I recently had an article posted where I told some of my personal experiences regarding my path to agnosticism. The article was posted at a national South African news service, and I would love all your comments regarding what I had said there. The comments from strong Christian believers are also shown there, and the comments they make are ones I am sure you have all seen many times before. The link to the article is: http://www.news24.com/MyNews24/Reply-to-RationalBeliever-20120105. The text of my article is below.
I am grateful for your letter (on science and religion written by RationalBeliever), which I found thoroughly insightful.
Today we find similar reasoning in the faithful. Why did God allow a tornado to destroy houses in South Africa? Well, obvious, of course, because He is angry: why? Well, just a week before we had Gay Pride. And those sinful sodomites deserve to burn, right? I know, this is being crass, but this was a comment that someone made on News24 and it hit right home because I myself am gay. I am so very sorry for causing the tornado that hit the houses, last year I even attended pride!
If God exists, He must hate my guts because I don’t believe being gay is a sin. The fundamentalist readers will tell me if I don’t repent, I’m doomed! There is even witness testimony on the internet: gay individuals had religious conversion experiences where Christ himself appeared to them and told them if they don’t change they will burn in hell, and who am I to be sceptical of such 1st person experiences? Are those not directly revealed by the Holy Spirit?
Is that not the point of Christianity that personal revelation happens via the Holy Spirit? Was this not part of the purpose of the reformation, that individuals can directly experience God, and that a priest and confession are not essential?
Now recently a five year old girl suffered a horrible lot. Her parishioners had come to the conclusion that she is possessed. And if you followed the story you will know, she died during their attempted exorcism. If you believe in the Christian God, certainly you also believe in the Satan, the adversary? Is the existence of Satan mythical, or not? Does Satan have supernatural powers?
Does he have the power to cause possession? (By the way, if he is supernatural, and you belief that God and Satan are supernatural entities with opposing wishes for humankind, is it still correct to talk of a monotheism, and why not a bitheism? I have always wondered about that? I understand God created everything, but if He gave Satan supernatural power, then we clearly don’t have a monotheism any more, or do we? If we do, are we in some sense acknowledging God’s willingness to let Satan do his bidding, or is it His bidding?)
Now the parishioners’ faith in Christ and Satan, and their analysis of the behaviour of this child, had convinced them that their actions are warranted. Scientists have studied these incidences and have established that epilepsy can be mistaken for demonic possession. But here is the real question I have for you: which would you trust? Science, or faith? Clearly it is not entirely impossible that what appears on an EEG could not feasibly just be a “side effect” of possession. But now it so happens that with the right medicine, we can largely cure the epilepsy.
So this is why I am agnostic. I am also a scientist. I understand that science cannot prove or disprove God’s existence. But it does change the answers people have for things that happen in the material world!So did the material medicine somehow “affect” the spiritual dimension? Can demonic possession be cured by epilepsy medication? If you want to determine whether you should trust either science, or faith, the best initial stance to take, is of being sceptic of both! You need objective evidence to decide which explanation you will believe in. Both science and religion tries to explain events in the here and now, in the physical, not just the spiritual, dimension.
And this brings us to the point, which John Loftus makes, and which I think you will find very informative, in his books, see http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com for more information regarding Loftus’ ideas: he developed the outsider’s test of faith. You see, you are also an atheist to all gods of all the other religious teachings, the Sanskrit, Hindu teachings.
You are an atheist regarding the teachings of the Koran (and by the way, while Christians typically accept human “mistranslation” may happen in the Bible – including the pseudepigrapha, which are in fact a whole other kettle of fish; in Islam, the Koran in its original language is considered entirely without any error). Loftus merely requires you to consider statements of faith you take for granted in your belief system (i.e. in the Bible) with the same scepticism that you do when you hear of other faiths. Remember, either Christ has risen physically as Christianity teaches, or he was merely a prophet and ultimately died, as believed in Islam.
Both faiths cannot be simultaneously true in that extent. That means any archaeological finding that tends to confirm the Islam belief that Christ actually died, will be met with severe scepticism on your part – this scepticism, by the way, is a result of a well-known psychological phenomenon, which is called cognitive dissonance. You will easily recognise it as an almost painful emotional reaction that you experience whenever evidence appears that in some sense go against your most deeply held and cherished beliefs.
Anyone interested in this phenomenon should make an effort to read Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails. It is an eye-opener!
Now you will quickly counter that we have the Bible, which is all the evidence we need! I had believed the same for the longest time, until I read the Malleus Maleficarum which was written during the period of the inquisition and speaks of many attested cases of witchcraft. A more recent case is the Salem witch trials. What the Malleus Maleficarum and those trials teach us, is that witness testimony is not trustworthy at all!
The witch trials occurred in recent enough history that we have detailed accounts of all the witnesses describing in detail the believed bewitching of the innocent, and yet today we know that what happened there did not involve woman flying around on broomsticks, if you get my drift. Mass hysteria and hallucinations seem more likely when you read the accounts with today’s medical knowledge.
So you believe in God? As a rational believer would you still prefer to use science in the case of the girl that ended up dead during the exorcism? Would you believe that “blind” forces of nature ultimately lead to the tornado that destroyed the houses? If you do, you are in some sense a cherry picker, because there are many people that will be able (or try very hard) to site the Bible to prove their point.
And there is more: since you interpret some of the Bible as literal, and some of it as symbolic, the question is clearly how to tell which should be interpreted how. Carl Sagan’s maxim of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is exactly the kind of method one would use, if one were sceptical. However, applied to issues of morality for which the Biblical authority is often sited and translated literally, though sometimes symbolically, if you are saying that you can tell the difference then either (i) you are extremely arrogant for believing you were given this kind of insight more so than other people or (ii) you didn’t need the Bible in the first place to establish you own inner morality.
Worse yet, in your liberal stance you will try to tell other people that they have misinterpreted the Bible, and remember, modern science has not been around for very long, which implies many people throughout the ages have interpreted the Bible wrong, and here you smugly tell them that you now know better. In the fundamentalist world view this is seen as dire liberal arrogance which is exactly what fuels the fundamentalist need for transforming the world to their evangelical views.
And so another Ugandan gay man dies as American fundamentalism spreads to African countries. At least here God was very clear in His command. If you find that I am myself here “putting words” into the Bible, then you have to understand that it is rather moot that we should have to quibble endlessly over exactly how the Bible should be interpreted, while this gay-issue is currently clearly shredding the church in two.
If God had any foresight, which I am made to believe He has for being in some sense omniscient, why did he not just say it in a matter that no-one questions? Why should it all be down to translation, interpretation, and reinvention? Why, exactly, are there over 33000 different Christian denominations, and if only one is right (think Pascal’s wager), how will you know that yours is? If the Bible said “And God made a spherical earth”, there would have been no scientific heresy! If the eleventh commandment said “Let thee not take for thyself any slaves”, this would never have been an issue.
Regarding slavery: here is at least one example of where modern morality trumps that of the Bible. And yet God Himself apparently dictated the Decalogue? You can maybe begin to understand why I have difficulties in believing in this God that would allow slavery to flourish for so long! And that is also why I don’t take the Levitican laws too seriously: you should read what Leviticus says God allows you to do to slaves should they be mutinous! I almost want to say: thank God modernity, that separates state from church, is better than that!
There is another issue I have with your letter: you mention that science is material and God is spiritual, so science can say nothing about God, but there is a problem here. I would think if God existed, He would not have a problem with making His presence known in an objective fashion? And “objective” necessarily means occurring in the material world.
The Bible talks of an altar burnt to cinders after Elijah prayed to God (after Elijah mocked the priests of Baal for being unable to succeed in setting their altars alight), so clearly He was not opposed to objectively proving His existence in the past. Now had I not been sceptical about events in the Bible, this would be the best evidence in the world for His existence!
If God had any foresight, which I am made to believe He has for being in some sense omniscient, why did he not just say it in a matter that no-one questions? Why should it all be down to translation, interpretation, and reinvention? Why, exactly, are there over 33000 different Christian denominations, and if only one is right (think Pascal’s wager), how will you know that yours is? If the Bible said “And God made a spherical earth”, there would have been no scientific heresy! If the eleventh commandment said “Let thee not take for thyself any slaves”, this would never have been an issue. And at this point I should mention that modern archaeology is not a friend of the Bible – I suggest you read Paul Tobin (www.rejectionofpascalswager.net/) for more information, so your arguments for archaeology are not all that convincing, unfortunately.
I guess you will not agree with their attempt, but the medical fraternity has more than once tried to show that prayer may be beneficial. Here the idea is simple: if God is willing to make His presence objectively known, then a double-blind test, which is the modern standard of scientific testing we have developed to ensure we don’t fool ourselves, should be able to pick up on His benevolence statistically. Is this a form of sacrilege?
Is it wrong for people who have doubts to want objective evidence? You may like to think this is a farce, but terminally ill patients were prayed for. This was not merely a silly attempt to prove God’s existence, it was performed with a heartfelt hope that prayer will help some patients, even if science cannot understand why! The study involved grouping the ill patients into three groups two of which were prayed for, and one of those two groups knew that they were being prayed for.
To everyone’s surprise; and, I must admit, even to my own, there was no benefit observed between the groups that were prayed for and not prayed for when they were unaware that they were part of this study. The group that did know was worse off! It appears that knowing you were prayed for, resulted in unnecessary stress in patients thinking they need to perform better medically, and this in turn resulted in a higher incidence of complications.
So this brings us to the question that you will typically find in the agnostic’s mind: why not just settle the matter and show us You exist in an objectively knowable manner? People talk of religious experiences, of being “filled with the Holy Spirit”, but even these events also occur outside of religious institutions, in fact, in cognitive science they are called “transcendental hallucinations”, and they occur for a number of reasons other than faith-based. I know this for a fact, because during a fairly recent infection I suffered a number of epileptic seizures.
Had I lived two thousand years ago, I might have ended up writing the books of Paul, because the experiences I had were entirely consistent with descriptions made in the Bible of directly experiencing God, and yet I also now know that those experiences coincided with epileptic seizures of the left temporal lobe (often called ecstatic seizures, you should read up on Geschwind syndrome, it is very interesting and something I understand very well these days). Ironically, during those personal experiences I was made keenly aware that God loves me as I am, and that my being gay does not make a difference to Him as long as I live in transparency, i.e. as I am, living already accepted by my family, friends and people I love and hold dear to my heart.
I can only imagine had I lived in a congregation where who I am was sorely rejected by people close to me, my hallucination would also have involved a knowledge of how I am going to hell if I don’t change, sound familiar?
Getting back to the actual seizures, again what should I trust: science, or faith? Those mental states were so severe at some points that they were disabling. Medicine overcame their intensity. Did God give way to modern medicine when the seizures ended as the drugs took hold? Should I not have been sceptical of these events in my own mind? Again: I can never prove that these hallucinations were not in fact God-given, it may well be that these “hallucinations” are God’s way of showing us His presence through the Holy Spirit (maybe it even has to coincide with seizures in my case?), but without any objective evidence, you could not disprove the paranoid schizophrenic that he is not being followed, all the time.
All it takes is a rational mind attempting to make sense of irrational and emotional experiences to derive a consistent worldview that is, unfortunately, ultimately delusional, and I am sure no-one wants to be imprisoned by delusional mind-states. I know this is true, otherwise the Bible would not refer to itself as “truth”.
So this is why I am agnostic. I am also a scientist. I understand that science cannot prove or disprove God’s existence. But it does change the answers people have for things that happen in the material world! In some sense you can never really know, for sure now, can you? Science may never disprove God, but what of superstition? If you trust the Bible there will be elements of superstition in your beliefs, or you must consider those tales to be legends.
Again, if you claim to know how to distinguish, you are being arrogant! So maybe it was possession? Maybe it was epilepsy? Maybe they are one and the same thing, merely different reflections of some kind of underlying spiritual/material reality. But why is it that the epilepsy, no matter how often and deeply people pray keeps coming back, but the medicine cures the underlying neural illness?
Is it really fair to say that they “just didn’t believe hard enough”? To me that is an atrocious thing to say to someone in severe pain and need, because therein in a statement of severe arrogance, in that your faith is as strong, but theirs is not; why don’t you pray for their need? And if you do, and it still doesn’t make a difference, because God chooses not make Himself known objectively, then what will you believe? And how can you be angry at me, for honestly doubting His existence?
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