In response to my previous post on the rules of evidence for my apologetics, a friend of mine who is himself a seeker of truth pointed out to me that I probably mischaracterized agnosticism as a simple midpoint between theism and atheism. As he quite correctly said, one can be an agnostic while leaning toward either atheism or theism, and that even agnosticism has at least two important variants: those who believe one cannot know the truth about the existence or not of a divine being, and those who believe that we simply have insufficient evidence to know. He was right on both counts. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the relationship between strength of belief and theism/atheism could be visualized as independent variables in a bivariate function, and that doing so might shed some light on my own perspective. So I invite you to consider the following graphic to which I have given the working title “The Belief Matrix,” though that title may not survive further discussion:
As you can see, in the above graphic I have represented the spectrum of Atheism to Theism along the X axis, with the degree of certainty of one’s belief as a scale from zero to 100% along the Y axis. I suggest that most people’s stance with regard to the existence or nonexistence of a divine being (any divine being, not necessarily tied to a particular religion) ranges somewhere along that parabolic function I have graphed. True agnostics, as my friend pointed out, exist in that fairly small middle range with zero or near-zero certainty of their belief, though they may lean slightly toward atheism or theism. As the strength of evidence (evaluated by whatever criteria the believer considers compelling) increases, the individual’s certainty regarding the existence or not of a God increases. It is important to acknowledge that the strength of belief varies rather similarly among both atheist-leaning and theist-leaning individuals.
A very important part of my perspective, however, is my conviction that evidence alone can only take one just so far toward either end of the Theism scale. That’s the meaning of the red (but fuzzy by design) “Evidence Horizon” I’ve placed partway up the certainty scale. One can argue about just how high up the scale the Evidence Horizon should be placed, which is beside the point. The purpose of this element in the graph is to show that there exists a level of certainty–again, on both Theist and Atheist sides of the midpoint–that can only be attained by a decision informed by factors other than strict evidence and reason. Atheist or Theist, we call those factors “faith.” As I have said in discussions before, the Muslim Shahada “There is no God but Allah” (or its equivalent in the Jewish Shema) is a statement of faith. Drop the words “but Allah” from the end, and the remainder is still a statement of faith.
Even having crossed the Evidence Horizon, there remains a significant range of certainty among believers. Doubt is still very much a possibility, perhaps a strong one, among people who’ve decided in faith to throw their hat into either the Theist and Atheist ring. Although it is not a linear relationship, I would say the inclination of the individual to proselytize–that is, to attempt to win others to camps that occupy the same region on the curve–increases proportionally with the level of certainty. It is only at the extreme ends of our curve, in the range I have labeled “Fundamentalism,” where uncertainty disappears. It is at these extremes–again, extremes I have observed among Theists of various religions and also among Atheists–where people are not only certain of their own belief, they are upset or even angry that anyone else might find themselves anywhere else on the curve. I have further observed that fundamentalists on both ends of the Theism scale, tend to claim that the Evidence Horizon is actually closer to the top on their end, and slopes toward zero at the opposite end of the scale. I disagree with both.
So where do I land on this curve? I’ll get to that later. Where do you land? And does the function ring true to you?