Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

In Defense of Soft Theism

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

In Defense of Soft Theism

Article excerpt

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 that 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 that 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. …

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