The Unfinishable Scroll
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Tue, 15 Dec 2009
Sometimes people ask me whether I am an atheist, a theist, or an agnostic. Instead of giving simplistic answers to these questions, I'm going to take a few minutes to explain what I really think.
1. Am I a theist?
Theism is the belief that there is a supernatural God who created the universe and intervenes in it. Some people use the word "theism" to mean belief in a deity of any kind at all. However, this isn't the way the word usually gets used today. Usually "theism" is used to mean belief in a supernatural God who created and intervenes in the universe. Here I'll use "theism" in that sense.
According to this "standard" definition, I am not a theist. My problem with theism is not with the idea of a supreme being of some kind; my main problem is with the idea of the supernatural. I'll say more about that later.
Now that I've said this, I can almost hear the atheists printing my membership card. But wait! Things aren't as simple as they seem...
2. Am I an atheist?
I have a one-word answer to this question. However, the answer would be very misleading if I didn't explain a few things first.
The word "atheist" gets flung around rather freely today. However, labeling someone an "atheist" can be philosophically tricky. The problem with the word "atheist" is that the meaning of the word depends on which idea of God you accept. For example, a Christian might call an unbeliever in the biblical God an "atheist" just because that person accepts a concept of a supreme being different from the biblical God. Modern atheists sometimes make a similar mistake. They define the word "God" to mean a supernatural creator. Then, when they argue against belief in a supernatural creator, they think they are debunking God. The truth is more complex: you can believe in God without believing in a supernatural creator.
Philosophy and religion, both Eastern and Western, contain several different ideas of a supreme spiritual reality or supreme being. Some of these ideas do not portray the supreme being as a supernatural creator. I don't mean just the well-known "scientific" pantheism that equates God to the physical universe. There also are other ideas of God that don't involve supernatural creation but that don't equate God to the physical universe. Some of these ideas can do without belief in the supernatural. (Click here and here for further details.) Those who define the word "God" to mean only a supernatural creator, and who refuse to admit that there are other views of God, are just redefining the word "God." The idea that God is a supernatural creator is only one way to think about God. There are other ways.
Although I don't accept theism (defined as above), I am not anti-spiritual. I think the universe has a spiritual aspect to it. This spiritual aspect is not supernatural; humans can learn about it through the rational methods of philosophy (no religious faith required). I even think there is a supreme spiritual reality of sorts. This is not supernatural, but it fits pretty well with the philosophers' definition of a "greatest possible being" - a definition that I consider crucial to the idea of God. For more details, read this document.
So, do I believe in God? Those who insist on defining God as supernatural will conclude that I don't believe in God. However, I have a different answer: I do believe in God. Not the supernatural God of theism, but a supreme spiritual reality that's worthy of the name "God." My one-word answer to the question "Am I an atheist?" is "No."
If you think "God" can only mean a supernatural creator, then you might prefer to call me an atheist. My feelings won't be hurt, but I'll tell you that your definition of God needs some repairs!
3. Am I an agnostic?
My answer to the atheism question shows that I am not agnostic about the existence of a supreme spiritual reality. I think reason supports that idea. However, I am an agnostic of sorts about the existence of the supernatural. I don't believe there is anything supernatural (though there might, of course, be things in nature that seem supernatural to us). However, I don't know of any convincing argument for the nonexistence (or even the extreme improbability) of the supernatural. Thus, I am neither a believer nor a hard-core disbeliever in the supernatural. Followers of supernatural religions might want to consider me an agnostic for this reason. But I am not agnostic about the existence of some kind of supreme spiritual reality.
posted at: 23:53 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry
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