copyright Robert M. Ellis 2011


The Middle Way and God


The world is polarised by views about God.


On the one hand is the view of God as an active, personal force in the universe, who reveals absolute truth through revelation. This view can be used to justify any group value to which it becomes attached. To take a few examples from recent news reports: the exclusion of active homosexuals from responsible roles in many Christian churches; the acid attacks on young women reported in Afghanistan and Bangladesh; the accusations of witchcraft against children in Nigeria. If bigots are able to get apparent divine certification for their actions, a narrow belief of any kind can be applied without restraint.


On the other hand is the denial of God, usually accompanied by moral indignation against belief in God because of the outrages perpetrated in his name. Western liberals, shocked by Christian evangelical politics and Islam alike, try to fight back. The lack of falsifiable evidence for God is taken to be a justification for atheism. Since most of the well-known atheist writers, like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, are also intelligent people, they also sometimes try to avoid the polarisation of the debate by claiming the centre ground. They rarely succeed, because they have not sorted out the underlying questions about the links between metaphysical belief and immorality which could support their justifiable objections to narrow religious belief. Without a clear philosophical starting point, they often fall into some sort of scientism despite their best intentions. They also often alienate liberal theists by treating them with the same dismissiveness with which they treat fundamentalists: again this is because of their need to attack religious belief in general, rather than having an incremental account of the negative effects of all metaphysics.


There is only one possible consistent rational response to the question of whether God exists, and that is strong agnosticism. We cannot deny God’s existence nor affirm it, because no possible experience we might have, from a worldwide scientific survey to an overwhelming vision of the divine, gives us any evidence of God’s existence or non-existence. Similarly there is no possible evidence for or against any other metaphysical claim, from the existence or non-existence of freewill to the ultimate nature of the universe. A strong agnosticism is not “negative atheism”, nor is it closet theism. It is simply agnosticism.


A very striking feature of the theist vs. atheist argument is the way in which each side constantly uses agnostic arguments to cast doubt on the claims of the other side, but then constantly draws over-strong positive conclusions in favour of atheism or theism from the open state of doubt that leaves us with. For example, Richard Dawkins well-known book The God Delusion is a compendium of over-interpreted arguments for agnosticism, and Alister McGrath’s responses, The Dawkins Delusion and TheTwilight of Atheism, use similarly agnostic arguments against atheism to try to support theism. Reading both sides of the debate with an open mind is likely to result in a stronger and stronger impression of the case for agnosticism.


However, agnosticism is often wrongly perceived as some kind of non-position. Agnosticism, on the contrary, allows us to ditch the question of belief in God, which has always been irrelevant to what “God” has really meant in people’s experience. Agnosticism, on the contrary, is the key to unlocking the riches offered by religious traditions, without drinking from the dish of metaphysical poison that stands at the doorway.


What could “God” possibly mean in people’s experience without metaphysical baggage? I have been getting something of the flavour of this personally by spending time with Quakers, who (in the UK at least) are generally amongst the most open-minded theists imaginable. God, for a Quaker, is generally not a fixed idea of a justification for group-orientated beliefs, as it seems to be for many Christians. Rather it is an unknown sense of openness, a cue for humility rather than revelatory arrogance. God is just a name for ultimate conditions as they impact on our experience. God, in effect, consists not of claims but of mysteries. The constant practical use of reflective silence to frame discussion about God keeps a sense of that mystery in mind.


The Quakers are modern heirs to the Christian via negativa, which could be described as Christian agnosticism. The possible trap in Christian agnosticism is that of taking the unknown and affixing the title “God” to it, in an attempt to capture the power of that mystery and append it to a metaphysical dogma. This has been more or less the approach of the Catholic Church in trying to contain and absorb mysticism. To be truly agnostic, one must be free to use any language, not just God-language, and not subject to any dogmatic framework. Nevertheless, if the goal of mysticism is to positively relate the symbolic tradition of “God” to human experience, it certainly provides a way into the Middle Way.


To avoid polarisation about God’s existence, and to channel what one takes to be an experience of God in a positive direction, it is vital to avoid creeping commitments to dogmas on either side, and stay in the space created by that experience. If you have a mystical experience of any kind, resist even calling it an “experience of God”, for that is your label. Also resist nailing it down through drawing reductive conclusions from psychological or physiological explanation of religious experience (though such explanations tell us much of interest). Nevertheless, reflection on the many ways that mystics have talked about God in the past may throw light on that experience and provide community with others.


If “God” on the other hand, means ultimate moral or spiritual justification, “God” is the Middle Way itself. This does not mean that the idea of the Middle Way should be turned into an idea of God. It does mean that a genuine attempt to release “God” from metaphysical dogma through strong agnosticism may result in the discovery of the values that many people have ultimately sought in God. Such an open apprehension of God, to work in that way, must be accompanied by a degree of psychological integration, and a determination to encounter God through the imagination rather than as a concept or a justifying source of revelation.


In short, both the theists and the atheists are wrong. The God they think they believe or disbelieve in is irrelevant to the values that people often seek either by accepting or rejecting belief in God. It is not God that is the problem, but belief in revelation from God, and the failure to consistently appreciate the extent of human ignorance of everything God represents.


Links to further discussion


Join discussion on the 'religion and Middle Way' forum of the phpbb discussion board


The Middle Way and religion


The problem of metaphysics


Resolving metaphysical dichotomies in general


Discussion on Christianity in thesis


Should Western Buddhists be Christians?


External links




Sam Harris 



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