Article published by SKEPTIC magazine, 2014, vol. 19, no. 2
IN DEFENSE OF SOFT THEISM
By Miklos Jako
When I was in college I took a philosophy of religion course. I was struck by how intelligent theist philosopher A was, and how intelligent atheist philosopher B was. Yet, they held diametrically opposite positions. I realized intelligence alone cannot be the ultimate arbiter of reality. I'd have to make my judgments based more on common sense and the quality of the arguments, than on degree of intelligence. And I would have to maintain a broad perspective, standing back and relentlessly pondering issues from both sides.
Now, 45 years later, I have arrived at a position I call "Soft Theism"––the belief that a great Intelligence created the world, keeps it going, and wants us to behave well. And that's about it! No miracles, no petitionary prayer, no sacred scripture, no divine saviors. None of the superstitious baggage of traditional religion. Yet I remain a theist, believing in a God of my own understanding.
In general, the skeptical community tends to see worldviews such as those of traditional religion and New Agers as false. I'm entirely in agreement here; I am a skeptic too. The most common position of skeptics when it comes to the God question is that of atheism, and I think that is a valid position. But I also think that a general concept of God––one not connected to any established religion––is another valid position, which I would like to defend.
Defining Soft Theism
Soft Theism is the belief in a mostly non-intervening God. This position is not quite as soft as Deism––where some ultimate Intelligence created the world but does not concern Itself with human affairs at all––but one notch below that, where He/She/It does care, but not in any tangible or verifiable way. I modify my theism with the word "soft" to convey the conviction not that God exists, but that He probably exists. Also, by "soft" I do not mean that one arrives at this position with a soft, wishy-washy attitude, but that one realizes that a firm conclusion simply cannot be reached. Like a hiker lost in the woods, the decision to take a direction is made with utmost care, but the hiker knows he's only making his best guess.
Let me explain why I think soft theism is a legitimate position by considering three arguments against God and then three for God. First the arguments against God.
1. There Is No Evidence for God
I agree there is no hard evidence for God's existence. In theory you could prove God: you could pray for this, not pray for that, keep track, and consistently positive results would prove God. This has never happened. Or, read sacred Scripture, and if a very specific prophecy that would be impossible to predict without divine guidance comes true, that would prove God. This too has never happened, despite the claims of Christians pointing to propagandistic tales written in the Bible.
So I agree with atheists that there is not a shred of hard evidence. But, I do not conclude that there is necessarily no God. I think about the possibility of an intentionally unverifiable God, and I depend not on evidence but on certain lines of logic or angles of interpretation which I will describe below.
I also carefully calibrate my belief level: I cannot prove God. I cannot know there is a God. I cannot even be convinced of God. I can only decide that God makes more sense than not. And I will admit the atheist is winning the argument so far, because a God without evidence is a pretty tenuous God.
2. The Problem of Evil
Atheists point out that God allows evil far in excess of what is necessary for instructive purposes. Tornadoes, earthquakes, diseases, children dying––if you believe in an omnibenevolent God, are you not perceiving the world through rose-colored glasses to the extent that you are delusional?
Yes, I agree. But, I do not believe in an all-loving God. I've always felt the traditional definition of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent was glaringly off the mark with that third adjective. Obviously God is not all-good. If He exists, He is responsible for not only the good we find in the natural world, but also the bad, and the very bad.
I came across a story that puts God and His alleged benevolence into proper perspective: A man is arguing with God. He asks God to consider what he, the human, has done wrong. Maybe fudged a bit on his taxes. Maybe told a few white lies. But what has God done wrong? Destroyed people's homes, taken beloved children from their parents, given people agonizing fatal diseases, crippled them. Things most humans would never dream of doing! Or allowing, if we were God. Never mind man's sins against God––what about God's sins against us!?
The problem of evil is a powerful argument against a good god, if not a clincher for atheism.
3. The Concept of God Is Incoherent
Atheists say the plethora of different Gods throughout history shows that they are all man-made. I think that's a reasonable observation. But it doesn't mean there is a fundamental incoherence to the idea of a God. Throughout history there has been the consistent underlying concept of a great Intelligence that created and sustains the world. So I think it is also reasonable to think of all these Gods as part of a long, flawed process of man gradually coming to a more rational concept of God, namely, I like to think, the kind of God I believe in, a non-intervening, unverifiable, "soft" God.
Atheists also say that the very concept of God is, per se, incoherent. Can God make a rock so heavy He can't lift it? No. Therefore an omnipotent God cannot exist. Can God see the future, and then change it? No. Therefore an omniscient, omnipotent God cannot exist. These kinds of exercises in logic seem to point to God being an incoherent concept.
But I think atheists make a key mistake here, in that they conceive of God as a powerful anthropomorphic being who is subject to science and the laws of nature, subject to time and space, subject to cause and effect, subservient to logic, subservient to the law of non-contradiction, etc. But that's not a reasonable concept of God. I think that if you're going to posit a Supreme Being, you shouldn't posit a less-than-supreme being, which will invariably lead you to these self-contradictions, leading you to conclude there is no God.
I think a more reasonable concept of God is that of a Being who transcends space, time, nature, and logic. An atheist might say that I am exempting God from all the restrictions of existence! And I say, yes, exactly, that's the only kind of God that makes sense to me. If God created existence, then He must be above the restrictions of existence. That's the broader, overriding logic here. I don't think inherent incoherence is a good argument against God.
Here are three strong arguments for God:
1. The First Cause Argument
Three possibilities: 1. The universe has always existed. 2. The universe came into existence out of nothing. 3. The universe was created by an entity. Now, I readily admit that maybe the universe actually has always existed, or actually did come into existence out of nothing, but it seems more likely to me that it was created by some non-physical force outside of itself.
The atheist points out that if you say God created the universe, you haven't solved anything because you immediately have the problem of who created God, since you claim everything needs a cause. And if God can be self-existent, why can't the universe?
Well, because we know physical things need a cause, but a spiritual thing, like God, would not. If you eliminate the possibility of God, then you are necessarily left with an infinite regress of physical causes. And that does not make as much sense to me as positing a non-physical entity as the first uncaused cause. When doing science you don't want to step outside the boundaries of science, but when contemplating the origins of existence, I think you need to.
I am not making a "God of the gaps" move here to explain all the things that happen in the world; clearly, science does a wonderful job here filling in gaps. But I am suggesting that one needs God for the ultimate gap––how the whole thing started.
Imagine that a million years from now scientists finally lay down their hammers and say, "Well, folks, we've done it: we now have an explanation for everything." Wonderful. But, you still are left with the question of how that everything came to be. It seems more logical to me that a great intelligence created the world, than that the world created itself, or that there is an infinite regress of physical causes.
2. Life Must Come from Life
We have ended up on a planet with life and intelligence. It makes more sense to me that life must have come ultimately from life, and intelligence from intelligence, than that they have somehow arisen out of consciousness-less physical forces and combinations of molecules.
Granted that evolution is a process of small incremental changes over an enormous time period, and that makes the remarkable end result more understandable; nevertheless, the atheist is still asserting that we've gotten life from non-life, and intelligence from non-intelligence. An ultimate intelligence––God––as the source, makes better sense to me.
3. The Life-Force Argument
I scratch my arm doing yard work. A few days later the scratch has healed. I find that amazing. Wondrous. Miraculous. I think there is an indefinable life-force, something that makes our bodies heal, that keeps our hearts beating, that makes a baby grow into an adult, or an acorn into an oak tree; something that makes evolution move forward instead of the better adapted creatures just taking longer to die out. There is this life-force. I am frequently baffled by atheists not contemplating this life-force enough, or dismissing it as "just nature." Yes, it's nature, but isn't it amazing!? Science may tell us the details of how something happens, but not why it should happen. I think this sustaining force can reasonably be interpreted as God caring about us.
I don't believe in miracles, but I think life itself is a miracle.
I think there are strong arguments for both sides on the God issue, yet at the same time each argument seems vapid and unconvincing to the other side. Atheists roll their eyes at the over-active imaginations of theists, but no more so than theists roll their eyes at the under-active imaginations of atheists. I would say both sides are guilty of confirmation bias; they don't give the other side enough credit for their arguments.
For example, is Bill O'Reilly colossally ignorant because he claimed only God can explain the tides? I'm not quite as reflexively harsh on him as atheists have been. I try to understand what he means. I think he knows that the moon's gravitational pull explains the tides. He meant something broader, essentially the fine-tuning argument for God––that life on Earth can be explained only by God's design, not by sheer luck. It's a half-decent argument. Of course, then O'Reilly immediately proceeds to show zero comprehension of the atheist perspective, calling atheists loons and pinheads.
I think every person has to decide which array of arguments is cumulatively stronger, or which one or two arguments override the others. For me, the idea that intelligence must have come from some ultimate intelligence overrides the strong atheist arguments.
I think we are faced with an unsolvable conundrum. I concur with the late great skeptic Steve Allen and his assessment in his 1990 book Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality (Prometheus Books, xxix): "I accept the probability that there is some kind of divine force, however, because that appears to me the least preposterous assumption of the two."
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As skeptics and atheists well know, there are a great many people who believe in God and an afterlife. At the same time, a great many of these theists also disdain paranormal nonsense, along with many of the superstitions of traditional religion. And some of us theists are committed to combating these superstitious worldviews in the very same way as atheist skeptics are.
Therefore, I ask that you regard me and my sort––soft theists, fideists, hopeful agnostics––not as interlopers intending to infiltrate and proselytize, but as legitimate members of the skeptic community with the very same goals. We may be the black sheep of the family, but we're family nonetheless.
A Sidebar to Soft Theism
In the summer of 2013 I made a video of a channeling session I had with medium James Van Praagh. I wanted to debunk him and his ilk, and I think I did. Michael Shermer felt that my efforts were worth posting on the SKEPTIC website. At the end of the video I mentioned that I am a theist, and that talking to the dead has not been disproven, only getting communications from them has been disproven. If one believes in an afterlife, maybe deceased loved ones do receive our thoughts in some transcendent way.
Some skeptics objected to this “devious” ending, claiming I had just finished debunking one kind of “woo” only to end it with another kind of “woo.” So I wanted to clarify that: (1) I was not making a truth claim, but just offering my personal opinion, directed for the most part at the many people in the general population who do believe in an afterlife. And, (2) my type of soft theism is not as unreasonable as a hardcore atheist might think. Shermer added this note with the video:
“I don’t have any problems with Miklos’s video and his statement at the end. He’s not making any truth claims whatsoever. He just says that he’s sorta kinda a believer in some sort of higher power/being/force and that therefore he believes (but can’t prove in any way) in an afterlife. To this end he’s indistinguishable from Martin Gardner’s beliefs, and Martin is considered one of the greatest skeptics in history. We are only interested in challenging claims made that can be tested, or arguments people make claiming to support some belief with evidence and reason and logic.”
I think Shermer’s assessment is exactly right. In fact, I reread Shermer’s 1997 interview with Gardner and I am gratified to see how similar his position is to mine.
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Martin Gardner was a mathematician, author, polymath, long-time columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement. He believed in God, calling himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended this position in a 1997 interview published in Skeptic, Vol. 5, No. 2 (skeptic.com/eskeptic/10-05-26/):
“People think that if you don’t believe Uri Geller can bend spoons then you must be an atheist. But I think these are two different things. I call myself a philosophical theist in the tradition of Kant, Charles Peirce, William James, and especially Miguel Unamuno, one of my favorite philosophers. As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds. The classic essay in defense of fideism is William James’ “The Will to Believe.” James’ argument, in essence, is that if you have strong emotional reasons for a metaphysical belief, and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons, then you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction. It makes the atheists furious when you take this position because they can no more argue with you than they can argue over whether you like the taste of beer or not.
To me it is entirely an emotional thing.”