Beyond Belief: "the tepid confusing middle ground" - RSA

Beyond Belief: "the tepid confusing middle ground"

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

While preparing a funding application on a related subject, it felt serendipitous to hear ‘Start of the week’ on Radio Four last night by chance. A couple of quotes that were almost exactly what I was after:

In response to the question: “What do you believe?” Jonathan  Safran Foer said: "I'm not only agnostic about the answer, I'm agnostic about the question."

An earlier post- 'Don't believe everything you hear about belief'- makes some sense of that. Moreover, Richard Holloway, whom I hugely admire, said he was a deeply religious person, but did not profess to any particular belief structure becuase he didn't think you could capture the mystery of existence in any particular 'formula'.

And Andrew Marr, opened the discussion by referring to "an increasingly hot tempered public struggle between religious believers and so-called militant atheists, and yet many people, perhaps most their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong we are gathered on what I would suggest is that interesting more debatable territory."

I agree with that and my impression is that people who live in this 'tepid confusing middle ground' are indeed a silent majority. Unlike religious believers and committed humanists or atheists, we are neither clearly positional nor particularly tribal. We do not have a kind of 'religious class consciousness' to bind us together and lobby on our behalf.

'The tepid confusing middle ground' is not the most elegant expression, but it gets us away from some of the problems with the 'spiritual but not religious' language that I have considered earlier.

Maybe there is some fruitful link between this kind of existential middle ground, and the economic ground of the 'squeezed middle' that Ed Miliband likes to talk about?

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  • I spent the last 15 years in Christian ministry. For the last ten my belief was challenged on many points, for the last five I openly admitted the unexplained nature of my faith, never decidedly denying scripture yet affirming beliefs in contradiction to it. Now more recently something gave way and I would consider myself a theistic agnostic, which in itself is somewhat of an oxymoron.

    The way my experience relates to the article is in all the mental happenings I have observed in hindsight, trying to explain what happened to my closest friends. It is as though my faith were a bridge that collapsed, and many related beliefs were like the interwoven cables supporting it. When it gave way, they all did as well. Yet while they supported it, I do not feel that it collapsed because I had been cutting them.

    For example, there is the issue of the history of mankind. The notion that we are evolved and hundreds of thousands of years old presents not just a conflict with scripture's account of history, but many theological foundations of Christian doctrine. However, what triggered my collapse of belief had nothing to do with Adam & Eve. Rather, it had to do with what I see as incongruity between what is described as God's desires and his methods, what is expected of man and what has been determined as in man's actual capacity.

    So it was not beliefs in contradiction to faith which broke it, but rather my ability to understand how that faith was supposed to logically function. If it had no coherent identifiable form, how could I affirm or deny it? And now I feel that addressing those related beliefs that collapsed with my Christian faith have no chance of restoring it. It would be like tying up one of those cables and saying the bridge is fixed. That is not how bridges are built, and I don't think it is how my faith was formed to begin with.

    So here I am with a massive pile of things that failed me, the fallen remnants of a worldview framework, all of the individual perspectives of life's details of which it was comprised. But is it all gone? Well, while I did find a rather humanist worldview in the waiting to answer many of the questions it would leave, I can't say everything is addressed by it, and so I have some lingering faith.

    I have so many experiences that have led me to believe that God, in some form, exists and has played a role in my life. Even understanding common misattributions of evidences and all the many cognitive biases we can have in our thinking, my realization of the chance I am mistaken doesn't change my conviction that I am not. Even still, there is a part of me that wants to believe, even though that belief is rather useless to me now as it has no distinct form.

    Perhaps that ambiguity is part of the reason it remains, strangely having the opposite effect as the same ambiguity in how to apply Christian faith. The result of the latter is understandable because it required some obedience from me, and how do you comply with a self-contradictory request? It is an invalid proposition to begin with. Belief in God, however, is belief in a possibility taking a personal form. Oh, but that's a tricky statement, so what do I mean by it?

    Well, we see quantum particles appear and disappear, and it seems our whole universe appeared in this way. Stephen Hawking has stated that for this reason and in view of the non-existence of time before the Big Bang that he doesn't think God exists as there would be no "time" for him to exist in, no "moment" for him to make the universe all appear, and that he is not required for it to have done so.

    My mind looks at these things and thinks "Well why do they appear and disappear? Could it be better observed? Could it be explained? Could it even be controlled?" and those questions lead me to a philosophical realm of possibility. Naturally the limits of what we know existence to be will make us ponder the possibility of other forms of existing. Perhaps it is the social-not-rational mind that would make one think it could be a divine persona, or perhaps it is because some part of us actually exists on this unobserved level.

    I even feel a bit silly hearing those words come out of my mouth, but the reason they do is plain to me. Proving God's existence wouldn't explain those things in itself, and it would in fact bring many more questions. So while I can't name what God is or how his existence would work, perhaps my belief in such a personal being relates to the personal nature of the gaps he is commonly associated with.

    Where did it all come from? Where is it all going? How do I know things? What is good? What is love? Why is that damned question "Why?" so hard to answer? Much of biology would say the transcendence surrounding our convictions of these things is an illusion, yet the ability to tie them in with observed paradoxes of philosophy and existence makes it comfortable enough for me to believe it is more than my brain playing tricks on me.

    On the one hand, it seems recklessly egocentric to believe that such mysteries of life are somehow wrapped up in a transcendent, divine persona just because your own persona feels transcendent. On the other hand, it is our very existence which brings those questions into existence. Our entire cognitive realm exists solely within our own awareness. The existence of our cognition does seem to be special and unique in the universe, so perhaps it's not so harmful to be egocentric on these matters, and certainly understandable as an often-natural conclusion of convictions.

    In fact, while it may be scientifically worthless to believe in something that is logically detained to the realms of mysteries, somehow the experience of believing it is not limited to those realms. It seems to make the whole universe very personal, and if we as social creatures better care for that to which we personally relate, this belief can be good and not desirable to discard.

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