In a previous post, Where Is God, we commented on an odd tendency we have, to ask “why doesn’t God [blank],” and then fill in the blank with something that shows why it seems justified not to believe He even exists. Perhaps what we put in the blank is that He should make Himself more obvious, or eliminate evil, or bless us more than He has. We have to be careful to distinguish between questioning God, and questioning the existence of God.
If there were no God, then it wouldn’t matter what we say about Him, because we’d be talking about a fictional character. It wouldn’t matter what we say to Him, because we’d just be pretending to speak to someone other than ourselves. It would make no sense to question that fictional God, because it would just be a mental exercise. We’d be sending our questions off into the air; questioning a non-entity.
But since there is a God, it does matter how we question Him. When we ask why God is not more x (more visible, more obvious, more giving, etc.) we are talking about One who, by His very nature, is not subject to nor subordinate to our ideas about who He is or what He should be. God is God.
Implicit in this kind of question of God, however, is a recognition that He is; and further, that the question is not pointless: that He cares about us and that He can act in a way that is loving toward us, whether we recognize that by His response now or not. This kind of questioning of God proceeds with a correct understanding of what we even mean by “God.”
Questioning the Existence of God
It’s a different thing when we engage in philosophical inquiry into whether He even is. There’s nothing wrong with questioning whether there is a God. But we should understand correctly what we question. We should not, in our imagination, demote Him to something more manageable by us. If we say there is no God because if there was He would be x, we’re forgetting that the “x” is of our own devising. In other words, by this line of inquiry about His existence, we measure His actions by our own measuring stick, not His.
The point is, that God’s existence is not disproven because we disapprove of what He does, or doesn’t do. What we’re doing, in that instance, is positing a higher standard – one we have come up with on our own — than that of God’s. That makes no sense. Attempting this just means we don’t understand who God is. He authors the highest standard for His conduct; we don’t.
We’re told by the culture that we should “question authority.” We’re encouraged to think of ourselves as rebels against stuffy conformism. Keepers of orthodoxy encroach on our liberty at their peril. We may treat hide-bound grumps and thoughtless Christians with derision.
Skepticism itself can become its own orthodoxy, however. It tends to be selective. Here are examples: the “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,” and a group calling itself the “Skeptics Society.” Both cite current controversies or issues about which they express opinions. But why? If the point is to make skeptical inquiry, how does that translate to just one side of an issue? Both opine that there is man-made climate change occurring — to the point of calling those with whom they disagree “denialists.” But why? If the idea is to engage in skeptical inquiry, why not be skeptical about that position? If the idea is to be skeptical but only of conventional wisdom, they miss the mark, because they reinforce conventional wisdom.
Similarly, these sources are among many which opine that religion is for the credulous and weak-minded; that truth is discernible only from empirical study. This stance doesn’t make the skeptic position true, of course; it only games the debate by attempting to define non-material reality out of existence. But the point here is not that the self-styled “skeptics” are wrong about religion. The point is that they advance their point of view by wearing the mantle of skeptic. Why aren’t they skeptical about atheist materialism? Because being “skeptical” (instead of just opinionated) is cool. A skeptic can think of himself as removed, dispassionate, and rational. He can think of himself as going against the grain of conventional orthodoxy. He’s a “freethinker.” He’s not chained to bourgeois received wisdom. And so by being selectively skeptical, as a practical matter he’s adopted anti-religious orthodoxy — atheism.
Skepticism can become its own orthodoxy by another mechanism, as well, and this one is more subtle. A skeptic might object that he doesn’t embrace atheism, necessarily, he just doesn’t accept religion. But where does that leave him? It just becomes yet another ideological orthodoxy: a continuous questioning. Perennial agnosticism. It is a peculiar feature of our modern way of thinking, that we can allow (or attempt to allow) such important questions to remain unresolved. We feel that merely questioning is itself a sufficient mode of existence. We shrug the shoulders, and feel that indecision is a valid stance on its own. We tend to think of it as neutral rather than what it actually is — its own ideology.
The skeptic doesn’t believe “nothing,” because it’s not nothing, and he’s not on the vanguard battling the constraints of forced orthodoxy, and he’s not engaged in insouciant perpetual questioning. He’s actually as much locked into an ideology as those he criticizes, he just doesn’t see his own ideology for what it really is. Buzzing around the questions and never landing is thought to be as acceptable an ideological position as any of the alternative answers to the questions of ultimate reality. The question of God is in this ideology swept off into a corner indefinitely, to be ignored.
But, He tends not to be ignored very successfully. The possible existence of God remains unsettling. He continues in the mind of the agnostic as a frightening possibility. Often this translates to hostility toward those who seem so sure that God exists. Often it means settling down instead to a strident atheism, another way to try to drown out that small insistent voice.
4 thoughts on “Question Everything”
Tortured “logic.” You start out with the firm belief that there is a god and then essentially find ways to fit your outcome. That is not open questioning.
And to respond to your last paragraph:
“But, He tends not to be ignored very successfully.”
Not really. Pretty much the only time I think about god is when I read your posts.
“The possible existence of God remains unsettling.”
Again, not really. Despite my belief, based on the evidence I have seen, that there is no god, I have to acknowledge that there could be a god. Okay. That is not “unsettling” because I think that the chance of god actually existing is even smaller than the chance of me winning the lottery.
“He continues in the mind of the agnostic as a frightening possibility.”
You are not an agnostic/atheist/non-believer, so you assume incorrectly. I really do not think about god or the possibility that he/she/it exists. It simply does not cross my mind. When I talk to other non-believers it is my impression that they experience this similarly (we actually don’t talk about god too much–because we don’t believe there is one–we just talk about everyday stuff). The existence of a god is a non-event in my thoughts.
“Often this translates to hostility toward those who seem so sure that God exists.”
While some non-believers are hostile to believers (often because they have experienced hostility from believers, as I have), most of the non-believers I know give believers the same leeway they would like for themselves–don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. Bert, you are my friend and will remain my friend despite our difference of opinion about the existence of god. I have no hostility based on that difference of opinion.
“Often it means settling down instead to a strident atheism, another way to try to drown out that small insistent voice.”
I don’t experience any “small insistent voice.” When I do think about the subject of the existence of god, the thought in my head is more along the lines of ‘how can they believe this stuff?’.
You are a smart guy, but you often in your writings attempt to broadly insert knowledge about what agnostics/atheists/non-believers think. Maybe your statements reflect your interpretation of non-believers you have met, but it certainly does not comport with my personal experience, nor my experience with the many non-believers I know.
Thanks for commenting.
I may not be following your first point. You seem to be saying that I’m assuming my conclusion (that there is a God) but in this post I was only trying to point out a common mistake in reasoning. People observe bad things, and then say something like “if there were a God, He wouldn’t allow those bad things, therefore there is no God.” I was saying that they have a hypothetical god in mind, not the real one. The traits of the hypothetical and the real God are not the same. By saying that God should do x or not do y, we’ve already put Him in a box that we can manage. If we’re going to evaluate whether God exists or not, we should correctly conceive of that which we are evaluating. I think doing so enhances open questioning.
About your second point, I take what you say as true. In some of my comments, I do impute a mindset to non-believers, and I get it that you’re saying that mind-set is not accurate for you and many others. I once thought God to be irrelevant if He existed at all. My comments describe me then, but I think they also describe many others now.
“How can they believe this stuff” you ask. I wonder the same thing about atheists. Reality would have to be explained in purely material terms, and I don’t think it can be. You disagree, and perhaps you do think about ultimate reality in material terms, rather than simply saying you don’t believe in the God proposition. But many people don’t get past what they don’t believe, and never get to what they do believe. Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote that “our belief is unbelief.” A.C. Grayling wrote that atheism was merely a “privative thesis,” by which he meant the same thing: that the atheist belief system is nothing more than the subtraction of supernatural reality from one’s conception of all of reality.
That is just nonsense. If they subtract the supernatural, there’s a whole lot that needs explaining. I’m up for hearing the explanation. In fact, I make a serious study of it. How can matter come from true nothing and self-develop into ever more complex matter? How can we in our consciousness encounter the physical world other than over the interval of the supernatural? How can material self-development explain our hard-wired and shared orientation to the good, the true, and the beautiful?
To get back to your comment, I think a lot of people think they have just shifted into neutral and that there’s no need to try to explain anything. I want to better understand that point of view. It seems to me to be (necessarily) its own ideology, characterized by, among other things, faith in a “nothing-as-such,” as I’ve commented on several times.
“How can they believe this stuff”?
Probably the most disingenuous, hyperbolic question asked on both sides of the atheist/theist spectrum. Particularly of those asserting they once held the opposite view.
How can you “wonder the same thing” if you once, as you had just mentioned, “…believed God to be irrelevant if He existed at all”?
This false exasperation is the single most annoying utterance of the atheist who seeks to disparage the theist point of view, or conversely the theist the atheist point of view.
“Cut out the dramatics!”
Your comment makes me think of the policeman in Casablanca pretending to be “shocked, shocked,” that there is gambling going on in here.
You would allow for the possibility, wouldn’t you, that someone can start out not thinking deeply about these things, but go on to become strongly convinced one way or the other; so much so that it’s difficult to grasp how one could be persuaded to the other point of view?