What are the practical implications of belief in God, both on the individual and culturally for the well being of a community?

(Mark D.) #1

In conversation with new member @mitchellmckain in his introductory thread, he was kind enough to elaborate for me what he thought would be the most essential features of God. Which led me to inquire about the roles God plays in the lives of those who believe in Him. Member @jasonbourne4 suggested the rephrasing I’ve given it here in terms of the practical implications of God belief and singled out this quote from my discussion with Mitchell in post 54 of Mitchell’s intro thread:

The most essential feature for me would be to know what roles God plays in the lives of the people who believe in Him. Sometimes I think the appeal to God as an explanatory principal for arcane philosophic questions is over emphasized. If the only role it played in people’s lives was to provide an origins tale, I can’t imagine God belief would ever have caught on, spread and remained so popular.

What I’ve imagined to be important roles are: making sense of death; promoting concern for the community over narrow self-interest; to focus intention (as through prayer); and to provide an audience for conscience.

My interest is as an outsider and is anthropological in nature but I would like to emphasize that I do not regard Christianity as some primitive culture. In fact, I think any of us might reflect on whatever cultures we are a part of through that lens and gain some insight in so doing. My own interest is to think about what what advantages a theist mindset may have which I may be missing. I already have some theories on that score which I’ve shared here before. But I’ve learned that asking others to place their living faith under the microscope may still feel rude to some; I hope by sharing my intentions some of you might be put more at ease in considering the question.

(Mitchell W McKain) #2

One doesn’t even have to be an outsider to be interested in a discussion of the topics of religion from a purely anthropological viewpoint. Though being an outsider (nonreligious/non-Christian) may be helpful for keeping within the framework of science especially when you are in a forum which predominantly Christian.

It has been a frequent observation of mine that man is a religious animal. Which is not to say that being human requires one to believe in the usual religious entities like gods. And even though I would classify atheism as a position on a religious issue, I do not mean that particular human beings are necessarily religious. Though I don’t think that proposition is totally outside of the realm of possibility. It is arguable and might be an interesting discussion.


Mark, thanks for your inquiry. I don’t mind being my faith being analyzed or probed. I am well aware of the materialist interpretations of my experience. None of my claims can be proven using science. Indeed, I concede that everything could be explained away from a materialist perspective. But I am thankful for a worldview that to me makes sense out of many realities in a coherent way.

I have never believed in a God other than the biblical triune God. I will share a bit of my the background of how I came to believe in this God and in the process some of the practical implications that flow out of this belief. Please permit me to use “religious language” to simplify the process of conveying my experience. You are then free to draw your own inferences.

Since I was a child I have been aware of my sin. I knew I didn’t even live up to my own moral standards and since God’s were even higher I was guilty. I realized that I held others to an even higher standard than myself. God’s moral law intends for personal and societal wholeness that honors him. I stand guilty of breaking his law, vandalizing the shalom that he intends, preferring other idols in his place, and belittling his glory.

I believe that Jesus obeyed this whole law perfectly and suffered the punishment due for my sins. United to him through faith, I have full assurance that I am declared as righteous and accepted as a child of God. I have daily fellowship with him by reading and meditating over his Word and through prayer and praise. The longer I have “walked with him,” the more I perceive the depths of my own sin, the more it grieves me and drives me back to “his arms” of grace. I bring these words to mind daily: “Come to me, all you are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11). Through this habitual process of spiritual brokenness leading me to repentance and his grace, I am being spiritually transformed. My heart is an idol factory, but Christ liberates me from my idolatry so I can find spiritual rest and wholeness in him. For example, over the past few years, Christ has been freeing me from a long-standing tendency to make an idol of my professional reputation, and he is teaching me to take his yoke upon me and seek his kingdom rather than my own.

My belief in Christ frees me from living in bondage to myself so I can fulfill (in some small measure) his mission of love and the restoration of shalom. As a follower of Christ, it grieves me to see the brokenness all around me at all levels of society owing to our collective vandalism of the shalom that God intends. In the evil and injustice of humans toward one another, we belittle the purposes of God for the way society ought to function. We fail to recognize that our sense of personal rights derives from being made in his image. We deny that God has Creator rights and we put him in the dock, demanding that he account for his ways in the world.

Jesus in his first coming brought foretastes of the kingdom of heaven, demonstrating that “redemption” and the restoration of shalom he brings (to individuals and society) is spiritual and physical in nature. There are countless practical applications here. A few personal examples: In my profession, I want to follow in some small measure after the way of Christ in ministering holistically and bringing healing to my patients. In my marriage, I want to relate to my wife with sacrificial love patterned after the love of Christ who gave himself as a sacrifice. As I relate to other women, I want to treat them with the utmost respect as I would want my daughter to be treated. As I think about money, since Christ is my foremost Treasure, I try to renounce greed and practice generosity toward those in need. This barely scratches the surface as far as potential positive practical implications on society.

The triune God of the Bible is central to my worldview. I don’t think the Bible was ever intended by God to be a science text. I believe the Old Testament is true in what it teaches because Jesus affirmed and fulfilled it, and the New Testament because it comes from eyewitnesses to him that were given authority by him. Standing forth from the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament) is a person, a Christ, who wins my trust. I can’t turn away from him as a lunatic or a trickster. His words shine forth in inarticulable ways to my own soul.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #4
  1. Prayer increases self-control, and thus lowers levels of crime, drug use, divorce and premarital sex, this is what studies show. Religious people also tend to be more charitable
  2. The Judaeo-Christian tradition may act as a bulwark against bad ideas. As we see the decline of Christianity in the west we see the rise of questionable behaviours being accepted, any discussion should take place here, since BioLogos tends to avoid controversial topics.
    Edit: Some of the statistics regarding abortion are innaccurate

(Bill Adams) #5

I think these are really interesting points Mark. In my own life I’ve moved from devout Christianity to agnosticism. However, that transition has not left me with a negative view of Christianity as it has so many others. I think most Christians are wonderful, and I think the community created by regular Christian fellowship is something to be admired and even replicated. In fact, I think that sense of community is the main practical benefit of religious life - strengthening the bonds of groups. In this sense it’s not the particulars of the creed that are important, but the loyalty to it.

I gave this more thought as I recently considered the questions of why Christians might pray for each other in times of illness. I think most Christians (but certainly not all) have moved away from the idea that health is something promised by God and they need only ask for it. When they pray for each other it’s more frequently in terms of asking for strength, wisdom for doctors, and only if God’s willing, actual healing. But that’s almost always coupled with an expression of submission to his will. So in reality, it’s a very fatalistic approach that can expect and accept any outcome. But that’s not the end of it. The real power of prayer is knowing there is a group of people who care for you. The visible demonstration of that care (through prayer) is a powerful reminder of the benefits of staying faithful to the group.

The other point you make which I find intriguing is that God acts as an audience for our conscience. I think all of us, whether believers or not, have a fairly regular internal dialogue that helps us decided difficult, or even mundane, questions. Visualizing that inner voice as an independent being that is transcendent to us can be a powerful model for thinking beyond our current circumstances and getting a broader perspective.

(Mark D.) #6

I recognize that in some ways I am religious. Though there is much in Christianity which I do not accept, it was part of my formation growing up and so colors what religiosity I do find in myself. For better or worse my initiation to church began and ended before I attended kindergarten. What I took away from that experience was the idea that Jesus was the best morally, a genius regarding the right thing to do in every situation. That became my goal to do right by others. I imagined after death I’d be able to walk with Him and we might critique my choices. The habit of thinking about what He would do or what I might say in defense of a choice I’d made became ingrained. Now I simply don’t imagine there will be any more consciousness going on for me after death than there will be any more digestion going for me. But I don’t find that makes a great deal of difference to the way I treat others or to the importance I attach to that.

(Mark D.) #7

I’m due for my physical in one hour so I definitely don’t have time to respond to your whole post now. But this little bit caught my attention because I never thought of Jesus as obeying the law. If you love enough while seeing and respecting others, there is very little chance of doing harm. I doubt that Jesus went about with the law before his eyes but rather attuned to an open heart. His emotional intelligence was probably off the charts. Anyhow, got to run now.


Good luck at your physical! (or as I would say, best of providence :sunglasses:)

I agree with you that Jesus wasn’t obsessed with the law in the legalistic sense of “rule-following.” He taught that the essence of obeying God’s law is loving God with one’s entire being and one’s neighbor as yourself:

But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

(Mark D.) #9

I’m back and my doctor is pleased with me so your providential wishes worked quite well, thank you. :wink:

Thank you for your story. I’m not sure what I think about sin. I can attach meaning to God, soul and sacred but I honestly cannot attach much sympathy to the idea of sin.

I would say though that my early take on Jesus was as someone that inspired me to become someone who could be fit company for him. I feel more inclined to strive to be worthy than to admit I am not or cannot be. It isn’t that I haven’t or can’t fail, I certainly know that. But come what will, I know I will do what is necessary to the best of my ability and knowledge. In some sense I still want to be worthy of him even though I don’t expect to ever meet him.

(Mark D.) #10

Like you Bill I am agnostic and would be whether I was a theist, deist or atheist. For me it is more an acknowledgment of my/our epistemic position than anything else, though I do abhor the concept of the ‘supernatural’. I have no idea how the universe began but I am here, it exists and I see no reason to suppose suppose we are were placed here intentionally by any entity. Also, I have no expectation of any personal afterlife existence. Ultimately of course, we just don’t know, but my gut says no.

That is a wonderful way to see it. It dovetails nicely with my idea of focussing attention but seems less clinical and more empathetic. Thanks for sharing that.

I think so too and so have retained it in my entirely natural, albeit meager concept of God. I’ve decided that there must be something which accounts for the pervasiveness of God belief and have decided that there might well be a component to consciousness that can play that role. I didn’t create the self I take my conscious mind to be and if God exists as a co-product of consciousness then I’m not making that up either. Even if internal, He is still a Thou. Anyhow, I’m as agnostic toward the existence of this limited natural God as I am toward that of the omni-full Christian God. But I do find some satisfaction in the sense that makes of my personal experience, so I do feel as though I am aided at times by insight not of my own design and do feel appreciative for it.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #11

Also, Christian ethics provides a solid foundation for morality. It is not about merely avoiding the wrath of an angry God, it is about becoming like God/Christ (1 John 2:6, Romans 8:29) and thus achieving a eudaemonic sense of accomplishment which is better than all else, how great will you feel if you have achieved a godlike morality?

(Bill Adams) #12

Mark, I think there are some very satisfying explanations in the fields of evolutionary and social psychology to explain the prevalence of religious/supernatural thinking. My own background is deeply religious (I was even a missionary at one time!). For a period while I was transitioning away from Christianity I felt some hostility toward it. I think this was a natural response as I was adjusting to a new set of foundational beliefs. Now that I am much more grounded in what I believe I have a much higher view of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Unlike Dawkins and others who maintain a very hostile view of religion, I think it can play an important role in our individual and social lives.

(Mark D.) #13

Appreciate hearing from you. I was never as religious as you were as an adult but I was pretty intense as a preschooler. Because it was easy for me to let go of, I’ve never felt hostile toward religion. But there was a time when I thought I wanted to chip away at the dogmatic bits of belief. What I like about this site is they are already reflecting on their starting position, so I feel pretty good here. Now I see the strident atheist position as having having quite a lot to gain by integrating religious perspectives.

A frequent complaint against atheists is a tendency toward scientism, and in my experience online that is often the case. It’s as though, feeling once burnt by investing so much in religion, they are now hesitant to trust in feeling and intuition much at all, and that is sacrificing way too much humanity for my liking. Too much emphasis is placed on proof, logic and science and I find much distrust of philosophy as well. Of course those atheists find their equivalents on the other side in strident, fundamentalist apologists. Together, they make quite a ruckus.

Frankly I don’t entirely trust any atheist who isn’t at least a little curious about why religion has held sway over so many for so long. And if the immediate rejoinder is superstition, dark ages, mistake, low IQ, etc then I know I am not talking to a kindred spirit. Unless an atheist has seriously considered that question, they are highly likely to jettison way too much with the bath water.

(Mitchell W McKain) #14

I don’t believe an objective answer to the topical question is possible. But I do have a curious observation to make.

If you look up the stages of grief, you will see a list like the following:

In particular I want to call attention to the stage called Bargaining. And I don’t think this stage is found only in dealing with grief. Perhaps it is an instinctual stage in dealing with many things and is perhaps a part of our being social creatures. The point here is it is practically built into our psychology to try bargaining our way out of things and so what do we do when there is nobody to bargain with? If we don’t believe in God, we might borrow one, or we might personify something to fill this role. Anyway that might be a starting point for someone looking for an anthropological explanation for belief in God.

As for the practical implications of this belief. To me it has always seemed that the most important role the belief in God has for the religious is to support a faith that life is worth living. Now to be sure one can have this faith without a belief in God. Sometimes all you need for a faith like this is simple stubborn choice. But I think a belief in God can make this easier, especially if you tailor the God you believe in for this particular role.

(Mark D.) #15

I usually find anger with a chaser of acceptance will suffice.

But I remember when my wife got very sick a couple years back. After rushing her to the hospital in the early hours of the morning with a very high temperature from an infection and coming home late after she was stable but not out of the woods, I did experience something like the bargaining stage. It was more along the lines of “if only …” but that sounds a bit like bargaining. But it felt no more rational in nature than the anger that preceded it and the illogic of the one bothered me no more than that of the other. Emotion is not required to be rational. Of course it might have been handy if I could appeal to a supernatural fixer but that would hardly be much more rational. After all, He would have been the same one that permitted the fever to grow in the first place, and if it was part of a grand plan would it be rational to think anything I could say would make a difference?

(Eric Hatfield) #16

Hi Mark, interesting questions and interesting perspective. I appreciate your approach.

My observation, as someone who has been a christian believer for more than half a century, is that some christians (as psychologists say is also the case in the general population) are more analytical in their thinking and therefore believe for evidential and logical reasons, whereas others are more intuitive and believe for more spiritual and personal reasons. I am the first and my wife is the second (as a broad generalisation). These factors make a big difference I feel.

I did not grow up in a christian home, but I first believed as a teenager because I accepted what I had been taught at a church youth group. But as soon as I chose to believe, I started to question why I believed and what I had been taught. So the first thing belief in God gives me is a truth to believe in - I think the historical, philosophical and experiential evidences and arguments really do establish the christian God’s existence with reasonable confidence, although like you I retain some degree of agnosticism because I think we must live with uncertainty. When I have questions, doubts, emotionally down times, etc, I review these evidences and arguments, change whatever the facts demand (and I have changed quite a bit over 50 years), and then continue on, so these evidences are important to me.

But life isn’t spent inside my head (though I am prone to that), and since I believe, I must live and act accordingly. So my faith provides a unifying purpose for my wife’s and my life together, an oversight of my conscience (I loved that thought expressed earlier in this discussion), a purpose and inspiration to live a life that isn’t totally self-focused and a touchstone for resolving ethical and life dilemmas. So we pray together every day (and I think prayer does sometimes change what happens even though I recognise that it often doesn’t appear to); give money and time to, and advocate for, causes we believe in; mentor younger people in the faith; run two christian websites; and generally try to give a substantial part of my time in the service of God’s kingdom on earth. So I try to follow Jesus because I believe him, I believe in him and I respect him above all others, and I try to understand him in his historical context. Of course I don’t always live up to my ideals.

I suppose belief also provides an answer to the issue of death, especially when friends and relatives die, but while that was a big issue for me as a younger christian, it isn’t such a motivation now, I don’t know why.

So that is what comes to mind in answer to your question. Thanks for asking and reading.

(Wayne Dawson) #17

Happy to see you.

Certainly, with so many people believing that there must be something more to look to and depend on, it seems to confer a “selective advantage” (i.e., evolution).

I think it makes me calmer (Be Still) when misfortune visits; it reminds me that I should wait. It makes me less prone to envy when I feel I don’t get what I deserve and other people get away with murder. It also reminds me that I cannot do it on my own – even though Western culture inculcates a sense of independence and not depending on anyone. I also have a mind to work for peace, even with people I don’t agree with. Because I know I am a sinner, I am also willing to be more charitable to those who do wrong, understanding that I am not immune and, given the right combination of circumstances, it is possible I could do even worse things. It forces me to examine myself, so I can eventually learn not to talk self-righteously. It makes me realize that I am a product of many things that I cannot control, so it is not by my own power and strength that I have achieved what I have, but by the Grace of God.

Various things like that I see as the good byproduct of religion. … of course, there are some very bad things we can do, but I think this is where I find following Jesus a very helpful thing. If I listen to what he is saying, he always humbles me and reminds me that I have a long way to go. So I have, obviously, made some mistakes in my walk. There is nothing I can do about the dumb things I have said. However, it helps me correct and revise my course. One has to believe that Jesus is real to accept it, so I don’t think it is the same as reading a teaching on how to lose weight. You have to believe it is time to lose weight, or you don’t lose weight. Even more so with the living the life of trusting God.

(Luca) #18

I was just about to give him a post in your blog Eric! But you are already here i see. :smiley:

(Mark D.) #19

I’m off on vacation but hope to get caught up in about another week.