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On my agnosticism

2020-03-29 22:31 BST

I would first like to remind my reader that in the United States, employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religious beliefs.

I was a devout Christian until 10th grade. I’ve gone to church with parents since I was very young. When Chinese people first immigrate to the US, going to Chinese churches is pretty much the only reliable way to meet large numbers of Chinese people. Now, every so often old friends from church or new friends who are religious ask me why I’m no longer Christian, so I decided to write it down. I’m not writing this to argue. Christians give a testimony to tell how they came to faith. I’m doing the same thing, with the opposite outcome.

A few disclaimers first. I don’t know very much about apologetics, theology, or philosophy of science or religion. But I know some things about them, not nothing. Maybe someone has already resolved my questions, or maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. My doubts about Christianity are probably not philosophically rigorous. It’s just what I find believable. You might also have heard them before. Even if what I’m writing is obvious, it’s useful for me to write it all out and organize it.

In the first section I talk about what it would take for me to be Christian again. In the second section I talk about things I don’t like about church, but that have no bearing on what I think is true. At the end I’ll include objections. Feel free to contribute some.

Build it and they will come

Fine, it’s a quote from Field of Dreams, God didn’t actually say this to get Noah to build the ark. But I think the principle of “build it and they will come” applies even better to religion than it does to baseball. By this I mean, if you build a religion, people have to be able to come to it.

Christianity asks you to devote your entire life to a divine being and view of the world. Ignoring denominational differences, assume that Christians share some core tenets. Things like Jesus is the only way to salvation, and people are saved through faith, not works. Further, being saved is something you’re “supposed” to do. Even if it’s not “good” in a moral sense of the word, it’s at least “good” in the sense that you’re fulfilling an obligation. God has signaled that one is desirable and the other is failure.

Christian core tenets contradict other things I can believe about the world. A flippant example is that I can’t believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven at the same time that I believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the only way to heaven. Many major world religions require that you believe in them alone.

So how do people decide what they believe? I’ll put how I justify my beliefs into two categories–faith and logic.

I’ll say two things that I believe on faith. The first one is that I can trust my senses. In epistemology there are problems such as, am I a brain in a vat, or if optical illusions and that sort of thing mean I can’t trust my senses. I’m going to avoid these and assert that as far as I know, I can. It won’t make a difference for my argument. The second is that logic works. For example, I can use logic to deduce that I can’t believe that something both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. I believe that this statement, and logic in general, is correct on faith. There’s no way for me to justify logical statements such as that p and not-p can’t both be true using only logic.

I believe most other things using logic. I believe that the Roman empire existed, for example. I can use my senses to read old documents or touch old coins. But even if I don’t check this fact myself, I can combine a lot of beliefs to deduce that this fact would be pretty hard to fake. I can deduce that it’s more likely true than not.

Back to religion. I don’t have any built-in faith in any religious beliefs like I do with logic. Right now I don’t believe that the Christian God exists on faith, for example. But obviously it’s not impossible for me to have this faith. I could have a transcendent religious experience, maybe a dream or just a feeling. It doesn’t matter if it was inspired by the actual Christian God or if I’m mistaken. The important part is that I can come to believe in Christian tenets purely on faith. And I can’t just force myself to believe anything on faith. I can only realize that I believe something on faith, as my feelings change during the course of my life. We can agree that subjecting myself to brainwashing misses the point.

Until my true beliefs on faith change, I’m stuck with logic. Just like how I don’t already have innate faith in the existence of the Roman empire, I have to use logic to come to believe it. Believing in religion from logic is also possible. God, presumably, is powerful enough that miracles are a piece of cake. Christianity can be consistent with the laws of physics, for example, because I can logically hold that God can usurp physics at whim.

But unlike believing in the Roman empire, believing in God can’t just be consistent. It can’t even just be slightly more likely than the alternative. Believing in God comes with greater commitments than believing most facts does. It doesn’t matter too much if I’m wrong about the Roman empire. It matters a lot if I choose the wrong god. The cost can be anything from my time worshipping a deity that doesn’t exist to eternal damnation if it turns out a different, vindictive deity exists.

Therefore, I think I’d need the following conditions to be satisfied to hold religious beliefs by logic:

  1. There must exist something akin to a mathematical proof for each tenet. It has the have the airtight strength of a proof, so that belief in logic is beyond a reasonable doubt.
  2. The proof must be accessible. Everyone ought to have the inclination to pursue the proof--to pursue truth about the universe. Similar to actual complex proofs, it's fine if people need years of training to understand it. But people can't have beliefs by faith which guarantee that they never reach it no matter how hard they try.

I’ll explain these points in reverse order.

Why does the proof need to be accessible?

I think most religions which require believers to make affirmative commitments imply that humans have free will. Certainly most denominations of Christianity believe in free will. It’s intuitive to me that without free will, there’s no point in pursuing truth. You’ll either find it or you won’t, and nothing you can do will change that. There’s probably good philosophy papers out there reconciling determinism and personal responsibility for your beliefs. But that project in general seems more like an academic exercise, rather than something that intends to change how people act.

Human relationships to religion
/ Free will
No obligations
/ Free will
/ No free will
No obligations
/ No free will

The only case that matters is the one in which humans have both free will and the obligation to make the right choice about religion. If we don’t have obligations, what we believe doesn’t matter. If we don’t have free will, we don’t have responsibility in meeting our obligations. I think free will requires that a proof be accessible. So meeting this second condition is one indication that we’re in the right box. It’s possible we don’t have free will even if there exists an accessible proof, but if we prove that there exists no such proof, maybe we can give up on pursuing truth altogether.

Why is a strong proof necessary?

In other words, why can’t religion require belief by faith, at least in part? Maybe it’s the case that logic and evidence can get us most of the way. For example, maybe we determine that Christian beliefs, out of all major religions, is best supported from the historical record. Let Christianity be indisputably the most likely to be true, but just requires a small leap of faith. After all, we believe tons of things that aren’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt–why not hold Christianity to the same standard? I think this is a tactic that many Christian apologists use.

For religious tenets specifically, I see two problems with requiring faith to reach the threshold of belief. By requiring I mean that it’s impossible to reach the threshold of belief by logic alone.

  1. I explained already that I can't force myself to believe religious tenets by faith. It's possible that I spend my life exploring religious truth, and never have a transcendent religious experience, or develop this faith. Whether or not I develop faith seems out of my control, which contradicts my free will. And without free will, pursuing truth is futile.
  2. Requiring a little faith begs the question, how much faith? For example, say I can use logic to get myself 90 percent of the way to believing that the Christian God is the one true god. At the same time, I use logic to get myself 5 percent of the way to believing that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one true god. Should I be a Christian? Why does that make sense? Because I don't need as much faith? What does the amount of faith have to do with what I should do? Aren't I using logic if I say that less faith is better? Couldn't I make an opposing logical argument that more faith is better?

The way I’d get out of these problems is by requiring a strong proof. Faith can certainly be one way people come to hold religious beliefs, but there must exist a way by logic alone.

Even if I’m wrong here, I can accomplish at least one thing. If there’s some sort of judgment after I die, I can say, look, I did a lot of thinking here and wrote it up. I did this with the logic and faith beliefs you gave me. I used the senses you gave me and told me to trust. I tried to be open-minded, and searched breadth-first and not depth-first. Can you really fault me for not getting it exactly right?

As far as I can tell, the universe hasn’t met either the condition of a strong proof or the condition of an accessible proof. I don’t believe in religion by faith. So I’m agnostic. It has to be the case that if you build it, they will come.

The greatest commandment

Overall I’m very thankful for organized religion. I met a lot of close friends at church, and so did my parents. I met a lot of people I could look up to, and I think most Christian values are worth living. But I’m going to mention a few reasons why I don’t want to go back to church. Again, these don’t really affect what I actually believe.

The first is how many Christians are actually Christian. When asked,

36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"

37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

All your heart and all your soul and all your mind is a huge commitment, and rightly so. I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that this probably means that people should be thinking of God nearly every moment of the day. I don’t have any kids, but I imagine the kind of love that parents have for their children. Parents are willing to make huge sacrifices. They think of how much something would benefit their kids before they think of the cost they themselves would have to bear. Many parents wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice themselves for their kids. Christians aren’t supposed to hesitate to sacrifice their kids for God.

Clearly reaching this level of love is hard. Many, many parents who say they are Christian would probably still choose the wellbeing of their children than to avoid denying God, if given the choice. It’s a human tendency, and I don’t fault anyone for it.

But shouldn’t the tendency be a huge concern for Christians? Even if I recognize that I’d fail to make the Christian choice, shouldn’t I strive to be someone who wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice anyone for God? I’m going to make an unproven assertion. I suspect that many Christians find the idea that they should strive to sacrifice the wellbeing of their children without hesitation to avoid denying God to be unpleasant. And I think it is valid to find fault in that.

I’m going to pose a weaker example, which will make a stronger point. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind at least must mean that a Christian should do whatever would glorify God, the most, at least most of the time. This means that when choosing a career, a Christian should choose the path that glorifies God more than any other path. A job is eight hours a day. It’s possible that becoming a pastor or full-time evangelist would better fulfill Christian duties than becoming a computer programmer or banker would. Even if someone could have a net positive impact for God by making a lot of money and donating it to Christian causes, they should only choose that path if they think that their impact there would be greater than it would be anywhere else.

How many people who say they are Christian really do this calculus? I assert not very many. Most Christians have normal, productive jobs. Can most of them say that they’re doing their best to impact the Kingdom of God? Yes, a Christian computer programmer might be uniquely positioned to bring other programmers to Christianity. But is that the main reason why she decided to be a programmer and not a banker, or pastor? Most people on Earth aren’t Christian. I imagine that the marginal benefit to God of being a missionary must still be much higher than that of a more traditional occupation. Why is there not a great sense of urgency among Christians collectively? I’m not saying that everyone has to be a pastor or missionary. But love for God should be the overwhelming justification for any decision.

Many Christians do consider God above all else in all their decisions. You can see it. It’s obvious in every aspect of their life. But they’re outnummbered by people who can’t satisfactorily answer why they chose to spend their time the way they do, knowing the love for God that they’re supposed to have. I think the greatest commandment is very clear. I think it’s easy to recognize failure follow this commandment. I don’t have the faith to follow it. But if I were committed to following it, how can I justify not correcting my failing? Shouldn’t I take action at least as drastic as rethinking my entire career, and rethinking how much I value financial stability? Even if my human tendencies cause me to want to stay in a safe job, shouldn’t I urgently be thinking about how to force myself to quit and do something better? How many Christians actually do that? People do it for their significant others and children all the time. I can’t reconcile the greatest commandment and what I see as the apathy of many self-professed Christians.

I’ll end this section with a second criticism of my church experience. I’m going to explain it by way of story, so this isn’t generalizable. A pastor at my church taught a fourth grade Sunday school class to be skeptical of evolution in the following way. One student pretended to be a predator, and another student the prey. Eyes hadn’t evolved yet, so the prey had to wear a blindfold. The predator caught the prey easily. But eyes were in the process of evolving, so each round, the prey could take away a layer of blindfold and see a bit more light. It didn’t help much; the predator caught the prey every round. So, evolution can’t have worked, because eyes in intermediate evolutionary stages don’t help. The prey needed the instantaneous creation of fully-operational eyes to successfully avoid the predator.

It’s obvious to anyone that the predator should’ve been wearing a blindfold too. There should’ve been two kids bumbling around a room, not one kid pouncing on some other poor blindfolded kid. Should this be obvious to fourth graders? If it was, did they feel like they could ask why the predator didn’t have to wear a blindfold? I still think about this all the time.

I believe there are ways to teach Christianity to children in a way that that doesn’t gut their critical thinking skills. But the incentive to indoctrinate is strong. After all, Christians really do believe that they’re teaching the truth. It could be just as imperative to indoctrinate the idea that evolution is wrong as it is to indoctrinate the idea that people should be nice to each other. Ultimately, these are still reasons why I don’t go to church. They don’t affect the truth of Christianity.


Religion as an explanatory system.

If two contradictory religious beliefs both require faith, or are similarly supported by logic, look at their explanatory power. If certain phenomena can best be explained by positing the existence of a Thing with properties x, y, and z, and such a Thing could exist, it seems reasonable to believe in such a being. “Best explained” here means that nothing else can explain it more completely, more simply, or with fewer unproven commitments. This doesn’t prove the existence of the Thing with properties x, y, and z. So belief in this Thing is still an act of faith, but it still makes more sense to believe in the Thing than in unicorns, because while unicorns also can’t be proven to exist, there’s also no unique explanatory power afforded by believing that unicorns exist. As another example, we can’t prove the completeness of mathematical systems. We take many complex theories in physics on faith because they usually explain how the world works around us in a consistent way. Thanks Helen for this one.

This objection circumvents my attack on requiring belief by faith. First, it doesn’t require religious faith–only faith in the logic that I should believe consistent logical systems which grant me more explanatory power. It also provides a way to adjudicate between different groups of beliefs which logic both support and which both require faith.

I think marshaling this objection against my argument is a way to get to theism. But I’ll note two more things.

  1. It shifts the debate to why people should prefer theism to agnosticism or atheism. Someone would need to argue for a way to weight explanatory power against logical support--I can formalize an omnipotent Flying Spaghetti Monster to explain everything about how to universe works, but all this extra explanatory power is meaningless without enough evidential support. It's like defining an entire mathematical system around 2 + 2 = 5 in a vacuum. It can technically explain a lot about something, just not about our universe. It'd be unfair of me to fault this objection for not providing this weighting, so I'll leave it conceding that it's possible.
  2. The kind of faith most major religions require is stronger than simply faith in the correctness of logic. This objection uses faith in something other than religious tenets to reach the threshold to believe in religious tenets. It makes the path to theism easier, but to Christianity harder.

Religious experience as a strong proof.

A strong proof of God does exist, in the form of religious experience. I stated above that receiving transcendent religious experience or developing religious faith seems out of my control. Maybe it’s the case that faith is guaranteed to develop if I make myself open to accepting religious tenets. I search for a strong proof of God by going to church, reading scripture, and thinking about God. The strong proof is a guaranteed religious experience that results from my willingness to do those things. The proof is also accessible, assuming that everyone can freely choose whether or not to pursue truth.

Technically this objection works as well. But I think it’s underhanded. Religious leaders say all the time that if only someone spent more time engaging with God, the scripture, or the church community, that faith will come. If I still have doubts, I just haven’t read the Bible enough. If it’s not sticking, the problem isn’t the duct tape. It’s always that I haven’t used enough duct tape.

In short, there’s no way to argue for or against this objection. Maybe God is fair, and it’s true. Or maybe God isn’t fair. An unfair counterexample I can give is, suppose that people can only develop true religious belief with decades of deep study. Buddhist monks spend lifetimes to achieve Nirvana. And, plenty of Buddhist sects believe that they each are the only true practice. To them, I can access a strong proof, as long I choose the correct sect and devote my life to monasticism. That is prohibitively difficult. I barely have enough time in one lifetime to understand even one sect of Buddhism. How am I supposed to do due diligence for the plethora of religious beliefs out there? Where to draw the line for how much study is enough becomes the new arbitrary question.

Logic and sense perception are suspect.

I believe by faith that logic works, and that I can trust my senses. I’ve declared that I don’t believe in God by faith. But axiomatic belief by faith is symmetrical. Suppose someone else believes in God by faith, but believes neither in the correctness of logic or the ability to trust their sense perception. Using a similar argument as the one I use against religious faith, it’s just as hard to prove that logic and sense perception deserve belief.

I concede that this might also be true. But I guess even that previous statement loses meaning, because this objection reduces everyone to skepticism about logic. I refer to the immense literature in epistemology on this question. If I can just appeal to common sense, though: if this is your objection, I’m not sure what it gets you.