Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

According to The Great Agnostic, there were two great opponents of religion and proponents of naturalism in American history: Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Strangely, hardly anyone today has heard of Ingersoll. (For that matter, few Americans today know that Tom Paine had anything to say about religion.)

Robert Ingersoll was a world-famous lawyer and lecturer who lived from 1833 to 1899. He was considered perhaps the greatest orator of his day. He had an extremely successful career traveling all across the country, lecturing to large, appreciative crowds, among whom were many ordinary, religious Americans. He was a member of the social and political establishment, but his public statements opposing religion insured that he never held political office.

In Susan Jacoby’s words, Ingersoll “explained the true meaning and value of science … in a more understandable fashion than any scientist, even the brilliant popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley … Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him.” 

Among the targets of Ingersoll’s scorn were slavery, capital punishment, the subjugation of women, debtor’s prisons, the mistreatment of animal and Social Darwinism. He believed that “there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role” — for example, in the belief that the existence of the poor was God’s will, and the idea that men should exert authority over women. 

Jacoby suggests that Ingersoll’s primary purpose was to remind his countrymen that the United States was founded by men who rejected the idea of theocracy: “the glory of the founding generation was that it did not establish a Christian nation”. Ingersoll rejected all supernatural explanations for human behavior and the world around us, while hoping that science and reason would eventually lead us to a world of peace, justice and prosperity. Quoting him: “Man through his intelligence must protect himself. He gets no help from any other world…. Let the ghosts go. We will worship them no more”.

Ingersoll came to be known as the “Great Agnostic”, even though he saw no significant difference between agnosticism and atheism. It isn’t clear why his fame diminished over the years. Although his collected works comprise 12 volumes, perhaps his written words weren’t as powerful as his oratory. Maybe if he had written a good summary of his views, he would be as famous today as Thomas Paine is for writing “The Age of Reason” (which, unfortunately, isn’t very famous at all).

One of the virtues of The Great Agnostic is how it shows that our current cultural battles over religion are hardly new. The 19th century featured the same kinds of conflict, on topics like evolution, birth control and government support for religious education. We haven’t made as much progress as we should have. If there had been someone with Ingersoll’s convictions and abilities speaking out during the 20th century, and now in the 21st, we might be a better country today.