The Sense and Morality of Agnosticism

I can say with relative confidence (because what I'm saying, at least it would seem, has to be true) that there is only one necessary religion that has any merit to the people who inhabit this earth, and that's the Golden Rule: “Whosoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (from the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:12). To treat others as you would want them to treat you (the only obvious exception being when acting in any kind of self defense) is the highest, most noble form of human behavior and the basis of all morality. No matter what some papal encyclical says; no matter what some bishops conference says; no matter how many sacraments of the Catholic church there are or chapters and verses in the bible or thick and complex books by theologians or Sunday school classes and sermons by pastors; no matter how many heated arguments there are about God, Jesus, and religion; no matter how many pilgrimages there are to Mecca, Jerusalem, and other holy places; no matter how many thousands of hours Jewish scholars struggle over the meaning of the Torah; no matter how many multimillion-dollar churches and synagogues and grand cathedrals to Christ are constructed, nothing can ever change that simple reality.

“When I do good, I feel good,” Abraham Lincoln said. “When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion.”

What can any church, religion, priest, minister, rabbi, theologian, seminary, religious book, or college course teach you beyond the Golden Rule that has any value? Anything else has to be man-made piffle.

If we must have religion, the seminal test as to the value and merit of any religion worth its salt has to be not what you believe, but what you do –– that is, how you treat your fellow man. Yet in the thousands upon thousands of books, and billions upon billions of words that have been written, particularly about Christianity and the bible, what percentage of these books do you think are devoted to the only thing that counts — the Golden Rule?

The second reality is that if there is a God and a heaven after our life on earth, no God who demands of those whom he created that in order to get to heaven they do something here on earth different from leading a life of the Golden Rule is worth spending one second in heaven with, much less eternity. If his main requirement for getting to heaven is not that we treat our fellow man fairly and decently, but we be born-again Christians who accept Jesus as our savior and that we love him more than anyone else with all of our being, then, as indicated earlier, who in the hell would want to spend eternity or even one second with someone who is so unbelievably self-centered and vainglorious?

That type of God is not worth a tinker's damn.

The word faith is a euphemism for hope and speculation. Indeed, the definition of faith is belief in the unknown. And if I may borrow a cliched term, I, for one, have never had much faith in faith. Since faith is an acknowledgment that the truth is unknown, it is nothing more than wishful thinking, and the wish is no evidence of anything beyond itself. Yet so many religious people take their wishes for reality. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, faith is the first refuge of an idle or apprehensive mind, a condition that, though perhaps mentally and emotionally nutritious, is not intellectually sustainable.

When devout Christians feel inadequate, in conversation or debate, in justifying their belief in God, they very frequently retreat by saying, “Youhave to have faith,” saying this in the sense that faith is something that one should have, as if it's the proper and right thing to do. But I wonder if they have ever stopped to ask themselves why. If they are truthful with themselves, is it because they need there to be a God to give purpose to their life and mitigate their fear of death? But if so, is that really an intelligent justification for believing there is a God merely wanting or needing him to exist to make them feel better?

I certainly do not mean to denigrate the value of faith. Faith has lit candles of warmth and softened pangs of fear and despair throughout human history. As nineteenth-century German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine said, “Human misery is too great for man to do without faith.” Tolstoy went so far as to proclaim that “faith is the force of life.” It's just that the comfort and solace, even strength, of faith should never be confused with the existence or nonexistence of the object of that faith. Faith and its object bear no relation to each other, though if one were to believe the great religions of the world, faith in God and God should be listed as synonyms in the dictionary. Religion even goes so far as to say that faith is itself virtuous. But under what conceivable theory?

Christianity, since its origins, has tried to infuse faith with a substance it does not have, calling it something it is not in a transparent attempt to change its nature. But as Lincoln pointed out, calling, for instance, the tail of a dog a leg doesn't change the number of legs a dog has from four to five. This is why the apostle Paul only succeeded in revealing that he knew faith is as substanceless as the froth of a vapor when he felt the need to come up with this embarrassing articulation in his letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). But we know that faith is only the dream of things hoped for, the imagining of things unseen.

How or why should someone have faith in something for which there is no evidence? But if we must have faith, shouldn't we have faith only in that which does not do violence to our common sense and reason? Why should we want to see, by faith, what the eye of reason rejects?

Being as helpless and impotent as we are in understanding the meaning of our existence, the majority of mankind turns to organized religion for answers, while a much smaller number of humans turn to learned religious writers and theologians. But all we ever get from any of these sources is unintelligible and/or absurd answers to insoluble mysteries. God, if there is a God, would have all the answers. But he is waiting for us, if at all, outside the reach of our minds — our finite minds cannot comprehend that which is infinite (or as Einstein put it, “The problem is too vast for our limited minds”) — and that is why the effort of religion and theology to define and explain God is inherently futile. Thus, my agnosticism.

Is the conclusion of agnosticism no more than an intellectual exercise? Can it have any value to the human condition? Perhaps. I believe there is an ethical dimension to agnosticism that has the potential, to the degree it is embraced, to make man more honest. We know that untruthfulness, dishonesty, deceit, hypocrisy, and pretense are so much a part of life that we almost expect these things in our daily living and find it refreshing when we see their absence. And it's not too likely this will ever change. But if man can ever at least hope to reduce the level of dishonesty in his existence, there perhaps is no better place to start than in his relationship with God.

The above is an excerpt from the bookDivinity of Doubt:The God Question by Vincent Bugliosi. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2011 Vincent Bugliosi, author ofDivinity of Doubt:The God Question