Microphone

Skeptic’s Point: Introduction, Intentions, Invitation

“There is no God.”

 

This was the final line of an op-ed I wrote in my predominantly Catholic university’s newspaper in October of 2016 in the hopes of provoking greater engagement with the question of God’s existence on campus. It now marks the beginning of a new project that will pick up where that article left off, only this time with an infinitely wider audience: the internet.

 

I have grappled with the question of God’s existence ever since I was a young teenager. Though the skeptic in me eventually prevailed, my large Catholic family and small Catholic college never let the question escape completely from my mind; and like anyone who grapples with a particular challenge long enough, I have developed something of a passion for it. Surely if there is any big question worth investigating, it is this one? I can think of no subject with greater implications, philosophically speaking, on the way we understand the world and our place in it.

 

But as someone who cares about the question of God, I am frustrated by the senselessness of the discourse that commonly surrounds it, and that surrounds religion in general. Like politics, religion bears heavily upon personal experience and identity, which hinders our ability to analyze it intelligently. Neither believers nor nonbelievers seem to honestly wrestle with other perspectives, or scrutinize their own. We often get caught up in the details without examining fundamental assumptions. We fail to recognize external, non-rational influences of belief. We fall victim to silly fallacies. There is a general unwillingness to truly understand or meaningfully engage with the other side.

 

What we need is a new way to discuss God and religion that is based on sound reason, intellectual integrity, and genuine curiosity. As a philosophically inclined, ex-Christian skeptic who is part of a devout family and tight college community of believers and who is passionate about the subject, I have taken it upon myself to start that discussion by presenting my own skeptical point of view as honestly and effectively as I can.

 

Though I will argue, sometimes perhaps fervently, for my perspective, I will do so with an eye on the primary purpose of this blog: to encourage everyone, including myself, to think clearly and critically about what they believe in regards to God and religion. I am more concerned with how we think, not necessarily what we think. A change of mind on either side is unlikely, but for all those who honestly and intelligently engage with the opposition, a widening of perspective and a deepening of understanding is inevitable.

 

A few notes on how the blog will operate: I will write at least one “formal” post per week, with smaller posts throughout the week to respond to your thoughts and ideas, or to share a post from one of you. As for my own approach to the discussion, I do have specific points to make, but beyond that I intend to keep things open-ended. I will not restrict my arguments to any particular philosophical or religious version of God, though since I am an ex-Catholic and most religious readers will (I suspect) be Christian, I will probably lean in that direction. I mostly look forward to engaging with all of you in the comments and by email and seeing where the conversation leads us.

 

If you are content to remain complacent in your belief or lack thereof—if you feel that the questions of religion and God’s existence are unimportant—, Skeptic’s Point is not for you. For the rest of you: if you want to engage with your beliefs, to abandon your intellectual comfort zone, to challenge and be challenged… I believe you have come to the right place.
 
Welcome!

 

P.S. If you’d like to stay in the conversation, follow the blog’s Facebook page for updates, and sign up to receive email notifications when new a new post arrives using the side or bottom panels.

 

Proceed to the next post.

15 comments

  1. Ah, excellent! Very nice looking site. And well explained first post.
    I have two questions which I enjoy very much, and pose to anyone who talks about this stuff. I hope they’ll make their way into your “formal” posts one day.
    I’ll try to keep them short:
    1. Science has many wonderful explanations about how the universe evolved. But they seem to all be bounded by two rules: Everything comes from something (matter is neither created nor destroyed) and everything has a beginning and an end. So while we keep going further and further back in explaining how the universe got here, at some point we throw up our hands and have to say “Well, we’re not sure how or when that thing got here”. We just don’t know. So doesn’t the rational person have to concede that since we don’t know, then there is an equal likelihood of some kind of god-figure forming the universe versus some kind of scientific explanation?
    2. Given that we don’t know, doesn’t the rational person have to resort to Pascal’s Wager?

    1. Hey John, great questions. I’d definitely like to talk about both in later posts, but I think I can briefly address them here too.
      1) The question of what “started” the universe clearly isn’t one that science can answer, at least definitely not right now, because science only deals with observable phenomena within the universe. But while scientists don’t have evidence for what created it, neither do theists. Inserting God at the origin of the universe, where science falls short, only resolves the problem when you believe in God to begin with. Just like anything else, we have to look at the evidence around us (within the universe) for clues as to whether a God exists that could/did create the universe. In other words, the mystery of the origin of the universe doesn’t resolve anything at all, but rather begs the question.
      2) Even if the mystery of the origin of the universe were the only way to determine whether or not God exists, I think it’s false to say that a rational person must concede an equal likelihood of scientific vs. divine creation; it’s more proper to say we simply don’t know–period. But it’s not the only way, and it’s by the other arguments, which I hope to explore in this blog, that we can determine with greater certainty that God does or does not exist, such that we need not resort to Paschal’s silly wager.

      1. Correct. We don’t know. And–hate to break it to you–after this blog becomes a worldwide sensation…we still won’t know. Ergo, we don’t know, so Pascal’s Wager.

        Said another way, the fact that we don’t know for sure seems to say to me that a rational person MUST use Pascal’s Wager to do some sort of cost-benefit analysis even though (and because) everyone admits that we have very unknown benefits.

        Not silly at all, I hope that you address it.

        1. I don’t think a cost-benefit analysis should be involved when trying to honestly investigate what is true or not. That’s why I call it silly (maybe not the best word). I understand that at a personal level the stakes are high, but I think it’s possible to determine God’s nonexistence with enough certainty that Paschal’s Wager is unnecessary even if the goal is to “gamble” for heaven after death rather than to investigate what’s true.
          Definitely things I will write about later!

          1. Good discussion, all around! This question is for John, regarding Pascal’s wager: would God really want us to risk believing something which is not true in order to (potentially) obtain a reward? If God is Truth, as Augustine believes, and if Jesus is “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” it would seem not only silly, but downright sinful to abuse one’s capacity to know through an act of will. If, in good faith, you don’t know whether or not God exists, wouldn’t a loving God understand this and consider it when making judgments about the merits of one’s life?

            Here’s an analogy which I find to be helpful: suppose you are a hunter who sees a rustling bush. You have no idea what is in the bush, except that it is probably alive, and may be a human being. Do you shoot?

            Pascal’s response seems to be, “Yes, because the potential for a successful hunt outweighs the potential that you might accidentally murder another human being.” Personally, I find this repugnant. Better to go home empty-handed than to risk killing somebody on the hunt.

            I could contend that one who makes Pascal’s wager in the case of religion is risking a lot more, though — he or she could be bowing down to a false idol every weekend, on the hopes of obtaining a reward in the hereafter. Moreto, religious beliefs are often connected with moral beliefs, e.g. when discussing the moral status of homosexuality or contraception. If there is no God, and one is basing one’s wager on one’s own hope for eternal happiness, one risks hurting people, e.g. homosexual men and women, on the basis of self-interest.

            I make these points merely in order to understand your perspective better — I’m guessing that there’s more to it than I’ve portrayed.

          2. Philonious – I agree with you on everything you say here, although I find the analogy jarring, and I think any fan of Paschal’s Wager would too, because it compares a reasonable and (theoretically) harmless, yet false belief to reckless manslaughter. You have a point that by believing in a non-existent God that you risk hurting people, but not in the same way as the hunter shooting into a bush with a person in it. I think the analogy could be tweaked to be more accurate and effective.

      2. “Just like anything else, we have to look at the evidence around us (within the universe) for clues as to whether a God exists…”

        Classic error that skeptics make. I would have no expectation of finding any direct evidence of a Supernatural God in a natural universe, like you would go to look for a kind of bug living under a rock somewhere. But you did say “clues.” Would a skeptic really be satisfied with a mere clue or clues?

        1. On the contrary, I don’t think there is even such thing as evidence that exists outside the universe. Would that not by definition be completely inaccessible by our reason or senses? I don’t mean that I could physically perceive God with my senses (although the bible has him appearing to people occasionally), but any evidence or clues you use to justify your belief in Him have to come from within the universe. Do you not think that the life of Jesus is evidence for God? Or the Bible? Or your personal experiences? These are all things that are in the universe. You seem to be saying you can find evidence from outside the universe. What do you mean by that?

          1. I was thinking along the lines of something either presently or in recent history, such as the anecdote about cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin saying that when he was in orbit he looked and looked but couldn’t find God. My presumption was that most skeptics would not be likely to accept as true historical evidence the supernatural having entered the natural (Jesus). It has also been said that one would have to walk the complete length and breadth of the universe before declaring that there is no God, but I rather disagree with this, for reasons you cited.

  2. “Though the skeptic in me eventually prevailed, my large Catholic family and small Catholic college never let the question escape completely from my mind…”

    What about fat old adopted uncles? Do they contribute to the question never escaping completely from your mind? 😉

    “But as someone who cares about the question of God, I am frustrated by the senselessness of the discourse that commonly surrounds it, and that surrounds religion in general. Like politics, religion bears heavily upon personal experience and identity, which hinders our ability to analyze it intelligently. Neither believers nor nonbelievers seem to honestly wrestle with other perspectives, or scrutinize their own.”

    So what? If there is no God, what difference does it make? With no greater, objective [even moral] reality for contrast, how are we so different from a swarm of insects buzzing about or dogs fighting in the street? With no God, how could more than this even be expected from humanity?

    While I do actually agree with you, what can atheism then claim as a source of objective values by which to gauge things? With no God, all we are left with is ourselves, and the subjectivity of our own perceptions and feelings that really go no further than the inside of a person’s own skin (or neurons)? Isn’t subjectivity the root of what you describe here as problematic?

    If there is no God, then in the face of a senseless, indifferent cosmos, what objective difference does it make if humanity either builds the finest starships of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination – or if it extinguishes itself? Yet, popular atheists fairly recently took on the mantle of morality purveyors. As I read Hitchens, he made it sound like he believed in moral absolutes – was he kidding or did I not understand him?

    1. I actually love talking about the moral/value implications of a god-less universe. But strictly speaking Atheism, the belief that God does not exist, doesn’t forward any claims about the nature of morality or human value and meaning more generally, and that is not the primary purpose of this blog. I’d love to address it, but I don’t think I could forward my own opinions about the subject in a single blog post. I’ve written several pages about it elsewhere which I could share with you off this site, and maybe later find a way to bring it into the blog in a clear, condensed, and relevant manner… All that said, I don’t think it needs to be addressed to talk about whether or not God exists and whether any religion is true. I think we should start with that primary question, and then be willing to deal with the subsequent implications on morality and human values.

      1. Fair enough. Perhaps we can revisit the moral/value implications as the discussion unfolds rather than diving right into it, although objective morality is a significant part of the reason why people believe. If you want to send me your writings on the subject, I will hope to read them, time permitting.

        For now, I think I understand you to want to begin with the basic question of whether or not God exists and why, is that correct? My first impulse is to talk about how scientific enlightenment since, what, the 17th century, and subsequent scientific revelation, seems to be a driving force of a kind of doubt that may not have existed in in its present form before scientific enlightenment. Be that as it may, let me try to gather my thoughts and explain why I believe in God and what I might hope to accomplish by doing so.

        Firstly, I don’t think I can prove in a courtroom sense, or a forensic sense, beyond any doubt, that God exists. However, I don’t actually think it is necessary to do this. Bearing in mind the kinds of criticisms leveled at people of faith (much of it well-deserved), I think my job is to demonstrate that belief is indeed intellectually viable, if perhaps not absolutely conclusive, and that believing is nevertheless a most reasonable thing. No need to check our brains in at the door when we go to church (though, lamentably, many do). If I can accomplish this, then I will feel I have made progress in at least dispelling the popular idea that you have to be a throwback to the middle ages to believe in religion, an idea that unbelievers do seem to promote in one form or another.

        Is this more along the lines of where you’d like the discussion to go?

        1. To answer your final question, yes. In fact you’ve already touched on the subject of my next post, which is to try to answer the question, “What do theists and atheists have to do to convince the other side of their position?” I think the kind of skepticism I espouse (which could probably be seen as a 17th century development, as you point out) loads a heavy burden on the theist to defend his belief, but I also believe that skepticism of that kind is an effective tool to prevent false beliefs. I also do not agree that mere “intellectual viability” does enough to convince a skeptic that God exists. It has to be shown not only that it is “viable,” because many incompatible belief systems can simultaneously be viable; it must rather be shown as more reasonable than its competition and the skeptical alternative that no God or religious belief system is reasonable.
          Related to that: I’d like to begin with the basic question of whether or not God exists, but rarely if ever does a belief in God come completely independent of some religious belief system, and I find it difficult to separate the two when debating. I haven’t decided exactly how to approach this entanglement; I’m really just hoping that it will not cause any problems going forward.

          1. Your last response to me was very rich in content, and as much as I am tempted to attempt to unpack the meaning and implications of the different things you wrote, let me try to get back to baseline and try to explain why I believe in God, per your request.

            • Weight and testimony of Church history, both Catholic and Protestant. The lack of uniqueness to this kind of phenomenon does not detract from its validity. (Perhaps at some point we’ll talk about the meaning of different religions/denominations).

            • The nature of Christian teaching, and the Christian narrative, fits with human experience as I have observed it not only with myself but among others.

            • The Truth of Christian teaching, as I relate it to life as I know it

            • The contiguous history of the Christian church, traceable back to the life and times of Jesus Christ. There is even some common, contiguous history among the three main monotheistic religions, though I do not know much about it.

            • The objective pointlessness of human existence without God. Humanity is imbued with an inclination, a desire, to consummate the point or purpose of our existence. Put another way, if I find in myself a desire that nothing on earth can fulfill, then I must ultimately be intended for another “world.”

            • Personal religious experience that I have experienced as esoteric and inexplicable by my education in scientific and technological disciplines (A.S. Electronic Technology, B.S. in Information Technology), not to mention my study of human psychology and philosophy in college.

            • Yes, objective morality points to God. Rarely when people argue with each other do they condemn on an individual basis the standards of the person with whom they disagree. People appeal (at least they used to) to an external, free-standing (as it were) moral construct that does not depend on either of them.

            • The life and times of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible. The several prophesies He fulfilled, the meaning of the words He spoke and especially the miracles He performed. To me, this is the most significant piece. As C.S. Lewis put it, Jesus was either crazy, a liar or God. None of the options other than Jesus being exactly who He claimed to be are compatible with the account of His life as recorded in the Gospels.

            More recently, some have suggested that Jesus did not exist, which is refuted by historians (again, back to the idea of the contiguous history of the church and the weight and testimony of church history). Frankly, the idea that Jesus never existed is pretty silly. His life affected the course of human history (just look how the year was measured, BC, AD, as one example). Jesus was also mentioned in some other early, extra-Biblical writings by, I believe, Josephus and maybe someone else, but I do not remember at the moment.

            Finally, some have suggested that Jesus existed, but the story was embellished with the stories of the miracles and such. It strains credibility that his immediate followers would give up everything to suffer persecution and death for a known lie.

            Finally, and perhaps I have the advantage of age here being born mid-twentieth century, but not too long ago the idea that Jesus either never existed, or that His story was embellished, would have generally been considered absurd (it was always generally considered historical fact). The evident I further offer is that C.S. Lewis didn’t bring these two points as additional options in his famous proposition as to who Jesus was/is.

            • All of the above taken together, I think, makes believing a perfectly reasonable thing. There may be other reasons that have slipped my mind. There are many very important things in life that people take for granted without requiring ultimate, perfect, irrefutable proof. This matter does not need to be treated differently in this regard, especially where people feel a hunger for God. I could make a strong philosophical argument that the bowl of salad in front of me may not really exist – but I would much rather eat it. Besides, the Gospels themselves record that even people who saw or were aware of the miracles still did not have faith. What else is God supposed to do to disambiguate His existence given the bent towards skepticism among some people even in the face of miracles?

Comments are closed.