Most people I know, in my rather special little community, believe in God - the supernatural variety, "old man in the sky" type god.
People who are otherwise arch-skeptics believe that the scriptures were "revealed" at Sinai in front of millions of witnesses by a supernatural god who expects us to sing his praises every day, at appointed times, and cares what we eat, or what we do between the sheets. Not to mention that since he created us, and knows all things large and small, and moreover knows what will happen in time to come, therefore also knows exactly what we will choose to eat and everything else; suggesting that it is not really our choice - we have been created to make the very choices we do. Yet we are judged by him for doing so? And if he created everything that exists, he also created evil. So how does this square with his being the perfect, "all-good" creator of the universe; implying that evil is either imagined or God is not all-good and/or all-powerful. It all seems very silly.
Of course, these are familiar well-rehearsed arguments for which no answer exists - the problems of free-will and of evil (theodicy). What surprises me is how they are so routinely ignored by so many including our media commentators of varying degrees of intelligence and erudition. An example: Dennis Praeger, arguing with Sam Harris, when challenged to justify his beliefs (in creation and revelation) answers, in effect, that he believes because he sees no viable alternative explanation for the world as we know it (a variant of the argument from order), and that, in any case, religious people are generally more moral than non-believers. I think this may take the record for the number of implicitly false syllogisms, and circular arguments, contained in a short space. Most of this stuff is just noise. But people eat it up.
Sam Harris, for his part, making the atheist's argument, makes some errors as well, that unnecessarily polarize the discussion. While his analysis of, and denunciation of, most of organized religion is compelling (at least to me), he then comes to the alternative - which is some sort of scientifically designed morality and this collapses quickly under its own weight. Let me try and explain.
I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian, but it seems to me that both those arguing for and those arguing against the belief in God make two crucial errors, namely, the pretense of knowledge and the violation of Hume's fork.
On the matter of the pretense of knowledge it seems to me foolish to deny that there are many things in this universe that we do not know, and may never know. With the science we have we can speculate about the beginning of the universe, and come up with a more or less satisfying explanation, but in the end we cannot answer the question "how was matter created?" Similar questions come to mind: "What was there before the Big Bang?" "What was there before time?" Indeed these questions do not even appear self-evidently coherent. Physics becomes metaphysics. Why should it be surprising to find out that we human-beings, even being the marvelous creatures we are, are probably very limited in what we can perceive? After all, we have only five physical senses. How many other dimensions of perception might there be? Likewise we cannot simply rule out what appears to us to be in the realm of the supernatural, or the extra-sensory. In many respects we are bound to respond simply "we do not know." (This is probably the only thing on which Bill Maher and I agree.)
The religious think they provide an answer when they say "God created the universe." A superior, indeed perfect intelligence, created these things beyond our perception and understanding. Well, what does this mean? Why do they think this is an answer? It merely provides a story with no explanation of its own. Who created God? I might as well say "its all magic." What I am actually saying when I say God created the universe is "I don't know how the universe came to be or even what that means." The religious person has no more knowledge than the pretentious scientist.
We should note in passing that belief in creation does not get us to revelation and acceptance of all the commandments allegedly revealed thereby. This requires another giant fantastical leap.
On the matter of the second crucial error, the violation of Hume's fork, David Hume argued, (for me decisively) that there are two unbridgeable realms of human discourse - the moral and the factual - the ethical and the scientific. The latter, the factual-scientific realm, concerns what is. The world is round. My weight has increased in recent years. Spain won the world cup in 2010. These are factual matters about which scientific investigation can be made. To be sure, subjective perception is still required on the way to a consensus - there is no escaping this. But, in the normal meaning of the word, these are matters of objective truth or falsity. They can be verified or (sometimes only) falsified.
The former type of discourse - the moral-ethical - is another matter completely. This concerns what ought to be (as opposed to what is) and, as Hume pithily put it, you cannot get an "ought" from an "is." "Ought" implies personal valuation and this is not a matter of verification. Good and bad, morally speaking, are not matters subject to scientific investigation. They are rather matters of personal valuation, matters of taste or moral belief. This is a type of "knowledge" completely different from factual knowledge.
To be sure, moral precepts, rules of conduct, etc. can and are influenced by facts, by circumstances. Some rules are judged good or bad in terms of their contribution to some other more ultimate good or bad. But the most ultimate, the most fundamental, values are good or bad in themselves - just because they are. It is a matter of "faith." I cannot prove that torture is bad by any scientific investigation (though I may prove that it is ineffective, which is another matter). I cannot prove that individual freedom is good, that slavery is bad. But I certainly believe they are with every fiber of my being.
Now both Harris and Praeger deny Hume's fork. Praeger believes good and bad are in the same realm as scientifically true and untrue. They are subject to God's rules in the same way that physical laws are. Its simple. If God wants it, it is good. If God does not want it, it is evil and we can investigate this in the scripture. (Problem: as Harris points out; how do you know which scripture is the valid one?).
Harris believes that we can use logic and fact to fashion a superior morality - that we can derive morals from science and logic.
Both are wrong.
The truth is more simple and less polarizing.
One: We don't know many things. We should loudly proclaim this.
How was the world created?
I don't know and nor do you?
Two: We all employ a type of "faith" to decide how to behave.
The religious seem to think that this is more arbitrary than asserting some kind of revelation - that a morality based on a revealed scripture is less subjective than resort to individual conscience.
Newsflash: Conscience is all we have in matters of morality. For some their conscience tells them to obey the revealed word, for others it tells them the revealed word is sometimes contrary to morality. You have to decide what you really believe. And, belief is not a matter of simple choice. Sometimes I wish I could believe in a system of revealed laws proclaimed by an infallible leader and savior. I can pretend that I do, but I cannot simply choose to. You can't believe what you don't believe. And what you do believe about morality, about good and bad, is always a matter of individual "faith."
Americans, being pragmatic, have sometimes unconsciously taken this realization and molded it into organized religion. The rules, rituals, festivals, and aesthetics of received religion have been retained, but their significance has morphed from the literal into the symbolic in the service of community coherence - the practice of compassion, charity, celebration, and comfort. Revelation itself is seen as a symbol for some sort of "inner revelation" - the conscience talking to us.
This approach creates a wide tent. Is it wide enough to accommodate the likes of both Harris and Praeger?
For similar musings see here and here.