Gospel & Universe
This page urges skepticism about religious dogma as well as respect for religious concepts of hope and justice.
Religion as Hope - Laws on Earth as They Might Be in Heaven
Religion as Hope
Many atheists feel compelled to treat religions as if they were merely a waste of time -- a wrong direction, a scattering of mutually incompatible paradigms. Many feel that the disintegration of religion is a good thing, and that it's a measure of atheism's superior truth.
Agnostics, on the other hand, have greater leeway and greater inclination to see in religions the formulation of large and complex understandings. As I note in Gods & Souls, religions provide frameworks that help people conceptualize a meaningful place in the universe. I also suggested that this meaning isn't diminished if one explores multiple frameworks -- a point that's easier for ecumenicals to appreciate than it is for fundamentalists.
From an agnostic point of view, theistic belief systems are generally hopeful systems, that is, they're systems that provide people with various types of possible meaning to their lives -- a big part being the possibility of an afterlife. For how much meaning can people feel if their lives are soon swallowed up in oblivion? Atheists argue that the meaning we gather (or create) in our short lives is all the meaning we'll ever get. But they may or may not be right about this. Perhaps we do live after we die. Who really knows? The jury may unanimously agree that there's proof of a dead body and that there's no proof of a risen spirit. Yet the jury's still out when it comes to the ontological question of whether or not the body had a spirit, especially if spirit is by definition not dependent on the body. Agnostics argue that there's a reasonable doubt about the existence or non-existence of such a spirit.
Agnostics argue that while they doubt, atheists believe and theists hope. Atheists assert that there's no God and no soul, yet they can't prove it and hence it's a belief. Theists believe there's a God and a soul, yet agnostics see their belief as both a belief and a hope. Agnostics don't argue that their hope is realistic or logical, but rather idealistic. They don't see this hope as merely an illusion or a wrong direction philosophically, psychologically, or sociologically, even if it may turn out to be an illusion ontologically. Religion may be beneficial in terms of conception, morality, and law, even if it doesn't end up being true in the sense that our beings experience an afterlife.
Laws on Earth as They Might Be in Heaven
Religions may have been helpful in formulating two large frameworks of morality and law: 1) systems of universal justice, which involve detached afterlife judgments of human behaviour, and 2) systems of grace, which involve partial afterlife judgments, ones qualified and even superseded by forgiveness. It isn't difficult to see why our legal codes and societal norms require both of these systems -- solid laws as well as humane interpretations of these laws; heavy penalties for heavy crimes, yet the possibility that if criminals reform (or repent), they can see light at the end of the tunnel.
While atheists and theists see human law in opposition to religious law, this may be an over-simplification that fosters unnecessary antagonism. This binary opposition leads many secular people to shy way from looking closely at the positive elements in religious frameworks. As a result, only the deeply orthodox spend much time in their interpretation. Their interpretations are of course deeply orthodox, and therefore make religion look even less secular. Many agnostics are ideally situated to enter into this arena, since they are profoundly secular and they are also open to revisiting in an appreciative manner some of the theological models and debates many have left behind.
One could argue that it's better to leave these old systems behind. Yet two problems follow from this: 1) the societal divide between believers and non-believers gets wider, and 2) non-believers lose the chance of recuperating aspects -- from individual metaphors to larger mythic and moral frameworks -- that can provide depth and richness to their materialistic lives.
I'm of course taking for granted that religions have also played a negative role in the advance of critical thinking and science. I go into these problems in detail elsewhere, especially in Cities of God and Believe it or Else. Yet here I want to suggest another side of the question -- the degree to which theists have played a positive role, perhaps despite their dogmatic convictions.
Next: Churches of Thought