I consider myself an agnostic, but not an atheist. The central tenet of my religious belief system is that knowledge of the divine is not possible through the scientific method, that there is no experimental proof of the existence of God. This should be consistent with most religions, otherwise there would be no need for faith, which is essentially belief in the unprovable. I don't know. I can't know. Atheists, on the other hand, do claim to have knowledge of the divine, specifically, that it absolutely does not exist, but it takes a leap of faith to assert as truth that no gods exist. Therefore, I put this type of atheism into the same category as all other religions that purport to have supernatural knowledge. These atheists are not agnostics, because they claim to know that there are no god(s). Wouldn't you agree?
-- R., from Gainesville, Florida
Atheists and theists seem similar in that they both believe in a definitive proof for or against the existence of God. The fundamental atheist mistake is the belief that the absence of a proof for God is a proof for God's absence. This is false.
However, theists from Aquinas and Maimonides down to Charles Taylor today only claim that there is rational proof for God's mere existence. They do not claim that any other qualities of God can be definitively proved. Beyond the fact of God's existence, every other quality of God must remain a mystery to us. Otherwise, we'd be arrogantly claiming that our minds could know God's mind, and that would shred the belief that God is the deepest mystery we encounter in our lives.
The beliefs (not proofs) about these other qualities of God, like God's justice, mercy and providence, are religious beliefs, not scientific proofs. They give hope, moral purpose and compassion to believers, and they sustain lives of virtue, but they are not amenable to proof in the scientific sense that they are knowable and repeatable.
Atheists reach too far when they claim to know these beliefs are false. Theists reach too far when they claim that just because these beliefs are recorded in religious texts and affirmed by religious leaders that they are provably true. They are true for me and other people of faith, and that's all I need to know. When I look into the night sky and see a bright star, it doesn't matter if that star no longer exists because it burned out years ago and all I'm seeing is the residue of its light. The twinkle in the darkness is enough for me to stand in awe.
If there is a God who's also our creator, and who possesses amazing power, unbelievable intelligence and logic, he or she surely could have worked a better outcome after Adam and Eve messed up. Why did God make it so that suffering and sadness overtake joy and happiness here on Earth?
-- J., Buffalo, NY
The question you ask is not: Why didn't God make life here on Earth easy? (a selfish question), but: Why didn't God make life here just a little bit easier? That's a wonderful question, because it forces us to admit that we don't understand the mind of God, which is a humbling and necessary caution.
My belief is that God wanted us to make life here easier for each other and not wait around for God to give us a free (or slightly less expensive) ride through life. God gave us a world that's fertile enough and resilient enough to feed and shelter us and point our way to thankfulness to the creator of all life, but not so fertile or resilient that it's utterly immune to our predations — our pollution and violence, greed and indolence.
We have a role to play in helping each other. You may remember the story I've told before about the difference between heaven and hell. In heaven, hungry people are sitting at a table full of food, but their arms are stiff and locked so they can't bring the food to their lips. Hell is the same. The difference: In heaven, the people are feeding each other. Heaven or hell on Earth are our choices. God is waiting for us to choose well.