Agnosticism, atheism and belief

What Is

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser recently won the Templeton Prize, an award given to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Gleiser, an agnostic, has argued that atheism is not compatible with a scientific perspective. Here is a link:

The tension between religion and science is as old as, well, modern science. The battle between conservative, orthodox religion and science extends from Galileo all the way to today’s efforts to deny everything from evolution to climate change. 

Scientists, perhaps to no one’s suprise, are far less likely than the average person to “believe in God.” In a survey done by the Pew Research Center ten years ago, 83 percent of the general public said they believe in God, while 33 percent of scientists did. Leading scientists, like members of the American Academy of Science, are even less likely to believe in God. 

As always, so much depends on how a question is asked. While a third of scientists in the survey say they believe in God, only seven percent believe in some sort of afterlife or in a “personal god.” Only four percent of scientists in the survey were evagelical Protestants, while 28 percent of the general population were.

I have long thought that a person’s answer to the question about belief in God doesn’t tell us much. This is particularly true of more educated people. The God that answers prayers, works miracles, smites our enemies and condemns people to eternal hell bears no resemblance to the God of process theology. The god of the modern philosophical theologians doesn’t really do anything. The line between the god of liberal theology and agnosticism is pretty fuzzy. 

So what does it actually mean to “believe” in God? We tend to be very sloppy about how we use the term “believe.” On the one hand, it means agreement with a factual proposition. If I say “I believe yesterday’s high temperature was 58 degrees,” I am talking about one kind of belief. That belief has no real emotional weight, nor does it shape my conduct. That is very different from a traditional belief in God, a belief that has huge implications for my life. There is a kind of belief that is an affirmation, that comes from believing as giving one’s heart. This kind of religious belief is a relationship and has real consequences.

So What?

So what, indeed. What difference does “belief” make? When we ask the question like this, a very different picture emerges. The big divide in our world is not between those who believe in God and those who do not, but between fundamentalists on the one hand and everyone else. There is essentially no difference between those who believe in a god who does not interfere in the world and those who do not believe in such a god. The behavioral difference between a liberal believer and an agnostic or even atheist is close to zero. 

Having heard more theological discussion than one person should have to endure in a lifetime, I would suggest that the question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because the answer tells us very little. The real question is “What do you give your heart to?”. It is a question of what we love and what commitments we make. That is what shapes our lives. 

One thought on “Agnosticism, atheism and belief”

  1. Well, right. Feed the hungry. Help the downtrodden. Be Gentle and Kind. Makes little difference what you believe in or not. Plus, I feel that the deceased have communicated with me, and that a Guiding presence has alerted me through intuition and through thoughts in my head that just pop in there that don’t come from my own volition. For me that afterlife is real.


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