How I Became Agnostic

Cover art: Paint on paper, by Tim Raveling. Above: Sunset over the River Tiber in Rome, Photography by Tim Raveling.

FAITH EXISTS in the absence of reason. The two cannot coexist for any given belief. One need not have faith, for instance, that one plus one is two, or that the energy in a system is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. In fact, with that last equation, a bit of plutonium, and some packing charges, one need not even have faith to move mountains.

Faith is, however, an integral part of human existence. Every action we take is in some part based on faith. When we decide not to step in front of a moving train, our decision is based on our faith that our senses are giving us an accurate impression of the world around us (the moving train) and that we are mortal humans whose soft organic bodies will not fare well when matched against an eight-ton hulk of moving steel. When a madman steps in front of the same train, it is either because of his faith that his delusional perceptions are accurate, or because of his faith that he is immortal and can stop the train with nothing more than a steely glare.

Every action we take as human beings has something of reason and something of faith, but those “somethings” do not coincide. When you fly, your reason tells you first that airplanes work, and rarely crash, based on the evidence of your knowledge, your visual perception of other planes taking off and, if you are a physicist, your knowledge of aerodynamics. Your faith tells you that your knowledge is accurate, that your eyes are working, and that the laws of physics will continue to function. Coincidentally, the less faith you have in these things, the more nervous you will be to fly.

The problems arise when faith and reason conflict: when the rational processes of our minds contradict statements previously supported by our faith. Let us take an example from a popular American religion. Mormonism believes that the indigenous peoples of North America are, in fact, the lost tribes of Israel, and possessed at one time the Umim and Thummim referenced in the Jewish Torah (later used by Joseph Smith to produce the book of Mormon).

Conflict here arises out of knowledge. If one is entirely ignorant of context—if one has faith like a child, so to speak—there are no conflicts here, and faith is easy to maintain. When, however, one learns that best guesses put human migration to North America at around 12,000 years ago, some 8,000 years before the events of the Torah, and that the humans in question were likely of eastern Siberian or Mongolian origin, one’s reason says: well, Jews couldn’t possibly have migrated to the Americas over the last few thousand years ago, especially since the land bridge vanished with the end of the last ice age.

Given this conflict, one has three options. The first is simply to ignore the facts and the questions they bring up, and to shut one’s eyes against future evidence. This is what is generally referred to as “blind faith,” and is denounced by the apologists of most religions even as it is being practiced by a good many of their laypeople.

The second option is to retain the statement, and bring one’s reason up to fit. This is “rationalization.” In the example above, this would look something like: “the lost tribes of Israel built ships and made their migration by sea.” If there are any details left unanswered by these rationalizations, such as the fact that vessels capable of crossing the Atlantic were not constructed by any culture until the Vikings discovered America a thousand years after Christ, the wildcard is played: God did it. Though I’m certainly no expert on Mormonism, I suspect an examination of Mormon apologetics would reveal an argument along these lines.

The third option is the most frightening one to any believer. That is the abandonment of the statement, and any other statements which may rest upon it. This is often catastrophic to one’s entire worldview, and will very likely result in ostracism from one’s previous social circles, in a complete change in lifestyle, and in the personal realization that one has, for a very long time now, been wrong. It’s hardly surprising that this option is so rarely chosen.

I have been a Christian since I could talk. Growing up, I devoured apologetics texts from C.S. Lewis to the young-Earth creationism arguments. I was convinced that my faith was a rational one.

But as I matured, I began to realize something about myself: I was not capable of either blind faith or conscious justification. I often felt secretly ashamed when I read, in the gospel of John, chapter twenty, the account of “doubting Thomas,” because I knew that in the same situation, I, too, would have asked to feel Christ’s wounds.

I have come to realize, over the last year or so, that this story is the very heart of the problem of faith and reason. Thomas is told by his friends in John 20:25 that the impossible has happened: that a man has risen from the dead. Thomas responds that he will not believe until he placed his fingers into the nail marks, and his hand into the spear’s wound. When Christ returns, he rebukes Thomas (albeit gently), saying “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

And there you have it. Faith and reason is a choice; one cannot come to a conclusion by both paths, even if that conclusion is true. When both paths are open, which way should one turn?

The ironic point to make here, of course, is that that question is outside the limits of empirical reasoning, and so can only be answered by faith. And, by faith (or instinct, intuition, or gut reaction—whatever you wish to call it) I have chosen reason. With that choice, the previous justifications for what I once believed began to fall, and I was forced to reevaluate the foundations of my mindset. And, because I had chosen reason over faith, I found many of those foundations lacking.

I can no longer accept, for instance, that the universe was created in six days, or that mankind came from two hand-crafted individuals begun in perception, when the vast majority of the scientific evidence is against it. I can no longer accept that Israel was God’s chosen race, when every other race in premodern history has made precisely the same claim. I can no longer accept that Mosaic law, with its very specific applications to an agricultural, sheep-herding society, are the universal will of God, applicable to all men throughout all time (if you’ll remember, Christ came to fulfill the law, not destroy it).

I can no longer accept that a collection of Judaic texts assembled by a Roman emperor can be called the infallible word of a universal and timeless God. I can no longer accept that there is a paradise waiting for us after we die, when every element of our conscious minds, emotions, and memories are dependent on physical aspects of the brain.

I can no longer accept that the same God who so loved the world could command genocide (Deuteronomy 2:33-34, among many other references) or cause men to eat the flesh of their own family members (Leviticus 26:29). I can no longer accept the platitudes that God is guiding all events for good, based on the anecdotal evidence of a friends grandmother recovering from cancer, when over two hundred thousand people were killed in the day-after-Christmas tsunami of 2004.

I cannot even accept the pragmatic reasoning of Pascal’s wager—living a Christian life in case I am wrong, and an eternal hell does exist—for that seems an exceptionally cowardly pathway to heaven.

All that is left is for me to question and, like Thomas, look for the wounds in Christ’s hands. These decisions have been a long time in coming, and were influenced by countless more observations than the few brief summaries above. After it all, I still believe in God, and I still believe that Christ was humanity’s best incarnation of him. I still try to serve Him as best I can. But as for the rest, I cannot accept it, for I have chosen reason over faith.

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