This is a guest post from Miklos Jako, the author of the video that started this exploration into spiritual-but-not-religious thinking. For the introductory post, go here.
Miklos endured the skeptical gauntlet with patient comments, and for that he deserves the last word in this conversation.
I’ve appreciated this opportunity to exchange ideas with atheists from the perspective of a “Soft Theist.” Host Bob Seidensticker has described Soft Theism as “Christianity without the baggage.” However, to be clear, it is not liberal Christianity. I actually reject Jesus for many reasons. I do not think he was a transcendently wise man but rather a religious extremist who constantly overstated for the sake of impact, at the expense of truth.
I describe soft theism as a belief in the probability of a general God not tied to any particular religion. A belief in some great intelligence behind the universe. A more credible God than the Christian one. A non-intervening God. No answered prayers. No miracles, other than the miracle of life itself. No dogma, other than the need to be a good person.
The closest approximation to it in real life would probably be Unitarianism: Be a good person and then believe whatever makes sense to you, including atheism. Soft Theism is not a truth claim, but a subjective assessment on the probability of a God, where one does not decide to believe, or not believe, but settles on a percent probability, whether it’s 10%, 40%, 60%, or 90%, and lives with that. The word “soft” in soft theism is there for a reason.
Here is my assessment of the discussion we had:
The discussion confirmed my conviction that one’s position depends very much on one’s starting point, on one’s worldview to begin with. If you start with a scientific worldview, almost invariably you will conclude there is no God, because you want evidence. If you start with a more spiritual/emotional worldview, you will conclude there may well be a God, because lack of tangible evidence is not a defeater for you.
The discussion also confirmed my suspicion that theists and atheists have innately incompatible ways of thinking, and that coming to some synthesis is almost impossible. For example, to a theist, the universe is evidence for God, obviously. But to an atheist, the universe is just the universe, obviously.
I regard the beauty of a tree as “soft evidence” for God; the atheist regards such soft evidence as no evidence, it’s just magical thinking. I was asked what would be the difference between “magical thinking” and “soft evidence”? I responded that magical thinking would be, “If I pray hard enough, God will save my child from this illness.” Whereas “soft evidence” is seeing a beautiful tree, or experiencing a wonderful relationship, and thinking there might well be something more than the ordinariness of life, and scientific explanations.
I find the mystery of why things should work, to be a reason for positing a God. The atheist regards figuring out how things work is enough. Once you’ve got A, B, C, and D understood, you don’t need God to make it work. Whereas, I think it’s more plausible that God makes everything work, through the laws of nature he created.
I think some things may never be understood by science, like why things grow, why the heart keeps beating for a lifetime, why bodies heal. Why life, intelligence, consciousness should emerge. I suspect that consciousness may never be adequately understood. Awareness of the material world, is of a different nature than that world. The atheist thinks that whether science eventually figures it all out or not, we have chemistry, biology, and physics for explanations, no need for a God.
Soft theism accepts whatever valid science says. But it does not view science as ultimately explanatory, or capable of giving answers to spiritual/emotional issues. As one person noted, if a grand Unified Theory of Everything is ever formulated, it won’t help him decide about his love life. Agreed. That’s my perspective, that a big part of life exists outside of science.
I made the claim the science has a built-in defeater against God because it is forbidden to invoke God as an explanation for any phenomenon, and is allowed only to reach the verdict of “not demonstrated.” Atheists disagreed, but we finally got on the same page in agreeing that there is not a hard and fast rule; it’s just that it’s the implicit philosophy of working scientists, because studies have never concluded yet that God is an explanation.
Going in Circles
Atheists repeatedly insisted that “We don’t know” is the proper answer, and that I should admit I don’t know. My response: Why are you saying that?! I have repeatedly said, “I don’t know.” In fact, I can give you some stats. I did a quick word search, and in the first 12 installments here I have been advised to admit I don’t know at least five or six times, and I have responded that “I don’t know” at least eight or nine times. The word “soft” in soft theism embodies the very concept of “I don’t know”!
The circularity here reminds me of a scene in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles movie. The governor’s assistant says, “OK, the meeting is adjourned. Oh, I’m sorry Governor, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is adjourned.” “It is!?” “No, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is adjourned.” “It is?” “No, you’re supposed to say that.” “Say what?” “The meeting is….”
Here’s my atheist blog version of that: “The honest response on the God question, is ‘We don’t know.’” “I don’t know, I’m just speculating.” “You can’t just speculate; you have to give some evidence.” “I don’t have any hard evidence.” “Then you’re just speculating; you don’t know.” “I don’t know. I’m just speculating.” “You have to give some evidence.” “I don’t have any hard evidence. I’m just speculating.” “Then you don’t know. You’re just speculating….”
Telling Me Stuff I Already Know
Atheists kept telling me what I already know and already agree with, yet somehow regarded this is an argument against my position. One gave an eloquent description of the progress of science, almost as though I were not aware of it. I agree that science has a magnificent history. I know that. I agree with that. Or tells me that the further reaches of science (the quantum world, cosmology) do not make common sense to us living here in middle earth. I know that. I agree with that.
Another wrote that God’s hiddenness is “not an indictment of science or nonbelievers, it’s an indictment of God’s choice to remain hidden.” I responded, “You’re informing me of something I already know and agree with. I’m not indicting science or nonbelievers! And yes, God’s hiddenness is an indictment of God! He should have given us more evidence of his existence. (Bertrand Russell)”
Attitudes / Differences
Many atheists viewed me as making truth claims, and not just offering an opinion. I think one reason for this is that in discussing anything, if I constantly have to qualify my remarks with “I think,” “in my opinion,” or “it seems to me,” that gums up the writing. So, it seemed more a truth claim than it actually was. Plus, atheists are used to the Christian attitude of “We have the Truth,” and so assumed more of an attitude than was actually there on my part.
We disagreed on the standards of evidence for philosophy versus science. I felt that the standards for philosophy are much lower and do not require the same degree of hard evidence.
Many atheists viewed my approach as classic “God of the Gaps” thinking. But I maintained that I do not appeal to God for any of millions of scientific issues, except for where I think science will never reach an answer, such as origins of life, and consciousness.
Atheists think I am interpreting mundane things as spiritual realities. Yes, I am. I regard life, as miraculous. A life-force is not mundane to me. It is a powerful, incomprehensible reality to me, that life should exist.
We did agree that morality is properly a practical issue rather than an intellectual one. And we agreed that the problem of evil is a very strong argument against God.
I found the atheists on this blog very intelligent and educated. But also prone to contempt. I was described as “nasty” and “sneering.” I do not know what they are talking about. On the contrary, they were the ones who used the words “disingenuous,” “idiot,” “stupid,” “daft,” “ignoramus.” Not me. I did express my conviction that atheists are blinkered by science, and they found that, per se, insulting. I thought that many of the commenters spoke with contempt and ridicule as a matter of course. And I am baffled as to why they think this helps their cause. Bob Seidensticker, the host, incidentally, was appropriate. He strongly disagreed with me but did not find it necessary to add gratuitous insults.
I certainly did not expect to change any atheist’s mind here. As I noted at the start, I expected them to say, “He’s just making all this stuff up.” But I hoped they would also conclude, “Well, at least his version of God is not as harmful as traditional ones.”
Atheists and I do have a common cause in opposing Christianity. I hope people visit my website. http://www.confrontingbelievers.com/ I have videos of my informal debates with a wide variety of Christians and ex-Christians.
Thank you to Bob for hosting this exercise and for appreciating the value of Soft Theism, not as a valid belief system, but as a better, less harmful one than Christianity. A lot of people see reasons for leaving Christianity, but do not feel comfortable going all the way to atheism. Soft Theism is a good middle ground.
God does not make good sense to me, but makes better sense than no God. I agree with the opinion that believing in God is absurd, but not believing in God is even more absurd.
Maybe theists have over-active imaginations. Maybe atheists have under-active imaginations.