4. God & Religion : The Case for Agnosticism

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The idea of God is the first philosophical problem that anyone tackles simply because it is so fundamental to human existence and thought that it comes to mind first. In fact, so fundamental is this idea to us that the thought that God might not exist had to wait till the last few centuries. And even then it has gained ground only in fits and starts. It is only in this last century that this idea has gained a measure of respectability. In fact, today, declaring that you do not believe in God will not ensure a quick, fiery conflagration of a death at the stake, perhaps just your grandmother’s mild disapprobation.

Before I set out to convince y’all of the righteousness of my stand (hah!) I ought to set out what I mean by God. What I mean to address here is the common thread that binds together the different conceptions of God that different peoples hold. That common thread is that God is something beyond human conception, so that us mere mortals cannot lay claim to the knowledge of what God is. God is an entity, a ‘something’, that exists far beyond our comprehension. An analogy of sorts would be that God is to us, what we are to bacteria in a petri dish. As far as those bacteria are concerned, human beings are Gods, being able to withhold or provide nourishment, and to kill them off at will. As far as they’re concerned, our power is infinite, and their conceiving of us is an impossibility. Similarly, our conceiving of God is an impossibility. We say it is supernatural and we say it is God. This is what is common to the different ideas held of God.

I hope so far adherents and atheists both agree with me. Since my interpretation of God places the concept outside the reach of reason and logic, by definition God is outside the reach of science. Science and God are mutually exclusive. Science deals with the knowable, God is unknowable.

God is unknowable. This gets at the heart of my argument. If you, the believer, says that God is unknowable, then God becomes a matter of faith, then you have no rational basis for the existence of God. You cannot say anything about the existence of God. Thus you cannot assert that God exists. The best buttress for your claim is that everything has to have a beginning. This universe has to come from somewhere. We live in the ‘after’ of a ‘before’. That before came from something, and that something is God or is tied up with God. “There are so many things that cannot be explained”, you say. I agree. But you must consider. First, just because something cannot be explained, it does not mean we will never explain it. In pinning the basis for the existence of God in a flaw in our understanding of the physical world, you place the flaw within Science’s ambit. Science progresses exponentially. Why, the fact that atoms had nuclei was only discovered a hundred years ago, and look at us today. If someone told you that they had no idea atoms had nuclei, you’d ask them if they were born yesterday. Extrapolating this progress, it is not an unfair assumption to conclude that we cannot fathom the science of tomorrow and the explanations it is capable of. However, I admit the possibility that we may never be able to fully explain everything. This brings me to my second point. Simply because we, as humans, cannot explain a phenomenon, does not mean it cannot be explained. Allow me to regress to my example of bacteria. How much of the world do you think a bacteria can explain to itself? Yet does it mean that what the bacteria cannot explain is unexplainable? The faithful who admit this, but who will not desist from jousting, have this repartee in hand. The laws of science are mere descriptions of the universe. They do not account for why the universe is that way. And this is a very valid point. We cannot explain why, say, the speed of light is 299792458 meters per second. It is. So they continue, we introduce the idea of God to explain this. Well, science will posit phenomenological propositions, and continue from those propositions. Why those propositions are we do not know. However this does not mean you can introduce the idea of God to explain away everything because when you do not know, then you simply do not know. You cannot say anything about the matter, simply because you have no basis at all to do so.

Ah, but our dear believers are wily. They haven’t been pottering around for several millennia for nothing. At this point in the argument, they bring out their reserves and press forward. What is a thought? What is consciousness? Where is the wellspring of emotion? True, the billions of neurons in our brain fire away, and control our body. But no amount of neurons firing can explain whence the idea of love comes from. Or what justice is. Or why I’m even thinking these thoughts. No, we need a higher power to explain the human consciousness.

True that science cannot yet plumb the depths of our brain. But we’re getting closer, computer simulations are getting better and are able to simulate more and more complex neural systems every year. I believe that one day we will have an explanation for consciousness; just the same way hundreds of years ago people thought thunder and lightning were the anger of Gods manifested, but that now we have good, solid, physical explanations for these phenomena. So yes, till consciousness is explained, perhaps you could think you have a basis for believing in the supernatural, but I feel a simple extrapolation of science’s progress over the years should give you enough ground to rule out this basis.

Still, there are those who want an end to the explanations, to the ‘whys’. So far science has progressed from macroscopic objects to molecules to atoms to the nucleus, and now onto subnuclear physics. Soon we may have string theory and who knows what lies beyond that? And the other way. From our Earth to the Solar System to the Milky Way to our local group of galaxies to an entire universe with trillions of stars to what? There must be an end, otherwise there is no beginning, and that feels absurd. Thus we posit God. But you must realise that positing God comes to the same thing. You need an explanation for God. Does God have a God. Whence did God come from? And so on and so forth. So you’re not much better off, in fact you’re back at Square One. You are kicking the can down the epistemological road.

There is a sense in which the concept of God makes sense. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Hence, you could use God to explain the un-understandable away, as long as you realise that it is un-understandable only for the moment, only as far as our perspective goes.

For the sake of completeness, I will discuss two more methods to show the existence of God because these are sensible ways to check if God is around or was around. One is that, in our physical laws, we discover an underlying design principle, which could not be present by chance, but that clearly shows the presence of a directing force in the formulation of our universe, such that our universe ‘aims’ towards something. Proof of this could be that the value of the fine structure constant. If this constant differed significantly from its value of about 1/137 then life in the universe could not exist. You could make the conjecture that some entity selected the universe such that we – life – exist. However you cannot prove this, and there is the counter conjecture that there could be an infinite number of universes and we only see this one. And this doesn’t help the general argument that positing God kicks the can down the epistemological road. Another method would be that of miracles, phenomena which are could only be accounted for by violating the known physical laws. No such luck for theists here though; at least there are no accounts of miracles that convince me.

That’s it for my case against the existence of God. Try as you may, there is no way you can prove or show God exists. At this juncture, believers will still sharply disagree with me, saying “I don’t have faith” or “I don’t understand” or some such. Fair enough, because God is really a matter of faith. It doesn’t matter if you can or can’t show God’s existence, all that matters is that you want God to exist. God’s existence gives you hope, light, beauty, truth. It adds colour to your life and gives you a sense of purpose in this otherwise nihiilstic, materialistic world. This is what I believe is referred to as religious functionalism. The view that even if God truly does not exist, or that even if you believe God doesn’t exist, it still makes perfect sense to go about your daily life believing in God because the benefits that accrue from said belief far outweigh the drawbacks [1]. For context, look at Pascal’s wager and the idea of religious functionalism.

This is all I have to say on the subject of belief in God. Now on to atheism, the assertion that God does not exist.

Atheists are wrong for the same reasons. You do not have the knowledge to say God does not exist. To say God does not exist you need to know every physical law of the universe with 100% certainty. This is because only then can you say that you can account for any and all observable phenomena, and only then can you say that there are no gaps in the physical laws which can only be attributed to supernatural forces.

Allow me to recast the question of God into a question of knowledge, of what can be known. I feel you have to accept that there are things in this world we do not know, and that we do not know we do not know. In short, I’ll call them unknown unknowns. To further clarify this thought, think of the understanding of the world an amoeba has. Then think of the understanding of the world you have. Now compare these two pictures of the world. Clearly, you can see that there are things that are so far removed from the level of consciousness of an amoeba that it could never, ever, in a million years guess at them. Now, and this is the important part, put yourself in the shoes of an amoeba. Imagine your level of understanding of the world is analogous to that of an amoeba’s. There are things that you simply cannot guess at, no matter what. You will never know these things no matter how much you study, or how much knowledge you gain because your level of evolution is simply not up to it. Hence you, or the human race as a whole, is nowhere near a complete theory of knowledge of reality simply because we have no way of telling when you have a complete theory. There will always be this possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’ lurking around the corner. Hence, you cannot say there is no God, because you simply do not know.

I can completely understand an atheist’s indignation and righteousness though. When you’ve been raised with the idea of God and subservience to God drilled into you from childhood, so much so that the question of atheism is out of the question, the realization that religion and God are simply human constructs can be life changing. And then you suddenly realise that not just you, the overwhelming majority of us have been labouring and have had their lives dictated by something that probably isn’t true!

Nonetheless, for reasons stated above, you cannot assert with certainty that God doesn’t exist. And trying to convince people who’ve believed in God all their lives of the non-existence of God is pointless, does not lead anywhere and only serves to make each side’s stance more rigid. Atheistic righteousness can easily lead to dogma, leaving one no different from a religious fanatic.

Some folks like to frame their beliefs in terms of epistemology and ontology. What this means is that you can say you don’t know if God exists but you believe God does or doesn’t exist. So this leads to agnostic theism if you believe God exists but do not know if you God exists and agnostic atheism which is the opposite.

If I take away the reason for God, I must provide an alternative. If I say there is no reason to believe in God, why indeed did all of humanity believe in the God then for thousands upon thousands of years? What is the raison d’etre for the concept of God. The first clue, at least for me, is that all humans without exception believe in God. Thus the idea of God must confer some sort of evolutionary advantage, such that the groups/societies that believed in God survived while others perished. This line of reasoning brings us to the era when mankind was asserting its dominance over its environment. We no longer had to compete with other wild animals for survival, but used our superior intelligence to dominate them. Now we were only left to compete against ourselves. At this time in human history, humans were probably still hunter gatherers, and maybe the glimmerings of agrarian society were beginning to appear. Now ask yourself, in a clash between two groups which group/societies of humans which society/group will persevere? The one with greater cohesion and unity and where the individuals have a greater dedication to others around them, i.e. to the idea of the group. Now between two groups, one of which believe in God and another which doesn’t, I feel it is plain that the group which believes in God will have a much greater degree of group cohesion and will win the battle of the survival of the fittest.

When member of a group subscribes to the idea of a God, they subscribe to a higher notion than that of the group itself. They are subscribing to an end, and an aim that transcends them. In that sense, their efforts towards this ideal they are subscribing to exists outside of them. It exists whether they exist or not. Hence their work transcends them. What they achieve has a life and an existence outside of their life and existence. In this sense, God and Religion add meaning to their life. It gives them an aim, gives them something to work towards, and feeds their impulses. Thus groups that had Religion were infused with a greater vigour and passion, and this allowed them to naturally prevail over other groups they clashed with.

So far I have couched my argument in terms of a “clash” between two groups. This may not necessarily be the mechanism of interaction between groups. For two groups that have lived in close contact, relatively peaceably, war is not the only end result. One group can subsume the other. Imagine if you were part of one of these two groups that live in close contact, and that you experience the life of the other group at close quarters. Your group has a looser religious structure. It does not bind people and draw people into its social life as strongly as the other group. You look at the other group and see the stronger ties that bind the members of that group. You see them socialising together at occasions marking the celebrations of the particular religion of the group. You see people living together happily, drawn together by the stronger bond of that religion. Naturally, that group will have a greater magnetism than yours, and by its very presence will cause your group’s weaker social bonds to fray. Sooner or later, people will cross over from your group to theirs, and this will happen in infinitesimal, imperceptible steps, untill one day you realise the group dynamics have been unalterably changed.

Now assume you are part of this new group. You have a strong religion that gives your life meaning and imbues your life with happiness. You then encounter a weaker group, and see or feel, biased as you are towards the belief in the superiority of your group, that your group members are happier and better off than that group. And the first stirs of proselytism arise. Why not bring that group into the fold, that they too gain the greater security of this group? And so efforts are made to ingest other groups. Ofcourse this makes complete sense in light of group social evolution. There is strength in numbers. the bigger your group the better it can fend off challenges and care for itself.

Thus, religion provides for extremely strong ties and bonds within groups, leads to strong group cohesion, and provides for a fulfilling and meaningful life for its members, invigorating them with a passion and desire to spread their cause.

What about the idea of a personal God? I feel I did perhaps approach this issue from the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps I should have started with the relationship between the individual and God and then built up a theory of Religion and groups from there. However, I feel Religion as a group phenomenon came first, and then got transliterated into a personal God afterwards. This is just conjecture ofcourse.

More conjecture, but the idea of God probably started with the idea of a vague supernatural force, used to explain away natural disasters, thunderstorms, inexplicable deaths and unexplainable, counter-intuitive phenomena in general. Then came the idea that this supernatural force could be influenced, rather “appeased”. And from there came the idea of a God. The idea developed into an institution and became Religion.

On a more personal level, God plays an equally important role. In times of personal grief and loss, people naturally ask “Why? Why me?” and religion provides a very necessary crutch and explanation. The burden of explanation is put on God, with the reassuring “It’s for the better” line of explanation, or that it was ordained in the grand scheme of things. Religion also provides a massive support group for people who are going through difficult times. It provides a definite social crutch in that religious organisations provide you with a social group you can turn to for support no matter what. The personal presence of God provides you with someone you can turn to. God is an entity who always has a kind ear for you, no matter what the circumstances. In other words, religion and god can be very comforting, and play right into the human psyche. They fill a gaping hole in the human psyche, and thus so many people cannot imagine their lives without religion and the comforting presence of God.

That pretty much sums up my views on God. I think the whole idea of God is pretty easy to figure out with some thinking, and it provides great insights in what humans want, how we choose to fulfill these wants, and how fulfilling these wants gives us a greater chance of survival. That is, these wants are just a proxy to give us a better chance of survival. God and religion are probably the best mechanism for fulfilling these wants and getting us to survive which explains why they have dominated society and why religion cuts across all barriers in getting people to bend to it.

[1]. W J Strawbridge, R D Cohen, S J Shema, and G A Kaplan. Frequent attendance at religious services and mortality over 28 years.. American Journal of Public Health: June 1997, Vol. 87, No. 6, pp. 957-961.
doi: 10.2105/AJPH.87.6.957

One thought on “4. God & Religion : The Case for Agnosticism

  1. billy bob on

    “Atheistic righteousness can easily lead to dogma, leaving one no different from a religious fanatic.”

    BULLshit

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