Atheists, Help: Why I Believe

I am looking for help from skeptics and atheists. This is a genuine request – not a sarcastic request. I have been thinking about an analogy the past few days, but have not been able to vet it out. I figure what better way than to put it out to atheists as fair game to criticize. So if you are game, read on and feel free to comment here or on Twitter. I don’t mind criticism, so have at it.

The Setup: The Problem

I have been asked a few times on Twitter both “why do I believe” and also to provide evidence that God exists. I have been, admittedly, reluctant to respond. You may assume this is because I have no such evidence, but that isn’t the case. The problem is, the answer to “why do I believe” is not the same answer I would give to why you should believe. Frustratingly enough, I think that no matter how strongly I can present evidence of why you should believe, final confirmation rests in more than external evidence.

https://twitter.com/iraqvet1980/status/383311374316625920

The fact is, I didn’t come to believe because I saw external evidence, although my faith has since been confirmed. I see that evidence now, but I never needed it to come to believe. I was raised Catholic. As a teenager and an adult I challenged my faith, investigated, and tried to seek out its truth (or lack of truth). What I found makes it utterly unreasonable for me to deny my faith.

This, however, is admittedly insufficient for anyone external to myself. So I want to provide an analogy and ask you, the skeptic, to respond. Does this make sense? I do not expect (nor am I trying) to convince you of God’s existence, just to explain why my faith is reasonable.

The Analogy: Proving Fire Causes Pain

I thought of this analogy when looking at all of the Catholic cleric scientists that have existed throughout the ages. I was reading quotes from Roger Bacon – father of the modern scientific method. I found this:

“Argument is conclusive… but… it does not remove doubt, so that the mind may never rest in the sure knowledge of the truth, unless it finds it by the method of experiment. For if any man who never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments that fire burns, his hearer’s mind would never be satisfied, nor would he avoid the fire until he put his hand in it that he might learn by experiment what argument taught.”

This sounds so much like many of the atheists I have had the fortune of talking with. I see some atheists talk about how faith in God is unreasonable, but for someone like myself who has ‘had their hand in the fire’, lack of faith in God would be to deny the reality of the burn.

In essence, yes, I do believe there is plenty of external evidence that fire burns and that God exists. But it isn’t until one places their hand in the fire that their conviction would be complete and their belief would be solid.

The Breakdown of the Analogy

The analogy breaks down for me in the differences between the experience of burning and the experience of God. The fact is, the experience of God is not a passing moment intense in its moment but diminishing with time. The experience of God fundamentally changes who we are as a person if we allow it to do so.

There are certain experiences in our lives that force a change in who we are as people. On the negative side we see this in soldiers who experience gruesome warfare, or people who endure extreme suffering. On the positive side we may see this when someone reaches a significant accomplishment or when a person finds a mate that they truly love. The experience of God is like that- just far more intense.

For myself personally, the confirmation of God comes with the great beauty that opens up before me. Humanity makes sense. Love makes sense. Our desires for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for the good of others and ourselves make sense. The logical disciplines of philosophy and the sciences fit into theology in a way that I imagine they could not possibly do for the atheist. They do so in a way that is more beautiful than can be possibly described. Just as the sensation of burn can’t be described adequately to someone who has never been burned, the beauty that Catholicism opens up for me as well as the indescribable shaping of my being towards God, is something that can’t be described, but hopefully it’s effects can be observed.

A Quick Frustration: The Unscientific Approach to God

I know many atheists hear this sort of an answer when they ask why someone believes: it’s personal, or “I’ve had an experience”, or something similar. I understand the frustration – it is why I am frustrated in trying to answer it. It is, of course, the best answer for reasons I explained above and reasons that Bacon would have agreed to: confirmation of God’s existence – that firm confirmation every atheist is asking for – requires that we put our hand in the fire.

Yet when I talk to many atheists (not all, mind you), I find that they never actually have tested the hypothesis of God’s existence.

The objection I hear is “why pray when I don’t believe or would be praying to nothing?” The answer to this is to simply pray to the vagueness, to the emptiness, to the nothingness.  Reasonable men have done crazier things in the privacy of their minds.

As an atheist, you can deny that God exists, but you cannot deny the hypothesis of God. And it’s existence isn’t minimal either. Humanity is unmistakably shaped by it, and despite reports of religion’s death, we see evidence of it growing in many modern societies.  Many atheists have looked for evidence and dismissed that which is given to them as ‘unscientific’ and ‘not objective or verifiable’. Yet the problem is that they are bringing their biases into the experiment. Their approach defines God first, then denies that biased definition based on what is offered as evidence.

Rather than take that approach, why not take the most basic approach to the question: “Does God exist?”. We know that Christianity teaches above all that God is love, God is personal, and that God is the creator of all things. So why not start here and keep all other biases out?

I would be genuinely interested in this experiment. I started from a position of belief and have had that belief confirmed by putting my hand into the flame. I would be interested if any atheist would ever be willing to, for some time, say a prayer without bias, with true curiosity and willingness to discover: “I do not know, but if you exist, make it known in your way and help me to recognize it”.

But I digress.

Your Thoughts on the Analogy

So I am interested in your thoughts in that analogy to explain why I believe. As I stated earlier, I do not expect this to convince anyone of God’s existence.

I do hope to effectively communicate, however, why reasonable people believe.  I guess my hope is that the skeptic can look at the saints who lead lives extraordinary out of a love of God and recognize that if it wasn’t God, these saints had something that moved them to live incredible lives. That if fire doesn’t burn, it does something to cause necessary reaction to the person who puts their hand in the fire.

So go ahead and critique. This is not a fully thought out idea, so I may have just wasted 1300 words…

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Atheists, Help: Why I Believe

  1. God is real!

    Try to find Him within yourself… be honest about that.

    Ask Him to help you find Him. I promise, you will 🙂

    I can’t imagine my life without knowing Him. He literally changes lives for the better

    It’s not about religion, it’s about your relationship with the One who created everything and everyone on this Earth. It’s about you and Him only!

    Olga

  2. Claimed experiences are no reason to believe since our minds can betray us. You also need to keep in mind that people from many religions (almost all their home religions) make the same claims of ‘special’ experiences. You can’t all be right, you can all be wrong.

    Many of us have ‘experimented’ with god claims, including prayer, and have had zero results. Those who do claim results cannot demonstrate or show those results or give us any reason to believe they have had any results. Again, also, many different religions claim the same thing – equally without evidence.

    As an explanation for the universe and our experience god ‘works’ but that doesn’t make it true or accurate any more than luminiferous ether (the old idea of the medium through which light moved). It provides a childish explanation that makes sense internally but not when subjected to testing.

    I would agree that religion has a profound effect on society. A horrible effect. I don’t agree that it’s growing, the evidence is the opposite.

    Saints may or may not have done amazing things, that doesn’t mean what they believed were true.

  3. Before I respond, I would point you to two resources:

    1. A recent episode of RadioLab titled “Blame”: http://www.radiolab.org/story/317421-blame/
    2. A video series from Youtube user Evid3nc3 titled “Why I am no longer a Christian”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSy1-Q_BEtQ

    A lot of what you express seems like it can be summed up as “open yourself to God and you’ll receive the proof of God you’re asking for.” That seems to ignore the fact that many atheists (including myself) started out Christian. Some were even preachers or priests. The usual Christian response is these people weren’t truly Christian to begin with, that they didn’t really “know God.” But there’s no way to really know that with certainty, and many former believers will attest to just how certain they were before they lost their faith. Evid3nc3 goes into this in some detail which is why I recommended his series.

    The other point I would make is that human beings are malleable. They can be made to believe things and they can make themselves believe things when there is no rational basis for it. I read the blog post you recommended by the atheist who converted to Catholicism, and I had two thoughts. First, good for her if it makes her life happier. Second, I wonder if she had followed the strictures of a different religion, would she have found faith in a different god? My suspicion is that she could have converted herself to be Muslim, Wiccan, or even an Odin-worshipper if she could have gotten past the whole human sacrifice thing.

    As an example, psychologists have studied the concept of repressed memories, the idea that a person could block memories of a traumatic event, and then under the right guidance recover those memories. However, it has been shown that when it is suggested to people that they were molested as a child, some people will invent a memory where no such experience existed. If a person can invent they idea that they were molested, how much easier would it be to invent the idea that God is guiding your life, especially when you start by making yourself susceptible to this kind of thinking?

    Let’s turn the question around. Neuroscience has been making great strides in recent years. Suppose a pill was invented that would damp down the part of your brain that is giving you the proof you mention that makes God real for you. You could take this pill and discover whether it was really God, or just some hyperactive part of your brain that made you think that way. And experience had shown that most people who took the pill became atheist and stayed that way even after they quit taking it. Would you take that pill? If your faith is strong enough, why wouldn’t you take that pill?

    In the end, proof that you have to brainwash yourself into finding is no proof at all.

    • There is a lot to reply to in your response – and I’m not sure if I’ll get to all of it.

      First, thank you for sharing the links, it is much appreciated. I hope to get to them (I’ve had a lot of videos recommended to me, but time is ultimately limited).

      My ‘complaint’ really shouldn’t boil down to just ‘open your heart to God and belief will be confirmed’, although I can see why it would read that way. I do know that many atheists are former believers just as many believers are former atheists (one of my parish priests is a former atheist). My complaint was more directed towards those atheists who shut down the very idea. A lot is said about a lack of evidence, but I think what atheists should be saying is a lack of conclusive evidence for them. Evidence exists that potentially points towards God – the very fact that there are billions of Christians over the centuries is a piece of evidence in and of itself. If a thousand people claim to have witnessed a car crash, does it bear investigating? They could all be delusional and there could be no crash at all, but a reasonable person would state that their united claim is evidence worth investigating.

      On what seemed to be your last point, yes, brain washing is a possibility. Having a confirmation bias is a possibility as well, although my experience would say otherwise. My explanation is entirely personal, which is why I made the distinction between why I believe and why you should believe. I don’t expect to win people over by why I believe because it can’t be properly communicated.

      Ultimately I could be crazy or brainwashed, and if that’s the case, then I’ll have to live with it. I posted about this in this post: https://talkingatheism.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/yes-my-faith-is-foolish/

      Many people mistake a belief in God to be something a Christian does to bring comfort to their lives. But from my perspective, there is nothing easy about being a Christian. My Catholic faith requires that I believe things that on the surface are hard to accept and that certainly do make me a fool if they are not correct. St. Paul alludes to this very fact in 1 Cor 15:14. Christ himself portrayed the Christian life as carrying a cross, a burden through life.

      So am I brainwashed? Possibly. But if so, I would argue that this brainwashing is so complete that it has changed the substance of who I am and continues to do so. Maybe that will change someday.

      • The fact that an idea has proponents does not lend credence to it. That would imply that all religions are true, along with bigfoot, UFOs, Loch Ness monster and anything written by Ayn Rand.

      • No, of course not, and that’s not what I was arguing. What it does prove is that there is something that deserves investigation, and the larger the scale, the more in depth the investigation should be.

        Something caused Christianity and something continues to cause Christians to radically transform and give their lives to God.

        My only argument is that this cause is worth investigating rather than simply dismissing.

  4. “The problem is, the answer to “why do I believe” is not the same answer I would give to why you should believe. ”

    This line really jumped out at me. I would be interested in the answer to both “why you believe” and “why you think I should believe” and also why they would be different.

    “As a teenager and an adult I challenged my faith, investigated, and tried to seek out its truth (or lack of truth). What I found makes it utterly unreasonable for me to deny my faith.”

    This I find very curious in light of the first thing I quoted. What could you find that would make it “utterly unreasonable” for you to deny your faith, and yet I wouldn’t find it compelling? How can you think it is such strong evidence for you and yet not evidence at all for someone else? I just find this confusing.

    I would also be curious to find out exactly what you did to challenge your faith, and how you investigated.

    Now, on to your analogy. I find it interesting for sure, but I do have a few thoughts on it. The idea that experiencing fire is fundamentally different from just observing is interesting for sure. So someone who has been burned by fire and experienced it will have a hard time describing the experience to someone who hasn’t done this. If you have burned your hand in a fire and you’re trying to explain to me what it is like, it will be hard as I have never had that experience. We lack common ground for the discussion. Interesting for sure. (BTW, I do find it hilarious that in your analogy believing in God is analogous to getting burned =D )

    I do have issues though, but I will start with a question. Is the nonbeliever in this analogy someone who has never been burned by fire, or someone who has never seen fire?

    If I’m supposed to be someone who has never seen fire, you can simply start a fire and show it to me. With God belief there is no analog here. You can’t show me your God. Even if I am simply someone who has never been burned by fire. You could demonstrate its destructive potential by burning other things. Burn some paper or wood, show me what it does to things. I’ve never experienced a burn, but I can see the potential.

    • Thanks for your comment. There’s also a lot to respond to here…I’ll do my best to do so.

      ‘I would be interested in the answer to both “why you believe” and “why you think I should believe” and also why they would be different.’

      The best answer I can give here is that why I believe has been largely experiential. This is, however, an incomplete description of my reasons. There are thousands of individual reasons that I believe, both on an intellectual level and also on a personal level. The intellectual reasons are ones that I can share – and of course they can be disputed to some extent as well. The personal reasons are not something that can be shared.

      If you are married, can you ever prove to someone the love of your spouse? They can see its effects, but the actual substance of love is not measurable or observable, only the effects are. But as a spouse, you know the love in a remarkably personal way. It is to an extent your experience of that love, but I would argue it is more – it is that this love becomes a part of your very being.

      So while I have intellectual reasons for being Catholic and believing in God – and maybe I’ll start a post series on these reasons – what makes it utterly unreasonable for me to deny my faith is the entirety of both the intellectual and the personal knowledge and relationship I develop with God through prayer.

      “This I find very curious in light of the first thing I quoted. What could you find that would make it “utterly unreasonable” for you to deny your faith, and yet I wouldn’t find it compelling? How can you think it is such strong evidence for you and yet not evidence at all for someone else? I just find this confusing.”

      I do think some of this can be shared, and I am considering starting a series to share it. Unfortunately I don’t do this for a living – I am a father first and a business owner second. My free time is spent doing this. 🙂

      “I would also be curious to find out exactly what you did to challenge your faith, and how you investigated.”

      I simply started to explore the areas that I did not understand. For example, why Catholic and not protestant? What are the claims of protestantism and why do they not hold up? I’ve read Calvin, Luther, and others. I’ve read modern day dissenters. Why the Abrahamic God and not another? More specifically to my faith, question such as why the teaching on contraception, on Mary, on homosexuality.

      What I have found is that my Catholic faith is the most intellectually rich, deep, and beautiful faith. Ultimately it came down to how Chesterton stated it: Catholicism is true (he talks about why he is Catholic here: http://www.chesterton.org/discover-chesterton/selected-works/the-theologian/why-i-am-a-catholic/)

      “(BTW, I do find it hilarious that in your analogy believing in God is analogous to getting burned =D )”

      I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that. 🙂 The idea of burning is, however, a common metaphor used within spiritual development. St. Therese of Avila and St. John of the Cross often speak of that fire within. And to an extent, it is a painful fire because it is a desire that cannot be fully satisfied in this life. But I digress…

      “Is the nonbeliever in this analogy someone who has never been burned by fire, or someone who has never seen fire?”

      Never been burned.

      “You could demonstrate its destructive potential by burning other things.”

      Yes, and one of my arguments that I may make in a more full blog post is that we do see the radical effect of this fire. Look at the lives of the saints – what would motivate St. Francis to live the radical life he lived? Insanity? Possibly, but then the entire town of Assisi – the entire country of Italy for that matter – was wrapped up with him in his insanity. We see in the saints not just a way of life that they adopt, but a radical transformation of who they are and a complete giving of their lives.

      Now a skeptic may point to other potential causes of this, but I would argue this is part of the effect of the fire.

      • So to sum up, your reasons are many and not so easy to explain quickly. I actually like that answer, I would describe my reasons for being an atheist similarly. I would be interested in that series of posts you mentioned a few times.

  5. The idea that there must be something to Christianity because it continues to have lots of followers is a well-tried logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum. A lot of atheists will reject that argument out of hand. Even if you’re just saying “it’s worth a look,” it’s still the same fallacy. So no, it does not constitute evidence. If there’s something to investigate, it’s more a question of sociology as in “why do groups of people behave this way.”

    The suggestion that atheists will find their proof for God if they just do ______ is another well traveled road. It’s also common to qualify it by saying the proof could not be examined scientifically.

    This is after all a very old argument. The only thing that’s new is the atheist will no longer be fired, evicted, arrested, tortured or killed for his beliefs (most of the time). That, and we now have a much better scientific understanding of many things formerly attributed to God.

    • The argument isn’t argumentum ad populum because I’m ndot claiming validity to the claim. Contrary to what you said, this does make a difference. First, I am not just pointing to the fact that there is a critical mass that attest to some belief. I am pointing to the effect this apparently makes. Secondly, I’m not claiming that this proves the validity of the claim which is what would be required to make it a logical claim. The phenomena can’t be denied, an explanation needs to be offered. In my opinion, the explanation is that something real is happening, but an atheist may find an alternative explanation.

      Regarding “just try it”, this also isn’t a proof. As I stated in the post, I’m not trying to offer a proof at all, but rather trying to explain why I personally believe. After a few days of thinking about this, I’m not sure if I like my explanation. 🙂

      So much of the debate online centers around offering proofs, calling out fallacy, and frankly, name calling and prejudice. Although I’ve been involved in some of that, I’m trying more and more to focus on understanding the what and why of atheism in general. I have been asked multiple times why I believe, and it is a good question, one that any atheist knows is difficult for someone like me to answer. This post was written to express a little as to why it is difficult, but also to demonstrate that not believing would be unreasonable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s