Faith & Doubt: The Case for Agnosticism

White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Can you be a doubter who also has faith? Is being agnostic the same as being an atheist? 

From a rational perspective, agnosticism is the most tenable position because it acknowledges the limits of what we can know.

This doesn’t mean, though, that faith is irrational. Something that’s not inconsistent what we know to be impossible may be believable for some. But that doesn’t mean they should be believed.

Are you certain?

Agnosticism is about what you don’t know. Belief is a different question. 

God either is or isn’t real. But God can’t be proven or disproven. That’s why faith is important in many religions. 

Skeptics say certainty should be proportional to the evidence. But faith is faith precisely because of uncertainty. 

It’s the difference between facts and opinions.

Some people insist on certainty, however. They say they know God is real and that their scriptures are inerrant. There’s no room for doubt. 

Certainty denies doubt.

With certainty, faith is unnecessary.

Faith, to be faith, must embrace doubt. 

Atheists also want certainty—they won’t believe unless God’s existence can be proven. But God is not a geometry problem. You can’t quantify the infinite.

People want proof because they lack faith, and atheists take this to its logical conclusion—faith is unjustified if certainty is the goal.

And lack of belief is more tenable than faith because with unbelief there’s nothing to prove.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Suffering is a big source of doubt for many people. If God is all-powerful, He could stop evil; and if God is perfectly good, He would have to. That’s the problem of evil. And there’s no perfect answer. 

The simplest answer is that God does not exist. 

People who believe in God give more complex answers. One response is that God created the laws of nature to balance chaos and order: too much chaos and a life sustaining universe isn’t possible; too much order, and you have a robotic world where love cannot exist.

But the possibility of great love also means the possibility of the absence any love. And that alienation from love is what evil is all about.

In other words, evil is not a thing, but the lack something—love.

A similar argument is that God lets the laws of nature play out with limited intervention. This view portrays God as choosing to play more of any inspirational than coercive role.

But it’s hard to see if this is for the greater good. 

How can one say with a straight face that a world with so much rape, murder, and child abuse is for the greater good because the possibility of greater love is the flip side to the coin? 

Some say there’s a difference between God’s perfect will and God’s permissive will. If everyone loved their neighbors as themselves, then we’d have a perfect world.

But we’re not robots. Love isn’t love unless it’s a choice. 

It’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s not hard to see why the problem of evil is the most cited reason for atheism.

Relatively speaking

On the other hand, without God we’re left with moral relativism.

Moral behavior is conscious and intentional. So, if morality is absolute and objective, then the principles it’s founded on must have been consciously and intentionally created.

If there’s no God, however, then morality is only a social convention. 

But that morality is relative. This doesn’t mean, however, that anything goes. No one believes that.

Relativism simply means there’s no objective way to settle disagreements about right and wrong. 

Self deception

In practice, relativism often becomes a matter of who can persuade more people.

But that can be a problem. Fascism and communism are moralistic ideologies that persuaded—then killed—millions.

With relativism, the best you can say is that, in your opinion, fascism is wrong—not that it’s absolutely wrong. 

Of course, religious people also disagree about right and wrong. But at least they can say there is absolute right and wrong, even if their understanding of it is flawed. 

Right and wrong matter because we all think of ourselves as good people. But even criminals think that.

The self-serving bias, fueled by a lack of self-awareness, is one of psychology’s most robust findings. 

No one is as good as they think they are. 

Religion is at its worst when people point fingers at others. Religion is at its best when it’s used for self-criticism. 

Miracles

Miracles are also a cause for unbelief. Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead don’t seem scientifically possible. 

Of course, you can believe in God but not miracles. The resurrection of Christ, however, is central to Christianity.

We often think of miracles as things that violate the laws of nature. Then again, we call something miraculous even when no scientific principles are at stake.

So maybe a better definition is that a miracle is a good thing that happens against the odds. 

And we can’t automatically assume that Christ’s resurrection violated the laws of nature. If God exists, He could have intervened in a way we don’t understand.

It’s a matter of faith—and a big leap that raises the question:

Is there anything that isn’t believable as a matter of faith?​

But this raises another question: Why is salvation even necessary? Isn’t it manipulative to tell people they’re sinners?

No one’s perfect

Ancient Stoic philosophers thought virtue was essential for human flourishing, but they also realized that virtue isn’t virtue if it’s tainted with vice.

In other words, virtue is only virtue when it’s perfect. 

But no one’s perfect, so what’s the point of pursuing the impossible? How does getting closer to your goal matter if you never accomplish it?

Critics of the Stoics pointed out that you can drown in six inches or six feet of water, but either way you’re dead. 

Grace is the Christian answer: God makes up the difference. 

An alternative is to accept our unavoidable imperfection—the futility of trying to be perfect.

In the case of grace, this could encourage magnanimity because judgment belongs to God.

If there is no God, and we accept our unavoidable imperfection, magnanimity is called for because we stop expecting other people to be more than they are.

Published by Dave DuBay

Dave is a Florida man. He blogs at https://davedubay.wordpress.com. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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