There is no denying that we live in an age of religious extremism; hell even the atheists are extreme nowadays. But just what ought one to believe about this? As some of you may know, I advocate agnosticism which is the view that the most rational thing to do when one is in our position is withhold judgment. I claim that we do not know that God exists, but nor do we know if He doesn’t exist. Furthermore I claim that we have good evidence on both sides of the dispute. Some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are rationally compelling, some of the arguments against the existence of God are also rationally compelling. Given this the only rational choice, I argue, is agnosticism. To believe in God is to believe something with insufficient evidence; so too, though, is the belief that there is no God. Neither belief is supported by the evidence. But before I try to give an argument for what I say above I want to say a few introductory things.
1. Religion vs. Theism
But this does not mean that I am, or have to be, agnostic about organized religion. The verdict is in on that one and I am in agreement with the Richard Dawkins of the world. Religion is at best silly and at worst pernicious. Sadly a brief look at history reveals that it is mostly pernicious. It is people with religious beliefs that fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up at public places, shoot doctors who perform abortions, go on crusades, believe in talking snakes, etc, etc, etc.
This is to be distinguished from theism which is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being who created the Heavens and the Earth. Belief in theism in not associated with any one religion. It is, in fact, the thing that unites (most of) the major religions. Belief in theism automatically rules out (most if not all) religious beliefs. A supremely loving God would not command you to blow up innocent civilians or to go on crusades or to hate gays, etc, etc, etc.
Thus ‘should I believe in theism or atheism’ is a question that can be rationally addressed (the answer is believe neither: be agnostic), but ‘should I be a Christian or a Muslim’ is not (the answer is be neither: they are both silly). Each of the beliefs specific to these religions, aside from theism, is, in its own way, patently absurd and ridiculous and is obviously the creation of man.
2. Universal Agnosticism?
Some agnostics, like Bertrand Russell, argue that we have to be what I call universal agnostics. That is, they argue that if we are agnostic with respect to the Christian God then we must agnostic with respect to the Greek gods, the Hindu gods, etc. I do not think that this is true. I think that the evidence we have FOR the existence of God is sufficient for us to conclude that IF there is a God then it will be the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing one that the theist posits.
3. Reason vs. Faith
The question I am interested in this ‘what should a rational person conclude vis a vis theism?’ I am not interested in questions of faith (by which I mean believing in something without evidence or in spite of the evidence). Faith, in my opinion, can be a good thing in small doses but when it gets to the point where it is totally immune from reason then we have crossed into the danger zone. This way lies religious beliefs and fanaticism. So, in this sense, it is possible for an agnostic to have faith. It could happen that someone convinced themselves that they should withhold belief in theism but nonetheless wanted the social benefits of a religion. They might conclude ‘I know that rationally I shouldn’t believe but I can’t help it, I just have faith that there is a God’. This kind of ‘Humean’ faithful agnostic is strange, but according to me, possible and consistent (not the view I have or recommend, though).