Why I'm Agnostic (2001)
B. Steven Matthies
The decision to choose agnosticism over Christianity was not an easy choice. In fact, it has taken me over 20 years to finally reach this point. Like many in my family, I was required to attend a parochial Lutheran school until the seventh grade. Even after that, I attended church on a regular basis for at least ten years. In all that time--like a "good Christian"--I memorized the Ten Commandments, read Luther's Catechism, memorized the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds, memorized numerous Bible verses, listened to countless sermons, and recited obediently, most of the aforementioned every Sunday, with the rest of "flock."
In those formative years, I literally had it drilled into my head by my pastors, teachers, and family (many of whom meant well) that this particular religion would be my salvation. I was told that the Bible was the flawless and perfect word of God, that God sent his Son to die for me, and that by believing in Him I would be saved from eternal damnation.
There was one problem during all of this indoctrination: I liked to read! About the same time I was going through Confirmation I also had stumbled upon a book at the public library. This book talked about the Native Americans who inhabited America and it stated that these peoples had lived in America thousands of years before the white man came. Also, according to this book, the Native Americans were most certainly not "Christian"! How could this be? My seventh grade mind could not fathom that the loving God everyone kept telling me about could let a whole race not know Him for thousands of years. Even then, I knew that Christianity had its own ultimate bottom line: believe in the Triune God or go to Hell!
This notion bothered me so much that I asked my Pastor about it during Catechism class. I asked him if all those Native Americans--prior to the Christian white man--were in Hell. He told me by not knowing God they did indeed go to Hell. Worse yet: that they deserved it! He said at one time all people knew God and that they strayed from the path of righteousness. When I pressed him about it not being fair to condemn a whole race because their early ancestors screwed up, he got mad. Rather than even attempt to answer my question he told me, "It's not our place to question the mind of God," and he followed that up by making me copy passages out of the Bible. I learned two things that day: 1) Asking hard questions of my religion got me punished. 2) The pastor who was supposed to be an authority did not have the answers.
The next major event was a particular church sermon during my days of Lutheran programming. The topic for that Sunday was atheism, and our pastor was into that all-too-stereotypical "fire and brimstone" mode. During his tirade (amidst much Bible-thumping and shaking) he noted many "Godless heathens," including Isaac Asimov, Thomas Paine, and the "savages" that once inhabited our great country. Not only did he tell us that they were all in a hell that they brought on themselves, but also that their customs, philosophy, and writings were a very threat to the Christian way of life.
Well, this sermon did not have the effect he intended. Rather than drive me away, he made me wonder what was so terribly bad about what they wrote. Eventually I would read Isaac Asimov's In the Beginning and start to look at the "infallible" Bible in a new light. What Asimov did for me was to scientifically explain away much of what I was taught as fact regarding the book of Genesis.
Still, I was years away from agnosticism and had a lot of questions, uncertainties, and doubts. By now I had not gone to church for many years, but still, out of fear of Hell, I thought it safer to say I believed than risk an eternity of damnation. During these "last days" I was still reading works on science, archeology, history, religion, sociology, and anthropology, but I still could not make the jump. Then, as fate would have it, I stumbled upon Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith during an errant Internet book search. To make a long story short, I bought the wonderful book and read it in one night! Reading about Mr. Barker's journey from preacher to atheist, as well as his take on biblical errancy, inspired me to seriously come to grips with what I have been denying for years. In one final research push due to the impetus I had gained from Mr. Barker, I devoured works by Robert Green Ingersoll, Mark Twain, Carl Sagan, and C. Dennis McKinsey--not to mention several research studies by social scientists relating to the ethics of religion. After all this time, effort, research, and anxiety, I finally came to realize that what I had been taught as fact most likely was fiction. In short, I had become an infidel, a skeptic, and a happy agnostic!
As I have explored atheism and agnosticism these past months, I have discovered that the personal reasons for changing from theist to Infidel is as varied as the number of world religions. The following is a summary of "some" my own personal reasons that caused me to leave the fold:
The Infallible Bible:
The Lutherans--as do many Christian sects--believe the Bible is God's inerrant and infallible word. Up until reading Asimov's In the Beginning I too used to believe that. If the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and perfect there should be no dispute. It should make perfect sense and there should be no contradictions, suspicions, or errancy. A perfect and all knowing God would realize the damage that a suspicious text would cause to his followers' faith. In short, even with my inferior mind it should make perfect sense. Unfortunately that is not the case!
Two examples out of many:
1) Who wrote the Pentatuch (i.e., Old Testament)? According to some biblical literalists, Moses was the author of the Old Testament. Indeed, there are numerous verses that either state or suggest that the Bible was authored by Moses: Exodus 17:14, Exodus 24:4, Exodus 34:27, Deuteronomy 31:9, Deuteronomy 31:24-26, Joshua 8:31-34, Mark 7:10, Luke 24:44, John 1:17, etc. Of course, if the inerrent Bible is true, how could Moses have written of his own death in Deuteronomy?
Deuteronomy 34:5: "So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab...."
(2) The Protestant, Hebrew, & Catholic versions of the Ten Commandments all vary. (e.g., Protestant #8 "thou shalt not steal," Hebrew #8 "bearing false witness," Catholic #8 "stealing.") In fact none of them agree numerically, nor does the Bible specifically number them. In fact, by some counts based on Exodus and Deuteronomy, there are actually 29 commandments. Finally, take a look at Exodus 20 and compare it to Exodus 34. In the former we have the original set of Commandments that Moses later smashes. In the latter (after Moses smashes the first set) God promises to "write on them the words that were on the first." Well if you compare the original Commandments with the end result you'll see that God did not follow through with his promise!
Now some liberal theists I have debated tell me I am being nit-picky; that the Bible is meant to be read like poetry, not as a factual case; that the Holy Spirit (whatever that is!) inspired the writers and will inspire the believers to understand it. If this is the case, someone needs to tell this to the fundamentalists who keep saying the Bible is the perfect and infallible word of God! After examining biblical errancy--even on a topical level--I cannot see how anyone can call the Bible the "perfect word of God." Were the Bible a court document it would be tossed out by the judge. Were the Bible a master's thesis or PhD dissertation, most academic "committees," in light of the errancy, would reject it. Simply put: in light of the errancy, I must treat it as a suspect product of many error-prone men.
My Take on Pascal's Wager:
Pascal's Wager basically states that if the atheist is right, when we die nothing will happen, and nothing is lost. But if the Christian is right, when the nonbelievers die they are going to an eternity of damnation. Based on that notion it's safer to believe than risk Hell.
To this I say: would someone kindly tell me which religious system I should believe in?
A religion is the organized practice of worshiping a God or Gods. Some have sacred texts and writings; some have traditions passed down through generations. Some have both. Trying to pin down the current number of world religions is very difficult. Most research categorizes religions by numbers of followers. The more members, the more likely the religion is to be counted as a "major world religion." According to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia there are currently 150 world religions with 1 million or more followers and 10,000 distinct world religions. Worse yet, what about all those religions which are no longer practiced?
One version which leaves out many I would consider "major":
So here we have 10 "major" religions. Which one is right? Which text is right? Are they all "divinely inspired"? What about Native American religions that have been around for thousands of years? What about African religions? South American? What about one of the past religions that's no longer practiced? What about cults, sects, shamanism, animalism, etc., etc., that profess some sort of belief in either a God, Gods, beings, rocks, forces, trees, supernatural, and so on?
I think the burden of proof is on each religion to prove to the nontheist the legitimacy of their system. Most claim their "sacred text" is divinely inspired yet most do not hold up to scrutiny. Most have had a leader, prophet, etc., who claims to have had a "divine" experience. (e.g., Mohammed of Islam, Joseph Smith of the Mormon faith & the Native American Medicine Man Wovoka--just to name a FEW--all claim divine experiences of some sort) Almost all have some sort of creation myth. Many have a Heaven or Hell. (or Heavens and Hells) Many condone the killing of members of opposing faith. All have had leaders and members who lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc., in the name of their religion. Some provide a moral guide to live without harming others but the same could be said of nonreligious ethical systems.
So my point is: will some "theist" please tell me how you can even propose that your religion is the correct religion--much less divinely inspired? Even picking one of the top 10 you have a 1 in 10 chance of being right and the odds drop quickly the more religions you add to the mix. (.7% if you pick from one of those 150!) Moreover, how many fundamentalist theists ever seriously evaluate other religions, religious texts, cultures, so-called divine experiences of other religions, etc? Just because someone in a robe tells you it's true doesn't make it so. In summation: Pascal's Wager is not a safe bet!
The Jesus Factor:
Three Possibilities: 1) Jesus never existed. 2) Jesus existed but was not the Son of God. 3) Jesus was the Son of God. (I suspect number 2) Theists cite the Bible as proof that Jesus existed. I cite the vast body of work regarding biblical errancy. I cannot accept a suspect text as validation of the "divinity" of Jesus. True there is mention of Jesus by the Jews, the Christians, and Muslims. True again that he even appears in their writings and sacred texts. The problem is their sacred texts do not agree, their priests and scholars do not agree, their core beliefs are incompatible with each other, and they most certainly do not agree on what Jesus was! In fact, Christianity believes that adherents of the other two religions are bound for Hell.
(1) To Jewish people Jesus was just a human, not the Son of God. In the Jewish view, Jesus cannot save souls; only God can. Jesus did not, in the Jewish view, rise from the dead. He also did not absorb the sins of people. For Jewish people, sins are removed by seeking forgiveness from God--not Jesus.
(2) The Muslims believe Jesus was nothing more than a prophet, not divine, and certainly second place to Mohammad.
(3) To the Christians Jesus is the second member of the Triune God and at the same time "fully" God in every respect. They believe sin is taken away through him and they believe he did rise from the dead.
Here we have three cultures that were in the same geographic area as Jesus, two existed in the same time period as Jesus and another was much closer to it than we, yet they cannot agree on what he was. Also, let's not forget the Roman occupation. There is very little mention of Jesus by the Romans and what is mentioned suggests he was just another religious zealot that happened to get executed. What about all of the "wrath of God" events the Bible describes that happened at the death of Jesus? (i.e., the sky turning dark, the earthquakes, the thunder, etc.) There is no mention anywhere in history, only in the Bible. Does this sound like the work of a perfect and infallible God? If it does I guess I'm missing something! Regardless, someone needs to get His followers on the same sheet of music.
Mark Twain Regarding the Christian God:
"...a God who could make good children as easily a bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell--mouths mercy, and invented hell--mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!"
Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) wrote these words in The Mysterious Stranger and I must say they sum up the fourth prong of my argument more eloquently and to the point than I ever could.
This is the "short version" of why I choose agnosticism. Unbeknownst to many theists, I did not arrive at this choice on a whim. In fact, I have spent more time and suffered more angst researching this decision than "most" theists ever put into their beliefs. Also, I feel a logical God that "knows everything there ever was or will be" would have foreseen this grand calamity. Considering that I am created flawed and inferior, finding belief in said God should not be this hard! I should not need to have a PhD in religious studies or be able to read Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in order to figure out if a God exists. A perfect and all knowing God should have made it so that even the proverbial "village idiot" should be able to find Him--and that is clearly not the case. Regardless, if said God holds this against me then so be it! I gave it my best shot and at present I feel it's unanswerable, hence agnosticism.
Some Suggested Readings:
Asimov's Guide to the Bible: The Old and New Testaments by Isaac Asimov.
Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker.
The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.
The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by C. Dennis McKinsey.
The Great Infidels & Some Mistakes of Moses & On the Gods and Others Essays, & Best of Robert Ingersoll: Selections from His Writings and Speeches all by the irreplaceable Robert Green Ingersoll.