"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."
I was raised in a Christian household; Sundays, and a lot of Wednesday evenings, were spent at the church. As a kid, I was a fervent believer; I knew I was saved and going to heaven. Hallelujah!
As I grew up, I questioned, and ultimately became disillusioned with, the idea of church and religion. The more I learned of history, the more I saw religion as a divisive force on humanity. Many of history's atrocities were, and still are, committed in the name of religion. The more I learned of science, the more I saw religion as superstition. It simply doesn't stand up to scientific method and reason. The more I learned of psychology, the more I saw religion as an ego defense mechanism. It's used to help people deal with circumstances beyond their control.
I've heard the argument put forth, perhaps most eruditely by C.S. Lewis, that mankind's age-old and constant search for religion is, in itself, proof of a higher being. How can man suffer from this persistent and common delusion, unless there is indeed something to it? I call this the "where there's smoke there's fire" argument, and I just don't buy it.
First, just because a meme is ancient and persistent doesn't mean it's correct. People have believed in magic since the dawn of time. Racial stereotypes still tragically persist. The common cold is not caused by a person becoming chilled. Habitual knuckle cracking does not cause arthritis, nor does masturbation cause blindness, cats don't steal air from baby's mouths, and you can't see the stars during the daytime from the bottom of a deep shaft.
Secondly, if the existence of a persistent religious meme is proof of a God, then why are there so many very diverse religions? Many religions have multiple deities. Some religions practice ancestor worship (even the Catholic church to some extent). Many religions have practiced blood sacrifice, both animal and human. Some religions worship nature and animal spirits. How can the smoke/fire argument be used to prove a single God when, in fact, for most of history, the majority of mankind has practiced forms of religion that are not mono-theistic?
So, I am now, at best, extremely agnostic; one who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism. I cannot find any proof that God exists, but, of course, there isn't any proof that God doesn't exist either. French mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal, pondered this paradox and developed an argument for the belief in God based on probability and decision theory; his argument has come to be known as Pascal's Wager. Pascal postulates that it is better to believe in God because the expected reward is greater than the expected reward of not believing. If you believe and God exists, then you gain infinite reward; if he does not exist, you lose virtually nothing by comparison. If you don't believe and God exists, you get infinite punishment; if he does not exist, you gain virtually nothing by comparison. Of course, Pascal assumes that we have an eternal afterlife and that our life on Earth is negligible by comparison.
A counter-argument to Pascal's Wager exists called the Atheist's Wager. Wikipedia sums it up nicely as:
You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him.
I've always had issues with the Christian philosophy that salvation comes through faith and never through works. By that measure, the most vile torturer of the Inquisition is listening to harp music while strolling streets of gold, and Gandhi is screaming his agony as his flesh boils off his bones. Is the man that taught the world the power of peaceful protest roasting in a Christian hell? I know Christianity is about forgiveness -- being absolved of guilt because of your faith. I view that as similar to inherited wealth. If you had to follow someone's advice for the attainment of wealth, would you choose someone who inherited their wealth or someone who earned their wealth? Paris Hilton or Warren Buffett?
Interestingly, a good friend recently told me of the Apostle Paul's struggles with problems such as 'the Gandhi question'. Compare the Atheist's Wager to what the Apostle Paul said in a letter to the Romans.
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. --Romans 9:14-16
It dovetails nicely with the Atheist's Wager, doesn't it? Of course, I would wager that the Atheist's Wager was developed with knowledge of that particular scripture.
So, in the end, the whole question is a conundrum with no proof in either direction, but I lean heavily towards my logical side that does not believe -- nay, scoffs -- at the idea of an omnipotent being. Nevertheless, there's the small part that says, "What if?"
"There is no use trying," said Alice, "one can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."