Is there a god?

What a loaded question!

The word “god” assumes so much. What does “god” mean here? What meaning can we agree on for the word “god?”

I prefer to phrase this question differently: are there powers and forces greater than us, of which we know little to nothing about and never will completely understand?

My answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I don’t know very many people who wouldn’t agree with me here, though there may be a few. If “God” simply represents all of the vast array of things and forces that we don’t know, I think we’re pretty much all believers 🙂

In order to reconcile what can often be thorny difference in belief between different people, we must remember that everybody chooses their interpretation of what the word “God” means. Whenever I’m around and somebody uses the word “God” in prayer or in what is meant to be a sacred context, this is how I choose to interpret it. And thus, I don’t feel imposed upon, even though I am an atheist.

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22 Responses to Is there a god?

  1. Semantics plays so heavily in religious discussion. Like you predicted, I do agree that “there are powers and forces greater than us, of which we know little to nothing about.” I’d be a little less tempted to go all the way to “never fully understand.” But by that definition the number of gods in the universe would be close to infinity!

    “God” in this definition is really close to polytheism, where we have gods of the sea, air, earth, death, creation, love, lust, etc. to the point where every process we don’t understand is a god. But in this definition we’re also constantly knocking “gods” off the list. As we learn more and more about the universe we loose the gods. And this line of thinking is called God of the Gaps!

    Maybe I’ll try your approach to avoid imposition, but I think we all know a lot of people literally mean a personable force who likes to intervene in our lives when they say “god.”

  2. Layla says:

    God cannot be proven to exist, or not to exist. Believing in god, or not believing in god, these are both choices with no rational basis. You may as well spin a roulette wheel, then believe if you get red, don’t believe if you get black.

    The only rational choice is to make no choice at all.

  3. Layla says:

    Pascal’s wager, you say?
    I will present two simple arguments against it in the context of belief in religion:

    #1. For Christians, and similarly derived religions, ‘god knows your heart,’ and thus you cannot be saved by ‘his son’s sacrifice on the cross’ if your belief is not true. So, believing out of fear cannot save your immortal soul. Therefore, the only way to save your immortal soul is to *truly* believe; which, again, is irrational, because there is no evidence that any god exists, or doesn’t exist.

    #2. Many religions are mutually exclusive about their deities. If you believe in the “Christian God”, then you cannot believe in Allah.; So, even if your religion permits doubt (which the Christian religion, for example, does not), you still may not be permitted to worship other gods. By virtue of these principles of mutual exclusion, it is not possible for all religions to be true — *at least some have to be false.*

    Since you can’t bet on all religions simultaneously, and you can’t know which religion(s) to bet on, how can you choose rationally?

    You can’t! It’s at best a game of chance! And there isn’t even guaranteed to be any way to “win!” There may be no god(s) at all!

    One final observation: Religions which promise great pain to disbelievers, and great pleasure to believers seem to be extremely popular.

  4. MPositive says:

    Pascal’s wager… Wow Layla… you anticipated an argument I didn’t even put forth yet, lol… (just kidding)

    The exclusivity of many religious faiths definitely clued me in to not wanting to be a part of any of them, personally. I agree with your #2.

    However, when you say that “there is no evidence that any god exists, or doesn’t exist,” I think you would get a lot of different responses on that. Many would say that the existence of the Earth in all its splendor is a sure sign that there is a god, or some kind of higher being.

    I personally would rather simply admit ignorance than be substitutionist… in other words, I would rather simply say “I don’t know” and not put things in terms of a legend for how things came about.

    The difference for me between atheism and agnosticism is that the atheist would say, “I simply don’t know” whereas the agnostic says, ” I don’t know about God. The agnostic is unsure of the declared concept [of God], whereas the atheist sees no basis to even declare the concept in the first place. “Agnostic,” as I understand it, always historically meant “unsure about God.” It is defined in relation to belief in God.

    Of course, your definition could be different, and that would be fine–these little distinctions in how we define words happen all the time and I refuse to point at you and say, “no, you’re really an atheist” if you identify as agnostic.

    PS: followup post to this one here. 🙂

  5. MPositive says:

    After reading the Wikipedia link you put up, it seems to me that agnosticism is often more in the same boat as existentialism, relativism, empiricism, etc., rather than being groupable with religions and atheism.

    In other words, it is a method or outlook that has no divinity attached to it. And in that sense, we are all agnostic just as much as we are all relativists – it’s a much more amorphous concept, less about personal belief and more about a philosophical tendency that we all use at some points more than others.

    But then there is the kind of agnosticism that is related to divine belief, and in that sense it certainly is not all-encompassing. When spoken about in the context of belief in a god (i.e., alongside concepts like Allah, God, Holy Trinity, atheism, etc.) it tends to take on this flavor and not the all-encompassing philosophical perspective you outline. For that reason in addition to the others, “atheist” is my preferred term.

  6. Agnosticism is a term I wish people were really, really afraid to use. It’s definitely seems like a sound argument on the surface, especially when applied to the existence of gods; but take a look at what being an agnostic would mean if you actually applied it to the rest of your decisions (which I would assume any agnostic would have to):

    I think it might be safe to assume that everyone would recognize the existence of rabbits. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns and it would seem a fair bet to assume that there is a possibility to find a bioluminescent pink polka dotted rabbit hopping around proliferating its extraordinary phenotype. After all, it’s never been proven that one DOESN’T exist, right?

    If we waited to disprove everything before we believed in its nonexistence you’d literally have an infinite amount of absurdities clogging up your decision making processes. The default “setting” for something’s existence is not 50/50; for the simple matter that some things are more or less likely to exist at all!

    This also begs the responsibility of the burden of proof. If I were to make claims like “I can run a marathon in under 2 hours,” you would probably not listen or believe me until I showed you otherwise. This doesn’t mean that you would necessarily equally believe (50/50) that I can or cannot run 26 in under 2 hours, precisely because it’s more unlikely that I can run the time than I can’t.

    If after making that claim I never did run a marathon under 2 hours you still wouldn’t maintain that “Well it’s not been disproven yet! He might just need to train harder!” Same goes for god and anything else. The statistical probability of something’s existence is what we base our decisions on, not its absolute proof or disproof (in most cases).

    More specifically in the case of a god, we KNOW the whole notion has been generated by people’s imaginations. Holy books are easily discredited and the notion of “divine personal revelation” is really just absurd. Since those two foundations, in tandem with early indoctrination, are the real progenitors of the idea of god why would we treat his existence as an even 50/50?

    I hope to get a more thorough discussion about agnosticism up on my blog soon.

  7. Layla says:

    Please understand that I’m not saying this to be mean – I’m just saying it bluntly because it is what I have observed: you both clearly have biased views about what ‘agnostic’ means. Your presentations of agnosticism in your arguments range from being patently incorrect, to being caricatures of what an agnostic is. Please allow me to explain.

    Just as bi-sexual does not imply 50/50 attraction to males and females, agnostic does not imply 50/50 odds of something being true or false. In fact, agnosticism doesn’t have anything to do with odds. Agnosticism is about the nature of knowing. Agnosticism doesn’t have anything to say about how to make decisions; it only speaks to an understanding about what is knowable. How an agnostic individual makes practical decisions is entirely up to the individual!

    Agnosticism is commonly employed in metaphysical contexts, where there is no physical evidence to support or deny a claim. Religion is probably by far the most popular/commonly conceived of these contexts, but it is certainly far from the only one.

    Agnosticism can also be employed in contexts where there is physical evidence to support or deny a claim, but the nature of that evidence is not yet fully understood. Agnosticism in these contexts may be embodied by skepticism and intellectual rigor.

    Once again, to be agnostic means very simply, to admit when something is unknowable.

    It doesn’t mean that rationality and evidence can’t weigh more in one direction or another — to the contrary, in many cases, such as a pink unicorn flying about from galaxy to galaxy, an idea can clearly have no supporting evidence, and based upon what we know, be completely nonsensical. And so, a *rational* agnostic would be inclined to make practical decisions as if said pink unicorn did not exist.

    The main point here, is that the agnostic is conscious that (s)he *cannot know for sure*. In the deity example, atheists are often comfortable throwing the possibility of a deity out the window, which is just as silly as proclaiming that one surely exists.

    What an agnostic chooses to *do* with their knowledge that they cannot know is up to them. Reactions are all the way across the spectrum. For rational agnostics, decisions are based upon evidence. Other agnostics might use other heuristics with which to arrive at their practical decisions. There exist terms such as agnostic atheism, and agnostic theism, to represent agnostics who’s practical lives are lived to either side of the theological spectrum (but others do exist in-between).

    P.S. To Michael, I really have to assert that you had your definitions of agnostic and atheist *completely backwards* in your first post, and that based upon what you’ve said, on the topic of theism, you’re an agnostic atheist.

  8. MPositive says:

    Layla: I may be an “agnostic atheist”… but I’m still an atheist. And, by what you say, it would seem to me that many Christians and Muslims are “agnostic Christians” and “agnostic Muslims” to some degree (excepting, in your view, the least rigorous and most dogmatic of all of them). Many of them would admit not knowing, saying that only God knows certain things. 🙂

    Your use of “agnostic” is so much broader than just a question about God. It is philosophical, not religious. When StarDust asks “what being an agnostic would mean if you actually applied it to the rest of your decisions” [s]he is saying, “what does this notion of agnosticism actually give that makes things clearer or more understandable?”

    Perhaps this thinking–that none of us, no matter what we believe, can really know much at all–helps you in some way. That’s what beliefs are for.

  9. Layla says:

    “Perhaps this thinking–that none of us, no matter what we believe, can really know much at all–helps you in some way. That’s what beliefs are for.”

    It’s not a belief, it’s a truth.

    Also, you can’t be saved as an agnostic Christian, because Jesus won’t save your immortal soul if you have any doubt. Just want to make sure we are clear on that.

    The reason why my use of agnostic is broader, is because agnostic *is* broader. It is not purely related to theology. That is mis-use of the word. The word can be applied to theology, but not knowing extends far beyond.

    Being agnostic is not a tool. It’s a mindset. It’s being conscious of the true nature of knowledge.

    By the way, “Many of them would admit not knowing, saying that only God knows certain things.” indicates the thinking of someone who is clearly not agnostic on the subject of god. Agnostic-theists choose to practice religion, but by nature of being agnostic, do not believe that their religion is true, they believe only that it *may* be true (and thus, may not be true).

    This is a really important distinction. If you cannot or will not grasp this, then we are really at an impasse.

  10. Layla,

    I can fully understand the distinction you’re making here. And I think we might find that the three of us are all agnostics, like you said agnosticism is akin to skepticism. Curiosity and educated decision-making are certainly adjectives to describe what we’re all doing here.

    The difference, however, that I am trying to bring up is that agnosticism in deference to theology is a rather unsupported position. There are ways to know whether or not a god is real. These don’t rely on what individuals “believe” but what can fully be deduced by the evidence that you said rational agnostics like to employ during decision-making (this is in relation to the specific gods produced by human tradition). I will not throw out the idea that a god or goddess might exist and behave within the universe, but thus far the only people advocating that position have done a rather patchy job at supporting it. I might concede that a god exists, but I could never hope to characterize it in the ways that many religions today do so; it is in those characterizations that I feel most comfortable in “throwing out” the idea of a god.

    You’re description of agnosticism does an excellent job catching what the essence of a skeptic would be, and for that reason I would not chose to even use the term agnostic, but rather skeptic. “Agnostic” was originally coined with the intent to refer to a higher power, and it is to that definition that I base my arguments.

    By what you described above I am very much an agnostic atheist. I will admit that there are things out of my understanding and still others that will remain there forever. But according to the arguments put forth by theologists and everyday religious practitioners I can almost be as certain about the existence of their particular god as you might be about a galaxy-trotting unicorn. This doesn’t eliminate from my mind the possibility of a god, but rather that a christian, muslim, jewish, or whichever hypothesis of that god is so far unsubstantiated and easily reputed.

  11. Layla says:

    Just FYI, the original etymology of Agnosticism is not actually related to religion.

    I’ll paste the most relevant parts here:

    Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, coined the word agnostic in 1860.

    Thomas Henry Huxley defined the term:
    Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.[7]

    Agnostic (Greek: α- a-, without + γνώσις gnōsis, knowledge) was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876[7] to describe his philosophy which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge. Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe “spiritual knowledge.” Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense.[8] Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.[9][10]

  12. MPositive says:

    StarDust: You said it… great point. “Skeptic” is a better term than “agnostic,” because “agnostic” connotes religious belief and the whole debate about the existence of God whereas “skeptic” is free of that and much more generalizable.

    Layla: I wasn’t saying that your belief isn’t a truth. The thing is, there is a dialectic to all these things. There are other truths, too. And they may look contradictory to the truths you bring forth… but they fit together perfectly, in a dialectical way.

    If you try to tell somebody “you are x” and they don’t agree, even if logically they should, then in the concrete you will advance nowhere. They may often inveigh harder against your logic.

    Thus, I may assert my truth. If it is agreed with by my partners in conversation, it is only then really an acknowledged truth. But what people see as truth is dependent on their goal.

    By not disregarding other people’s truths [though they may seem to make no sense], you can find out more about their goals, about what is important to them, about how they think, what makes them tick.

    And in this way you can know so many more truths than you would if you shut yourself off and say, “no, this is fact and you’re wrong.”

  13. Layla says:

    “There are ways to know whether or not a god is real.”

    In fact, you can reason that just like the purple unicorn, the existence of a particular god seems likely or unlikely; but, the truth of the matter is, there is no way to prove it. Ever.

    The knowledge that I can’t prove that God/J.C. don’t exist doesn’t send me to Christianity, because I’m rational.

    I can prove using logic that not all human religions can be correct, and therefore, God and Allah are incompatible, and so at most, only one of them can be true. But I can’t ever prove which specific ones are true or false. The best I can do is develop a truth table. If Allah exists, then God cannot. If God exists, then Allah cannot. Etc.

    I’m fine with that, because for all intents and purposes, I the question of which gods (if any) exist, doesn’t affect my life.

  14. TH Huxley’s account for coining “agnostic:”

    “When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic.’ To my great satisfaction the term took. “

    (With concisions made for brevity)

    So while agnosticism has certainly branched out to be a method, here we can see Huxley grappling with his position on theology, and then coining agnosticism. It’s to this I refer, and maintain, that “agnosis” was originally developed for the theological argument.

    And again I feel we’re playing semantic games. Of course you can never fully prove something, that’s been a given since the beginning. But like unicorns, and Jesus, and Vishnu, the likelihood of their existence as described and maintained is slimmer than the likelihood of their nonexistence. You’ve effectively proven the same point I have, for which we both deserve a pat on the back!

    My point about proving a gods existence relies heavily on the fact that all gods produced thus-far had men and women behind their production. I think it’s fairly obvious that the Bible is not a divine an inerrant work, and that personal revelation is all but forgery or at the very least an honestly mistaken account of an event. This then can apply to all other Earth-bound religions and as such we can easily right that none of them, without being extraordinarily lucky, are right.

  15. MPositive says:

    I suppose, Layla, that you would say that the only provable thing is that you exist because you are able to think. The “I think, therefore, I am” concept.

    Ok. My question is this, however: what does that do for you? To reduce everything but the self to something unprovable… how does this help us?

    Is everything else just an opinion? Is the sun hot? (see, even this is relative, because the sun is not a hot star in relation to other stars).

    We grapple with the meaning of things. What we don’t always see is that meaning is always changing and always relative. We’d like it to be constant, so we create concepts to socialize ourselves with and reinforce constancy. And that’s fine.

    I guess you might be kind of saying the same thing I am through saying that we really can know nothing. I disagree with your approach, though, because it doesn’t point forward… instead it says, simply “I can’t point.”

    The goal of this blog [and my life] is to point the way forward, to go forward, to advance forward. To find out how we can develop better, more positive energy. How can we go with the flow, but also, how can we make the flow be better, also, when the flow isn’t so good to be going with?

    You’re a partner in that journey, and I appreciate this debate. And it’s ok to be at an impasse. We already disagree on millions of things we don’t even know about yet and we still haven’t ripped each other’s head off. 🙂

  16. Layla says:

    We are playing semantic games, and I’m running out of steam.

    FWIW, I re-read what I wrote, and I mis-spoke when I said “ever.”

    I was presuming a situation where a deity would not reveal themselves, or make proof of their existence available. If that happened, a deity could be proven, just as well as any of our other pragmatic proofs can be. Of course we can never fully know the true nature of reality, but presuming that what we see/perceive is real, within our frame of reality, the existence of a deity could be proven, with it’s cooperation.

    Since no proof has yet been provided, agnosticism fits.


    I also think that it’s silly to say that because Huxley coined Agnostic via a theological debate with himself, that by extension, the original meaning was relegated to that context.

    The same source you cited goes on to provide this further context, which is clearly not related to theism:

    Although the origins of the term agnosticism are normally attributed directly to Huxley’s involvement in the Metaphysical Society in 1876, we can in fact find clear evidence of the same principles much earlier in his writings. As early as 1860 he wrote in a letter to Charles Kingsley:

    “I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter…”

    It should be noted in all of the above that for Huxley, agnosticism was not a creed or a doctrine or even simply a position on the issue of gods; instead, it was a methodology with respect to how one approaches metaphysical questions generally. It is curious that Huxley felt the need for a word to describe his methodology, for the term rationalism was already being used to describe pretty much the same thing. It is important to keep in mind that while Huxley introduced a new name, he certainly did not introduce the perspective or method which that name described.”

    • MPositive says:

      It does get to be just semantics when you debate the origin of a word as being more important than what it actually means to most people.

      “Alcohol,” for example, is not a fine powder used to stain or darken the eyelids. But that’s what the word originally meant.

      If there were a point to defining the word “alcohol” in this way, maybe I’d support that thinking. But there isn’t any point that I can think of.

      Similarly, why cling to “agnostic” as the name for your philosophical outlook if “skeptic” is less tied up with religion and monotheism in the minds of the people you talk to?

      And why engage in a perspective that, rather than increasing our knowledge of the world we live in, instead tells us that we really can’t know anything at all?

      This might look like a neutral fact to you. To me, however, it’s regressive logic, because it points us away from science.

      We may not be able to prove that a car is real. But, we can all see something with our eyes that has four round things that we can agree to call “wheels.” We can see these parts that open up to a mostly hollow interior, and agree that these are doors. We can start this “car’s” engine. We can see this “car” move.

      In short, everyone around, with very very few exceptions, can agree that this is a car. And if we all agree, then frankly, that car is real, for all intents and purposes. That is what science is based on–human beings testing, having others repeat their tests, and agreeing on something and figuring it out.

      I know you are not against what I am saying. But the reason I don’t “agree” with the “nothing is provable” viewpoint you put out is not because it couldn’t be true in one way or another, but rather, because its whole premise is reductionist and antiscientific. I don’t agree with its purpose… and thus, I don’t agree with it as an absolute truth, you see.

  17. Layla says:

    Michael, I’m disappointed, please re-read my last post, and realize that you’re responding to things I didn’t say… in fact, I said the opposite of ‘the “nothing is provable” viewpoint’

    You’re putting up straw men left and right… 😦

    Agnostic, as defined between ~1860-2010, is as I define it. Your straw-man definition of Alcohol isn’t even a definition of alcohol, and isn’t even a definition of an English word at all.

    “The origin of -cohol is less obvious, however. Its Arabic ancestor was kul, a fine powder most often made from antimony and used by women to darken their eyelids; in fact, kul has given us the word kohl for such a preparation.”

  18. MPositive says:

    Pardon my straw men… they can get a little rowdy sometimes.

    Ok, you aren’t saying “nothing is provable.” I think I may have gone off the deep end with StarDust’s suggestion about applying agnosticism to everything around you.

    I do, however, disagree with the “agnosticism is the only way” approach to things. I guess it boils down to my saying that “making sense” is a relative thing. People can make all kinds of sense, and saying one thing makes more sense than the other only works in terms of goals. Thus, if you want to live a simple, good, and just life, messianic religious doctrine can definitely look to some like it makes more sense than just saying “I don’t know,” to take up the observation you made in your first comment here. Can you see how that works, though you disagree?

  19. I’m pretty sure we’re all agreeing now. Although we’re using different terms for it. MP and I consider religious agnosticism to be a “we can never tell, so we should never try” approach, while Layla maintains it as a skeptic’s methodology. So really all we need to do is recognize that when Layla says agnostic she means skeptic in our vocabulary, sort of like how you already suggested that you understand “god” to be a force we don’t comprehend when others use “god” in their speech. Rational Skepticism (synonymous with Rational Agnosticism between myself and Layla) is the best approach we have towards learning things. After all it is ultimately a new name for the Scientific Method.

  20. Pingback: Trouble With Personal Revelation « Star Dust Not Dirt Dust

  21. Also, I just wrote up a brief summary for why I think the existence of a deity is more than a crap shoot or “unknowable.” Check it out if you’d like:


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