R E L I G I O N
*** Important Note ***
I recognize that religious belief is a highly personal subject for many people. So before you even begin reading the essay which follows, please know: It's not a personal attack on you.
I can't emphasize this strongly enough. This essay is a description of the thoughts and feelings that led me to my own position on religion; in no way is it an assault on your belief, or the equivalent of sticking a thumb in your eye to induce you to do battle for Your Side.
So I caution you: I am agnostic with respect to the existence of any Divinity. This does not mean that I insist that God does not exist; I am not atheist. But it does mean that I doubt. In what follows, I will explain the basis of that doubt in considerable detail. But I must warn you that the reasons given are mine and mine alone; they need have nothing to do with you. They are provided solely as insight into who I am. In other words, it's about me, not you.
Let me be blunt. In what follows, I am not attacking you personally. If you feel I am, then you're wrong. Period. (In fact, I flatly condemn personal attacks in the discussion of issues; please see The Elements of a Sound Argument to read why.)
If you suspect that a frank discussion of religion whose conclusions may differ from your own views might be offensive to you, or if you feel you have a tendency to assume that any opinion which differs from your own must be a personal attack, then I urge you in the strongest possible terms to stop reading RIGHT NOW.
While Idealism focuses on the bad and insists that change is necessary to remove it, the Guardian aspect is concerned with the good which ought to be preserved and protected from the bad. The Guardian's role thus requires making value judgements about what is good, particularly in the realm of human behavior. This is the function of religion and ethics.
I was raised a Roman Catholic. Until my early 20s I accepted this form of structure in my life. It seemed to make sense. I went to Mass; I sang in the choir; I tried to be properly reverential in my heart. I did a pretty good job of it, too.
Then I went to college.
The final exam of the Philosophy course I took consisted of one question: "Do you believe in God? Defend your answer." At that moment, all the thinking and questioning and wondering I'd ever done in my life crystalized into understanding. As a result of being forced to apply objective reason to my faith, the answer I was forced to accept was: "I don't know." And it's been so ever since.
It hasn't been comfortable. My conclusion deprived me of the security of believing that there is a powerful entity who loves me. Nevertheless, I feel even less comfortable accepting that a divine being exists who insists on particular behavioral peculiarities of worship (or, for that matter, accepting that just because I've never seen God means He cannot exist). While I freely admit that, as a finite mortal being, I'm not capable of fully comprehending the mind of (a) God, it simply is not possible that a supreme being could send a genuinely good and kind person to Hell because he or she ate pork or didn't genuflect correctly or violated some other senseless taboo. An entity so petty could not, by definition, be a "supreme being."
So I've put aside religion. And I'm forced to question even the existence of a god. But this only means that I am agnostic on the question--it does not mean that I conclude affirmatively that no god exists.
Some friends of mine take this view. Calling themselves "freethinkers," they spend their time ridiculing and attacking faith as simple-minded gullibility. But it seems to me that no one so chained to an equally unverifiable belief as "no god exists" can be considered "free." Their arguments are not persuasive to me, any more than are the arguments of other friends of mine, who believe (also without what I would consider reasonable evidence) that a god certainly does exist. There simply is not adequate support for me to accept either view. (This does not, by the way, make any of these folks "bad" or fools. They are no less my friends for holding views that differ from my own. Actions trump friendship, but friendship trumps ideas.)
In fact, I consider the question of divine existence unknowable. It's not just that we don't know; as I see it, we can't know. This realization--that there are some things which are unknowable--was the spark that ignited virtually all of my thinking on good and evil.
Over the years, I have come to the following argument: There is a significant difference between belief and action.
Belief Versus Action
In the first place, action is judgeable. By this I mean that, while belief is a state internal to you, and which thus cannot affect me, your actions are external; they are capable of affecting me for better or worse and I therefore have every right to judge for myself the quality of your actions. (And yes, you have an equal right to judge my actions.)
So if you believe that you can fly unaided, and attempt to act on that belief by leaping out a third-story window, I'm going to judge your action (in this case, quite negatively). Likewise, regardless of what you believe, if your freely chosen actions are those of kindness and courtesy, then again, your actions affect the world we share and I'm going to judge you through them. Beliefs may be internal, but actions have consequences. For that reason, when you act I have the right (in fact, I think I'm required) to consider whether and, if so, how that action affects my world.
But what if you don't act on a belief? Do I have any cause to judge you for better or worse? If some belief of yours has no discernable effect on your actions and thus cannot have any possible impact on me, should your belief matter to me? I would say, yes, it should... if your belief is subject to disproof. Where information is available and reason is possible, faith is inappropriate. As a general principle, when we can arrive at a plausible conclusion by applying sound reasoning to validated information, we ought to do so. To do otherwise is to accept inappropriate action when and if you do act on your belief. If you are not expected to accept truth (no matter how unpalatable) when it is available to you in one matter on which you don't act, how then can it be right to expect you to accept verifiable truth at all, including in matters on which you do act? On this basis, I conclude that it is always correct to require faith to yield to reason where reason is possible, and thus that we all can and should be judged on how well we do so.
On the other hand, if you hold some unverifiable belief, and don't act on this belief in any way, do I have any valid justification for judging you? I would say no. You are not acting, so you cannot affect my world directly or indirectly. And your belief is unverifiable; there is no information we can gather on our own to prove or disprove your belief, nor is pure reason capable of doing so. Whether you're right or wrong is currently unknowable, so--since you aren't acting on that belief--it shouldn't matter to me what you believe. If relevant information becomes available, then I may reasonably expect you to reexamine your belief... but until and unless that happens, you can believe whatever you like, and no one will have any reason to conclude that they must try to change your mind.
Faith Is a Belief
I put belief in God in that last category. I find no reason to either believe or disbelieve, but if you want to believe (or disbelieve), and don't act on that belief where reason and information do apply, then I not only have no problem with your belief, I can and will defend your right to believe it. Thus, while I can't ally myself with either those who have faith or those who deny it, I'm happy to let persons in either camp believe as they will.
Where I draw the line is when it comes to proselytization--from either group--because that constitutes action. If you want to hold a belief, that's one thing; if you act to spread that belief to others, I'm going to question your doing so--maybe supporting your action, maybe criticizing it--based on the observable consequences.
Specifically, I don't think people need to be "saved," either from Godlessness or from God (depending on whether you're a theist or an atheist). People who want to get together with others who already agree with them is fine by me. But trying to spread a faith-based belief to others, expecting them to accept a belief generated not by reason but by pure faith... that's not fine.
People probably already understand what others believe. If individuals want to know more about another faith, they can ask; otherwise, they should be left free to form their own beliefs. And that includes whether to believe in a God, or to believe that no god exists.
It also includes being free to accept neither of those conclusions.
Now, that said, I find that I have something in common with the people in both these groups. For one thing, they may both be wrong to try to make converts, but at least they care about something. I can respect that.
For another thing, both theists and atheists have something to offer the agnostic, who--like everyone else--has to try to find some coherent set of rules by which to govern his behavior. Those who have faith that an all-powerful, all-knowing supreme being exists tend to be concerned with observable human behavior, and the good or bad consequences thereof; they don't absolve themselves from judgement and call it "tolerance," the modern-day name for ethical cowardice. If they think someone is doing something that is wrong, they say, "What you are doing is wrong." This isn't merely socially useful; I think it is actually required in order to achieve and maintain a functional society.
Humans living cheek-by-jowl cannot act with perfect freedom. They must have some rules by which they voluntarily refrain from some behaviors. The only alternatives to voluntary restraint are anarchy (the lonely "state of nature" in which Thomas Hobbes described human existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"), and involuntary restraint of behavior by force: totalitarianism.
Theists Promote Personal Restraint
In short, human beings must set some voluntary limits on their actions for the society of which they are a part to be both stable enough to last and free enough to adapt. This is a simple, practical observation. Those who believe in a Supreme Judge tend to recognize this fact, and correctly encourage themselves and other humans living in society with one another to recognize it, too. They understand that behavior, having observable consequences, can be and should be judged.
The problem is that all too often their judgement is not based on rational thought or observable evidence what works best over the long term, but simply on some individual's personal opinion of what constitutes good behavior. If the opinion is based on reality, great. If not, it can mean judging not just what is wrong but what is merely different. Accepting a God means accepting a human interpreter for God's will, which means accepting that some things are "good" and some things are "bad" based solely on what this usually charismatic individual claims to be right and wrong. The result is that some basically decent people can come to do some incredibly foolish things in the name of God.
Atheists Promote Social Restraint... of Others
Those who do not believe in a divine Judge still have to get along with others, however. So they need a code of behavior, too... but since they cannot accept the Word of God, they focus on ethics rather than on religious law or morality. I define "ethics" more restrictively than most people. Specifically, I define it not as what one person claims is right and wrong (that's my definition of "morals" and "morality"), but instead as what many persons can objectively show to be right and wrong.
In that sense, the avowed atheist may have something worthwhile to say about human behavior, too, since being unable to rely on a god to solve our social problems for us means that we have to do it for ourselves. At best, that means the thoughtful application of reason in an honest attempt to examine human behavior, to figure out what rules help us get along with one another. Not with moral dictates based on faith, but with ethical principles based on empirical observation and impartial reason. One example is Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative," which asserts that "if an act or failure to act is not right for everyone, then it is not right for anyone." Other examples are the injunctions against causing harm, by either force or fraud, to others who have not harmed you in any way. These principles lack the simple power of "thou shalt not steal," but the recognition that sometimes context really does matter gives ethical codes broader force as general principles. They can be defended because they can be shown to work well in practice.
Unfortunately, there are often problems in this camp, too. Its adherents tend either to get so insistent on theoretical purity that they refuse to acknowledge the reality that sometimes even those who believe in God have good ideas about how people should behave. (Witness the ACLU's attempt to yank the Ten Commandments from the walls of Judge Roy Moore's courthouse in Alabama--part of the ongoing efforts of its lawyers to remove all forms of religious expression from the public square.)
Or else they get too personal, insisting that all decisions are up to individuals alone, and that there is no such thing as a general ethical rule that can apply to all persons. This latter view--often called "moral relativism" by those who reject its premise--is often paraded to demonstrate the speaker's "tolerance" and superior enlightenment, but all too often it is no more than a mask for personal license in behavior generally held to be foolish. It gives one a nice feeling to publicly refuse to judge the behavior of others, but those who do so can usually be found criticizing certain other behaviors (of other people, of course) just the same.
Concerning those who hold to the former "perfection of theory" model, far too many in the non-theism camp don't stop at skepticism; they lurch all the way to active anti-theism--in a word, atheism. They insist that, no matter whether a rule makes objective sense or not, if it's "tainted by religion," it is suspect and therefore has got to go. And if it's enforced with one red cent of public money, then clearly it violates the supposed principle of "separation of church and state" and is the first step on the slippery slope to an ayatollah-run theocracy. (Such worried atheists seem oblivious to being as doggedly religious in their "ban God!" insistence as any Bible-thumping zealot.) But this throws out the baby with the bathwater. To reject "Thou shalt not kill" (for one example) regardless of its merits but simply because of its impure source isn't "freethought"--it's no thought at all.
The Best of Both Worlds?
At its heart, this problem of how to live--of the proper basis for self-government and the philosophical grounds for governing others--is the real-world minefield in the old intellectual conflict between theory and practice. Theists accept that some limits on behavior are necessary for human society to function. That's a sound practical conclusion borne out by observation. But moralistic rules, because they are simply one individual's preferences, don't necessarily have the theoretical support for them to make sense when actually applied. At best, they are useless drains on human resources; at worst, they can cause destruction and death for the sin of being different. The motivation is good, but the application is faulty. It may be only stubbornness on my part, but I reject any philosophy that tells me I must not question it.
Atheists, meanwhile, are unwilling to simply take someone else's word for how people ought to behave. That's sensible; it demands that we actually think about right and wrong, and look at what really works to help us live peaceably with one another. But this view can be flawed, too, as when we take no one's word for how people ought to behave--not even our own. Some principles discovered may make sense, but there can be an unwillingness to admit that it's OK to expect everyone, including ourselves, to live by those principles. The principles make sense, but there's no motivation to apply them. I can't accept this philosophy either; a society that will not enforce basic rules of conduct is doomed.
My conclusion, therefore, is that we as individuals have to have some code by which to govern our behavior, both for the theoretical principle that it is wrong to harm those who do no harm to us, as well as for the practical reason that the survival of human society depends on accepting some limits on what we do. If not obedience to the subjective rules of one person, then what is left but adherence to objective rules of decent behavior, as identified by numerous independent and intellectually honest persons?
Of course even that won't be perfect. It can't be, since any product of human intellectual labor is as subject to incompleteness and error as any other human endeavor. But for those who are unwilling to leave all the work to a God, yet who refuse to pretend that some general rules of social behavior aren't necessary, the understanding and practice of sound ethical principles aren't just useful--they're required.
And so I find myself to be a Rational sandwiched between two competing idealogies. The Idealists, the irresistable forces of change, insist that things only matter in how they affect one personally. And the Guardians, the immovable objects of stability, assert with equal vehemence that things only matter in how they affect society. One point of view focuses on motivation, the other on results... and as far as I can see, they're both right. There are times when both these impulses are necessary if a balance is to be negotiated between personal freedom and social order.
So the Rational in me tries to take the best parts of both viewpoints: both to feel motivated to try to be a good individual, and to have the determination to try to be a responsible member of society. But I also have to try to reject the worst parts of both viewpoints: I should be unwilling to simply obey without question, but I should also accept that the price of of that freedom is the responsibility to judge my actions, as well as the actions of others, by their probable consequences.
If there's any path other than rational, objective ethics to reach that best of both worlds, I haven't discovered it yet. But what does seem clear to me is that the paths of both theism and atheism will not take me there.