What Am I…Atheist, Agnostic, or Deist?

Dragontail SMALL

This is Dragontail Peak near Leavenworth, WA. It is mind-blowing to look at something like this and imagine the amount of time involved in creating such beauty.

Considering the things I say about religion, gods, and that whole mess, I imagine people who don’t know me (and probably most of those who do) might not fully understand my personal beliefs about these topics. Sometimes I think I sound more like an atheist, and sometimes I’m not sure.

First, I say I believe something when I’ve deliberately studied it from every perspective I can find, understood it, and subjected it to a logical analysis in order to fit it neatly into the collection of information that makes up my knowledge. There are plenty of gaps, some crossed signals, and a few mistakes here and there as my branching tree of confirmed knowledge continues to grow. Sometimes I have to cut out branches when a new piece of information kills them.

So I consider my beliefs to be those things that I have been able to logically support with data that I’ve rigorously checked for flaws. I believe that Einstein’s theories of relativity accurately explain the universe on a large scale, but I refrain from a belief about the absolute source of the constants, forces, and particles that make up the universe. I just don’t have enough data to reach a logical conclusion about such a thing.

That’s the process Christianity was subjected to in my mind. From most Christian perspectives my conclusions are called sad, or any number of more negative adjectivesI often wonder what family friends may have been told, or what sort of prayers are being whispered in vain for me. But from the perspective of a simple desire to know the truth, it’s a very happy thing to put it behind.

I think the first shard of truth, that put the logical steps in motion to lead me out of conservative Christianity, may have been the moment when I rejected the concept of original sin and adopted the Nazarene/Wesleyan holiness doctrine. I also grew increasingly liberal, which in retrospect pretty much boils down to rejecting the entire concept of sin, but in very slow motion.

Those developments very quickly led me to universalism and rejecting hell. I just kept applying honest questions to every issue, one by one, doing my best to learn about it from all perspectives and hopefully find the most logical answers. A few short steps later I could no longer call myself a Christian, and the vague deism set in.

Now, I think every god with a name is the result of human imagination. Does that make me an atheist? Perhaps. But that’s just my position on the realness of gods that other people have told me about. It’s a different question to ask if I actually believe there is an intelligent being somehow outside of our universe, or part of it, or the source of it.

To that question, I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a belief about it, per my strict definition of belief stated above. It’s just like the answer to the absolute source of the universe. I have no data. I can speculate, but I can’t confirm anything. Not even logic can tell me about something we can’t detect in any way. It’s nothing but a possibility, a hypothesis twinkling in the dark among thousands of others. We look for the ones that can help us figure out how to observe and interact with things that could exist undetected, or rule them out. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is useless.

We’ve found previously undetected things several times recently, with the confirmation of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves. The same process is how we found Neptune and Pluto…and really it’s how we figure out anything. Truth is what comes out when ideas are subjected to rigorous experiments that are designed to test them.

So why do I write so much about Christianity? If I don’t believe in any gods, I must just be an atheist who is mad at Christians, who wants to stir up trouble and tear them down, who wants to oppress them with “liberal” laws (they mean authoritarian), essentially the stereotype angry liberal atheist they like to fantasize about (see also: God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2: He’s Surely Alive). But that’s as unlike me as the conservative Christian I used to be.

On the matter of an intelligent creator existing, or anything else outside of the observable universe, I am agnostic. I don’t see how anyone can honestly claim to know anything outside of what we’ve observed and verified through objective experiments. To say you know something implies that your belief about that thing is the truth, the actual way things are. Such a statement should be backed up by adequate objective data, otherwise it is dishonest and arrogant.

But from my imperfect and subjective human experience, I like to imagine the possible existence of higher-dimensional beings, or supernatural forces, or really anything. I enjoy speculation. I like thinking through possibilities, not necessarily to determine which one is true but to familiarize myself with the options so I can accurately apply new data to them. It’s a long but enjoyable process of ruling out one possibility at a time. If I get enough data to narrow it down to one, that’s a belief. That’s something I can be reasonably confident in saying I know.

In the process, I might have a favorite hypothesis, for example if the universe had a definite beginning I would favor the hypothesis of an intelligent force. It may just be the limitation of my human perspective, or a lingering emotional response from my time as a Christian, but I find it appealing. However, there would still be no way to know the nature of said force until it is directly detected, and in the meantime there are many other possibilities. A few of them I like just as much, and I’ll undoubtedly explore them in my novels and short stories.

I still can’t turn any of those possibilities into a belief. I can’t say I know anything about them until I’ve obtained objective data and verified it to my satisfaction.

Now, Christians, you know what you must do in order to get me back. Provide me some objectively verified testable data, not hearsay written by people thousands of years ago who thought the earth stood immovable on pillars with a solid dome for a sky.

It should be easy. In fact I would say that if the god described in the bible was real, his existence would be obvious. Everyone would know. I’m sure many would refuse to worship him, or perhaps bow in fear (he’s a pretty violent god, I assure you). But if you get rid of that god and go with the softer, nicer, modern Christian god who just wants you to love him or else you’ll suffer unimaginable torment for eternity (just ignore the torment part), there are fewer ways to prove his absence.

You can only prove the absence of something by proving the presence of something else that would not exist if the first hypothetical thing did. For example, we could prove the absence of your car from your garage by having my brother steal it and then showing you that it’s not there…the presence of non-car stuff in the space where the car is supposed to be is proof of its absence from that space. But proving the absence of a hypothetical being who we cannot observe? That’s a bit more difficult.

Or is it? Christians are not claiming a completely undetectable, untestable, and unknowable god. Not most of them, at least. Most believe in a personal god who is actively involved in this world. They believe very specific things about his character and what he does and what he said…and what he promised he would do.

Now here are testable claims. Jesus says this: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” And this: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” And this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

These are pretty explicit promises. They are so simply and clearly stated that to avoid the obvious problems, Christians must come up with a whole lot of extra conditions to tack onto them. If you asked for something and god didn’t do it? That just wasn’t his will, or wasn’t part of his plan. Except he gave no conditions, he made explicit promises. If those promises were true, everyone would know it.

There’s also this, from the book of James: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”

If that promise was true, elders would be healing more people than doctors. It’s a clear statement of what will happen if you do a certain thing. Unfortunately, faith healers have always turned out to be con artists and it was science, not religion, that finally started curing illnesses reliably.

I have stories of agonizing sickness and injury as a child, and emotional trauma as a teenager and young adult. I have stories of unending, devout, 100% authentic prayers. They never made a difference. There is empirically verified data showing that prayers of Christians for sick people had absolutely no effect…unless the sick people knew they were being prayed for, in which case they had a slightly higher rate of complications.

Somebody wrote in Psalm 145, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Then in Jeremiah 33, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

I did that for many years, with absolute commitment. I was totally convinced it was all true. Still found no evidence of him, and nobody has come up with any, so as far as I’m concerned those worthless promises are a solid way to disprove a specific version of the Christian god.

Of course, most will try to get around it by saying you can’t test god…never mind that he once encouraged someone to test his promises to see if he would keep them, and acquiesced to Gideon’s request for physical evidence twice with no complaint. Jesus certainly wasn’t above performing party tricks; literally, his first miracle was turning water into wine for a wedding party, and he encouraged his disciples to believe his claims based on the miracles he had performed.

So despite god’s unchanging nature and obvious willingness to provide physical evidence, some Christians have concocted a version who controls everything that happens yet hides behind the universe like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. Others imagine a god who occasionally gets involved in the world but only when his effects won’t be documented in verifiable ways. Neither of these gods can be disproved, nor can the vague deistic one that theists often resort to, when it becomes apparent they can’t defend their specific god, by using the dishonest and invalid cosmological and fine-tuning arguments.

At first it was disappointing to be somewhat abruptly ejected from my religion by cold hard facts, but you have to move on from childhood fantasies someday. I write these articles because they help me process ideas, because the feedback of others helps me to consider all the different perspectives of a given issue, because it helps me put my thoughts into concise packages that I can share when asked for my views on a certain issue, and because I want to document my journey in case someone ever finds it encouraging or relevant to their own life.

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One response to “What Am I…Atheist, Agnostic, or Deist?

  1. I love knowing that we do not know it all. What wonderful opportunities await humankind in the millennia to come. I revel in the mystery and the possibilities. Thanks for sharing your well conceived thoughts.

    Like

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