First of all, I thank you profusely for you well-structured and reasoned arguments, along with your (surprisingly) un-confrontational manner. It’s a rare thing, and something I don’t possess (however much I wish I did).
I’d like to point out a few of things that, as an agnostic, really annoy me, and get me quite riled up.
1) People that insist God does/does not exist. – I thought about this hard a long while ago, and came to a conclusion similar to yours (I think).
That is, I believe nobody can categorically *know* whether a God exists or not. Even if someone were to say ‘I had a vision’, and they had, in fact, had a vision where ‘God’ ‘spoke’ to them, it is logically impossible for them to be certain that it was not simply a hallucination.
And in a similar way, some strong atheists categorically state that God ‘cannot’ or ‘does not’ exist. How can they be sure? How can they be certain that God is not just there, not interfering? Although in the process of writing this down, it has occurred to me that perhaps this is simply a by-product of the old ‘Can you ever be certain of anything’ philosophical debate?
2) People who try to convert you through the ‘fear of hellfire’ route, then go on claim that the only way to salvation is through true belief.
If they succeed in making you believe in God, (on the grounds that if you didn t, you would burn in the fiery depths of hell for all eternity), then surely you are worshipping out of fear… And if you worship out of fear of the wrath of God, then who/where is this infinitely moral and Good being of which they spoke in the first place?!
3) People who claim that Atheists must be immoral.
Why, oh why do they even bother bringing up this argument? If all atheists are immoral, then surely everything an atheist does is immoral. Then why do we not all go around stealing from people, or laughing at disabled/impoverished people or kicking dogs? It’s such a horrendous claim.
Now after all this, I think I should make clearer my beliefs. And yes, as an agnostic, I do have beliefs (or perhaps a better phrase would be ‘hopes’). I hope that there is a God, really. But what I hope for more, is that he has nothing to do with this universe, or any religions in it, and is completely and utterly separate. Perhaps then when I met Him, I wouldn t have to ask ‘Why do you let so much suffering occur?’. I also hope that he is at least half as reasonable as your average human. At least this way, he would let people into Heaven on the weight of how they have lived their lives, not who they worshipped and how many days a month they went to the church/synagogue/temple/mosque. And on the subject of heaven, I hope hell is reserved for the worst of the worst, i.e., truly evil people (Hitler, rapists, child abusers, etc). And I hope for a heaven, because it would be nice for it not just end at death.
If I am wrong about any of this, then I hope there is no God, because I wouldn’t want to be part of a post-life system that wasn’t like that, or meet the God behind a system that wasn t fair .
Thanks for running a great site.
Responding to a few of your points:
1) I don’t mind people saying that God definitely does/does not exist so long as they have a reasonable reason for doing so. I would mildly disagree with the statement that nobody can categorically know whether God exists unless we are defining “know” to incorporate metaphysical truth. For example, do I know what my father looks like if I can’t prove beyond all possible doubt that I’m not adopted? A person may “know” that they saw an angel in a vision, even though the rest of us might consider that person diluded.
As for the atheist side of the coin, I’d say that an atheist can only say that God does not exist insofar as it can be proven that it is not logically possible for such a being to exist. In my case, I don’t claim to be able to prove that there are no deities, but I think I can argue effectively that certain descriptions of a deity are logically impossible. There are some people who say there is no God because they are using God specifically in the Judeo-Christian sense. I don’t think that’s intellectually rigorous.
2) I don’t get that, either. I particularly don’t see how “if you don’t believe this you’ll be punished” is any way to convince someone that something is true. Could you believe that all birds are enemy secret agents if not doing so would mean prison time? I couldn’t, and if you could, I’d call you crazy.
3) Some people don’t understand how you can have morality without fear of punishment. These people make me sad. I disagree that if someone is immoral then everything they do is immoral. In fact, their behavior could be quite moral, if only by accident (or evil design). It’s the motivation, not the mechanical behavior, that makes one moral or immoral.
Your statement of personal beliefs really made me think. I tend to dislike “agnostic” as a label (because, in my opinion, it is too often used by atheists who don’t want to be called atheists). However, I had never considered the case of a person who cannot prove that there is a god and therefore won’t say that such a being exists but who hopes that there is a god. If I understand you correctly and this is what you mean, then I think that’s kind of delightful, and I feel that calling yourself agnostic is appropriate. Good for you, and thank you for making me think.