I have a small prediction. Some time before the end of the next paragraph you are going to form a strong opinion as to whether this article has any value to you. I'm going to be using the G word, appealing to emotion, and generally flinging around rhetoric not backed by any mathematics. If it helps, you can think of this as epistemic wheelchair access for those of us unable to leap tall equations at a single bound and enter the temple of pure reason by flying in through the upper windows.
According to a casual Google search I did, St Francis was said to have asked:
"My God, what art thou, and what am I?"
I am not going to be offering any answers to the first question. But for the purposes of this article I will be describing myself as a christian realist. What I mean by a realist is that I identify myself as someone who seeks to engage with reality - the universe as it really is. And by christian, I mean that I came to this desire by the rather circuitous route of becoming a Christian, and then getting deconverted from most of the associated dogma, while retaining many of the ethical heuristics and respect for the teachings attributed to Jesus.
Most readers can now sigh sadly, roll their eyes and go read something more interesting. But if you are still here, either having a belief in God that you are not willing to abandon, or you want to try to engage in rational discussions with those who do, what this article is about is that without requiring self-identification as a "rationalist", theists and untheists can and should meet half way and at least agree on the logical necessity of being a realist.
First of all, if God is real, then rejecting reality runs the risk of rejecting the real God in favour of a personal and therefore flawed delusion about Him. This is generally held to be a bad thing from a theological point of view, (BTW, I am using the conventional spelling of Him with the capital letter as a gender-irrelevant variable name rather than a male personal pronoun).
Secondly, I don't think it is honest or sane to insist on the reality of God but exempt any opinions from testing against reality just because they relate to God in some way. It's almost redundant to point out the atrocities that have been carried out on the pretext of slightly different interpretations of religious doctrine between tribal sub-groups of Christianity. Absent that, some other pretext might have been used, but even so if there is to be any stable common ground between hotly disputed opinions, reality must be it.
But can we really know what is real? The world is a lot more complex and nuanced than you can ever understand. It's comforting to have a simple set of beliefs (actually, little stories about the world you tell yourself rather than a coherent model that explains what you observe) but there comes a point where you have to stop thinking and reasoning as a child and put away childish things.
Whatever religious, political, emotional, cultural, traditional, tribal or accidental views you have accrued about the world so far are mostly wrong. And always will be. There is an objective reality, but you can only know a tiny piece of it. Painful as it may be to realise this, refusing to deal with it is not a viable option. Well, it wasn't for me.
There I was, being mostly a Christian without really thinking it through, and I watched Richard Dawkins giving the BBC Christmas Lectures on evolution. It all made sense, it was interesting, and I was enjoying it. But I also began to feel depressed, and then sort of hollow inside. I had no attachment to young-earth creationism, but I suppose I was trying to keep a sort of "God of the gaps" with regard to the beginning and development of intelligent life on Earth. Having seen why there were considerably fewer gaps than I had thought, I couldn't un-see it. A little part of me had been booted out of Eden, and Dawkins was standing guard over it like an angel with a fiery sword, forbidding re-entry forever. I don't suppose Professor Dawkins would like that analogy particularly well, but when you're doing God's work, people will say unwelcome things about you. He's had worse. :)
What happened next? Let's go back to those "teachings attributed to Jesus". Specifically, "the truth shall make you free". Yeah I know, he wasn't talking about the same thing. But he was dead right. If you have a mistaken belief, your actions in regard to it will not produce the outcome you would wish. You are restricted against your will from attaining your desire. Blindfolded, shackled. Enslaved almost. And since Jesus was supposedly talking about being a slave to sin - what is sin but imperfection? And what kind of imperfection can you be freed from just by knowing the truth? Obviously, an imperfect understanding of the world. So realising this, I cheered up immensely. I could still be a Christian (and possibly a better one) by doubting, by seeking the truth and letting myself be freed by it.
So, what's the deal then? The light burden you take up as a realist is that you no longer get to complacently accept things that may not be true, and face things that are true no matter how uncomfortable. In return, you get to lay down the impossible burden of constantly maintaining your mind in the unnatural shape of what you "ought to believe".
An example: young earth creationism. Now there are many theological reasons not to insist that the earth is less than 10000 years old (e.g. Jesus never said so and when God told St Peter to preach to the gentiles who no doubt had different creation stories, he omitted to mention it as being in any way important). Let's leave them aside since they don't belong here.
The realist approach here is to ask what reason we have to believe that a young earth is factually true. Parts of the bible imply it indirectly, and some humans have said that the bible is the word of God, but we know it was at least written down by imperfect humans, and the bible itself as it now exists doesn't even say that all of itself is the word of God.
It can't. Because when the 66 books that it comprises were written, they hadn't been assembled into the document we now call the bible, so that document had no reference in any of them. Believing that the whole bible is the literal word of God is one of those "ought to believe" burdens that we can put down, leaving our hands free for some investigation. Is there any other source of information on which to draw? Something made directly by God that we can always refer to, cross-reference, and check against mere human opinion?
Well, ironically, if you claim to believe the bible, then yes, but it's not the bible; it's The Entire Universe. The cosmic microwave background, the half-lives of the isotopes, the mathematical inevitability of evolution by selection under survival constraints (as observed in the laboratory and in genetic algorithms), the strata of rock visible in the Grand Canyon and the deep ice cores extracted from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. If God is real, and God made all that stuff, and it consistently and lawfully meshes together into a coherent picture of the world that flatly contradicts a young earth, then what are you gonna do? Call God a liar because you've favour one interpretation of a book that says otherwise?
So much for epistemology. What about ethics?
If you only need to believe true facts, you are more free to choose ethical values, with the only constraint being that they are not provably inconsistent with the true facts. Want a love-centred pro-social system of ethics based on the benevolent will of God? Take it, and be joyful. Reason does not preclude it. Want this without condoning all the incest and genocide in the bible, or getting your panties in a bunch over gay marriage? You got it.
One goal of religious commitment is to become righteous. You may want to be righteous, but in order to be righteous, you first have to be right. Otherwise you're just wrongeous, and who wants that? :)
And if you merely want to feel righteous without caring or believing that you might be wrong, then that's called self-righteous. Try this thought on for size: what would Jesus say about those who hunger and thirst for self-righteousness? Not so blessed, I'm guessing.
This stuff matters whichever set of moral values you prefer, because every ethical decision has real consequences. Having a mistaken view of the world can get people killed and most humans, whether atheist, Christian, Jedi, Muslim or Pastafarian can probably agree that they at least don't want the wrong people getting killed by mistake.
I hope never to have to protect something I love from crazy people with unshakeable beliefs that make no sense. I doubt I can fully prevent that no matter how much I try to encourage realism in others, but at least by being a realist I'm trying not to be that crazy person.