Posted by: searcygr | March 31, 2009

The Forgotten Answer

From all of our discussions and readings in this senior seminar concerning the New Atheism, I feel that I can adequately and briefly summarize the conflict between the New Atheists and believers as follows.  The New Atheists say that it is highly unlikely that there is a God while the religious believe in God.  Obviously, the discussion is much deeper than this, but in the end, this is the rough and straightforward summary.  Building from this summary, either the New Atheists are correct or the believers are right.  However, due to their opposing stances, both groups cannot simultaneously be victorious.  Along with many of the authors that we have read, I believe that we will never know scientifically if God exists.  Both sides to the debate have their experiences, reason, and gut feelings to support their stances, but in the end, God’s existence really is unknown.

 

In all our time considering the New Atheism, I now realize that a vital stance was missing.  What about the agnostics?  I once saw agnostics as fence-sitters, too scared, confused, or indecisive to present their stance.  However, after considering the debate between the atheists and believers for the better part of a semester, I have a new-found respect for agnostics.  In the end, their stance is the safe one.  Their uncertainty and statements that “God might exist, but I’m really not sure” are the only ones that are guaranteed to be correct if God exists or does not.  But, agnostics are more than just playing it safe.  They are, in fact, correct in their statement that we cannot know if God exists.  As science cannot prove God’s existence, all we are left with are experiences and feelings which cannot be used to prove anything or convince anyone other than ourselves.  When thought about this way, the agnostics state what many considering the God question have concluded.  It is not possible to know if God exists. In this way, I cannot tell agnostics that they are wrong in their indecisiveness or lack of experiences pointing to God’s existence.  There is no way for me to convince them or fully share my experiences and feelings regarding God’s existence.  Nevertheless, the dialogue continues.

 

After considering all this, I have come to realize that while I believe the agnostics have the best answer to the question of God’s existence, I am perfectly happy with my stance as a believer.  My twenty-two years of summed experiences, the good that I see in the world, and sense of amazement at the world around me form my belief that God must exist.  At the same time, I am left wondering, did we miss out on any interesting ideas or philosophy in not discussing the agnostic position in our examination of the question of God’s existence?  I have the strong feeling that there is more truth and substance to the agnostic position than that of the wishy-washy fence-sitter that I abandoned months ago.  

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Responses

  1. This may sound strange, but I have often wondered just how much or what kind of belief one must have before he or she passes from the realm of agnosticism to either theism or atheism. In my mind (and in Dawkins’ The God Delusion), belief exists as a continuum that runs from 100% (we’ll call it -100% to make it a true continuum) belief in God’s inexistence (atheism) to 100% belief in God (theism). Then I think it is safe to say that one who has 0% belief in either can be considered an agnostic. But what happens in between -100-0% and 0-100%? The new atheists seem to think that you must gather evidence, analyze whether such evidence points to God’s existence or His inexistence, and then accordingly adjust your belief away from that 0% agnostic standpoint. But what do they expect? Do they think that at some threshold percentage, one will simply feel confident enough to join the theist or atheist teams? It seems to me like there is a large gray area in which 0% pure agnostics, 20% agnostics (who lean towards a certain belief, but remain undecided), and 70% agnostics (who lean very much towards a certain belief, but still have doubts) are mixed…

    I think is it humanly impossible to reach a 100%, entirely confident point at which one believes with absolutely no doubt throughout his or her entire life in either the existence or inexistence of God. Maybe it is just me, but there have been plenty of times when I have doubted my own faith to the point that I wondered if there was no God. In these times, I call myself a believer, but I wonder if I am also slightly an agnostic. Is an agnostic someone who merely states that he or she cannot know God’s existence for sure, or is he or she also a person who simply struggles with fully giving themselves over to a certain side? I’m not sure. I just want to say that the term agnostic is much larger, much grayer, and perhaps much more encompassing than I may have realized. I think we should address the issue, and I agree Garrett, that agnostics may raise some good points worthy of discussion and thought.

  2. Rae,

    You raise a good point in stating that belief lies along a continuum. Also, your post sparked some new thoughts within me. I think it is important to realize that each spot along the continuum is not permanent. Belief in God is not something that each person figures out once and for all. Surely there are times when I feel closer to God, those fleeting instants marked by feelings of divine presence. However, I am just as likely to experience moments of utter confusion and distance from God and others. At those moments when I seem bordering on the worst of despair and confusion, the memories of brief instants of God’s presence are more than enough to sustain me and help me to remember what I am striving toward. Even at the worst of times, I believe the vulnerability of an open mind and susceptibility to religious experiences are the only ways to allow oneself opportunity to hopefully become closer to God. Although one’s faith life is marked by large fluctuations, I think it is important to realize the overarching pattern. Is it toward or away from God? Do you want it to be toward or away from God? In asking these questions, I guess I think that the desire for God is a huge part of what distinguishes believers from atheists.

  3. I really like the idea of faith as a continuum; I think that there are many aspects of the human condition that are like that. Humans are not static beings, but are ever-growing and ever-changing as they interact with their environment. I think that to try to permanently fix oneself at any point on the spectrum is entirely too limiting. As you guys have pointed out, faith is not black and white; there are so many shades of gray. Just like most people, I find myself vacillating between strongly feeling God’s presence and having courage in my convictions to feeling like I don’t know anything for sure, and maybe never will.

    Furthermore, to try to declare oneself firmly as atheist, agnostic, or theist closes the door to reflection and meaningful discussion. If you are that certain that there is a God and you know exactly who He is, why should you take the time to search for Him and get to know Him better? If you are dead-set against the idea that there is a God (like Dawkins) how can you ever have an open conversation with someone who has different views from yours? This sounds far too stubborn and closed-minded for my liking. Then again, maybe spending all of this time asking questions and seeking answers and dialoguing has made me a little biased…..

  4. Jumping into this discussion about agnosticism and the continuum of faith, I think Garrett, Jennie, and Rae raise some very interesting points. I agree with both of them that true agnosticism is much more than a wishy-washy, fence sitting stance. Dedicated agnostics who have truly investigated the claims of both atheism and theism are vey far from the “fence sitting” image. However, I also think that some people proclaim agnosticism to simply evade the question so that they don’t have think about it. They simply want a cop out answer, and they view agnosticism as their way out.

    Addressing the issues Rae raised, I completely agree that believers, non-believers, and agnostics can frequently move up and down along the faith-scale continuum. Yet, I think an important feature to remember is the person’s starting point on the scale. I believe that there is a distinction between a theist struggling in his faith in God during a difficult period and an atheist or agnostic starting to believe in God’s existence or being compelled by a spiritual experience to have faith in things unseen. To make this point more realistic, I would suggest exploring the ups and downs of C.S. Lewis’ faith in God and Christianity. Raised in a Christian family, Lewis left the faith early in his life and became an ardent supporter of atheism, yet over time, he slowly rediscovered Christianity after many discussions with his friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis eventually became one of the most famous Christian apologists during the 20th century. However, when he lost his wife to cancer, Lewis’ faith was rocked during this difficult experience. Lewis was able to capture poignantly his feelings and thoughts about God, Christianity, and life in his book A Grief Observed. There will always be experiences that could draw you closer to the divine or that could cause you to doubt your belief system. The important question is: how to do you deal with these experiences?

  5. It’s not as black and white as “Believer” “NonBeliever” and “Agnostic” and that one must be right or wrong. Those are massive groups. Let’s take a look for a second at the group classified as “Believers”

    They can disagree over every aspect of theism: Who is Jesus, how did God create, how does God continue to create, who are human beings in relationship to God, what is the Holy Spirit, how does it act what is heaven, what is hell, are there angels, are there demons, what is the Trinity and does it even exist, how do we value biblical, philosophical and experiential knowledge about God, etc, etc.

    My point is that these three groups are so vast and varied, that “God” holds so many different understandings that to some degree, this whole semester has been wrestling with our own forms of agnosticism.


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