I consider myself an agnostic and not an atheist. I confess this has always embarrassed me a little, because I cannot boast of any of the certainty that theists and atheists display in their respective positions. I do try to be a rationalist though, and by this measure, I must say I have found both theists and atheists wanting. Lately, I have stumbled upon a conceptual framework that allows me to be more structured in my approach to the theist-atheist debate, and now I'm no longer embarrassed about my lack of certainty. I now know what we can be certain about and what we cannot. The lack of rationalism in the theistic position is well-known (it emphasises faith over reason, after all), but this framework for the first time allows us to see exactly where the atheist argument fails.
Religions routinely make such compound claims. As a rationalist, I would not take them as literally true or as the word of God. Religious texts were authored by human beings. They make various claims, and these claims are artificially fused into what the religion in question would consider "core beliefs". An adherent must believe in all the claims to be considered a believer. Selective unbelief is generally not tolerated (although in today's world, most educated theists do exhibit only selective belief in the core scriptures of their religion).
- God exists
- God is omniscient (all-knowing)
- God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
- God is omnipresent
- God is all-merciful
- God created the Universe
- God created all life on Earth
- God has a plan for all of us
- God does everything for the good
For example, even a definitive proof that the Universe was created by a Big Bang and not by God would not automatically disprove the existence of God, since the Existence Assertion does not depend upon the Deed Assertion. (At best, it would spell the end of "God as we know it".)
The same goes for the Theory of Evolution. The Theory of Evolution only disproves a single Deed Assertion, not the Existence Assertion or even any other Deed Assertion. [Incidentally, the use of the word "theory" for Evolution does not mean it is an unsubstantiated idea. In science, an idea has to have fairly strong evidence in its favour before it can be elevated to the status of a Theory. If it was just an idea without evidence, it would probably be called the Evolution Hypothesis or Darwin's Conjecture. Evolution is as much a theory as Gravitation, and a pretty strong refutation to the Deed Assertion that God created all life on Earth.]
But of course, even such a convincing refutation of the Deed Assertion does not automatically disprove the Existence Assertion. Many atheistic arguments make the irrational leap from one to the other, and this is where they can be seen to fail. By accepting without question the theists' bundling of assertions instead of challenging such bundling, atheists are in fact abandoning rationality and critical thought.
The assertion-based framework I introduce here allows us to play with ideas of "limited theism" by tweaking the degree to which each of the above assertions is valid. One could, for example, postulate the existence of a networked human consciousness that evolved along with the human species, that knows as much as all humans put together and has some limited ability to influence the actions of people. This hypothesis then accepts the Existence Assertion but only partially accepts the Attribute Assertions of classical theism. Obviously, this consciousness did not create the Universe nor was it responsible for creation, since it was itself the product of Evolution. Hence, this limited theism rejects the Deed Assertions. In intent, the consciousness could be seen as benign, since by definition, a by-product of evolution probably is aligned to human survival and well-being. The hypothesis therefore accepts the Intent Assertions to a great extent. Such a hypothesis might be useful in exploring why prayer seems to work or in researching certain kinds of parapsychological phenomena without stigma. Without such a framework, a discussion of phenomena like the efficacy of prayer would call for taking sides between absolute atheism (which refuses to entertain any notion beyond the purely material) and outright mumbo-jumbo, where all rational thought is suspended.
We should be able to have a richer and more nuanced discussion about theology and similar subjects relating to the nature of our existence without being trapped within absolute, black-and-white positions. Hopefully, a framework such as this can provide a useful starting point to structure the debate.