It warmed my agnostic heart to see that this week's issue of Newsweek had "Is God Real?" on the cover. Usually news magazines run religion-friendly puff pieces around Easter and Christmas.
Kudos to Newsweek for asking the tough question. Which, of course, can't be answered.
However, this won't stop hundreds of millions of Christians from going to church tomorrow and glorying in the resurrection of someone who may or may not have actually existed, and is considered to be the son of a God who may or may not be real.
That's too many "may's" for me to take the occasion seriously. Indeed, it's almost comic that after more than two thousand years of fervent believing and God, show us a sign, there hasn't been a definitive one.
So the Newsweek article can quote Rabbi Jacob Heschel as saying:
[God] did not make it easy for us to have faith in him, to remain faithful to him. This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitments. The facts that deny the divine are mighty, indeed; the arguments of agnosticism are eloquent, the events that defy him are spectacular…Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all.
Jon Meacham, the article's author, concludes: "No final proofs—there it is, the ultimate caveat. Doubt and faith are not at war; they are parts of the same whole."
Astute observation, Jon. The only difference between a believer and an agnostic is that the former isn't willing to admit that he doesn't know whether God is real, while the latter honestly testifies to his own unknowing. This makes the agnostic more honest and humble than the believer.
And possibly truer to God, if such a being exists.
For since no one knows what God is like—surmises and guesses being the currency of every religion—it's just as reasonable to assume that the Almighty is most pleased with the questioning spirit of agnostics who make good use of their God-given rational intelligence rather than naively latching onto nonsensical superstitions.
To base one's behavior on a blind acceptance of words put down long ago, however revered those words are, is an abdication of reason and responsibility—and reason and responsibility are, for many believers, gifts from God. Does a Christian in our time really think that, as Saint Paul argued, slavery is divinely ordained?
Every Christian, no matter how devout he or she may be, picks and chooses what to believe in the Bible. An agnostic like me does the same. I simply choose not to believe in the passages that tell me I have to believe in them. That's like going to a used car lot and having the salesman tell you, "Every automobile here is in great running order, trust me on that."
I'd rather kick the tires myself, thank you. Self-substantiating claims such as "We know Jesus died for our sins because the Bible tells us so" have a truth value of precisely zero for me.
There's also a debate between pastor Rick Warren and atheist Sam Harris in the Newsweek issue. Harris runs argumentative circles around Warren, in my utterly personal opinion.
For example, Warren notes that when Jesus says "I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father," he is either lying or he's not. Well, of course he is. So what? Harris points out that "many, many other prophets and gurus have said that," which is absolutely true. Jesus has a lot of company when it comes to claiming to be the only way.
Warren also fell back onto the frequently heard "atheists are just as dogmatic as believers." No, they're not, Rick.
Atheists and agnostics are firm in their commitment to not accepting a theological proposition as being true unless there's some solid evidence for it. This is entirely different from having faith in dogma that lacks any experiential, observational, or even logical support.
No one knows whether God is real. Atheists and agnostics know that they don't know. Believers pretend they do. Like Socrates in Plato's Apology, this gives the sincere not-knowers a leg up on the pretenders. Socrates speaks of a man who had an undeserved reputation for wisdom:
Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.
More than slightly, I'd say. A lot more.