Last weekend was quite interesting. I’ve taken a few days to reflect on the events that took place, and specifically refrained from posting anything about it right away, so that I would have that time to think about it. What happened this weekend? Well, my parents picked me up and took me home for the weekend, and while I was there, I had a nice discussion with them about my doubts. I figured that after about 10 months of having them, it was certainly time to let them know. Of course, I should have let them know long before that, but it’s taken me a long time to even come to grips with it myself, and I certainly didn’t want to worry them prematurely if I figured out a way to resolve them. But at any rate, I sat down with them and had a good two-hour discussion with them about God, the Bible, faith, and all things Christian. They really didn’t say anything I haven’t heard before, and I likely didn’t say anything they haven’t heard before, but it was still good to have a heart-to-heart chat with my parents. They let me know that it was okay to doubt, and that they would be praying for me. It was good to hear that from them, though I know that they would certainly be praying for me even if they hadn’t said that.
At any rate, I wanted to talk a little bit about faith. It’s a tricky issue, and it’s really something I need to figure out in my head. I’d like to write something about it so that perhaps I can sort out my brainwaves on the matter. It was something that got brought up several times in my discussion with my parents, and I think it’s really a crucial issue, because ultimately, the Christian belief structure comes down to…faith. There is no deductive argument for the existence of God, so there will always be some sort of leap from any premises or evidence to the conclusion that God exists. Such a leap is what we know as faith. But in my discussion, my dad described the process essentially like this: First you have faith (or belief, perhaps), and then you begin to see the evidence that lines up with it. He said several times that it was backwards to how the world thinks.
But that doesn’t really sit right with me. It immediately reminded me of an article I read once about critical thinking. I don’t seem to have it bookmarked anymore, but essentially it was an article that talked about various paranormal events and odd phenomenon. In it, the author started talking about “psi energy”, and he mentioned that one of the tactics these people use is to say that their powers only work if the audience is free of “skepticism.” In other words, you have to believe that he can do it before he is able to do it. At first blush, perhaps this seems reasonable, or perhaps it doesn’t, but this allows for two things. First, having a bunch of already-believers in the room allows for manipulation of various kinds to take place (whether intentional or unintentional) – they’re more likely to see what the person suggests to them. Second, it provides a convenient explanation. If the person’s “psi energy” does not work, they can blame it on some hidden skeptic in the room, and that is that. Any time it works, it’s one point for them, but any time it doesn’t work, there’s an explanation that can write it off. And that way of looking at the world, I think, plays at least some role in the beliefs of Christianity. Any time anyone tells you to believe first, then see the evidence, I encourage you to be suspicious. Such a scenario is ripe for con men and tricksters. Now I don’t mean to equate pastors and theologians with such people, but what I am saying is that the same principles can apply.
So how do you counter such a scenario? How do you not get sucked into thinking that some falsehood is true, and distinguish the truth from fiction? Well, the first method is to be skeptical. I know that skepticism sometimes is portrayed as a negative thing, but I don’t think that it needs to be so. Certainly we don’t want to be overly skeptical and start doubting that the outside world exists. I don’t think that in practical matters, outside of philosophical discussions, we need to go that far. But when we are confronted with an unfamiliar phenomenon, or something without convincing evidence, I think that the best approach is to be skeptical, and to seek evidence. Perhaps in some cases, this could turn out to be a bad mindset to have, but I have yet to think of one. If someone tells you that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the moon, and instead the government made fake pictures and videos in a top secret studio, be skeptical. If someone tells you that they are the descendant of Jesus Christ, be skeptical. If someone tells you that some archaeologist has found Noah’s Ark, be skeptical. Ask questions, and then seek evidence for and against each claim.
Incidentally, this is how the scientific method works. Science’s default position is skepticism (at least, true scientists doing good science are this way). Science works to test theories, and uses experiments to get at the truth. It is not a perfect methodology, but it is one refined in the fires of practical usage – it’s something that works for us, and I’d say it’s doing a pretty good job. We’ve doubled our life expectancy in a little over 150 years, we’ve come up with cures for diseases, and we’ve invented amazing technologies. You may say that science has produced much harm, but you must at least admit that science produces results. It gets us somewhere, because it works. Such scientific thinking is a way that we have to find truth about the world around us, and to explore the limits of what is possible.
But I digress. To get back to matters of faith, I had a thought the other day about how we know what exists. It seems like a simple question, but when you really think about it, how do we know what truly exists? Let’s assume for right now that, in most cases, our senses are reliable. Using that, then, the best way we know that something exists is because we can sense it – we can see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, or taste it. That redeems much of the world for us, but what about those things that aren’t immediately obvious to us? What about the wind? Or the atom? Or extra-solar planets? How do we know that these sorts of things exist?
I would like to assert that we know what exists by the effects that these things produce. In the case of most objects, they affect the light or the air to allow us to see or hear them. In the case of the things less obvious, like those I mentioned, we can assert that they exist by the effects that they produce. With the wind, we can see how it affects the trees, the leaves, and the other things that it blows around. Atoms produce very specific effects that scientists can measure and observe. With extra-solar planets, until very recently, astronomers could not see any directly, but could observe their existence by the pull that they effected on the suns around which they revolved. So even for those things we cannot observe directly, we can observe the effects they produce, and at least infer their existence with a measure of probability.
So how do we know that God exists? We certainly cannot see him directly, or hear his voice audibly. The only way we can observe his existence is by whatever effects he produces on the earth. Ultimately, it comes down to, “Can we see any evidence for him?” But how do we know that the effects we see truly come from him? There must be some way to show the link between God and the event we see. To be honest, I have no idea how one would do this. It does not seem possible that we could prove such a link with any degree of certainty. We see (possibly) created things, but we did not see the act of creation. We see a (possibly) inspired word, but we do not see Bibles descending from heaven. All the Bibles I’ve seen came from bookstores and printing presses. We see effects in people’s lives, but how do we know that other things did not cause these effects? If I pray for peace, I can receive a calming feeling, but people can create the same feeling through meditation. I get the same feeling when I sit down and read a good book. So how do we know that the prayer itself didn’t cause the change?
My point is that we don’t know. We don’t see these causal links, and we don’t see God himself either. In such an instance, as I mentioned previously, I think the best stance is skepticism. To be skeptical does not mean to dismiss a suggestion outright, but it means that we must search for evidence and then place our beliefs on such evidence. A skeptical person’s beliefs go where the evidence goes. But some might say that in the absence of such causal links for God, we must just have faith. Why, I ask? Why should I have faith when I don’t see effects that I know are from God? Such a stance specifically goes against the evidence, and a “psi energy” con man could say the same thing. I’m certainly not doubting the Christian’s sincerity, but I might object that a good dose of critical thinking is crucial. And I feel that such thinking is important in any area of anyone’s life.
I just have one last thing to say. On this topic, the standard Christian answer is as follows: “God wants us to have faith and truly believe in him and love him, and that would not be possible if he were to show us overwhelming evidence of his existence!” I understand this reasoning, and I’ve spouted it off myself many times when talking to non-believers. But let me point out where it breaks down – even from within the Christian belief system. First off, Christians (at least the literalist ones) believe in Adam and Eve. But Adam and Eve had pretty direct contact with God. He apparently walked with them in the “cool of the day”, and they seem to hear his voice pretty directly. I think they had every reason to believe that he existed, but yet they still chose to disobey him and sin against him. Proof of his existence didn’t seem to force them to have faith in him and love him.
A second example: In the future, most Christians believe that believers will be taken to heaven, where they will worship God forever and live in his presence. There, presumably, they would have pretty clear, concrete proof of his existence. Blinding light, maybe? Or a big, booming voice? I don’t know exactly, but living in his presence would imply that they have proof that he exists. But is their free will gone there? Are they now forced to love him because they believe he exists? And if God is so against that on earth, why would he want that to happen for eternity?
And a third example: In many Christian circles, Satan is believed to have once been an angel named Lucifer. Lucifer lived in heaven, again in the very presence of God. However, he still had the free will (and the guts) to rebel against God and essentially wage war against him. Did knowledge of God’s existence deny him the ability to rebel? It doesn’t appear so. The idea that proof or evidence of God’s existence would deny humans the ability to have the free will to love God does not appear to hold up, even under the Christian umbrella. So if we can have such proof and yet still have our free will, why does God still hide himself? Why doesn’t God beam the message of salvation directly into our brain, like a feature presentation directly onto our retinas, letting everyone know exactly how to be saved? People could surely still decide that they didn’t particularly like this God, or they could deny that it happened, or they could come up with some alternate explanation for it. It certainly wouldn’t convince everyone, but it would just as certainly convince more people. And if God loves us all and is “not willing that anyone should perish”, then why is he not using all the available means at his disposal (which is every means) to tell us about salvation? Why did he rely on a bunch of shepherds and fishermen to write down events that got passed down, altered, translated, jumbled around, modified, paraphrased, and then carried around for 2000 years, while using fallible humans to spread the most important message on earth around to a small fraction of the total human population? If you had to tell someone you loved something very important and very urgent, would you write them a letter, find a random person on the street and give it to them to pass along through hundreds of people until it got to them, or would you call them up and tell them yourself? The fact that God seems to have chosen the former option does not seem to say much for his love.
At any rate, now I am beginning to ramble, so I shall just cut it off here. I have become fairly convinced that faith is generally a poor method of making decisions – especially important ones. And I struggle very much with the idea that a God that loves us seems to do so little to convince us of that fact. Perhaps I have gone blind. Or perhaps I have begun to open my eyes to the truth. Either way, I am continuing to search in the only way I know how – using logic, reason, and common sense – and trusting that any Higher Power that may be up there will have the decency to search my thoughts and connect to me in a way that I can understand him.