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  • Writer's pictureJames Rowell

Religious Trilemma

Today I’d like to talk about “religious trilemma”, a difficult choice of three philosophical views. At a beautiful dawn or sunset, we may reflect on the wonders of nature, how perfect it may seem, almost like a painting. A soft moment of personal pleasure can become a philosophical moment. We ask, “did God make this?” And we have three choices, like three doors to enter. First, theism, to believe God or a creator did make the world. Second atheism, to disavow that, and perhaps to say the world just evolved. Or third, agnosticism, to remain unsure or unconvinced by either argument. I call this trilemma, a tough choice between three options.

Blaise Pascal, who lived a tragically short but influential life, believed we made a “wager.” We could choose not to believe, and get some short-term good in life, but risk eternal damnation. Or we could choose to believe and get the possible benefits of eternal afterlife. It is a striking option, but in our world today the options aren’t so easy. After all, we have many more than 2 religious options and holy texts – Jews have the Tanakh, Christians have the Holy Bible, Muslims the Quran, and the Dhammapada is just one of the Buddhists texts. The Hindus cherish the Bhagavad Gita. So which text or tradition is correct? And there are many other options on the table to choose from.

Let’s return to our three doors, to simplify for the moment. Let us return to trilemma. It is certainly not easy to choose. I would argue that atheism may seem very compelling to the senses, but not too appealing to most. Agnosticism is a very rational and sound alternative, but it is not decisive on the question. Theism, finally, is very attractive to us, but also very difficult to argue about, to find something we can all definitively agree upon. Trilemma is one thing I talk about in the Making Sense of the Sacred book.

Let’s take a look at the alternatives. First atheism. Now you may or may not be a fan of Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx, but they are two striking atheists of modern times. Atheism is compelling to the senses because we know definitively that we are mortal. No arguing that. People die, and we do not come back. There are stories about people surviving death and coming back, but not all of us may be convinced by them. Yet while atheism has a lot of forceful evidence – namely our brief and mortal life, I think many would say it is not so attractive, because we would like to be hopeful and imaginative, and think there is something more to this life. That is why I say atheism may be compelling, but not necessarily appealing.

Second, let us take a look at agnosticism. Charles Darwin, the famous father of evolution, was very torn by scientific and religious belief, and identified with agnosticism. One of Darwin’s advocates and staunch defenders, T.H. Huxley was also agnostic. What more rational choice could you make, given that we have limited minds and abilities to perceive? Indeed, I would argue that the humbled agnostic position is a very rational alternative, but it does not make a committed choice. While it is very rational to be uncommitted in the absence of final evidence, it may also be difficult to remain uncommitted.

Third, there is theism. Now this is easily an attractive choice. There are many attractive religious ideas. I think at heart dearly most would like to believe we in some way survive death, or that there is some Godly or Divine presence that made and looks over our universe. This is also however a very difficult proposition to argue, because there are so many faiths, they do not share the same religious texts or identical religious ideas. So, there is no definitive ground, religiously speaking, on which we can absolutely agree.

This trilemma can leave us puzzled, but that is maybe as it should be, because figuring things out and making sense of things is half of the pleasure. Is doing a crossword puzzle fun when you already have all the answers, and don’t have to work it out for yourself? Is winning a basketball game any fun, if the defenders just stand in one place and never challenge you? Puzzles can be hard, but they keep the mind healthy and vigorous. A hard-nosed scientist would agree with that. So might a theist also argue that God did not want us to have all the answers, because then we would be cheated of finding them on our own.

Some religious persons like to feel like they have the slam dunk answer. My text or my tradition says it all, and I don’t need to listen to others. Perhaps the arrogance of science can also sweep all the pieces of religion off the table and claim they do not matter. For my part, I have never been pleased with the answer smug, as opposed to the thoughtful answer well-dug. Well-dug, that is, in terms of taking time to think about things, and see how they might be rational or compelling. It is why I’ve written Making Sense of the Sacred and other books. Puzzles are often hard, we scrape for an eternity to find the right piece of meaning in our lives, but when we find it, we celebrate, and put the puzzle piece in place. I would add, finally that atheists, theists, and agnostics all have a valuable role to play as puzzle makers, making meaning of this life, and that we should not smugly dismiss them simply because we disagree. Thank you for reading religion thinkers, and please subscribe to my channel.

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