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.