January 2007

Hello. I stumbled upon your sight when trying to search for a way to talk to my girlfriend, a somewhat “devout” Christian. Sometimes it can get very frustrating when I try to discuss why she believes what what she does, and she just resorts to saying “I just want you to be saved”. Fortunately, I feel I’m making some progress with her to opening her mind. If she wants to believe in Christianity that is fine, but at least accept the fact that we can’t be sure of pretty much anything that she has been taught, and that it is most important to cherish the life we live now, and let whatever happens after we die to just happen.

The reason for this comment, however, does not relate to my girlfriends belief. I’m curious on your opinion of Agnosticism. I have always been very math/science oriented kid. I love sitting in bed at night thinking about random things, analyzing concepts, etc. Sometimes I wonder about us, as people. I am a person. I am made up of organs. Organs are made up of tissue. Tissue is made up of cells. Cells are made up of various parts. The necleolous of a cell consists of DNA. DNA can be stripped down and made up of whatever it is. It just gets smaller and smaller. You can keep dividing the pieces, and what do you have on the smallest level? Who knows. But what I do know, is that there is something about that very small part about us that makes us a living being. We are charged with some special power that seperates us from a rock, that gives us life. And when we die, meaning that our complex body systems can no longer function as a whole, what happens that “power” ?. Cleary, it is no longer contained within our body, as we are no longer a “living” being. So what happens? Does it float off, becoming part of nature? Do we become some spiritual being? Does the “power” infuse some other complex organism on the other side of the universe?

Something is fueling us. I think we are proof of that. It’s not just the grilled chicken sandwhich I had earlier; its something else.

Because of this belief, I consider myself agnostic. It may not be “me” that passes on, with the same brain and logical patterns. But I do think there is more to life than the 80 or so years I’ll live on this planet. I guess we can only wait and see, and live life to the fullest. I would appreciate an E-mail back from you, to hear your opinion of my views.

I know you said that your note isn’t really about your girlfriend, but this is an important topic that we haven’t really discussed on my site yet, so I’m going to go ahead and say a few words about it before getting to your main question.

I noticed a few interesting things in your description of your apparent frustration with your girlfriend’s beliefs. One is that you put the word “devout” in quotes. I’d be interested to know why you did this. Do you think she’s not really devout? Or that the word is of dubious meaning or potentially bothersome? I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with describing someone as devout if that’s what they are. It’s not an insult, just a statement of fact.

I understand that it can be frustrating trying to discuss a difference in religious opinion with someone you care about, particularly if neither of you have a lot of experience with this kind of discussion (which may be the case here). You seem to be taking the right track by asking why your girlfriend believes what she does, as opposed to specifically confronting her beliefs. Too many would start out by attacking details of the religious person’s beliefs, and that very frequently turns into a struggle instead of a mutual understanding.

If your girlfriend does not have a strong theological base (that is, if she is devout without a lot of significant religious learning), she may have difficulty explaining why she is religious. It may just be part of the way that she thinks at this point. This may be why she falls back upon “I just want you to be saved” when you are looking for something more specific. She doesn’t really have the answers you are looking for, but because she cares about you and believes that people who do not share her beliefs will be punished, she is understandably concerned about your eternal welfare. It says good things about her sincerity and her feelings about you that she wants to save you from eternal punishment, whether or not you think that such punishment exists.

You mention trying to open your girlfriend’s mind. Personally, I would stay away from thinking in those terms. Far too often, people use the phrase “open your mind” to mean “stop thinking rationally and just agree that I might be right.” You aren’t using it in this way, but I think that avoiding the phrase might serve you well down the road. (Also, it can sound a little condescending.) Really what you want to do is help your girlfriend see your point of view while, at the same time, make her point of view clear to you. You both need “open minds” because you both need to be able to see the situation from the other’s perspective.

I’m going to dissect your next sentence rather severely. You say, “If she wants to believe in Christianity that’s fine.” This makes it sound like she is making a conscious decision to agree with Christianity or to disagree with you. I very much doubt that is the case, any more than it is the case that you are choosing not to agree with her for one reason or another. You don’t want to risk thinking that she’s religious because she’s stubborn, when she may be religious because she has feelings that compel her to be religious.

You continue by saying that you want your girlfriend to, “at least accept the fact that we can’t be sure of pretty much anything that she has been taught.” Well, this may be true, depending on what she has been taught. I don’t know what religion she is specifically so I can’t say. I would, again, caution against making such sweeping statements, though, since if she gets her sense of morality through religious education you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater (that is, some of what she believes may be correct, even if it is correct for incorrect reasons). The important point you are making is that if she has faith based on feelings instead of evidence, then her reasons for faith are compelling to nobody but her. She can’t expect you to be religious because she feels religious. True, she may have concerns about your eventual damnation, but if she has no other compelling reason for religious belief, then she has no way to convert you. I’m guessing that in her religion you can’t just say you believe in Christianity in order to be saved (since God would know that you are not sincere), so you must be convinced.

Depending on your girlfriend’s particular faith, she may believe that you can avoid damnation by living a good life, whether or not you believe in Christianity. This is something you and she should discuss. If her faith does not believe that there can be salvation through living a good life, then it might be worthwhile for her to find out (if she doesn’t know already) how her religion believes God to be good when he will eternally punish a moral individual just because that person has no (or has the wrong) religious faith.

Finally, you say that you want your girlfriend to know, “that it is most important to cherish the life we live now, and let whatever happens after we die just happen.” Frankly, I think you’re a bit off base here. This statement makes sense from a non-religious perspective, but it doesn’t make sense from the perspective of many Christian believers. If your girlfriend thinks that there is a serious chance of being punished for eternity, then letting the afterlife “just happen” makes no sense at all. From her perspective, you might be saying something similar to, “I know that there’s a bomb in that house, but it may not go off, so let’s go live there and just let what happens happen.” In order for your girlfriend to accept your beliefs about life and death, you need to convince her that either there is no afterlife or that if there is an afterlife you have as good a chance of a good afterlife as she does (since for all we know God may value sincerity over rote devotion). This may require a significant change in her religious thinking, and you need to be prepared for the possibility that she cannot make that change.

Sorry for going on about this in such detail, but this is actually a very important topic. If your relationship with your girlfriend is serious, then these issues need to be addressed sooner or later. I have seen several couples come to great difficulty when they believe that they can live with mutually exclusive religious beliefs — particularly when then try and raise children. Even if the relationship is not that serious at this point, couples may have difficulties when dealing with philosophical differences about the morality of intimacy and other subjects. It is great that you are working through these issues now. And if your girlfriend would like to write to me about the issue from her perspective, I would welcome the correspondence.

So, after an acre or two of answers to questions you didn’t ask, let’s get to your actual inquiry.

You ask about agnosticism. I use the word agnostic to indicate the belief that the existence of a deity is not provable one way or the other. I don’t think that the beliefs you describe having fit into that category (if I had to choose, I’d say you actually sound a bit more Deist or Buddhist).

You say that you know, “that there is something about that very small part about us that makes us a living being.” This is a very interesting statement, coming as it did after your statements about your girlfriend’s beliefs, because it is essentially a statement of faith. There is no logical, rational reason I can think of for believing that life has anything to do with some “special power that separates us from a rock” If you have two lumps of iron, I don’t think there’s any way to tell that one lump is composed of iron that used to be part of a living creature.

I’d say — and this is completely from an atheist perspective, so you may not agree — that your feeling that there is some kind of life force is similar to the feeling that a cave man might have about an automobile. The cave man might see the car drive and then take it apart to see what makes it move. He’ll keep looking and looking, dividing the car into smaller parts, but never find something he recognizes as a force of motion. He may end up holding a single bolt, looking at it, and wondering what it is about this bolt that makes it part of a moving thing instead of just something made of metal. But his belief that there is a special motivating force is nothing more than a statement of his ignorance (in the non-pejorative sense) of how a car works.

I think that your feelings about life fall into the same category. Life is an incredibly bizarre and difficult to comprehend phenomena. It is, in fact, difficult to define life in a rigorous way. Are viruses alive? Is fire? But I’d say that life is just a natural phenomenon, a wonderful, fascinating, complex process that deserves our respect and inquisitiveness. Science can tell us a lot about living things — and there is still a lot to learn — but it does not require any thing beyond the visible to explain living systems.

Given all this, if you feel that there must be more to life and thought than mere mechanics, that’s okay. But in that case, you must realize that you have a belief based on your feelings as opposed to on objective evidence. This puts you in the same boat as your girlfriend — you both have beliefs that are not based on evidence. That might be a good basis for your next conversation.

Good luck, and feel free to write if you wish to continue our discussion.

Posted on January 31, 2007 at 11:43 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Discussion

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