Theism vs. Atheism vs. Agnosticism: Understanding What and Why You Believe

Guest Post By: Dr. Kurt Lancaster

 

Viewing Angle

As a thinking man, I’m always analyzing.  I also love cars. I’m obsessed with the nuances of each vehicle.  I’m asking myself, what do I like? What don’t I like? What are its strong suits?  What are its weaknesses? No car is perfect. To improve on any one area is to compromise in another.   Do you want better gas mileage? You’ll have to sacrifice power. Do you want a softer ride? You’ll have to sacrifice handling?  One car, yet I’m viewing it from many different angles. I’m trying to see if there is an attribute that I’ve failed to account for in my assessment of the car’s merits.

The same holds true of my faith.  Although I was raised Christian, I felt the need to change my viewing angle to see if there is something I’ve missed.  Are my currently held beliefs justified, not just from a faith standpoint, but are they logically coherent? In fact, I contend that faith is deeply rooted in logic.  Individuals hostile to the Christian faith would accuse us of being naive or even simple-minded. In our modern, scientific world, faith is but an antiquated mode of thinking whose time has long since passed they would claim.

 

Faith

My working definition of faith is the belief that something “is”, based on the best available evidence.  It must be understood that an absolute conclusion will elude us, thus the term faith.  In the absence of this absolute, we postulate what most closely corresponds to reality.  

For example, the weatherman says there is an 80% chance of rain tomorrow.  Given that “tomorrow” does not yet exist, his prediction is based on scientific models that use hard evidence to calculate future events.  In light of this, I just happen to be planning an outdoor cookout tomorrow. With my newfound knowledge of the weather forecast, I decide to postpone the event.  Had I proceeded with the cookout knowing that rain “most likely” will be coming, I would be guilty of being either irresponsible, naive, or just plain incompetent.  I canceled the cookout because I had faith in the weather forecast. My faith was rooted in the belief that the scientific tools available to the meteorologist merited an action on my part to correspond to his conclusion.  Remember, tomorrow is not yet here, yet I’m basing my actions on the best available evidence.

Another example.  I’m in a plane about to jump out the side.  I’ve never done this, but I hear it’s really fun.  Now my goal is to not die in this little adventure.  On my back is a parachute. I inspect this parachute.  I research the manufacturer and note that their parachutes are top notch in reliability.  I see that this parachute has been properly inspected by an individual whose highly trained in such examinations.  But “is” this parachute going to work? By faith I strap it on my back and jump. I’m concluding, based on the evidence, that this parachute will work even though I have not yet jumped.

 

Yes/No/Maybe?

With the previous examples in mind, let’s look at the theism/atheism/agnosticism debate.  Theism says that God exists. Atheism says he doesn’t. Agnosticism says he might or might not… we just don’t know.  I personally have never seen or heard God, yet I believe in him. I have faith He exists. My faith is rooted in the aggregate accumulation of evidence that all points in the same direction.  Like the cancellation of my cookout, I have altered my life based on this conclusion of faith. I have jumped from the plane based on this conclusion of faith. The evidence overwhelms me.

Remember, had I proceeded with the cookout, you would have called me irresponsible, naive, or just plain incompetent.  Why? You would have made such an assessment of me because I refused to alter my plans based on compelling evidence. I would have refused to jump from the plane, even though all the evidence pointed towards a properly functioning parachute.  

So which position required more faith:  the guy that cancelled his cookout or the one that proceeded?  The guy that jumped from the plane or the one that didn’t? Both positions do indeed demand a statement of faith, but the one that goes counter to the evidence is the one that  stretches faith beyond what is acceptable to intelligent thinking persons.

I don’t gamble.  For one the Bible forbids it.  But mainly, I don’t gamble because I understand math.  I understand that the odds are stacked against me. I understand that the “house” wins most every time.    On a roulette wheel, the odds of landing on a desired number is 2.63%. The house will pay you 35:1 if you guess correctly.  Do I take the odds? Well knowing that the house has over a 97% chance of winning, I don’t. The reason is simple, I don’t like losing money.  But, you may say, there is a “chance” you could guess right. To that I say you are correct. There is a chance. But which position requires more faith:  the one that says you will guess correctly or incorrectly? To say that you will guess right on the first try is, again, irresponsible, naive, or just plain incompetent.  Neither of us has actually made a play at the wheel yet.

So in determining if God exists, we must look at the evidence.  Is it more probable or less probable that He’s there?

 

More Than a Feeling

An important disclaimer here is that I’m not going to appeal to emotions or feelings.  Emotions are what prompts teenagers to lose their virginity. Emotions are what lead to fist fights.  Emotions are what politicians prey on in their speeches. Emotions can cloud judgement. Emotions cause us to deny what logic and our senses tell us, and instead they focus our intention on desires or fears.  Finally, emotions cause us to base decisions on the hopes of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.

When I’m balancing my 401k, I do so based on how a stock or fund “actually” performed, not on how I “wished” it would have performed.  In school the teacher gave me the grade I “actually” earned, not the one I “wished” I would have earned. In a beauty contest a girl is judged on how she “actually” looks verses how she “wished” she looked.  Yes I know beauty contests are so out of style, but you get the point.

Does God exist?  The answer to this has nothing to do with what I “wish” to be true.  My feelings are irrelevant. My emotions can be misleading. Rather, the answer requires me to critically look at the evidence.  My faith will be based on the weight of the evidence. Logically I can have no faith in something that is irrational.

 

Who’s to Say?

What about agnostics?  They don’t make claims either way.  I contend that there are only two possible answers to why someone is agnostic.

  1.  They haven’t studied the evidence.  The thinking man is not content with ignorance.  In fact, it greatly irritates me. If I find I don’t know something that is important, I take it upon myself to pursue the answer even at great costs.  If my child has cancer, do I submit my child to experimental treatments? Well, it depends. It depends on what his prognosis is. It depends on the known efficacy of the treatment.  It depends on my faith in the competence of the oncologist. In a matter this serious, I will not allow myself to say “I don’t know.” If I don’t know- I’ll move heaven and earth to find out.

In matters concerning the existence of God, eternity is on the line.  “I don’t know” is unacceptable for me. I have to know if I’m basing my eternity on truth or a lie.  I can’t afford to be wrong. I’ll go wherever the evidence takes me. If I run into questions, I’ll continue to pursue answers.  But one thing I won’t do is throw my hands in the air and proclaim: “Who’s to say?”

 

  1.  They don’t like the evidence.  The thinking man removes his feelings from what the evidence explains.  If the engine in my car is knocking, it doesn’t matter if I “feel” it will all be ok.  The evidence tells me there’s a problem. If I’m auditing my best friend’s business, it doesn’t matter what I think of him personally.  Either his numbers will add up or they will not.

The problem is some people have looked at the evidence and it has unnerved them.  They didn’t like the conclusion.  So rather than adjust their outlook on life to correspond to the conclusion, they instead deny the conclusion.  This, my friends, is intellectually unacceptable.

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