Despite these similarities, it still seems to me that our intuitions of mathe­matical and logical truths are different from what you're claiming for beliefs about what is divine. For example, axioms get confirmed by observation in a way that belief in God doesn't. You mentioned this yourself earlier. We can't see with our eyes that every two things equal to a third must be equal to each other, but every time we do observe two such things we literally see that they are equal to each other. There is no such positive confirmation far God, Brahman-Atman, the Tao and so on.

You further opened the way far this point when you admitted that self-evi­dent truths are not maintained in splendid isolation. You said we need to compare them to the rest of our experience. So my point is, that if you can't get positive confirmation for belief in God as you can for the axiom, then even if beliefs in divinity are in some sense self-evident, they're not self-evident in the strong sense the axiom is. In that case the axiom and belief in God are not in the same boat with respect to events that can confirm them.

No way! You're begging the question against belief in God by saying there are no observations that confirm it. We can point to any number of observations that confirm it - that is, observations of what we would expect if belief in God were true. Think of the types of experiences we discussed at our second meeting: many Jews, Christians and Muslims report encountering manifestations of God, including visions and voices. Many more report occasions on which they had a powerful sense of God's presence in which God seemed especially close, and all have had the experience of encountering God through the reading of scripture. They all report instances of answered prayers, and special occasions of comfort in the face of grief. In addition to such individual observations, there is the way in which their wider experience supports interpreting the world as God's creation: Theists all insist that the world really looks dependent on God, for example. As one rather literate Theist once put it, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Ps 19: 1 KJV); and again, "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man, that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You visit him?" (Ps 8:3-4 NKJV).

Another important example of confirmation is that many people find the orderliness and purpose they observe in the world to be what they would expect from its having been created by God. I am not saying that we can infer God's existence from the order and purpose we observe. It's not that we experience order and purpose and draw the conclusion that God exists; rather, we experience God through his revelation and then find our belief in him confirmed by our observation of order and purpose.14

I also think believers in God have confirmation of their belief via near-death experiences. I know this last point has its own special objections, so let me tell you why I think it is valid. Some years ago, I became friends with a Baptist minister, Cliff Crider, who had no time for the reports of near-death experiences. He thought they were all the products of oxygen deprivation of the brain combined with gullibility, and thought Christians who believed them to be evidence for the truth of life after death were being foolish. When I phoned to talk to him one day, his wife told me he was very ill and that if I wanted to see him again I’d better be quick about it as he’d collapsed two times in the past week or so.

When I arrived at his house Cliff was in bed hooked up to an oxygen tank, and he had quite a story to tell. During his last collapse, he said, he was shocked to see exactly what so many near-death experience reports described: he saw himself walking down a long tunnel with a light at the far end. Just then, his friend George came running up to him and said: “Cliff you have to go back. It’s not your time yet.” Cliff replied, “George what are you doing here?” And George answered: “I died last month.” So when Cliff was revived he said to his wife, Ann, “Call George, will you?”  When Ann dialed George’s number and asked for George, George’s wife said to Ann: “Sorry you hadn’t heard, but George died last month.”

I don’t see how anyone can explain that by oxygen deprivation!

I don’t know how to answer that, so I’m going to stick with my previous line of criticism.

I've just thought of another way the axiom belief is superior to belief in God. Since believers in God often speak of ''growing in faith" throughout their lives, it seems there's some weakness in their experience of its truth that needs to be strengthened. It sounds as though they don't really experience it as certain, and that's not true far the axiom. This suggests to me, once again, that belief in God is dependent on feelings, whereas the axiom isn't. So even if belief in God is based on experience in some sense, it's not a genuine experience of self-evidence, as it is with the axiom.

What you're pointing to is partly correct. But I’m going to insist, once again, that for both divinity beliefs and belief in the axiom we must distinguish between the intuition of its truth and our subjective feelings of confidence in that truth. Our feelings can grow even when our intuition is one of complete certainty. The more we employ the axiom, the more it turns out to be just the rule we need to make coherent sense of things in geometry, and the stronger our feelings of confidence in it become. Just so, a person may experience the truth of God's offer of love and forgiveness as certain but nevertheless experience growing feelings of gratitude, appreciation and reliance as the practice of faith over the years makes sense of life and confirms that God is faithful to his covenant promises.

The sorts of feelings involved in belief in God differ from those aroused by the axiom, of course. But that difference is not one that makes the apprehension of the truth of either belief dependent on those feelings. The real difference is that the feelings involved in a personal relationship with God are much more complex and variable than anything evoked by the axiom. At times believers feel especially blessed and close to God, or tested and far from God. So, our feelings can vary greatly toward God, whereas they hardly seem to change about the axiom. But that shouldn't fool us into confusing the intuition of a truth with the feelings it can engender. The fact that the feelings accompanying a belief are improvable doesn't show that the intuition of its truth was - or is - in any way deficient.

Here's a quick illustration of that point. If you show me a rope bridge across a thousand-foot deep gorge, my fear of heights is going to elicit a very predictable reaction: I'm not walking out on that bridge unless a pack of wolves is chasing me. If you then drive a jeep across the bridge, I may have all the rational evidence I need to believe it will support me. Surely if it supports you and a jeep it will support just me after you have crossed over it. But I can assure you that unless I hear howling close at my heels, I'm not going out on any rope bridge over a great drop no matter what weight it has already supported. The point is that I both know the bridge will hold my weight and – at the same time – distrust that it will support me.

I must admit that these similarities are disconcerting; there are more of them than I would have supposed. But I'm still troubled through all of this by the fact that many ideas of divinity conflict with one another and so can't all be true. I know you said you would return to this point later, but I can't help mentioning it now. Even if you're right that belief in God is held by many people on the same ground as the axiom, how does that help if - as you admit - all other religious beliefs are held for the same reason?

OK, let's deal with that question now. I'll start by pointing to what mathematicians or logicians do when they disagree about an axiom.15 They conclude they cannot both be right - provided they don't also claim to give up the law of non-contradiction.16 Just so, in the case of contrary religious beliefs, they cannot all be correct. This does not in the least count against the fact that in each case these beliefs are still equally the products of (fallible) experiences of self-evidence, which are nevertheless genuine sources of certainty for those who have them.

The result in both cases is that there is no religiously neutral way to settle who is right. This is why those who advocate different axioms because they experience them as self-evident, like those who hold different divinity beliefs on that same ground, never succeed in persuading one another by arguments or evidence. Their disagreements cannot be settled by debating the premises of their beliefs, for the beliefs at stake have no premises. When they do debate, what happens is that each party to the disagreement tries to show that his or her belief explains things better than any alternative belief. But this rarely makes much headway, since there are almost always some things that each of the beliefs at stake seems to explain well and some things it doesn’t explain well. This is why, in the end, these debates never seem persuasive to anyone but those who already believe. (And this is true even when the event is one like Cliff’s discovering George had died.)

But now you are making it sound as though reason is helpless to decide these matters! Earlier you denied being an irrationalist; what has become of your denial?

I still deny being an irrationalist, and I think that any real irrationalist who overheard these conversations would agree!

We need to recall here the distinction I drew earlier between two of the (many) ways a belief may be rational. First, it may be the conclusion of reasoning from premises. Second, it may be an intuition of self-evidence needed in order to engage in reasoning. My position is that, as in the case of axiom beliefs, no belief in something as divine is rational in the first sense, while all divinity beliefs are equally rational in the second sense even though they can't all be true. But this is not irrationalism. I am not saying that reason is useless nor am I aban­doning it in favor of wishful thinking, hunches, or feelings. Nor am I giving up the very notion of truth and replacing it with pragmatic usefulness. On the contrary, I'm saying that these beliefs are held on the same intuitive grounds on which the very principles of reasoning are held, and surely reasoning is helpless to prove the basic beliefs that are its own axioms and rules. That was Pascal's point: “reason must trust these intuitions of the heart and base every argument upon them.” In short, my position is that just as there are conflicting intuitions about mathematical axioms, there are conflicting intuitions about what is divine. And just as there is no neutral (non-question-begging) way to settle the differences about mathematical axioms by argument, there is no way to do that for divinity beliefs either.

But people argue their axiom differences, don't they? There's rational debate involved as each side gives reasons for its position.

That's right, they do. But you don't mean to suggest that this doesn't happen in religion, do you? There have been centuries of debate and argument both within religious traditions and between them. There have been long debates between Hindus and Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Muslims, and Jews and Christians, for example. Not long ago, an international association of Buddhists established an ongoing dialogue with virtually every major world religion. Clearly, the major disagreements about what is divine are debated extensively in those traditions, just as they are in theories about math and logic. Let me put the same point as a question. What do contrary intuitions of the divine lack when they are debated by religious traditions, as compared with how contrary intuitions about logical or mathematical axioms are debated by philosophers or scientists? Or why should we think intuitive beliefs are rational, or more rational, depending on how rigorously they're argued for, when the arguments given for them in the sciences have never settled those debates any more than arguments have settled them when they’ve occurred in religious traditions?

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that it's useless to discuss or debate different religious beliefs, any more than it's useless to debate different axiom beliefs. In each case, arguing can serve to bring out greater detail in the contrast between conflicting beliefs, it can elicit the implications of each for a host of other issues, and it can clear up misunderstandings. But arguments do not settle the question as to who is right or wrong in a purely rational way that persuades all parties to the debate.

So your objection seems to be a two-edged sword. If intuition can't count as justifying any divinity belief because people have contrary intuitions of them, then how can rational arguments do that when the very nature of rationality has the same failing? Intuitions of self-evi­dence are not infallible, of course, but neither is rational argument. When did a Hindu ever convince a Muslim by purely rational argument, or when did a Christian ever convince a Buddhist? When we look at philosophy, do Aristotelians convince Kantians, or materialists persuade phenomenalists? Do rationalists convince pragmatists, or existentialists convert positivists? Surely not. So why should the fact that divinity intuitions can't all be right count against seeing any such belief as justified for someone who has an experience of its self-evidence? And if you deny that point for the justification of all divinity beliefs, why wouldn’t it equally count against the justification of all the differing positions concerning mathematical and logical axioms as well?

I'll tell you what would be irrational. It would be irrational for anyone to give up whatever he or she experiences as self-evident because of arguments. It may well be that a brilliant skeptic can cook up clever arguments to show us that we can't be sure that things equal to a third thing are equal to each other, or that we don't know that the objects we presently perceive really exist, or perhaps even that we don't really know anything at all. But we'd be fools to throw away what we directly experience as self-evident in favor of such an argument when such arguments also assume certain beliefs to be self-evidently true!

An amus­ing illustration of this point arose some years ago when it was argued that a bee should not be able to fly based on what was known about the laws of aerodynamics.17 Its wings were supposed to be too small and to vibrate too slowly to support the weight of its body in flight. Confronted with the evidence for this conclusion, what was the reasonable thing to do? Give up the belief that bees fly? Raid the nearest hive for honey in the confidence that the best the bees could do would be to run after us? Surely not. Even if we couldn't detect a fault in those calculations, the reasonable thing would be to conclude they were mistaken all the same.

Are you saying that there's no use ever to argue against what someone sees as self-evident as it relates to the person holding it?

No, I’m not saying that either. An argument can effectively call into question a belief experienced as self-evident if it uncovers some explanatory weakness in the intuited belief. Such weaknesses need to be taken seriously, and may even lead the one holding the belief in question to consider an alternative belief. But any real change from the belief in question will come about because of a change in the experience of the one holding it. Arguments, then, have a role to play when it comes to changing self-evident beliefs, but it is not a decisive role.

This point is more often ignored with respect to religious beliefs than it is with respect to conflicts about axioms, so I want to repeat that it applies equally to both. A person who continues to believe in God despite being unable to refute a clever argument against her belief may appear simply stubborn and irrational to someone who does not share that belief and thinks his own argument is sound. But this does not show that she is doing something she has no intellectual right to do. Ironically enough, this same point was made by the great skeptic of religion, David Hume. Hume pointed out that whenever arguments "prove" what is contrary to experience, people always believe their experience and become skeptical of the arguments. And, he added, that is just what they should do. I'm saying that a critic who seriously expects someone to give up belief in God because of his argument has forgotten Hume's point.

I want to repeat that this point applies equally to nonbiblical divinity beliefs as well as to belief in God. Anyone who experiences, say, matter, or the laws of mathematics or logic or Brahman-Atman or anything else as self-evidently divine would be doing something irrational to be persuaded by argument alone to believe that it is God who is unconditionally real instead. And, as with axiom disagreements, this means that insofar as these differences are the products of contrary experiences of self-evidence, there is no way to settle them at all by argument.

Although this conclusion applies just as much to axiom disagreements as to religious ones, and although it's as true of the divinity beliefs that occur in theories as much as it is of the divinity beliefs of religious traditions, these cases have never been treated alike. No one seriously suggests that differing axiom beliefs are intellectually disreputable, and no one calls the divinity beliefs that occur in theories irrational. No one seems to feel compelled to write books suggesting that all those beliefs should be given up. So why are the divinity beliefs of the religious traditions treated that way? Why is it that when their disagreements appear to be irresolvable by argument and evidence, the question shifts to whether they are rational at all?

The answer, I think, is that they are treated differently because of the (phony) demands that real self-evidence must be infallible, must be confined to necessary truths, and must be the same for all rational people. Those requirements, and the accompanying pretense that axioms of math and logic meet them, have resulted in a skewed judgment of the status of beliefs about what is divine. Without these requirements, the strong likenesses between the experiential ground of religious beliefs and of axiom beliefs would have been much more apparent. In other words, what got concealed by those demands is precisely my main point: belief in God, like other divinity beliefs, can have the same ground as belief in the axiom of equals or any other intuition of self-evident truth.

When we combine this point with our earlier discoveries about what religious belief is, and about what counts as religious experience, I think it makes a powerful case for recasting how we regard religious belief generally and belief in God in particular. Belief in God has especially suffered from being treated as a hypothesis - an educated guess - that has poor supporting evidence. But all such treatment is defeated once it is recognized that belief in God is grounded in the experience of its self-evidence. If this is denied by dismissing self-evidence generally (as pragmatism tries to do), it will also have to be dismissed as unreliable for such beliefs as those produced by normal sense perception, and those produced by the intuition of the truth of logical and mathematical axioms.

But self-evi­dence is not a part of our experience that we can disregard at will. There is no way to avoid relying on it, because all the arguments anyone could give for not relying on it must make use of beliefs (such as logical rules and perceptual beliefs) that can only be known by means of it. Any wholesale denial of it will therefore be self-assumptively incoherent: that is, its very denial will assume its reliability at some point. So, once again, I conclude that belief in God and the axiom of equals are in the same boat whenever they are grounded in an experience of self-evidence.

This is a very disturbing position. I would like to be able to show it's wrong, and I'll try to do just that next time we meet.

Meanwhile, I will say this: even if you're right about everything up to this point, I certainly have nothing to fear! You've just admitted not only that I'm not doing anything irrational by not believing in God, but that I'd be irrational to be persuaded by argument to believe! Your view means that since I have no such experience as "seeing the biblical message to be the truth about God from God," nothing you've said has - or should have - any persuasive farce far me at all!

That's right. My experience can't warrant your beliefs, and vice versa. (That's yet another way belief in God is like the axiom!)

Is that all you have to say? Look, when I asked you why you believe in God, I intended to give religion a fair shake. I wanted to see if there were arguments I'd overlooked, evidence I'd slighted, or any reason that might make it seem plausible. You've given me none of those things! Instead I get an account that, even if correct, amounts to saying there's something wrong with my religious intuitions; it means that short of having a different experience of self-evidence, there's no way for me to know whether God is really there or not! Is that where you intend to leave the matter?

No, it's not. There is more to be said. But it has to do with putting yourself in a position to have the requisite experience, and I'm not sure you want to hear that yet.

What do you mean, "put myself in a position to have the requisite experience?”

Well, that's what I'm not sure you're ready to hear. To really hear it, you have to be convinced that the essentials of the position we've discussed so far are at least possibly correct. After all, why would anyone go to the trouble of trying to put himself or herself in a position to have a certain experience without being convinced that such an experience is possible?

I'm certainly not convinced that you're right. But do I think your position is even possible? That's harder. I'm going to have to think more about that too before I can answer. But meanwhile I'd like to hear what you have up your sleeve. Let me worry about whether I "really" hear it.

OK, it's simply this. Whenever someone fails to see something others claim to see, there are really only three things the others can do to help that person. One is to tell the person what to look for in order to discover the truth at stake; another is to put the person in a position to be exposed to whatever it is the person has missed; and a third is to is to lay out a conceptual framework that explains the relations of what was missed to other parts of the person's experience.18 Consider these three in relation to the axiom of equals, for example. What would you do if you were teaching geometry and a student in your class said he didn't see that the axiom is true? So far as I know, no one has ever offered a proof that inferred it from other beliefs, so how could you help him? I think the answer is that you would do the three things just mentioned. You would make sure he understands the axiom and try to point out the consequences for geometry of denying it. You would encourage him to attend the class and see how the axiom works in doing geometry. And finally, you would try to explain how its status as an axiom makes sense by the way it fits into the whole of geometry and also contributes to that whole.

I'm saying the same things to you now about belief in God. Up till now I've been trying to tell you what to look for; I've been saying you should forget about proofs and look for (some part of) the biblical message to be self-evident. Now I'm going to suggest that you perform the experiment of putting yourself in a position to have that experience. The first part of this is to read the Scriptures. God can, of course, make Himself known in any way He pleases, yet most people come to belief in Him by some kind of contact with the message of his revealed offer of covenant love. The primary source of that message is the Scriptures. So if you're serious about finding out whether God is real, put yourself in the position of being exposed to the biblical message. You might start by reading the gospel of John.

To carry out this experiment fairly, though, you need to do the reading as open-mindedly as you can. For example, if you've read the Scriptures before, or especially if you've been instructed in them from a particular point of view in your youth, try to divorce yourself from that past and see them again on their own terms without the old associations. A good modern translation will help, as will a Bible dictionary or other reference book that can explain unfamiliar terms, allusions to strange places, and so on. The main thing to remember about the reading is that you do it while regarding the writings as ordinary-language records of the covenants that reflect the time, place and outlook of their writers. If you read them with hostility to see whether you can pick holes at every turn, there is no question about whether you can succeed; you can. The point is to read them as possible revelation from God. That is, read them so as to hear God speak - not with sounds that can be heard, but by having you intuitively see (some of) the biblical message to be the truth about God from God.

Another piece of the experiment is that you put yourself in contact with a community of those who believe in God. You need to attend their worship and Scripture study, if only as an outside observer. Remember that in math also you can't really appreciate the spirit and nuances of its techniques in isolation from the tradition that passed it on and a community of those who know and use it. This is even more important for fully grasping belief in God because it is a belief that impinges on the whole of life in a way the axiom of equals doesn't begin to approach, and you need to see its impingement at work. Christians have always said that such impingement is the power of God's Spirit applying the biblical message to believers’ lives, so that's something else you need to see for yourself. And, finally, it's important because in addition to your own reading of Scripture, you need to hear it interpreted and applied to life by those better acquainted with it, just as a math student who doesn't find the axiom self-evident needs to have it explained and see it used by those who do.

Don't misunderstand me here. I'm not at all suggesting that the skeptic about God should establish this sort of association in order to be enculturated into becoming a fellow traveler to the belief. On the contrary. I'm suggesting reading the Scriptures and associating with a community of those who believe only as a way of putting yourself in a position to experience for yourself the truth that God is real. Still less should you misunderstand me to be suggesting that associating with a congregation of believers will impress you with how virtuous they are or how less likely to err than other people. On the contrary! Any community of believers will be made up of quite ordinary folk with quite ordinary foibles and failings. What is more, among their failings will be failings to live up to parts of the teaching they believe. But perhaps in their very failings you will see the power of the gospel at work - how the biblical message impacts the everyday lives of average people.

The third thing I said we could do for someone who failed to "see" the axiom of equals is to provide a conceptual framework showing both the internal relations among geometrical beliefs and their relations to the rest of our experience. In the case of the axiom we can point to works on Geometry. In the case of belief in God we call such a conceptual framework "theology." So this part of putting yourself in the best position relative to the self-evidence of belief in God, would be to look at a theology - not as dogma but as a help to opening up your experience.19 This last point has been well expressed by philosopher of religion, George Mavrodes:

[Theology] may seem a cumbersome apparatus and in fact we may not need it all at once. It may also seem singularly ill supported. But if some part of it makes contact with some element in our experience so that each illuminates the other, then we will take new interest in that theology. If it goes beyond this, it serves to light up broad ranges of our experience so that we begin to see a kind of sense in our lives, then perhaps we will be more than interested. More important, if the terms and doctrines provide us a clue as to how to respond, and if, as we try that response, we find our experience continuing to make sense, then we are likely to say that [the theology] was a true one and that we also have heard God speaking to us.20

Finally, if you are really serious about being open-minded and "giving it a fair shake," you would try saying prior to each Scripture reading something like "If you're really there, God, show me." You would do this purely hypothetically, of course. I'm not suggesting that you say this already assuming God exists, but only to take seriously that it is possible.

That's it. That's the experiment. If you try that and nothing happens, you still won't know why any of us find the biblical message to be God speaking to us. (In that case I'd say, "Try it again!") If you do experience it to be the truth about God from God, then you'll find that you also have experienced God speaking to you.

Before I go near that with a ten-foot pole, I need to formulate carefully what bothers me about your position and decide whether I do think it's even possible.

Ok. That's what our discussions are for. But let me add one last thing about this experiment. Short of having powerful reasons for thinking that it isn't even possible that God is real, refusing to make this experiment will put you in the position of rejecting a belief while failing to do what could be done to find out if it is true. In that case, your rejection will be one you're not intellectually entitled to! Consider a parallel case: Suppose you told me there is wonderful art in a certain museum and I persisted in denying it while refusing to visit the museum to see if you’re right. I would not be entitled to my denial, right? Well, the same holds true concerning this experiment and belief in God.

I say this because often when I make the point about the need to put yourself in a position to have a new experience, someone may object to it by saying: "Oh, but I did all that as a kid. My parents took me to church, and I read the Bible, so I’ve already made this experiment." But that's not right. Look at how your concepts of things other than religion have changed since you were young. Your ideas about politics, sex, money and a host of other subjects have matured in ways you could not even have guessed at as a child. But have your ideas about religion also matured? Many people fail to realize that they are comparing their childish ideas about God to their mature concepts of everything else! And this mistake is compounded by the way many of the most childish misunderstandings of belief in God are perpetuated and reinforced in the popular media because those who work in the media are making the same mistake. (Keep in mind that the popularization of virtually any important belief is inevitably distorted in direct proportion to three factors: its complexity, the length of time it's been popularized, and the need of a given population to be corrected by it.)

Suppose someone were to tell you that Shakespeare's work is worthless and that she knows this because as a child she attended her parents' Shakespeare Club each week and heard a few lines read from two or three different plays. Would you think she had given the work of Shakespeare a fair hearing? Surely not. You would advise her to read all the plays, become acquainted with their language and historical background, study their inter­pretation and, above all, see them performed. You would certainly tell her that until she considered Shakespeare's work through adult eyes and stopped going only on childhood memories, she was in no position to judge it.

All the same points apply to the biblical message. To know whether it is true, you need to perform the experiment of seeking your own experi­ence of God.

Not before I air out my objections to it, I won't! If there are good reasons to think in advance that belief in God is a big mistake, then I have no intellectual obligation to waste my time with any such experiment.

Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 7:03 AM