Don't read this post if you're not ready to think about that sticky R-word, religion. If you're easily offended or firmly ensconced in a fundamentalism, this is not the post for you; go read something light, fluffy, and meaningless like this.
Still with me? Ok, you've been warned . . .
One of the comments in this post questioned my self-identification as a secular humanist/atheist. "As a trained historian," the commenter suggested, "you know better than to lock yourself into absolutes."
I appreciate opportunities like this to clarify my philosophical positions. One of the reasons I have this little blog -- besides the high levels of publicity, fame, and fortune I receive -- is so that I have a forum in which to work through historical and philosophical questions and, ideally, get constructive input and feedback from friends, family, and random trolls.
When I first read that comment, my thought was "oh, right, do I really mean to call myself an atheist, someone who definitively asserts the non-existence of supreme beings?" Maybe I meant to classify myself as an agnostic, someone who withholds a definitive pronouncement on the existence or non-existence of supreme beings? Was it my intention to be so assertive, or should I hew to a middle-ground?
I have thought about this question for weeks now, in response to that comment. In the broader narrative of my life, I've actually thought about this question since at least my mid-teens. Though I was baptized in the Siletz Church of Christ in the seventh grade, by the time I was a freshman in high school I no longer attended the church. In my junior year I began actively to ponder the Big Questions of life. For example, I always thought it was sad that, according to the Church of Christ, all Native Americans who died before the year 1492 were, by definition, going straight to hell because they had not been able to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
Also, according to the Church of Christ, Jews, Catholics, and all other Protestants were also going straight to hell. That's a lot of people to condemn outright.
Another idea that got my mind racing was reading the book The Secret Life of Plants. What struck me the most about this book at the time was the idea that plants weren't inert agglomerations of matter, but possessed some kind of life force. Maybe this life force was some kind of consciousness, but even if this was not the case, plants possessed energy and properties that were essential to us humans, and, in fact, life on this planet. Why else would we eat plants and use plants for medicines, poisons, and recreation?
Thoughts such as these got me wondering if there wasn't more to life than the Church of Christ was trying to sell me, wasn't more than my beloved friends and family in the Siletz area represented, wasn't more than I thought I already knew about the world? (From such small germs do spring bounteous forests of thought, some of the fruits of which are here in this post.)
It's essential to provide clear operational definitions for the terms we use when discussing such loaded and longstanding philosophical issues as the existence or non-existence of God.
I'll first specify what I mean by "atheism" and "agnosticism." The way I used these terms a few paragraphs above constitutes a general, lay, understanding of the terms: an atheist is "someone who definitively asserts the non-existence of supreme beings," and an "agnostic" is "someone who withholds a definitive pronouncement on the existence or non-existence of supreme beings." In this post, I'll be using these terms slightly differently.
Agnosticism means "an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge." Its root is in the Greek gnōstikós, meaning "pertaining to knowledge" (á, "not, without," + gnōst, "known").
Atheism means "disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings." Its root is in the Greek áthe, meaning "godless" (á, "not, without," + theos, "god").
I will use the word "God" as a general term that includes all monotheistic deities (i.e., Allah, Jehovah, etc.) as well all of the deities of the world's various pantheons (i.e., Shiva, Thor, Isis, Enki, etc. etc.). For ease of understanding, I will also refer to this notion of God using the male pronoun "he" rather than the more representative but awkward bi-gendered "s/he." You will find that I also approach this topic from a Christian perspective--particularly Protestantism--because my lived experience and educational background are much more centered in this tradition than any other.
There are two primary ways to conceive of God:
- 1) in anthropomorphic terms as an actual being who resides in heaven (or Mt. Olympus, Valhalla, etc.). Christians express this idea through the Nicene Creed.
- 2) as a useful term for something that cannot be expressed adequately in words; the term stands-in for "the great unknown" or "the great mysteries of life." Joseph Campbell characterized this usage as "the masks of God."
Using the above two broad definitions of God, am I an atheist or an agnostic?
In terms of God definition 1, I am an atheist. In terms of God definition 2, I am an agnostic. I do not believe that God exists as an actual being or beings, but I do believe that there continue to be mysteries, "unknown unknowns," and the like in our own psyches, on this planet, and in the universe.
In my interpretation, God definition 1 has through time been consistently reduced in applicability as human knowledge, science, and measuring methods have evolved. God definition 2 can still be a useful way for some people to understand the universe, because there are, as yet, so many mysteries to life -- and, in spite of physicists' long search for one mathematical equation to explain everything, with every new quantum or astronomical discovery, there seems to arise only more and deeper questions.
Christians who approach their religion using God definition 1 generally use circular logic that boils down to two key points. The first is that God wrote the bible, so they hold their beliefs because God said so in the Bible, and the Bible is the Word of God. The second is that they have faith in the Word of God because being a true Christian means having faith in the World of God, which God has provided in the Bible that he wrote. In my experience, the vast majority of arguments from Christians using God definition 1 can be reduced to these circular constructions, and such Christians are not generally amenable to stepping outside of this well-worn path, even for the sake of an intellectual exercise.
Many people who do not hold to the basic tenets of the above arguments fall into the category of defining God according to definition 2. For example, many self-professed Christians that I've known and heard about do not necessarily believe that God is an actual being, or that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, or that Christianity is the only true religion. Instead, they perceive of their religion as something that provides guidance, comfort, and community, just as Islam, Judaism, and other religions can.
Christopher Hitchens is an essayist and social commentator who expresses well some of the core elements of my own philosophy. Some of his opinions and interpretations I do not agree with (for starters, his approval of G.W. Bush's invasion of Iraq), and one of these days I will write a post that will enable me to go into more detail on some of this. However, when it comes to his stance on the world's organized religions, I share many of his core interpretations.
For example, I agree with Hitchens when he states that the burden of proof is upon those who assert the existence of God, not on those of us who do not.
Why do I hold such a thought? Well, for starters, how could an impartial observer evaluate among the claims of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and the ancient Vikings (for example) when each of these groups asserts that God(s) intervened in a certain situation, or created things in such a way, or commanded us to act in one way or another? From the position of someone trying to evaluate as objectively as possible such claims, it is impossible to come to any definitive determination, because empirical evidence for all of these claims is lacking. As one commenter on this Slate.com article writes, this dynamic illustrates the "inherent unprovability of a hypothesis of an unprovable being."
The conclusion that the impartial observer would likely come to is that none of these claims from various religious perspectives are true in an empirical, physical, objective sense. In spite of the circular logic of one group or another that begins and ends with the group's "holy book(s)," for anyone not committed from the beginning to that particular religion's version of God definition 1, then all of these assertions seem equally nonsensical. Unless . . .
What if we evaluate these religious claims in terms of God definition 2? What if, rather than expressing physical and temporal realities, religious claims speak to deeper mysteries of psychology, history, astronomy, physics, etc.? In this case, perhaps there are truths to be gained in religious expressions and ideas, but these truths are not TRUTHS, or even Truths, but nuggets and snippets and glimpses of universal mysteries that perhaps may one day no longer be mysteries, or quite as mysterious, or they may be mysteries for as long as homo sapiens and our descendants yet live?
(This interpretation is not something I thought of on my own; I'm indebted to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, in particular.)
The distinctions above exemplify the essence of my self-identification as an atheist in terms of God definition 1, and an agnostic in terms of God definition 2.
I trust that the analysis above conveys how I -- as an historian -- approach the question of God's existence, but I'll provide a final note to further specify my perspective.
I adhere broadly to the tenets of Secular Humanism. This means that I do not take things simply on faith (this post goes into more detail), and that I have a "commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions." When I'm trying to interpret historical evidence and write narratives, I could not fathom coming to a place in my research where I would just throw up my hands and exclaim, "Well, I guess I just found an example of God's intervention, so I can stop this line of inquiry . . ." This seems to exact opposite of what a good historian should do.
On the contrary, whenever I get to a place where I find myself thinking in terms of some grand narrative that explains all things, I do one of two things.
One option is that I'm making a conscious choice to express things in a general way because to go into much detail will take me far afield from the focus of my narrative. For example, I may opt to explain in only two paragraphs the complexities of nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization throughout North America, because the purpose of my writing is to explain the situation in Oregon's Willamette Valley from the 1920s forward, and I want to do so in 70,000 words, not 700,000. I gotta draw the line somewhere, so I condense this part and provide in my footnotes references to the three or four essential books that go into great detail on this process.
The other option is that I've just discovered a facet of my own understanding that hasn't been sufficiently un-packed and examined. For example, if I find myself trying to characterize the most important motivations of key people involved in Willamette River water pollution abatement efforts in the mid-twentieth century, I could just say that they were all self-interested sportsmen who wanted to maintain stocks of salmon for recreational fishing, but how does that account for the involvement of the League of Women Voters, or members of the Chamber of Commerce, or good government advocates at the city and state level, or federal government officials engaged in regional resource planning, . . .? Put simply, it does not.
Regarding conceptions of God, on the other hand, if I go into my research not seeking to uncover some tattered shred of evidence that, looked at through fogged lenses with one eye closed, might be construed as evidence of God's actual existence, BUT, instead, think of "God" as an idea, a shorthand, a concept that changes throughout space and time according to cultural needs, then I'm getting much closer to the secular humanist goal of approaching the world from as objective a point as possible. (For more about how I define history, and the dynamic between subjectivity and objectivity, see this discussion that I wrote for the Sustainability History Project.)