I’ve often said that I cringe at some of our earliest lyrics, even if I still enjoy the youthful and musical exuberance in the songs. It’s pretty easy to grant myself some grace in growing up. When I was a child I spoke as a child, after all. I can put those early works in perspective. Here’s one such lyric:
Have you heard the latest?
Jesus is the greatest
He can save you and I’ll tell you something more
You can go to heaven and know for sure
I used to hear it all the time from the pulpit. “You can know for sure that you are saved and going to heaven!” I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. I received the following email and by the looks of things, I’m guessing this is what the writer had in mind:
Greetings […] I took the time to read about the old band & what everyone is doing these days. I was surprised to learn that you are a self proclaimed Agnostic. I’m curious….& trust me no judgement here….You use to lead people to Christ & lead others in praise & worship. How does one separate themselves from the God they believed deeply in? I don’t quite understand how you went from certainty to uncertainty & doubt. Enlighten me….. Thank you….
I appreciate the question and take at face value that this is genuine and free of judgment. When I answer such questions, I often have to do so by refuting the basic assumptions of the question and that can appear confrontational. I don’t intend that at all but I’m compelled to answer thus or else I’m not being truthful.
How does one separate from the God they believed deeply in? The easy answer to this one is simply that after having submitted my beliefs to scrutiny and the standards of inquiry that we would require for any important objective claim, it was no longer possible for me to believe. The version of God I deeply believed in simply could not exist and I can’t find a reason or basis on which to replace it with any other. It’s not a matter of separating myself from God because the question assumes that there actually is that God to separate from in the first place. Once the claims were put to the test, I could find absolutely no basis, no reason to hold those beliefs any longer, and that’s what I separated from. It’s a matter of being true to my intellect and my conscience.
I understand that many believers have not, like I had not, put their beliefs to the test of genuine inquiry, nor will they because of what it might do to their faith. As Will Durant said, “Inquiry is fatal to certainty,” and that just will not do sadly, when dealing with what we deeply believe. Religious beliefs seem to fall into one of three categories. They are either unknowable and can only be taken on blind faith (the existence of cherubim, for example and all such claims), possibly-knowable based on evidence or analysis that might show up someday, or third, claims that are at least somewhat verifiably known already.
In the first case, agnosticism is the most reasonable response. “Cherubim? Hell? Who knows?!” In the second case, agnosticism is also the most reasonable response. We have no independent source to back up the objective claims that the earth turned black, that there was a great earthquake, that the graves of many were opened and gave up resurrected bodies or that the temple veil ripped in two at the death of Jesus. Did those things actually, literally, really happen? Who knows?! We have only one source of such claims where there should be many independent sources. It’s at least possible that undeniable evidence for these events or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead will eventually show up but we don’t have any now. In the third case, I must defer to the evidence, no matter where it leads. Recent evidence has suggested that there actually was a King David in Jerusalem. I accept that evidence. I also accept the evidence that suggests the most likely origin of the Canaanites, and that it was not an exodus from Egypt that looked anything like the biblical account. I am in the service of the truth by having changed the way I evaluate religious claims.
From Certainty to Uncertainty
What is there to be certain about then? We can certainly not be certain of the claims that would fall into the first two buckets. And for those that fall into the third, there is simply not enough there to put together the whole story, mythology (as much of it certainly is) and theology required to consider myself a Christian.
Let me put it another way and be a bit more blunt. I am not certain and neither is anyone else. The religious often claim to have that certainty but if the word is to have any meaning at all, the best anyone can do is to claim to believe things fervently or to be completely deluded at worst. It is as if by digging in, by sheer force of will, by obstinance in the name and guise of steadfastness, to show oneself a good and faithful servant and embrace the unknowable and not-yet-knowable, we have convinced ourselves that we are certain. There is simply no way to support why other than an appeal to faith.
It’s exactly this false sense of certainty and aversion to doubt that philosopher and theologian Thomas Talbott wrote about when he distinguished between faith, belief and knowledge.
But then, for my own part, I would never dream of using the term “faith” in this way. For as I and a substantial minority of religious writers use the term, the opposite of faith is faithlessness, disloyalty, or even hypocrisy, not intellectual doubt. In fact, faith is not essentially a matter of believing something at all; much less is it a matter of generating belief in oneself by means of an heroic act of will. It is instead a matter of owning up to whatever knowledge one has, of allowing one’s settled beliefs about the world and one’s deepest moral convictions (or whatever light one has acquired, as a religious person might call it) to transform one’s life and to reflect itself in one’s actions. In a word, it is just the opposite of what Sartre would have called “bad faith.”
What this really means is that I have not moved from certainty to uncertainty at all, but from the illusion of certainty into a more rigorous way of evaluating truth claims. One rather ironic result is that I have more “faith” (in the way Talbott uses the word) than I did as a religious believer by virtue of “owning up to whatever knowledge one has,” and we have enough knowledge to come to some fairly certain conclusions. I have moved from the illusion of certainty to the more reliable methods and standards of analysis we would require in any other area of our lives except religion.