Pascal’s Wager for agnostics

For me, it all began with Pascal’s Wager.

I can’t remember exactly when and where I heard of it, but the wager as I remember it goes like this: If there is a God and He offers eternal reward for good behavior, it makes more sense to believe in Him than not to do so because you haven’t lost anything if it turns out there isn’t one.

The wager approached God and religion from a pragmatic angle and that made a lot of sense to me at the time. Growing up, I was taught to believe that God was a part of my life, that He would always be there to help me, and it was really nice to get that sort of logical, scientific affirmation that it made sense to believe in Him.

When I got to college, I started to attempt to incorporate everything I was learning with what I was taught about a Christian God and it didn’t seem to fit. If there is a God who said and did everything he’s supposed to say and have done in the Bible, why is it that other people have recorded those same events in different ways? If language shifts over time, how can we be certain that what we’re translating now is accurate to how it was written down, with the same tones and inflections as it was when the author wrote them? If the ancient Greeks used their gods and belief systems as metaphors in their epic poems and histories, could the early Christian writers have not done the same?

I may have mentioned this before to some of you, but there’s this gal I got to know around the same time I met Kelly. She’s a Southern woman, a Christian woman, and yet she didn’t mind that some of us didn’t share her faith. I don’t remember the context for this statement, but it struck me so much that I saved it:

The single most important commandment in the Christian (and although I don’t presume to speak for my Jewish brothers and sisters, I will note that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in his response) faith commands God’s followers to love Him with all of their *mind*. All of their mind. To use your intelligence and your thoughtfulness to love Him. Not just to accept Him blindly but to *think* about him, to honestly search your thoughts and your knowledge and to love him with all of your mind.

This is tempered with the understanding that we are finite creatures who cannot begin to know Him fully and must exercise faith by loving Him with all of our hearts and souls as well, even when we don’t understand, but that’s still pretty powerful stuff.

The Christian faith doesn’t ask you not to use your mind. It commands you to.

See, the thing I love about this statement is that my friend doesn’t immediately discount people whose faith has taken a different form (“I don’t presume to speak for my Jewish brothers and sisters”). I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I have a feeling that she’d feel the same about people like me who actively debate and question the existence of God as other people see fit to worship him.

However, I also can’t discount that there’s some merit to be had in being an atheist, either. There’s this country-western song called “Live Like You Were Dying” and while Wikipedia tells me that the song was written by a very Christian Tim McGraw to help him deal with the fact that his dad contracted cancer and died, I can’t help but think of it as one of the best atheist anthems I’ve ever heard, because with the exception of one line, every thing in that song is how my atheist friends have described to me as how they live their lives: one shot, no do-overs, no afterlife, no Eternity.

I am not a woman of the sciences, so what I’ll have to say next might not make any sense, but I leave you with this for now:

Because God is unknowable, no one can say with any certainty that he or she exists in a specific way. Also, because God is unknowable, to say that he or she doesn’t exist is also not logical because you just don’t know.

Therefore, it makes more sense to be an agnostic because it’s admitting that you just aren’t sure one way or the other because of a lack of “proof” on either side.

It’s not perfect, but it seems to be the approach I’m most comfortable with taking when it comes to God for now.

And I’m just fine with that.

Advertisements

14 Responses to “Pascal’s Wager for agnostics”

  1. Doubting Foo Says:

    I tend to agree with your reason to be agnostic. I’m sure you will get lots of people who try to throw teapots into the argument, though. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot ) I guess Russell’s teapot is the next logical step for many.

    I look forward to reading more from you!

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      Well, you could take the teapot analogy one step further, then, and claim that just like in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, God cannot have a precise value for each person, because each person’s relationship to God is personal and unique. That’s where I prefer to take things, rather than talking about theoretical teapots.

  2. connie Says:

    However, I see nothing wrong with asking God to reveal Himself to you. He’s not a passive “it” expecting you to “pretend” until you’ve convinced yourself. Assuming that for you that if there is one, you’d like to know about it, of course.

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      Though I know that giving God a human personification is a fallacy precisely because he’s not human, I’ve always thought that he has way more important things to do than ensuring that each and every person on this earth believes that he exists.

  3. connie Says:

    Well, why not? He loves us, and He has all the time in the world to do it. (and hey, he could always make more if he ran out, right? *grin*)

  4. Jerry Says:

    Why would you want to consider your life to be at the whim of a “God” that you have virtually no access to whatsoever? He can kill you whenever he feels like it, and if your loved ones question Him after you are gone, the best they might possibly get is some kind of vague “message”? You would never accept this kind of relationship in even the most trivial areas of your life; why accept it in the area that presumably defines your morality and belief system?

    As for the Christian woman’s quote, I don’t understand how one can take it seriously. She claims that, “The Christian faith doesn’t ask you not to use your mind.” However, Christianity, by definition, forces you to accept Jesus Christ as your savior. What she really means is that Christianity asks you to use your mind, *so long as you come to the conclusion that the Bible is truth*. To be Christian, again by definition, is to believe that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, despite all of your experience telling you the exact opposite – that people cannot reanimate after being dead for 3 days.

    In a very real sense, nothing is knowable. However, I would stake my life on the claim that when I push this pen off my desk, it will fall to the floor. I trust the tremendous body of science that tells me about the reality of gravity, just as I trust the tremendous body of science that tells me how wrong the Bible is about any number of things. The point is that the non-existence of God is unprovable just as gravity is unprovable. It’s just that the body of evidence against God’s existence is as convincing to me as any number of other things that I understand to be true.

    You say that people’s relationship with God is personal and unique. However, don’t we all live in the same world? If my God tells me that you are evil and your God tells you that I am evil, we are at an impasse. This simple paradox has caused an unbelievable amount of suffering in the world. Wars, Inquisitions, oppression – all kinds of terrible things fall out of the possibility that our personal Gods disagree. The problem is that it is impossible to resolve a disagreement between positions dictated by unquestionable gods.

    And why do you say “theoretical teapot” and not “theoretical God”? It seems that you lend more credence to the Christian idea of God, which, by the way, is at odds with the Muslim, Hindu, Roman, Greek God(s), but have absolutely no reason to do so.

    I’d also like to point out the lengths to which you are willing to go to explain away the logical inconsistencies of God. God is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, yet you allow for him to be too busy to ensure that we all believe that He exists. Why would you do that? It’s a strange rationalization for Him to essentially ignore your clear desire to have Him reveal himself to you.

    Anyway, I could go on and on, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m attacking you. However, I feel like you are close to coming to the conclusion to which many atheists before you have come and wanted to toss in my two cents.

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      Why would you want to consider your life to be at the whim of a “God” that you have virtually no access to whatsoever?

      I don’t. Once I’ve recognized that I’ve done something that has either hurt someone else or goes against my personal moral and ethical code, I’ve taken pains to own up to those mistakes. I attribute that to my embracing the concept of free will as it was explored in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” (By the way, I find it extremely ironic that one of the mile markers on the road to me losing my religion is my college Milton course where I first read that poem.)

      What she really means is that Christianity asks you to use your mind, *so long as you come to the conclusion that the Bible is truth*.

      I resent your trying to put words in my friend’s mouth when you don’t know who she is at all. Unless you have the power of telepathy and time travel (as it’s been years since she first wrote that statement), you really have no concept of exactly what she meant when she wrote it and to try and imply that you do is one of the things I dislike about speaking to some people who are atheistic.

      I really empathize with you, I do, because you are a member of a minority philosophical group that’s constantly shunned and demonized, but the lack of respect for my friends is something I can’t overlook when trying to talk to you about this topic.

      I would stake my life on the claim that when I push this pen off my desk, it will fall to the floor.

      That’s true because you and I (and anyone else who shares this plane of reality with us) live within a certain set of physical conditions that are met. However, if a single ant were to try and push a pen off of a desk, it wouldn’t move at all, so the ant’s perception would be that objects of a certain size can’t be moved at all. That’s part of what I was trying to get Coach Hogan to understand in the first phone call (most of which wasn’t aired on the TAL episode). Truths are relative and when conditions change or new things are observed, truths change.

      Part of what Kris was trying to get me to understand during the second phone call (most of which was also not aired) is that for us to have a discussion about theology we would have to have a common base upon which to stand and put forth our ideas—which is another reason why I prefer being agnostic to being atheistic because I can at least still speak the language of the religious faithful and I like being able to communicate with many people.
      The problem is that it is impossible to resolve a disagreement between positions dictated by unquestionable gods.

      Which is why I think the state of being agnostic is best because you get to question the gods but still are open to the possibility that they exist should they ever actually be real.

      It seems that you lend more credence to the Christian idea of God, which, by the way, is at odds with the Muslim, Hindu, Roman, Greek God(s), but have absolutely no reason to do so.

      Another part of the conversation that didn’t make it to the air was where I said that if there was a God, I see him/her/it as being an amorphous thing that created the universe, gave the creatures we call humans free will, and is now kicking back in a lounger somewhere temperate. That’s one of the things that made Coach Hogan sad because he really wanted me to believe in his Christian God and I really just can’t anymore.

      Besides, looking at it from the outside, you do have to admire the story about a guy who thought the way people were thinking about how God and the universe works got twisted over time, so he came up with his own ideas and flouted the current religious laws before being condemned to death as a heretic sounds pretty cool. That the dude was named Jesus and he also claimed to be the son of God is a consideration. But that dude could also be named Socrates who didn’t claim to be the son of a god as well.

      It’s a strange rationalization for Him to essentially ignore your clear desire to have Him reveal himself to you.

      And herein lies another reason why I am still on the fence when it comes to the idea of a God who is fully present in the world and why the idea of talking to Coach Hogan made me question my turning away from God. In the week or two before the first phone call when I was still debating in my head and talking to my therapist about whether or not I should do the story, I didn’t tell any of my friends or ‘net acquaintances what I was doing with “This American Life” because I didn’t want to get my hopes up, only for them to be dashed if the story didn’t air. At the same time, I kept seeing and having discussions about religion with friends who are favorable towards the idea of God and it made me wonder—exactly as Ira Glass puts it—if the way that God was reaching out to me was by putting this very awesome radio opportunity in my lap because as I wrote in the post that follows this one, I have always wanted to tell more people about Kelly and how awesome she was, I despaired of ever getting that chance, and here was my chance to do so in front a national audience.

      Isn’t that too coincidental not for someone who still wants to believe that the God of her youth exists to consider as being an act of God?

      Anyway, I could go on and on, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m attacking you.

      Actually, you do sound as if you’re attacking me and this has been a problem I’ve had before when trying to explain how I feel about God to and with people who are atheistic. I admit that I know absolutely nothing about atheism, but I’m willing to learn and understand how someone comes to that conclusion about the world.

      More importantly, I’m never going to show you any disrespect for not believing the same things I do, just as long as you show me that same kind of respect. I admit that I can’t force you to extend that to friends of mine who happen to be religious, but I don’t think that asking that you respect that I have a friendship with them should be entirely out of the question.

  5. Jerry Says:

    Again, it’s not my intention to attack you. Your views, while sometimes confusing to me, are interesting, and I’m delighted that you’re willing to engage in the discussion. I came to this blog after hearing the TAL piece. I think it’s hard for me to dump all of my responses to what you’ve said and written (and what Mr. Hogan had to say) without sounding curt.

    Once I’ve recognized that I’ve done something that has either hurt someone else or goes against my personal moral and ethical code, I’ve taken pains to own up to those mistakes.

    This was your response to my question about why you would want your life to be at the whim of a God to whom you have virtually no access. However, I’m not sure what it has to do with my question. The TAL piece seemed to indicate that you really wanted to believe in God again. My point is that this would be the same God that killed your friend (or allowed her to die) and gave you no comprehensible reason for doing so. Why would this make you more inclined to believe in Him? This God could kill you, cause your friends and family all kinds of grief, and give them no comprehensible reason too.

    To look at it another way, suppose I am a parent, and my young child has a dog. This dog gets rabies, and I euthanize it. When my young child cries, pleads, and begs for an explanation for why I killed Spot, I refuse to tell him and simply say, “I did what’s good and right.” Am I teaching my child a lesson here? Or am I just sick and twisted?

    On the other hand, you touch on an important point. You have morality and ethics without God telling you what to do. Mr. Hogan almost made me crash my car when he claimed that Hitler’s politics grew out of Darwinism. Aside from the general question of Hitler’s religious beliefs, I am always taken aback by the idea that people cannot be moral or ethical without a “holy” book or God threatening them with eternal damnation. How about just treating others how you’d like to be treated yourself? I don’t think people need a God to tell them that. But I digress…

    I resent your trying to put words in my friend’s mouth when you don’t know who she is at all. Unless you have the power of telepathy and time travel (as it’s been years since she first wrote that statement), you really have no concept of exactly what she meant when she wrote it and to try and imply that you do is one of the things I dislike about speaking to some people who are atheistic.

    Fair enough, and I apologize; please allow me to rephrase my response. To me, having an open mind means that you allow facts and reason to guide you. However, Christianity (and religion in general) works in reverse: it asserts truths which have little corroboration, and asks you to suspend reason. For instance, belief in the resurrection is essentially a requirement for being a Christian, yet it goes against all modern scientific knowledge and personal experience. Working backwards from assertions is the antithesis of an open mind.

    I like that you invoke the idea of having the power of telepathy and time travel. Leaders of organized religion essentially purport to do this with the minds of their gods. The Infallibility of the Pope is one of the more blatant examples of this. Imagine how much has been extrapolated and twisted from the Bible or the Koran. Yet this is status quo for religion: purporting to know the mind of God to dictate morality and ethics.

    Consider this – what would you say if I told you that your friend’s spirit contacted me and told me exactly what she meant by her quote? I *know* what she meant, no matter what she might tell you now. You wouldn’t (and shouldn’t accept) this because I am just declaring preposterous things with virtually no evidence. I simply ask that people use the same standard to define the beliefs around which they structure their lives. But I digress again…

    Truths are relative and when conditions change or new things are observed, truths change.

    I agree completely. However, my point is that just because something is unknowable (e.g. existence of God, existence of gravity) does not mean that all options are equally likely. That is why I am an atheist. I think the possibility of a God is about as likely as my pen hanging in air when I slide it off my desk. This is based on much more reasonable explanations available for all kinds of phenomena that various religions have claimed to explain.

    Of course, it’s possible that I am stuck in a world that is largely inaccessible to me, but every time humanity discovers something, it has slowly worked itself worked into a consistent world view without any need for divine explanation. It’s shocking how much more we understand compared to just one hundred years ago: God is losing ground.

    which is another reason why I prefer being agnostic to being atheistic because I can at least still speak the language of the religious faithful and I like being able to communicate with many people.

    This seems a bit strange to me. Why would your belief system be based on the utility of being able to communicate with a wider variety of people? Would you believe more of fundamentalist Christianity if you were surrounded by more fundamentalist Christians? After all, it would make it easier to communicate with them.

    I certainly think communication is *very* important for all the obvious reasons. However, I don’t think one needs to compromise his own reasoning and conclusions.

    Another part of the conversation that didn’t make it to the air was where I said that if there was a God, I see him/her/it as being an amorphous thing that created the universe, gave the creatures we call humans free will, and is now kicking back in a lounger somewhere temperate.

    Okay, it’s important that we separate the ideas of a personal god from the idea of a god that just created the universe and has been put out to pasture. I’ll just talk about the latter here.

    Frankly, I think it takes a special kind of arrogance for human beings to think of themselves as so important that a super-being would create a whole universe just so we could fight wars and eat potato chips. Let’s put this in perspective. The universe is estimated to be about 14,000,000,000 years old. Humans have been around for about 0.0014% of that. The visible universe is about 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles in any direction (really). We are less than a speck on a speck on a speck; it is silly to me to think that there’s a God who’s considering giving me a debilitating disease so that I work less and call my mom more.

    Besides, looking at it from the outside, you do have to admire the story about a guy who thought the way people were thinking about how God and the universe works got twisted over time, so he came up with his own ideas and flouted the current religious laws before being condemned to death as a heretic sounds pretty cool. That the dude was named Jesus and he also claimed to be the son of God is a consideration. But that dude could also be named Socrates who didn’t claim to be the son of a god as well.

    Absolutely. I have no problem with role models or inspirational stories. There is a big leap from that to omnipotent Gods tugging at the strings of my life, though.

    Isn’t that too coincidental not for someone who still wants to believe that the God of her youth exists to consider as being an act of God?

    I wonder if it’s surprising to you for me to say that I don’t think it’s “too coincidental” at all. Here’s a thought experiment for you. Suppose I make a huge table of all the possible win/loss outcomes of the Chicago Bears through the season. I send these out each week just before the Bears play to various people. So I tell one person that the Bears are going to win their first game, then win their second game, and so on. I tell another that they are going to win their first game but lose their second game, and so on. I only need 65536 people, and I am *guaranteed* that I will have predicted every single Bears game outcome in the season correctly to one of them. Of course, I will have predicted every game wrongly to another of them (and every possibility in between). Imagine if that person to whom I correctly predicted all of the games was religious. She might think that she was touched by God. In reality, she was just touched by me and my rudimentary grasp of probability.

    Consider all of the people out there who have also lost some faith in God after losing a loved one. There are *a lot*. Did God sell them down a river? Are they all getting the same opportunity to broadcast their feelings about their friends as widely as you got to? I don’t think so.

    The fact is, there are a lot of events in our lives and a lot of opportunity for probability to run its course. The problem is that human beings are notoriously bad estimators of some kinds of probability (see the Birthday Paradox for an easy example). Yes, coincidence can *seem* miraculous, but that does not mean that it is.

    More importantly, I’m never going to show you any disrespect for not believing the same things I do, just as long as you show me that same kind of respect.

    I appreciate that, and I hope that the fact that I am taking a fair amount of time to write some responses shows my respect for your thoughts. As for your respect in general, I wonder what you would think if I told you that I thought this block of monterey jack cheese in front of me created the universe. Is that an assertion deserving of your respect or engagement? Are *all* such ideas worthy of that respect? Maybe I tell you about a boat I built to hold two of every species on the planet? I probably sound snarky, but that’s how I feel about the myths propagated by religions, and I can’t apologize for that.

    You say that you know nothing about atheism, and while I doubt that’s actually true, I think a little exercise can help you know what it’s like to be an atheist. Every time you hear someone talk about God (Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, etc.) — on the news, in your conversations with friends, on this blog — try substituting equally unsubstantial concepts. So when someone suggests that Jesus took your friend for a reason, pretend that they said Thor instead. Or Zeus. Or Doctor Manhattan. Or my block of cheese. Any of these might be true. None of them probably are. Many atheists just see the odds heavily in the “none” column. In Richard Dawkins’ words, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      This was your response to my question about why you would want your life to be at the whim of a God to whom you have virtually no access.

      That’s correct. I said that I don’t consider my life to be “at the whim of a God to whom I have no access” because I consider myself to be responsible for my own actions. If I choose not to hurt someone, I’m doing it because I personally don’t like to hurt people and not because God or his human agents are saying I should “be good” just to get some reward at a later time.

      My point is that this would be the same God that killed your friend (or allowed her to die) and gave you no comprehensible reason for doing so.

      Ah, but you missed an earlier post where I said that Kelly’s best friend who is devout said something to me about how she chooses to reconcile Kelly’s death with her faith in God and it makes sense to me. I don’t have permission to recreate the conversation here, but the fact that it successfully blends the notion of free will with a benevolent Creator is pretty cool, and more to the point, pretty damn satisfying.

      How about just treating others how you’d like to be treated yourself? I don’t think people need a God to tell them that.

      Funny you write that, because I’m going to take a page out of Coach Hogan’s playbook and say that what you’ve just said is a neat paraphrase of a the Christian concept of the “Golden Rule” which is based on a sermon Jesus gave on the only two commandments that really matter (which I think circles back around to what my Southern friend said above about using your mind to love God).

      Which means that yes, Christians do think that you should treat others like how you’d like to be treated and yes, according to their religion, their God (in the form of his Son) told them to do so.

      Working backwards from assertions is the antithesis of an open mind.

      This I agree with, and this is the largest reason why Coach Hogan I couldn’t connect: he was working from assertions I’d already thrown out. In another segment that didn’t make it to the air, I hypothesized to Ira Glass that the instant I told Coach Hogan that I was a writer and journalist and that I didn’t think that the TAL producers were taking advantage of me or the situation for a nefarious purpose, I wondered if he thought that the way he could help explain God to me was by using the facts as he saw them. I think the specific analogy I used was that he brought the wrong gun to the shootout.

      (Also, objectively, I think you’re bringing the wrong gun as well, and I have a feeling that this exchange that you and I are having is going to be the subject of another blog post.)

      Why would your belief system be based on the utility of being able to communicate with a wider variety of people?

      Because I never want to become so rigidly attracted to one mindset that I would never be able to speak to some people I love because the differences in our philosophy about religion and theology would be too great.

      Okay, it’s important that we separate the ideas of a personal god from the idea of a god that just created the universe and has been put out to pasture. I’ll just talk about the latter here.

      I think you made a mistake and meant to say that you wanted to talk about the former because I don’t think that the way I view God is particularly all that hands-on.

      Consider all of the people out there who have also lost some faith in God after losing a loved one. There are *a lot*. Did God sell them down a river? Are they all getting the same opportunity to broadcast their feelings about their friends as widely as you got to? I don’t think so.

      Hmm… yeah, that was a pretty arrogant statement for me to make. I’m thinking about your football pool example too which makes a lot of sense; I also understand that’s how some “psychics” are able to con people out of money by working those percentages in their favor.

      I think about what might have happened though had Jane Feltes not called me to say that TAL was interested in producing my story. I think I would have turned down Coach Hogan’s offer, I’d still be stuck with a lot of guilt, and I wouldn’t be feeling nearly as much closure as I do now.

      Does that have anything to do with God? Not really. But it has an awful lot less to do with logical progression and more with the awesome “power” of coincidences.

      As for your respect in general, I wonder what you would think if I told you that I thought this block of monterey jack cheese in front of me created the universe. Is that an assertion deserving of your respect or engagement?

      I’d probably want to know why you thought a block of monterey jack cheese created the universe and most importantly who created the cheese. Then, depending on our level of interaction and whether or not I wanted to continue having you in my life, I’d either ignore any future cheese theories or pointedly refuse to bring the topic up myself.

      But honestly, what I’m curious about now is why you feel like you need to nudge me into becoming atheistic, because it feels like that’s what you’re doing. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Hugh Says:

    Man… that was good. Kudos to Trisha Lynn and Jerry for a very well articulated debate.

  7. forrest noble Says:

    Trisha Lyne,

    great intellectual appeal. My contentions are as follows:

    Pascal’s Wager I think is a good bout with logic but not the best wager that can be made by the most able. “I am not a woman of the sciences.” you said. The internet is a big place to learn about everything that your abilities allow you to do so, and then stretch it.

    Like religion, yes, most of the sciences are all BS is my conclusion, but don’t let that stop you. The scientific method is the best logical method that I know of to arrive at the truth. Very seriously search for it. In chemistry it is a perspective with little BS. In biology it is a progression of scientific discoveries. Physics, today it’s full of BS. Particle physics BS. Cosmology BS. Evolution, like biology, is full of progressive discoveries. Optics, Magnetism, Electricity, a good work in progress. Genetics, great work in progress, and so on.

    Science is rife with investigations and related theory. Some better than others. Philosophy, which is your basis, is very sound logic in that one do not have to adhere to any theory or belief other than “I don’t know.” Pascals wager, in my opinion, is the best bet for those who could never have an opinion one way or the other since studying such subjects would seem to be beyond their comprehension. If that be the case then it is a good wager for those particular individuals. But it also has its costs. If you profess that you don’t know (can’t know), others that study more and therefore have more insight and belief in their individual possibilities will make all the discoveries and because of their aggressive beliefs, will reap all the glory.

    Those that are agnostics will probably not be disappointed. The bottom line I believe is, are you going to discover reality, or be content with saying I don’t know and be judges of those who contend to understand. In my opinion we only have one life to make such decisions and to learn the best that we can according to our individual abilities. Philosophy is a great start but an unsatisfying conclusion.

    A parallel expression might be “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” What do you think Trish?

    Jerry good logic and moral appeal,

    To show I’m a philosopher too, here is one of my latest:

    An atheist cultivates his own garden of morality. To be proud of your garden might be considered a most worthy goal. You can’t please everyone all the time, is a well known aphorism. Those who look at the few “weeds” in your garden, even though they greatly enjoy the rest of it, do not realize that what they consider weeds, you (and others) may consider to be some of your garden’s most endearing, exotic and ecologically balancing parts.

  8. Matt Says:

    Admittedly I’m joining this conversation a bit late. The thread is interesting, but it would appear to be a bit lopsided, in regards to the nature of the divine/God, as well as the notion of morality.

    Briefly, I’m not sure why people resist the idea of God, as the creator, being interested in His creation. Why would God care about you? Well, why not just because He’s interested in everything He created – as God, He’s not limited in His attention span – He can pay attention to EVERYTHING at once without difficulty. The abilities of the divine defy our comprehension.

    Why would God allow bad things to happen in His creation is another post – but it sounds Trisha that you have already worked that one through.

    Regading morality – having gone over Alan Watt, Bertrand Russell, as well as some of the more contemporary atheist writers, the bottom line is that in the absence of a “higher power” or divinity of any sort, there is no basis for any absolute morality. For example, there are parts of the middle east / india and other areas where women are treated as subordinate to men. I imagine that we would all agree that men and women should be treated as equals – the question becomes “why?” – why is your moral outlook superior or better than another cultures/individuals? In absence of a divinely supplied yard stick of truth, all outlooks or conceptions of what is right or wrong are relative, and therefore meaningless as a means of evaluating the “rightness” or “wrongness” of someone’s actions or believe system.

    In the desire for full disclosure, I am a Christian, and I do believe that Christ died for our sins, and rose again on the third day. I recognize the incredulity of the statement. I have years of scientific training, I’m a physician, and I do believe that God desire’s for us to be more than blind devotees – that while very little can be known absolutely, there is ample evidence supporting the divinity of Christ.

    As for the value of being an agnostic – I’m afraid I think you’re selling yourself short: while you may feel more comfortable sitting on the fence, atheism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. The benefit, if you will, of being an atheist is that you are freed from any moral constraints – do whatever makes you feel good because when you’re dead, it won’t matter. The benefit of being a Christian is the joy of a personal relationship with the God who loves you so much He was willing to die on a cross for you – a relationship that extends beyond our limited physical lifespan.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  9. Trisha Lynn Says:

    The benefit, if you will, of being an atheist is that you are freed from any moral constraints – do whatever makes you feel good because when you’re dead, it won’t matter.

    I posited this very same thing once and a whole bunch of my friends who are atheists took a lot of offense to it because that’s not how they live their lives at all. I know you said you’ve read the works of some contemporary atheistic writers, but if that’s all you got out of it, I wonder exactly what it is that they’re writing.

  10. Matt Says:

    Trisha,
    I’m not surprised at your atheist friends response – it’s hard for any of us to critically look at the assumptions on which we base our daily life. I’ll accept your implicit query as to whether I have, in fact, been reading contemporary atheist writers. I suppose that Bertrand Russell is not really contemporary any more, but there are others that I’ll touch on in a moment.

    As to what I’m getting out of reading their works – I’ll elaborate a bit. As I stated in my original post, I’m a Christian. As such, I recognize that I have a specific view/perspective of the world. I find it helpful to read the works of other viewpoints in order to better understand the non-Christian perspectives. I find that communication with anyone is greatly facilitated by understanding that person’s general outlook. Most people acknowledge that men and women frequently view things from distinctly different perspectiives – most relational advice seeks to help the one sex understand the other. There’s that classic movie scene where a couple is having problems – as they are talking with a friend about how often they have sex – he says “Barely at all – three times a week.” And of course, she says, “All the time, three times a week”.

    so I guess that’s a long winded way of saying that reading the works of atheists, as well as that of other religions and cultures, helps me understand how other people view the world.

    But we still haven’t addressed the whole area of moral constraints or definitions. Your atheist friends may not like you questioning how they define what is moral behavior, in no small part because under an atheist world view, I don’t think it is possible. Bertrand Russell, in his “Philosophical Essays” acknowledges that “the difficulty in discovering the truth [of what is good or bad] does not prove that there is no truth to discover. If X says A is good, and Y says A is bad, one of them must be mistaken, though it may be impossible to discover which.” He goes on to say ” Thus, good and bad are qualities which belong to objects independently of our opinions, just as much as round and square do; and when two people differ as to whether a thing is good, only one of them can be right, though it may be very hard to know which is right.”

    Today, people commonly claim a relativistic viewpoint – that you can believe whatever works for you, and they will believe what works for them, and in so doing they seek to bypass the whole notion of what truly is good / bad / right / wrong. Ultimately, I think this stems from an atheist’s inability to establish these definitions. Your friends feel good about how they choose to live their lives – but why do they think that the way the live their lives – the things they do are the right or good things? Nietzsche articulates a bit vehemently that if God is dead, then there is no basis for human rights or morality. It’s not that your atheist friends are choosing to act “badly” but just that they are choosing a definition of good conforming to some vague notion of “goodness” without being able to state why their definition is the right one.

    Personally, I like the point blank approach of Arthur Leff, who asks “Sez who?” Who is it that defines what is good or bad if God, as an outside absolute, is not there to establish it? “Either God exists, or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one can take His place…”

    As to what else atheists are writing about – I suppose it would be fair to sum it up as a justification for their point of view.

    None of this, of course, goes toward establishing whether there is a God (and here, I mean in the generic sense, not specifically in the Christian sense. This does go back to my original post, where I encouraged you to reconsider your agnostic point of view. I would still encourage you to challenge your uncertainty.

    I’m not really an academic type – I’ do hope that I haven’t come across as pontificating – I trust you’ll let me know if I have! If you’re up for taking this further – I’ll await your response. If you’re more inclided to reading, I’d recommend two books for you:
    1) The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller, and 2) Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

    Was this at all helpful?

Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: