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 The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”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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