ad astra per alia porci

why I am an agnostic
July 2, 2007, 10:03 am
Filed under: diary


My earliest contact with religion was when I was in primary school. I grew up in a family which worshipped a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist and Chinese deities. I hazily remember the various occasions throughout the year where my grandmother would cook various sumptuous dishes as offerings for the god that we prayed to home, which is Tua Pek Kong, in the Hokkien dialect. Of course, my first impression wasn’t that of religious fervour or submission to a higher power, but rather that of really good food that I don’t get to eat often.

As my cognitive abilities grew with my age, so does my views on religion and god. During I remember being quite fascinated by the fact that I am supposedly Guan Yin’s godson during my primary school years, a fact revealed and reiterated to me time and again by my grandmother, mother and aunties; I was apparently brought to a temple and made a godson of Guan Yin through some ritual when I was still a baby. They usually used the threat of Niang Niang‘s displeasure to moderate my occasional bad behaviour. My aunties usually brought me to the temple before exams to pray for divine help; I usually prayed the hardest since I believed in my godmother’s ability to bestow good grades. I thought that my good grades in primary school are in some way influenced by my faith in my religion and my godmother.

The first seeds of doubt regarding my personal religiosity was the result of pride and hubris, which led to a personal experiment. I grew confident and decided to check if not praying would affect my grades. I stopped praying during my customary pre-exam visits to the temple. My grades were not affected; in fact, I did well for my primary school leaving examinations and ended up being chosen for the Gifted Education programme.

As my belief in myself increased, my religiosity decreased. What happened in life seems more and more to be within my control, as opposed to being dictated by the machinations of the divine. My family’s uneven and widely-spread devotion to different gods increased my doubts; my father for example told me he is a free-thinker while my mother prayed to Buddhist and Taoist gods. Belief seems to be a matter of pure choice as opposed to being a pre-determined aspect of human life. Coupled with a secondary school education that opened my mind to the importance of individual critical thinking and scientific methods, my belief in God was gradually and largely eroded as I reached my 17th birthday; the customary trips to the temple became acts of appeasement and I was a Buddhist in name only.

Despite my lack of religious belief, whenever I am required to fill in forms or tell acquiantances my religious leanings, I will always state that I am a Buddhist. Perhaps I am bowing to the social stigma and negative associations with freethinkers; maybe I wasn’t comfortable with breaking paths with my family.

My junior college years was a turning point. My discovery and subsequent reading of philosophy lended weight and concrete, rationalist reasoning to what was previously a vague and intuitive idea. I read overviews of the history of philosophy and tried to understand the basic ideas of many philosophers. Naturally I was attracted to the arguments for and against the existence of God.

Reading more served to increase my doubt. Ratiocination made me realise and reach the conclusion that the existence of a supreme being as envisioned by the major religions is highly improbable and probably null, but I am sure that it is not possible to conclusively state that God does not exist.

There are many arguments for and against the existence of God, many of which comes with fancy and esoteric terms. For me, my favourite argument involves questioning the assumed characteristics of God. For most religions, the defining characteristics of God is that 1) he is omniscient, 2) he is omnipotent and 3) he is benevolent and moral.

The existence of evil clearly throws into doubt God’s benevolence. How can a benevolent God allow millions of people to suffer from war, famine and disease, amongst other things? One might argue that free will, which involves God allowing humans to do both good and evil, necessitates the existence of evil, for freedom allows us to be truely moral. This might have some reason to it, but what about natural events that inflict suffering? Many babies are born with HIV or deformities; certainly they are infected not because of free will. There is much unexplainable and needless suffering in the world; a truely benevolent God would never allow that to happen. If one is to insist that evil exists because God planned it this way, our traditional view of a benevolent God is probably in need of revision. This God is closer to the character of the Duke in Shakepeare’s Measure for Measure, a Machiavellian, scheming overlord which uses humans as pawns.

There is an argument that states that God’s plans and ethical code are not understandable by humans for if humans understood them, God is brought down to the level of humans. God is inscrutable, removed and untainted. This idea is closer to the Muslim concept of God and the so-called “philosopher’s God”, the Abrahamic God or even the Gnostic idea of the demiurge than the Judeo-Christian conception of the divine. Everything is explained by God’s unexplainable behaviour. Personally I think it flouts the rule of Occam’s Razor and it is a convenient explanation; however, I cannot rule the possibility of it out simply because it is unobservable.

The idea of the omnipotence and omniscience of God is linked to the problem of evil. If God is moral within the framework of human morality and evil and suffering still exists, this puts into serious question the omnipotence and omniscience of God. Woody Allen encapsulated this idea in a tongue-in-cheek manner with this quip:

If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he is evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.

Clearly our conventional definition of God is either wrong, or God as defined by us is a very low probability event. Realise that I am not categorically stating that God doesn’t exist, for I feel that it is not possible to do so.

The major reason is because reason is not the only means of obtaining truth; to quote Dickens in Hard Times,  “there is the wisdom of the head, and the wisdom of the heart.” Faith is another method of obtaining truth. The most valid example of this is morality. I believe that murder is wrong; this is a moral belief that has no rational explanation. It just is. Yet I believe in it. Similarly for the question of God, one cannot rule out completely the possibility of non-rationalist methods of determining God’s existence.

Hence my decision to subscribe to agnosticism. I believe that God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven or denied, even though I contend that the probability of his existence is very low indeed. Being a sceptical empiricist, I believe in the usefulness of empiricism but discount the value of most information and observations. Just because I can’t observe God doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist, even though he probably doesn’t. I respect Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and all religions because they attempt to reach a conclusion regarding the truth of God’s existence and I understand that different people might have different points of view, of which I can’t judge for sure if one is wrong or right.

What I am against is dogmatic adherence to faith or any belief for that matter, which is one of the many reasons why I am not religious. Dogmatic faith results in some of the worst tragedies and mass suffering ever to happen to humankind; for religious examples, think of the Inquisition and Arab-Israeli conflict, for secular examples, think of the Holocaust and the Catholic Church’s insistence on not using contraceptives.

Organised religion for me encourages groupthink and doesn’t offer anything that satisfies my questions. I believe in Occam’s Razor and since many religions extrapolate and assume too much about the nature of God (for example, the idea of heaven and hell to me is more a figment of human imagination than a plausible truth), they do not appeal to me. Of course there are social and spiritual benefits in joining a religious group and the existence of God might be true, but intellectual integrity and keeping to my version of what is true is more important than anything else. As far as I know, I can never know for sure if God exists.



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