

In my recent postings I have described a presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner.

Last week I quoted “Dr. Schriner,” who offered evidence that religion does not typically make people more moral. In fact, it sometimes makes them more hostile to those of other faiths and cultures. Schriner concluded:

“If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

This week I read an essay by philosopher Georges Rey called “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Rey cites a splendid passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty which discusses the gap between theology and morality. I’ll quote it at length, boldfacing one key passage.

Mill notes that doctrines which should make a powerful “impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding … [This] is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. … These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of [Christian] ethical maxims, … and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that … it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; … that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with…. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”

(http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645o/chapter2.html)

Here is how “Pastor Chris” replied to the claim that Christianity does not improve Christians, and the other charges made by Dr. Schriner:

How sad that such a smart young fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is truly revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible.

In the Twentieth Century biologists said we were on the verge of explaining the origin of life. Today we’re no closer than we were then. And many philosophers now admit that we have no idea how to show that consciousness could exist within a physical brain. The gaps in our knowledge remain, and in some cases are widening.

Schriner complains that people go to church and still do nasty things. But I once heard a preacher say that the church is the only organization in the world for sinners only. We sinners need churches and temples to help us become better people. But since sinful humans are in charge of religious institutions, they will sometimes pervert religion for terrible purposes. That’s why Jesus himself warned us against false prophets and corrupt priests.

Even fair-minded non-believers admit that religion is good for us. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett acknowledges that “for day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime” (Breaking the Spell, p. 55).

Notice that Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this “great cloud of witnesses” speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism. [End.]

If you’re an atheist or agnostic, what would you say in response to these remarks? Post a comment and let me know. Next week I’ll conclude this series with final statements from Dr. Schriner and Pastor Chris.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Quotes about Agnosticism

Today I posted a page called Quotes about Agnosticism. I have also collected quotes about theism and about atheism, which are posted on separate pages.

If you’d like to “nominate” quotes of up to 100 words about theism, atheism, or agnosticism, please include the author you are quoting, the source, and the page number or URL. Thanks.

Here are the current contents of Quotes about Agnosticism:

From Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, p. 99:

“Theism and atheism are two ways of articulating our responses to ultimate mystery. And here is a key idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, ‘Now I can see who is right about deity.’

“Of course, many people believe they have attained objective truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no ‘tie-breaker,’ no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute…. We want to avoid this unsettling but undeniable conclusion. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about God is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have certainty about such an important question, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree? But that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss the testimony of either believers or unbelievers.”

In my book I also mention a videotaped exchange between philosopher Daniel Dennett and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, debating God’s existence. At one point D’Souza stated that God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven. In that sense, he said, both he and Dennett are agnostics. “I don’t know, and still I believe. Dan doesn’t know, and therefore, he doesn’t believe. What unites us is both of us don’t know. We’re actually both ignorant…. We are both reasoning in the dark.” (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4&feature=PlayList.)

Ian Markham, a Christian theist, has offered a wonderful insight about our current theological confusion. The diversity of our world-views shows that reality is (for human beings) inherently ambiguous. We say we “believe” in some doctrine precisely because we cannot know it is true. “We are all … making assumptions that we cannot prove….” Markham concludes that God evidently wants us to have multiple orientations. He therefore speaks of “an inevitable provisionality that God has built into the creation.” “It is partly because this is the way that God made creation that I am confident God will be merciful to those who opt for a different [i.e., non-Christian] interpretation of the world.” “We need to learn to live with divinely intended pluralism….” (Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong, pp. 141-42).

The Christian philosopher Eric Reitan states that “… however the facts are arranged, it is possible to interpret them in theistic or atheistic terms” Is God a Delusion? p. 114).

And here’s a remark by Clarence Darrow:

“I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure – that is all that agnosticism means”
(http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/31156.Clarence_Darrow).

One of the best-known books on agnosticism is Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy. Here are several quotes from that publication:

“God is unknowable and so, for the present, is the universe …” ( p. 90).

“Though most agnostics eschew organized religion, many, even in their cloud of uncertainty, often take comfort in religious ritual, practice, ceremony, and community” (p. 6).

“Wishy-washy agnostic! I felt on the one hand as if I should give thanks for blessings and what seemed the miracle of birth, and on the other that I was being absurdly primitive and irrational, even cowardly, in having such mixed emotions” (p. 152).

“There is no rah-rah power in agnosticism. It enters through the intellect, not through the emotions. Stories or chants or affirmations of belief have emotional effects. Stories of uncertainty usually do not” (p. 223).

“The answer is that, until further notice, there is no answer” (p. 199).

Finally, a passage from the last chapter of Bridging the God Gap, which notes that some forms of agnosticism only ask “whether Christian theology is right about God. Such a narrow focus leads to odd logic, such as the claim that since the Christian God either does or does not exist, we can start by assuming that the chances are 50-50 and then see which way the evidence moves us.

“This would be like a simple card game, turning over a playing card after betting on red or black, but this is no two-card wager. Visualize instead a Las Vegas style “shoe” holding six decks or more – and some of these decks contain cards we have never seen before. Instead of the King of Diamonds we may be dealt the Count of Rubies and have no idea how to play it. The theological possibilities before us are vast and unknowable” (p. 191).

Roger

Quotes About Atheism

One of my earlier entries referred readers to a page called Quotes About Theism. I also have a page on Quotes About Atheism, which contains the following material:

This page includes quotations and comments about atheism and atheists. I’ll add new quotes occasionally. Later I will add a page about agnosticism.

If you’d like to “nominate” quotes of up to 100 words about theism, atheism, or agnosticism, please include the author you are quoting, the source, and the page number. Thanks.

My goal is to help people understand and communicate with each other even though they disagree about God. Obviously, if people think of atheists as sick, twisted, immoral individuals, it will be impossible to bridge the chasm between believers and unbelievers. I will therefore need to counterbalance stigma and prejudice by defending the legitimacy of disbelief. I am not trying to prove that atheism is correct or that theism is correct. I am only trying to show that good people can believe either way.

Some of the following passages are from Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics.

Atheism stigmatized

In 2006 a study compared atheists with other frequently-criticized groups, finding “that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” They are “seen as a threat to the American way of life . . . .” To top it all off, “Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry” (Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, American Sociological Review, April, 2006, p. 212).

“Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether” (Ibid., p. 230).

Atheist morality

“The claim that atheists are somehow likely to be immoral or dishonest has long been disproven by systematic studies. In studies that looked at readiness to help or honesty, it was atheists that distinguished themselves, not the religious . . . .” He also notes that “ever since the field of criminology got started . . . the fact that the unaffiliated and the nonreligious had the lowest crime rates has been noted . . .” (Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, p. 306).

Daniel Dennett has found no indication that those who do not believe in divine reward and punishment “are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do.” Dennett notes that American prisons include Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the non-religious, “represented about as they are in the general population.” He even cites evidence that unbelievers “have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest” (Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 279-80).

Varieties of atheism

Many writers seem to assume that all atheists are little clones of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ style of atheism is one legitimate approach, but there are surely as many ways of being an atheist as there are of being a theist. Here are some examples that don’t fit popular stereotypes:

“I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. Never did. But there is more. I also love God. I am an atheist who loves God . . . the word God serves as a symbol, a focus for the thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that go into our intimate, inward relation with the whole of reality, both known and unknown, seen and unseen” (Alexie Crane, cited by Tom Owen-Towle, Wrestling With God, p. 29). Crane has stated in personal correspondence that he is also comfortable describing himself as a pantheist.

“Although it’s not part of the usual definition of atheism, I believe all our actions, words, and thoughts affect the structure of the universe. Our effect may be vanishingly small, but when many people act or think in unison, the effect is multiplied many times” (Henry Stone, cited by Tom Owen-Towle, Wrestling With God, p. 148).

The Rev. Tom Owen-Towle’s listing of categories of unbelief includes “cheerful atheists” who “live confidently and comfortably atheos – without but not against the notion of deity. They harbor no belief rather than disbelief. They are more accurately termed nontheists than atheists. In any case, these seekers are essentially at peace, both spiritually and socially, living void of metaphysical reference” (Wrestling With God, p. 30).

Roger

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