Minding the Issues:Notes from an Appreciative Agnostic

The atheists are on the attack. The likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have recently written books aiming to eradicate belief in God and devotion to religion, Christianity in particular. This may be a backlash against the intrusion of certain religionists, especially those called fundamentalists, in our lives. (On this, more later).

To my mind, the attacks are rather silly, for reasons that at first glance seem contradictory. For one thing they are futile; there is little chance that atheistic arguments will convince firm adherents to Christianity or any other religion.

But secondly, the advocates of atheism are beating a dead horse. If evidence and reasoned argument are the criteria, who can believe in the existence of God? Perhaps a callous, capricious and often-cruel God is credible, but not the Christian God of love and justice. Philosophical arguments – aiming to prove the existence of God with absolute certainty, regardless of the facts we perceive around us – are weak at best. And the Problem of Evil (the problem of reconciling the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God with the fact of evil in the world) is insuperable. Many supreme intellects (e.g. Augustine) have totally failed in their attempts to prove otherwise.

Why is there such steadfast belief in God and loyalty to religion in the face of so much contrary evidence – or what seems to be contrary evidence?

Here we may gain some insight from one of the preeminent philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spoke of “language games.” The phrase is a little deceiving, for Wittgenstein was not concerned merely with language; one of his ruling mottos was “forms of words, forms of life.” (As for the reference to “games,” Wittgenstein used the concept of games for his own philosophic purposes; he would never want to imply that science or religion is “just a game.”)

Wittgenstein, in short, was saying that each of the various practices undertaken by humans is governed by its own distinct rules.

Religion is one such practice; science is another. The two are governed by different sets of rules. The different sets of rules define the basic difference between the two practices.

Science produces propositions that are based on objective empirical evidence and meant to be objectively and absolutely true (for example, the law of gravity is put forth as being independent of the characteristics of those who think about it and as holding true in all times and places). Religion, at least for firm believers, also issues in propositions and principles that are meant to be objective and absolute; but the rules of religion, unlike those of science, allow for these propositions and principles to be based not on empirical evidence but on individual commitment.

If I am a firm believer in a certain religion, I believe that its tenets hold good regardless of particular circumstances and regardless of what individuals feel or think about them. However, I hold those beliefs not because I know there is objective evidence for them, but rather because of my commitment to the religion (in other words, my faith). For believers (from the “inside,” so to speak), religious propositions and principles might seem to have the objective certainty of science, but this feeling of objective certainty is unjustified.

Religion, then, is not a way of gaining knowledge of the world (as science is). Rather it is a framework for thinking about the world; it is a way of organizing and interpreting our experience of the world, a way of looking at the world through God-colored lenses, in which God is the source and symbol of all that is good -- and evil remains unexplained.

Religion is not built up from our perceptions of the world. Rather, what we perceive in the world is fit into – is given its significance by --the framework we have adopted in committing to our religion in the first place.

Thus “God exists,” for example, has entirely different meanings when asserted as a scientific statement and when asserted as a religious statement (as a statement of knowledge vs. an expression of faith). As a statement of scientific knowledge, it has virtually no standing. As a statement of religious faith, it is as valid as the conviction of the person who asserts it. These are the rules of the science-game and of the religion-game.

It follows that science and religion are to be evaluated in different ways. In evaluating science, we look at the evidence that confirms it (or disconfirms it).

Not so with religion, as we have seen. Religion is not an attempt to find objective truth, but rather a commitment to an overall interpretive framework. Seen in this way, it escapes atheistic attacks that point to its lack of objective evidence. Religion is to be judged more by its fruits than by its seeds.

We must distinguish between the personal and the social evaluation of religion. The personal significance and value of religious belief is for the believer alone to judge, except in rare extreme cases when the belief threatens to be destructive to the believer or to others. As for the social value of religion, it should be judged in much the same way as any other set of beliefs – by asking how well it expresses human nature and how much it benefits society at large.

As for my own evaluations, I count myself an Appreciative Agnostic. Intellectually, the principles of Christianity, or any other religion, seem to me dubious at best, and emotionally I have never felt any inclination in the direction of faith. At the same time, I appreciate the contributions that religion makes to individual lives and to society – so long as it does not pretend to be what it is not and does not presume to intrude beyond its proper boundaries.

The Conflating of Science and Religion

As I have said, both science and religion lay claim to objectivity and absoluteness. Therefore, there is often a threat of conflating the two.

An example is the controversy over Intelligent Design. On this subject, I must first distinguish between the theory of evolution and the theory of natural selection. The former, in my view, is proved without doubt or qualification. But on the theory of natural selection – asserting natural selection as the means through which evolution is achieved – I’m not so sure. I see facts that the theory apparently leaves unexplained and I see natural-selection advocates urging us to adopt certain conclusions not so much on the basis of evidence as on the basis of faith (hello religion!) I have discussed this in a previous column.

Intelligent-Design proponents also mount attacks on natural selection (aiming to show, for example, that complexity must imply design). In these attacks, they are asserting scientific claims (and likewise for ordinary doubters like me).

But most if not all of the Intelligent-Design advocates are Christians. So – whether they realize it or not – it is not enough for them just to prove there is an Intelligent Designer; they must also prove that the Designer is the Christian God. And in proceeding from Intelligent Designer to Christian God – in simply assuming that the Designer is God -- they make a leap of religious faith. In short, they play the game of science but switch at half-time to the rules of religion.

And their opponents – advocates for natural selection -- let them get away with it. They (the natural-selection advocates) ignore the fact that Intelligence Design proponents must resort to religious faith in order to make their final case.

Here is where the Problem of Evil comes in. It seems to me that if natural-selection advocates realized all their opportunities, they would demand that their opponents play the game of science all down the line. While admitting that the issue of Intelligent Design taken by itself is still open to argument, they would demand that all the evidence be put on the table, including most notably all the multitudinous examples of unmerited pain and agony. Under that kind of scientific scrutiny, the case for a Christian version of Intelligent Design must collapse, and its proponents must admit that the most important part of their case is religious, not scientific.

Another significant example is the attempt to incorporate religious beliefs in the law (e.g. abortion, stem-cell research, gay relationships). If religious principles were scientific truth, there would be some reason for government enforcement of them (as there is reason for government to act against scientifically-proven dangers, for example). But of course religious principles are not science; instead, they are expressions of commitment on the part of a certain group of individuals, in essence a matter of personal preference – personal preference on the deepest level perhaps, but personal preference nonetheless.

As we know, religionists are prone to push policies, such as suppression of stem-cell research and abortion or denial of gay rights, that are pernicious to individuals and to society as a whole. (In fairness, there seems to be a trend among some religious groups toward laudable concerns such as the environment and issues of world poverty. This movement is certainly to be applauded, though it doesn’t seem now to be nearly as strong as concern with the pernicious issues just mentioned.)

To be sure, religionists may legitimately push these pernicious principles in the arena of democratic competition; let every citizen decide on the basis of his or her own values. But what is not legitimate is the attempt to falsely buttress these principles (e.g. that embryos are human persons, or that gays violate God’s law) by claiming a quasi-scientific objectivity for them, whereas in actuality they are merely a matter of personal preference. As such, the religious principles should be weighed against not only the preferences but also the interests and rights of all other citizens, such as the interests of all citizens in preventing disease and the right of gays to equal treatment.

Most Americans, as we know, are Christians. In this sense – and in no other – is the United States a Christian nation. But there are Christians and there are Christians. Some Christians appreciate the difference between religion and science, and some don’t. The former, while fully celebrating their faith, show a proper diffidence about imposing their views on others. The latter often show no such diffidence and do enormous damage in their bullying attempts to enforce a religion-based conformity – damage both to others in society and ultimately to their own religion, as exemplified by the atheistic backlash I mentioned at the beginning.

I suggest, therefore, that Christians who do understand the place of religion have reason – based both on obligation and self-interest – to speak out against their zealot co-religionists, to persuade them away from their mistaken views and to rein in their pernicious undertakings.

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 3, Issue 11, Posted 2:57 PM, 05.24.2007