Do You or Don’t You Believe in God? No Big Deal

Do you believe in God? This question poses a a gap between the humanists and the believers in traditional faiths that has often been assumed unbridgeable. In fact, if you look at it carefully, it isn’t, or at least it isn’t that important. You can boil it down to what my colleague Ed Gibney calls it the “ought-is” divide. The “Ought” side ot the dichotomy is based on Cartesian logic favored by some continental philosophers, which seeks the ideal, or what “ought to be”, while the “is” side reflects a more anglo-saxon pragmatic approach, which seeks the best answer available under the circumstances. Let me explain with a look at an infinite series.

Take the value of pi expressed in decimals. The pragmatist who needs to know this value expresses it with that degree of precision he needs. For the cook or carpenter three and one seventh will suffice, the machinist may need a figure more like 3.1417, and so forth. Noone has ever defined a practical need requiring that the answer be run out all the way to the end, which is just as well because as far as we know it’s what we call an infinite progression, without an end. Some theorists have run the decimal value of pi out to hundreds and even thousands of digits, but all that proves is that some theorists have strange ways of wasting their time.

Let’s reframe the argument about God in terms of whether God exists as some omnipotent entity that can work miracles. If the God-believer can produce a genuine miracle, he wins the argument. But it hasn’t happened. The attempts of true believers to produce evidence of miracles have all failed when examined scientifically. So far, at least, the non-believers are ahead. But have they won? No, because just as you cannot get to the end of an infinite arithmetic series, you cannot prove there never will be a miracle, for the future goes on indefinitely. All you can say is that the odds against a miracle occuring someday are very great and the more we learn the more unlikely such an event becomes. The reasonable true believer will acknowledge the unlikelihood of miracles but insist that doesn’t close the argument, as long as there’s no proof that sometime, somehow, his case will be proven.

So we haven’t settled the argument but we’ve narrowed the gap. If we agree the difference between the two sides is infinitesimal and getting even narrower all the time, most of us will be willing to walk away from the argument and find something more immediately important to argue about. Of course there will be fanatics on both sides but let it be their time they are wasting not ours. We can find a private room somewhere for the radical atheists and the rabid fundamentalists and leave them to duke it out, while we get on with more important business.

Gaps come in different sizes. A mighty river is a lot different from a trickle we can step over. Why don’t we consider the concept of humanism as including people on both sides of that trickle, united by agreement on issues of greater importance than this decreasingly important issue of whether God exists? I can think of a lot of such issues without straining myself and I’ll wager most of you can too.

Carl Coon

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One Response to Do You or Don’t You Believe in God? No Big Deal

  1. Sky Coon says:

    I most heartily agree with your final point. Believers and non-believers can most certainly unite on…a lot of [issues of greater importance].

    However, I feel it necessary to validate the theists’ perspectives a little more than your infinitesimal validation grants them. First, on the inductive point, let’s also agree for the sake of mutual respect that people are not all on the same page concerning the facts. Most believers will not agree that their have never been any well verified miracles. At this point in history we have some extremely appalling examples of people feeling entitled to their own facts on all manner of issues, most disturbingly and threateningly in relation to climate change. I ask that we not alienate theists by pushing them so hard on the facts as to argue that no reasonable person could ever maintain that there have ever been any verifiable miracles. The easy way to maintain the dignity of both sides is to simply say that people can interpret evidence differently without being total frauds. Let the believers call their evidence sufficient for themselves and let the unbelievers in the divine call the evidence insufficient for themselves without claiming that their have never been any reasonably verified miracles in the history of all human experience.

    Next, I think we can make real progress toward a solid alliance between believers in the divine and non-believers if we take a certain deductive approach to existence. When God was said to appear to Moses in the desert in the form of a burning bush, he told Moses, according to tradition, that his name was simply I AM (or existence itself). This makes perfect sense as the bridge being the creator (or the gift of life itself from whatever source) and the creation (or the receiver of life). Now I would posit that a shift in focus toward the GIFT of life rather than the GIVER of life would or could unite the theists and the non-theists.

    There is something deeply integrated, satisfying and self-fulfilling and self-actualizing for the receiver of LIFE to behave in such a way that advances, preserves, upholds and celebrates the gift of life. In one of the most important parables attributed to Jesus for all of protestant culture, Jesus said God our Father gave us talents in life and ability that we as grateful recipients of these gifts were to honor by use and development. The servant who buried his gifts without developing them was said to be wicked and was cast into the outer darkness of nothingness and non-existence. The ones who developed there gifts were rewarded with continued expansion into more life and more abundance. And yet the reward is not important. Shifting focus again, the reward flows from the action as a natural expression of the action.

    Call it evolution. That which adapts and grows lives longer and more expansively. This is the best we can expect to do with the lives we are given. Let us also help ourselves not bury ourselves in grief driven delusions that turn us away from the facts of life but focusing on the joy of the good stewardship of life and not just on the rewards of good stewardship. We need a shift from extrinsic reward based motivation to intrinsic satisfaction with our efforts motivation. We have a lot of set-backs on the path of human progress. Worst of all it appears there are abundant chances for humanity to go extinct. We may make the earth uninhabitable with run away global warming after the melting of the ice caps that will eventually turn our planet into something like Venus where the greenhouse effect is hot enough to melt lead. That is a hellish outlook, but not entirely impossible. So let us find a way to unite around the joy of trying and the joy of celebrating life along the way with progress and our best chance of survival becoming a by-product rather than direct aim of our efforts. And we can want this by-product more than anything, but let us not be success dependent for all our satisfaction.

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