New Blog Post: Is it still reasonable to believe in God?

Jim @jstump tackles a usual question from a different angle: philosophically. Is the very nature of this question a categorical error?

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Hi, Jim (@jstump). Thanks for taking the time to post this article.

As someone with a growing armchair interest in Aquinas, I enjoyed your helpful explanation and application of his arguments. I always thought that when Aquinas argued for a first cause he was essentially arguing for a ‘cue ball that breaks pack’ or a ‘cue that strikes the cue ball’. However, it wasn’t until I began reading the Summa for myself that I realised this isn’t true. It was good to see that (common?) misconception put to bed in your article.

I also found your distinction between ‘seeing as’ and ‘seeing that’ insightful and thought-provoking. Particularly that as Christian’s we ‘see’ the evidence as pointing in a certain way, when others ‘see’ point in another direction. That got me thinking and I wondered what you thought about the following. To what extent do you think that Christianity can be understood from the ‘outside’? To put it another way, faith is required to become a Christian, but to what degree is faith required to understand the evidence for Chrsitianity? In an evidence-based society, many might struggle with Anslem of Cantebury’s statement, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”. But given that there is no hard evidence for God, did he maybe have a point?

If I’ve gone off the tracks and misunderstood what you were saying, feel free to direct me back in the right direction. Either way, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Hey, @jstump – Let me echo @LM77’s kudo regarding the distinction between ‘seeing as’ and ‘seeing that’ – it is a good one.

The article linked in this reply in Deconversion and The Bible develops useful distinctions between degrees of faith, and especially ‘historical faith’ and ‘saving faith’.

Since the article touched on those who have left the church and no long believer, perhaps I could shed some light on the other side of the discussion.

First off, as an atheist I think religious belief is reasonable in the sense that it has been part of the human experience for millennia. I think it would be wrong to go around and tell people what they should or shouldn’t believe with respect to faith. I am also speaking specifically of faith, not science. Beliefs that run counter to mountains of scientific evidence are not reasonable, but that seems to be something @jstump and I agree on, so on to the rest of the essay.

For me, the question that I personally ran into was “Is it convincing?”. In my late teens and early adulthood I found that I wasn’t convinced. I just didn’t believe. What the essay describes is how one sees the world when they do believe, but it just doesn’t apply to those who don’t believe.

For example:

If you don’t believe God transcends our world and experience, then what are we left with in that argument? I don’t doubt Jim’s sincerity in expressing his beliefs, but many don’t share those beliefs and need something more to be convinced that such a God exists. In the eyes of non-believers, Jim has just repeated the question.

Overall, it is a great essay that is an honest account of how Jim approaches this question as a Christian and philosopher, which is entirely reasonable.

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Hi Liam. I don’t think you’ve gone off the tracks at all. In fact, in the earlier version of the website when we had separate blog pages, mine was called “credo ut intelligam” – or was it “faith and science seeking understanding”?? Can’t remember which version of the Anselm/Augustine dictum I used.

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A few quick thoughts:
It certainly doesn’t apply to everyone who doesn’t believe. But I know that it does apply to some people who struggle to believe.

I only know one person who became a Christians because of arguments. That just doesn’t seem to be the way belief formation typically works (I’ve read my Jonathan Haidt!). But arguments and conceptual analysis like I tried to provide can help in providing a rational basis for one’s faith. (There is a similarity here to what Popper talked about in science with regard to the logic of discovery, versus the logic of justification.)

I’m not so sure belief is under one’s direct control. Can you just choose to believe something? I don’t think so (I’m what epistemologists call a doxastic involuntarist – which sounds painful!). But I don’t think faith = belief in a simplistic sense. Instead, there is a much bigger element of commitment involved in faith. So consistent with @LM77’s comments, I can choose to put myself in situations where belief comes more naturally – I can work out my faith. If I absent myself from the Christian community, then Christian beliefs are going to seem unreasonable after awhile. Being part of a Christian community helps me “see as” a Christian and makes belief a little easier.

I recognize that that is not a convincing argument to someone who doesn’t believe that they should start believing. But that was not my intent.

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Completely agree.

We agree once again!

I have long thought that the vast, vast majority of people find belief through personal experiences and the like. To reiterate what I have said before, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a bit silly to tell people the “right” way to become believers.

Liam had mentioned something about what it looks like from the outside, so I thought it might be helpful to put in my two cents. I can certainly see how your essay was focused on believers, and I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the reply.

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I believe those that really want to find God can (on his terms), and those that want God to find them can be found by him:

During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, “God, help me find you,” but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, “God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.” She concluded when she was recounting this to me, “The only reason I can tell you this story is—he did.”

Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p.240

Well, that helps me make a bit more sense of C. S. Lewis’s story of his conversion, which was something very undramatic, along the lines of “when I got on the bus I didn’t believe, but when I got off, I did.” (my paraphrase) I sometimes found that weird because it didn’t jive with the grand conversion narratives I often heard, but it makes sense that it’s not something you can entirely force.

I certainly agree with this conclusion that God is outside the purview of science, but I disagree with the reason that God is existence or being itself. I do think God is a necessary rather than contingent existent. But no, I quite disagree with this idea of God being existence or being itself. Frankly I think that is the same as no God at all and no significant difference from pantheism. It is quite a different thing to say that we exist because of God than to say that our existence is God itself.

The reason I have for God being outside the purview of science is that science requires the mathematical space-time structure of the physical universe – something God created. So being outside that mathematical space-time structure makes God inaccessible to science.

I also don’t see any objective reason to accept the premises of the usual arguments for God’s existence, like “there must be something that stops the chain of dependencies.” This is going beyond an argument that it is still reasonable to believe in God in order to claim that it is not reasonable to not believe in God – which I do not agree with at all.

Also this claim of Aquinas, that “All beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation,” is another thing I disagree with as being indistinguishable from panentheism making God into a dreamer rather than a creator.

This is one of the problems I see in most of the arguments for the existence of God. That in this desperation to push God belief on others they alter God into something quite different. The whole point is that we exist for a reason and that reason is God’s motivation for creating the universe and mankind as a part of it. And there is nothing necessary about that.

The author’s talk of interpretation and “seeing as” is quite agreeable. As I often explain we theists see God in the totality of our experiences the same way that we all see other persons in more localized subsets. I don’t think I would go so far as C.S. Lewis to say God is the light by which I see other things – at least not all other things. I see things by many different lights, God and science among them. Perhaps that is why I defend the rationality of atheism and science as well as Christianity – I can see the world by the lights they use also.

But yes… God is not an object to be measured or verified by some written procedure which gives the same result no matter what we believe. God is not something imposed upon us no matter what we may want. God is only interested in a relationship with willing participants. So He remains in the subjective portion of reality where what we want and believe does matter.

Do you have trouble with Hebrews 1:3?:

…he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

The universe doesn’t exist without his sustenance.

We have been over this before Dale. The poetry in the Bible by and for people with no understanding of the shape of the earth, the age of the universe, or the laws of nature by which the universe exist is a poor substitute for science and theology. So yes I have a problem with using Hebrews 1:3 to make God out to be a dreamer or incapable of creating something properly so that it cannot hold itself together without help. I think this is a total fabrication by relgionists who want to exaggerate their own importance. God upholds the universe by the laws of nature which He created as a part of its mathematical space-time structure for an environment which supports the self-organizing process of life. He may indeed act to protect and encourage the development of life but no I don’t think He has to hold the universe or the Earth together. But I don’t have a problem with Hebrews 1:3 as meaning one of these two other things.

I think it’s reasonable to believe in God.

One thing that scripture says is creation is made to be evident that there was a creator. To me this is true. I see a certain fine tuning in the data centered around the cosmos, the earth and all its earthlings. Even with evolution and natural selection and in every field I see glimpses that just seems to scream a creator made me.

Colossians 1:16 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

Hebrews 11:3 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

Romans 1:20 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Knowing that there is a creator brings up which one. The complexity of scripture to me outshines all the test. The nuances of the original language, the patterns that follow through for thousands of years. All of it indicates to me that the creator was the god of Abraham and his scripture is true and that the Torah points towards Jesus Christ. The evidence guided me towards my faith. It may still require faith, but it’s not blind. I see the change it makes in petiole as well. For me I have very little reason to deny the existence of God as our creator.

What does the philosopher’s ‘Ground of being’ entail? If I’m understanding you correctly, God could cease to exist and the universe still would exist. (And how does “using Hebrews 1:3” make God out to be a dreamer, exactly?)

So what you are saying is that a God who is contingent and therefore possible that He could not exist could create a universe which could exist without Him but that is not something a God who is necessary could possibly do?

Because that is the real issue here. Can God really create something substantial or not? And if He can then why not? Is He afraid? I believe in a God who can and would because He wants an authentic relationship with others who have a substantial existence of their own and not just play with dolls or pretend persons with no existence or choices of their own.

It seems “ground of being” is used in two different ways…

  1. as the reason why something exists.
  2. as something which keeps it existing because it would cease to exist otherwise.

I accept that God is the “ground of being” in the first sense but not in the second sense. Instead of making God more and greater, 2 makes God less. And I am not interested in such a lesser god.

We exist because of God. But it is because He created us and not because He is dreaming or holding us in existence. The latter is panentheism.

I think we may not be using terms the same way. For Aquinas this is not a statement of pantheism, but a statement that created things are contingent rather than necessary:

And it takes at least one more premise to get to pantheism from my claim that God is the Ground of Being, namely that God is impersonal. I’ve never heard of a personal pantheism. I certainly believe that God is a personal being, and I don’t see any contradiction between saying both that God is the Ground of Being, and that God is personal (or more specifically, tri-personal).

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Following the discussion here and having scanned the article I have to say I appreciate the careful use of language. When you say

God is not an object to be tested or experimented on. Rather, God is the ground of all being and existence. And when I look at the world in the light of Christian theism, it helps to make sense of my experience.

I have to say I agree with you even though for more general reasons than those which motivate Christians. So here is yet one more atheist’s view.

I’m currently studying a book I sent away for by Ian McGilchrist whose title is taken from a story of Nietzsche’s, The Master and His Emissary. His book is an investigation of the workings of our minds and his thesis, roughly told through the title, is that as conscious minds we the emissaries of something more primal, the wisdom and kindness of the good master who has entrusted us to carry on his rule. In a sense, our science and knowledge managing conscious minds are made possible by the ongoing actions of this more ancient form of consciousness. McGilchrist thinks and I agree that it is fitting that we, who are dependent remain mindful of from where true power comes and seek to carry on His rule for the prosperity of the entire domain. Seeing things this way also makes sense, as you say Jim, of my experience.

Christianity fits this narrative while adding details I don’t accept. But I can at least acknowledge that Christianity does have the effect of putting us in a context. In Nietzsche’s story the emissaries turn on the master and kill him whereupon the domain falls into ruin and misery. At least Christianity’s call for humility in the face of our increasing empirical power is on the side of the general good. I am more than happy to honor the details you accept but which I don’t as being in the service of something good and needed. More power to you.

Thanks @MarkD. I know the McGilchrist book well. I think his views of the brain and consciousness can be incorporated into (or leveraged for?) views of science and religion that I find useful, as in my Does God Guide Evolution?, in which I think we have to tell two stories.

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Not at all. I was saying nothing about God’s contingency, but the universe’s. ‘God’s ceasing to exist’ is obviously a hypothetical, and given that (call it a thought experiment, if you will), does the universe still exist? No one is granting that he did not create it. Per your view, the universe no longer needs God to exist and thus what you are saying is more akin to deism than Christianity.

Orthodox ontology certainly does not imply pantheism nor God as a ‘dreamer’.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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