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Correspondence with an Agnostic
Part Three

The following is continued from Correspondence with an Agnostic - Part Two. The agnostic's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My replies are in red.

>Dear Gary, Sorry about your health. Thanks for again giving me such a detailed response.<

You’re welcome. I will try to keep my comments brief this time, except for one section where I really do want to comment.

>I won't reply to each point because there are some clear themes developing. It seems to be that your critique of my suggested belief system was implicitly based upon three criteria for choosing a belief system:

1. It's truth

We're in deadlock over the free will issue, so there's no point debating it further. I'll try to read the book you mention on it - I'm intrigued how he can argue that we don't have 'free will' but still have 'moral responsibility', unless free will is defined in a meaningless way. Thanks too for recommending Francis Schaeffer and Gordon Clark.<

You’re welcome.

>2. Whether it makes life worth living The first point here is that this is separate from 1. So even if this did point to Christianity (which I don't think it necessarily does), it wouldn't be an argument for the truth of Christianity. For instance, using your example, a belief system that leads you to commit suicide may still be true. The only reason why suicide seems bad to us is because we don't necessarily hold to such a belief system. If we did, then we wouldn't have a problem with it.<

True, that a belief system teaches that life is ultimately meaningless does not necessarily mean that it is false. But a couple of points come to mind.

First, it does seem to me that the majority of people do believe that there should be some ultimate meaning to life. So if life is in fact, meaningless, then the majority of people are living in a mass delusion. Again, it is possible that people are deluded. But I just want to clarify what such a belief system would be saying.

Second, if someone believes that life is ultimately meaningless, then live like it is. In other words, do not "cheat on your worldview" (as one of my seminary professors would put it) and live life as if it had ultimate meaning. Suicide would be one possible logical behavior in such a belief system, though not the only necessary consequence. Hedonism might be another.

>This then leads to two questions:

a) Is 2. a satisfactory reason for adopting a belief system, independent of its truth?

Given my antecedent beliefs in the value of life (which I can't escape from in my conscience), if the true belief system was impossible to live by, I would rather believe one that wasn't true but possible to live by.

However, I don't believe that the true belief system is impossible to live by, on the whole (see b) below).

b) How does my belief system compare with Christianity on 2.? I think that happiness is generally 'all in the mind', and therefore depends upon the attitude you choose to take. You can believe that life is ultimately meaningless but choose to make the most of it. You rightly counter this with the case of being constantly in pain. I would make four responses to this:

(i) For me personally, (others may think differently but that doesn't matter to me - see 3. below) society should try to minimize such situations through technology.<

The last time I went to my family doctor with yet another new health problem, he looked at my chart and said, "It looks like you have a whole list of problems that we can’t do anything about." So yes, it would be nice if "technology" could find an answer to my, and others’, problems. But, unfortunately, despite great medical strides, that is not always the case.

But more importantly, as I point out in my article Voyager, Science, and the Christian Faith, using technology to solve people’s problems, health and otherwise, is consistent with the Christian faith, but not with all belief systems.

>(ii) If nothing can be done, I would agree with voluntary euthanasia i.e. suicide.<

I will resist the temptation to get into a discussion of euthanasia as that would really open up a Pandora’s box!

>(iii) The risk that my children could be in such a situation is why I am wary of having any children at all.<


>(iv) As an agnostic, I concede that there might be a possibility that my life has objective value, and/or that I might realize its value later in life. This chance of making a mistake goes against me committing suicide.<

Which would be one major difference between an agnostic position and a full-blown atheistic one.

>I personally find that I can cope better when bad things happen to me (though on a relatively minor level to what you're going through) now, than when I was a Christian. This is because I can shrug them off as due to chance/bad luck, with no one to blame - there's no point getting angry. Whereas while there was a God ultimately responsible for all that happened, there was someone responsible. OK you shouldn't get angry at God, but it's difficult not to have some resentment.<

This is the main section of your letter that I wanted to comment on. First off, I can understand what you are saying here. Many a person has gotten angry at God when things have gone wrong in their lives. And I am sure many have also lost their faith as a result. I can also understand how it might be easier to write things off as "chance" than to blame God for them.

However, I would say that such attitudes betrays a deficient viewpoint of God. Years ago I read a very excellent book titled Trusting God Even When Life Hurts by Jerry Bridges.

In it, Bridges gives three reasons for why we can trust God in adversity.

1) God is omniscient - as such, He knows what is best for us.

2) God is omnipotent/ sovereign - as such, He is able to bring about what is best for us.

3) God is love - as such, He wants what is best for us.

Bridges then give extensive Biblical evidence for each of the above points.

So when life hurts, we can know that in some way, God has a purpose in it, and that purpose is to bring about what is best for us. Now our definition of best will not always be God’s. But true faith is to trust in the One who knows us better than we know ourselves and who knows what the "good" ultimately will be.

And this would relate back to our previous discussion on what "faith" is. To me, it is acting upon what I know to be true. Since I know that God is as described above, I can take the step of faith and trust Him with my problems. I may not always be able to see what the "good" is in a particular circumstance, but I known that God has a purpose behind it.

To get angry at God would demonstrate that I do not really believe that He loves me. To loose my faith because of my problems would demonstrate that I don’t really believe that God is in control. To try to tell God that He should do things my way, is to betray that I don’t really believe He is omniscient.

In other words, common reactions to God in adversity demonstrate that the person doesn’t really believe that God is what the Bible portrays Him to be.

Moreover, for me, to believe that what is happening to me is simply by "chance" would leave me with no reason whatsoever to believe that any good would ever come out of my suffering. But with this Biblical viewpoint, I can have this trust. So, for me, believing that "chance" is causing my problems, rather than a sovereign God is in control of my life, would not make things easier, but much harder to take.

Again, for more on my thoughts here, see my article Value of an Intellectual Faith.

>3. Whether it makes for a 'good' society

This is again separate from the truth of the belief system. So even though a belief system may be terrible for society, it may still be true. And as for suicide, we only care about society being 'good' because we care about others on the basis of our prior Christian morals. You are absolutely right that my prior Christian beliefs are still affecting me. But as I argue before, this does not mean that I am inconsistent: intellectually I end up deciding to make the most of my life, and that involves following morals that are so ingrained that I cannot get rid of them.<

My comments here would be similar to what I said about your point number 2 above. Only now, it is written larger. We are not only talking about ourselves but society as a whole. I am glad that "Christian" morals are ingrained in you; but without the Christian base, it would be difficult to ingrain them into others.

So if the idea that life if meaningless, for example, were to become the predominant viewpoint in a society, don’t be surprised at the results. If suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and other self-destruction behaviors, crime and the like proliferate, then people could just be acting consistent with this worldview.

>You argue that "if "nothing philosophically can be known" then there would be no basis for modern-day science, or 'truth' in general. As such we would see a great breakdown in our society". But modern-day science is not based upon 'truth', but the fact that the propositions it currently holds to haven't yet been proved wrong. This hasn't caused any 'breakdown', since it gives enough certainty for us to live by, just not absolute certainty.<

The whole concept of "proof" belies a prior worldview, especially in the area of epistemology. That is the point of my "Voyager" article. My argument is that without certain presuppositions found in the Christian worldview, then the scientific enterprise would not have started. If it continues then a substitute needs to be found for those presuppositions.

We do agree in part here, though. As I conclude in my Science and the Bible article, "operationalism" is the appropriate philosophy of science. This would be similar to your saying that science can give us "enough certainty to live by." However, since science cannot give us "absolute certainty" then it cannot be the basis of a worldview. So a worldview that takes say evolution as its starting point would not have a solid basis to it.

>Having said that, I agree with you that my 'agnostic' position does not provide the ethical basis for respecting and caring for others (and the environment?) that are prerequisites for a good society. The West is lucky that we have an edifice of morals left over from our Christian past that is still continuing (in some shape or form) without any foundation.<

In this we are in agreement, except that I would not say "lucky" but by the providence of God.

>We need a belief that provides a strong basis for the ethics, and is itself persuasive, so that future generations can be similarly ingrained like me! But this is where we come back to 1. For although Christianity provides a strong ethical basis, for many it is not persuasive enough. The question is whether either sufficiently good arguments for Christianity can be found (as you believe they can be), or an alternative belief system (or 'civil religion') can be found.

But this is separate from own personal belief system. I can believe my agnosticism but encourage among others (including my children) something else if I think it better for society.<

This is where we differ. If I believed that agnosticism were the "true" worldview then I would have no qualms telling people why. I would not be able to encourage something else in others because it was "good" for them.

>On that basis I am wondering whether I should be trying to spread my agnosticism on your website! I rest my case!

I don’t think you should necessarily look at it as trying to spread your beliefs as much as simply giving people a chance to look at two sides of a subject. As I said previously, I do believe that people should look at both, or all, sides as much as possible before making a decision about their worldview, or any important subject for that matter.

That is one reason why I have started to include "E-mail Exchanges" on my site. That way, I am providing a way for people to see how my views hold up against others. Of course, since it is my Web site I always get the last word. ; ) But I also provide an Opposing Viewpoints links page so people can check out the Web sites of people promoting other worldviews.

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The above e-mail exchange was posted on this Web site in January 1998.

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