Friday, June 15, 2007

Thoughts on Atheism, Theism and Agnosticism, Part II

Alright. First I would like to begin by discussing my own personal beliefs. I do not consider myself a theist. I lean towards weak atheism in practical terms. I believe in a Being with a capital "B" but mostly for philosophical reasons. In my mind Being is everything. It is everything we may not be able to experience as well. All things dwell within it, including human beings. That said, Being is not God. Some have remarked that such an idea, of an all encompassing Being is secretly a belief in a deity. I do not think that it is. I do not hold that Being is all loving, that Being answers our prayers, or that it interacts with us on a daily basis.

I do not hold that there is any sort of afterlife and that this existence is the only one we have. If there is any possible life after death, I would go with reincarnation, but even then, since memories do not survive one's demise, and neither does ones body or personality, reincarnation cannot bring about any sort of meaningful afterlife. If you "wake up" in someone else's body, so be it. But you can't remember where you were before. So what good is it?

I was raised a Catholic and left the church in my mid-teens because I disliked the corruption in the organization and the hypocrisy of most American Catholics. After that for a while I was a generic Humanist Christian, but eventually I came to disbelieve in the Bible and saw Buddhism and existentialism as giving better insight into the human condition. I suppose I left the faith because I found a better alternative.

That said, I would like to offer up a defense of the Theist's position in sympathetic terms. All to often I see these sorts of debates revolving around what I would like to call "psychological arguments." These are arguments that are thinly veiled ad hominem attacks (that also commit the fallacy of argument from consequences). They center around accusing supporters of the other side for believing what they want in order to make them happy. Atheists often accuse theists of having faith in God because it makes them happier and they fear death. I think there are two problems with this line of reasoning.

First is that there are many unhappy Christians. One might argue that they would be even unhappier if they lacked faith in God and the afterlife, but I feel that in certain cases faith in God did not equal much happiness. After all, when you become a theist, particularly a member of an organized religion, you become worried about avoiding eternal hellfire. You may suffer more and actually be more unhappy because you are constantly delaying gratification. You may be happier as well.

Second is that there are also unhappy Atheists. Most Atheists are satisfied with their lives, but many are not. In some cases I'm sure feeling estranged from others and the universe and its purposes and despair over death and no afterlife and cause grief to certain atheists. This group I am sure is a minority, one which in the theist's mind often represents the whole of the non-theistic community. Yet they do exist, these individuals who suffer and whose lives are filled with anguish, possibly because they lack a belief in something greater than themselves, though one cannot be sure. What is certain is that happiness is not guaranteed by adopting either position, nor becoming an agnostic.

Belief in God can be very satisfying and this is why the majority of the world's theists are religious. This is why they refrain from doing things, giving money to certain groups, fighting against others, building holy shrines, making pilgrimages, and the like. God knows everything, has chosen everything, and all one has to do is trust in God's guiding spirit. God gives reason and shape to the universe and consequently people's lives and around God one can build a system of morals and ethics.

The communal aspect of religion is what I think is most appealing. It creates a sense of community for people, it gives them support when they need it, and an organized religion provides children with moral education. For individuals, belief in God acts to dispel their anxieties and fears about the world and the afterlife. Any critique of religion or belief in God must take this into account, the practical side of theism and why people believe. It is not because they have been overtaken by a virus, a genetic or nutritional defect, or are simply not as "bright." People look at their options and since we live in a country that is not a theocracy, they know disbelief is an option. Theists are not becoming atheists in droves, and in fact many atheists become committed theists. Something more powerful or more intimate than abstract reasoning must be driving this, since we know that logic tends to favor the atheist and agnostic in the debate.