Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Religious Semanticizing

I've probably been driving this blog bus around long enough to have visited the same topics a time or three. I guess one person's tired old story, though, is fresh (and hopefully interesting) to someone else.

Today, I thought I'd drop some of my thoughts on religion. Some of my views seem to all but encourage folks to make certain assumptions about who and why I am. Maybe I can clear up a few things, today... and maybe muddy up a few other things.

First, allow me to semanticize a little bit. (Yes, I made that word up, but I kinda dig it so it stays.) I'm hoping the following will give the perceptive reader an idea of where I'm coming from... where I'm truly coming from when I make certain statements.

For instance, I believe there are three general states of being, opinion-wise:
  • the affirmative state, in which you believe "it" is so.
  • the negative state, in which you believe "it" is not so.
  • and, finally, the neutral state, which could mean "none of the above" or even "all of the above."

Lemme throw out some nuanced examples. If someone says, "I believe God exists; do you," the respondent might say any of the following:
1) "Yes." This is the affirmative state, in which the respondent believes "it" is so. (i.e. "Yes, I believe there is a God.")
2) "No." This could be a negative state or a neutral state. When asked if one believes something is true "No," simply means the respondent is not prepared to say the above is so.
2a) Negative state - That may be because the respondent definitely disagrees (i.e. "No, I believe there is no God.") or...
Neutral state - may be because she thinks it may be true or untrue (i.e. "No, I don't believe there is a God." or even "...I don't disbelieve, either."
If I asked you, "Do you think DLP projectors are better than LCD models," you might say, "no," meaning, "No, I wouldn't say that because I don't know enough about either to choose one over the other."

So, the person who says, "No," isn't necessarily condemning or actively disagreeing with those who believe in God, prefer DLP projectors, or think there were WMD's.

It's all about how the topic is framed and how much the respondent wants to explain. So yeah, as with so many things, it really comes down to a question of semantics.

Labels and Assumptions
That said, "No, I don't believe there is a God."*

I'm no atheist, but I'm not prepared to say they're wrong, either. I'm becoming more comfortable with the "agnostic" label, but even that can be confusing, depending on which definition stands out to you.

Some folks tend to see agnostics as an indecisive lot, confused and befuddled by existential exploration - spineless souls without the conviction or confidence to stand for anything, so they're likely to fall for everything.

That's about as accurate as saying that people of faith are a herd of lemmings with no capacity to reason, bound by rusty chains of logic. It's about as accurate and fair as saying that atheists are a cult of devil-worshipers with no moral fiber and less compassion and respect for the natural world.

To even begin to have an atypically meaningful, illuminating discussion on religion, participants must be prepared to actively disabuse themselves of the temptingly one-dimensional assumptions and characterizations of everyone who disagrees... simply because they disagree.

Knowing & Believing
I can respect someone who believes there's a God or that there isn't one. One thing that concerns me, though, are people who say that these things are definitely so. Many theists and atheists do just that.

Many atheists say they KNOW that the universe(s) is Godless, despite being incapable of proving this. Many theists say they KNOW there's a God, despite being incapable of proving this.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with believing something is likely so or even being convinced, but to state that something is objective fact is to take it out of the realm of belief and raising it to a higher standard of proof, discussion, and debate.

Atheistic Faith
Some atheists condemn the very concept of faith, without realizing how much of their own position is faith-based. Many are unaware of the fact or unwilling to admit that they more or less have embraced science as if it were a religion. In a lot of cases, science is their belief-system, despite how much they hate to hear me say that.

We know that science offers many answers, but we also know that it raises many questions. What we know pales in-comparison to what we don't. Still, many believe that science is perfectly capable of drawing definitive, objective, timeless conclusions about not only what is, but what cannot possibly be.

It is an act of faith to draw such all-encompassing conclusions (i.e. that there is no God) based on comparatively little evidence.

Religion as Science
Some religious people mistake faith for reason and religion for science. It's the flip side of the coin I describe in the previous section, but it's just as flawed, in my opinion - perhaps even moreso.

False Truth
In either case, drawing conclusions based on false, inconclusive, or incomplete information and perspectives is very different from uncovering universal truths. Let's compromise and call them the truth... as you see it.

Science and religion attempt to answer many of the same questions, but there are areas that are better addressed with one or the other. I don't look to science to figure out why I am here and I don't look to religion to tell me this world is thousands instead of millions of years old.

I Believe...
Maybe by now, those who are still reading this are thinking that I spend more time saying what's wrong with others' perspectives than I do sharing my own. You may have a point, but I share many of those perspectives, except in the places where I find fault with them. It can be easier to say, "I agree with everything except..." than to itemize one's worldview. Still, before bringing this rant to a close, I'll try to focus a little more on what I do believe than on what I don't.
More Than You Can Handle
I do not believe that "He won't give you more than you can handle." Okay. I know I said I'd focus on what I DO think, but this qualifies. To rephrase, I think He, life, fate, or whatever WILL give you more than you can handle. I think that believing otherwise would require willful ignorance of the world around you and the lives that preceded ours. People suffer so much that they break. This happens today and it happened to Black slaves, despite how much they believed in their new religion.

Touched by God
I believe there's value in acknowledging what subjectively appears to be the influence of a higher power on your life, the lives of those around you, or the world in which we live. I have a hard time confirming whether this person or that person really was touched by the Hand of God, abducted by aliens, or saw the Virgin Mary in some alphabet soup, but I know that I've often felt as if my life were going well or poorly due to some outside influence. I've felt that I've experienced things because there were lessons I needed to learn and put to good use. Kinda like how you learn a word, then it seems like you encounter it everywhere - almost as if you learned it just so that you could understand or cope with what was to come.

I believe in love as a concept that is greater than any electro-chemical processes that may take place within my brain or my body.

I don't know if we have a soul.

I believe many people embrace the concept of God or the afterlife because embracing the reality of their existence is too scary or painful for them. I believe this is beneficial in some ways and harmful in others.
Playing God
Some people are praying like they're playing Lotto. Oh, they'd hate to hear me say it that way, but I can't count the number of times have I heard someone say, "Well, why NOT believe? I mean, if you're wrong, so what? You lose nothing. If you're right, then you saved your soul from eternal damnation!"

Sorry, but this ain't about the odds. It's not a crap shoot. It's not a trip to the dog races. It's not a visit to Biloxi.

I question the sincerity of any believer who suggests the idea that one could or should fake or force belief in something so marvelous and all-encompassing as a Higher Power. I mean, if He's all-powerful, he'll know you're faking, anyway.

I'm not brainwashing myself or my future children in this way. If I find my own path to God or away from Him, it will be because that is what makes sense to me.

And that brings me to what I hope will be my final point, for now:

The Worthy
If searching for, exploring, and embracing the path that makes the most sense to me, while treating others with respect, is the kind of thing that would make this or any God divinely pissed and prepared to torture me forever, then He's unworthy of my Love and I never truly had a chance of proving myself worthy of his.

That's all I have to say about that, for now. I welcome your questions and comments.

* - If, after all that, you don't now what I mean by this, I'm going to have to ask you to see me after class.


K&W Blake said...

You seem like a very well-read, well-educated man. So, I'd like to suggest two books: The Case for Christ (which I haven't read) or The Case for Faith (which I have read). These books are written by Lee Strobel (a journalist, a graduate of Yale Law, and a former atheist)who digs into tough intellectual questions of Christianity.

Michael May said...

Awesome post. Except for the part where I do believe there's a God and some of what you said about worthiness at the end, I agree with you.

It's frustrating to me to hear religious folk talk about what they "know." We weren't meant to know. That's why it's called "faith."

It's also frustrating to me to hear "scientific" folk hold up pet theories as gods. I think that Evolution makes a lot of sense, but it's a Theory, not a Scientific Law, and to hear people call it "fact" when it's not one (yet?) drives me nuts.

As for worthiness: I understand that a lot of people (religious or otherwise) see God as a pissy old coot with his finger on the "Straight to Hell" button, but that's not a Biblical God. The God described in the Bible is an infinitely patient fellow who doesn't want anyone to be separated from him.

The folks he really gets cheesed at are the ones who think it's their job to go around telling everyone else who gets into Heaven and who doesn't. He and I have something in common there.

West said...

Welcome, k&w. Thanks for the compliments and suggestions. There are a couple of books I should list, as well. Each is written by a scientist, but they're not on the same side of the religious fence.

Ohh. Google helped me out:
* "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins (
* "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief" by geneticist Francis Collins (

Michael: First of all, thanks for trusting me enough to share your feelings on such a sensitive, important, and personal subject. I really appreciate the tone and substance of your opinion.

Okay, now lemme tell you why you're WRONG! I keed! I keed!

I did want to respond to those last two points, right quick: I think the mean God is well-represented in Biblical text - striking down people and even their children, at times.

Regarding those who tell others the way they ought to live, well, I can find that annoying, too. But I think the Bible suggests doing just that - and I can hardly blame folks when I consider the stakes, from their perspectives.

They're trying to save souls. Okay, some are just trying to feel superior, but that has more to do with the individual than the practice.

I'd love it if you'd respond, but I will definitely understand if you'd rather leave things there.

Angie said...

Great post! You've put some things I've been thinking about in context for me, and made me question other things. I am a Christian - but I question things a lot. Most "religious" people do not take kindly to questioning.

I'd rather my faith be "examinable" (Is that a word?). I think as Christians we do/don't do a lot things based on fear. And who needs that? I rather check it out and not be afraid. Thanks for the "thinking points". : )

chele said...

You know I got nothing but love for you, right?


But, I'm going to need you to explain this one: I believe many people embrace the concept of God or the afterlife because embracing the reality of their existence is too scary or painful for thembr/>
I don't want to confuse faith or belief in God with religion. Because your problem with religion probably mirrors my own. I've been in the church all my life and I've seen a lot of crap that would make anyway turn away from the church. And that's fine. But I will never turn away from God.

I don't believe you wrote this post to convince anyone to do anything. Just as my response is not meant to do that either. I have a strong relationship with God. He is the reality of my existence. I face everyday without fear because of that.

West said...

angie: Glad to hear it. Thanks!

chele: re: "'m going to need you to explain this one: I believe many people embrace the concept of God or the afterlife because embracing the reality of their existence is too scary or painful for them"

I meant that there are people who believe there's someone watching over them, loving them, and protecting them because the alternative makes them feel fearful and vulnerable.

It's helpful, for many, to feel that there's a divine plan born of an infinitely wise and all-knowing consciousness because the alternative is just a bit too random, dangerous, and scary.

I think that facing death, one's own or that of others, is easier when one believes that physical death is not the end of a person's existence. Knowing that they live on "in a better place" is much more palatable than the idea that we and every person we ever have or ever will love, will be snuffed out of existence, one day, almost as if we'd never been.

That's really scary.

Similarly, your last line, "I face every day without fear because of that [strong relationship with God]" suggests that without that relationship, you might face every day with fear.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings on the subject in the same spirit in which I shared mine.

DJ Black Adam said...

Fascinating thoughts. I will say, I believe that there is no reason for science and spirituality to be mutually exclusive, I have found that it is best (serving a seeker of knowledge) to utilize both in concert with each other (from my experience), however, history shows many great thinkers and scientific minds who utilized both accomplished great things.

B. Good said...

"I believe that there is no reason for science and spirituality to be mutually exclusive......"

My sentiments mirror DJ Black Adam, he just said it way better than I could.

Great and thoughtful post West. Took me 2 days to get through it! Worthwhile, all the same.

Michael May said...

I do trust ya. I'd go into detail about why, but I don't wanna get all mushy.

I think the mean God is well-represented in Biblical text - striking down people and even their children, at times.

It's true that in the Old Testament God dealt with people quickly and severely. He was dealing with a particularly stubborn people. People who would constantly desert him despite that they knew he existed.

From a big-picture viewpoint, God's dealing harshly on a physical level with a few to shock and discipline the rest into getting in line spiritually is an act of love. We're not told what happened in the afterlife to the people he killed. Just because he punished them physically in an ultimate sense (and sometimes for reasons that we question), doesn't mean that they were doomed eternally.

Regarding those who tell others the way they ought to live, well, I can find that annoying, too. But I think the Bible suggests doing just that - and I can hardly blame folks when I consider the stakes, from their perspectives.

I disagree. I think there's a strong case for Christians to tell other folks about what God has done for them personally, but nowhere are we told to push our morality onto someone who doesn't believe. In fact, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that Christians are specifically not to judge non-believers.

We're supposed to tell people about what God's done for us in hope that people will believe, but that's it. If someone doesn't believe, it's not our job to still make them get in line with Christian morality.

There are a lot of noisy Christians who want to operate outside of their job description, and that's part of what annoys me so much.

Another place where we overstep our responsibilities is what I was trying to address in my previous post: folks who say where this person or that person is destined to spend eternity. The Bible makes it really clear that that's not our job. Our job is to tell folks about what God's done for us and can do for them. Period.

Liz said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm appreciative of the discourse on this topic. I also believe we can have harmony of science and religion. There's this quote I just remembered, I'm paraphrasing here, that science without religion becomes materialism and relition without science becomes superstition.