THINKING ABOUT WHETHER THE POSITION YOU'VE OUTLINED IS EVEN possible. I must
admit that it's hard to think of reasons why it's impossible, and I suppose I've little to lose by
trying your so-called experiment. But I'm also feeling a bit swamped by all the
new information and some of the more difficult arguments. So before I decide
what I'm going to do, there are a number of scattered loose ends I'd like to
tie up from our previous talks. Can we start by running down my list?
Sure. Fire away.
The first has to do with self-evidence and doubt. If a belief is self-evidently true to someone, does that make it impossible for that person to doubt it? And how serious is doubt for belief in God, anyway? Is doubting a sin or something?
The question of doubt is more complicated than you might think. There are several kinds of it and different reasons for them. From the Christian point of view, there are cases in which doubt is, indeed, a sin. Those are the cases where someone knows that God is real and has offered us his love, forgiveness, and redemption, but then (either in attitude or in practice) doubts that God will keep His promises. As an example of this, think of a person who fears she will be fired from her job unless she covers up a fraud being committed by her boss. To abet the crime would be a clear case of not trusting God to care for her needs were she to be fired for not abetting the fraud.
There are other senses of doubt, however, that are not so serious. And they are related to the three senses in which Bible writers use the term “faith.” The sense of “faith” we were talking about at our last meeting means our trust in and reliance on God’s promises. It’s important to notice that even this sense of “faith” is not supposed to be blind trust, however. Rather we are asked to trust God to keep His promises on the same grounds that we would trust anyone else to do so, namely, on His past record of promise keeping (Hebrews 11, 12). The second sense in which they use “faith” is to refer to the entire Christian religion, as in the expression “the Faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The remaining sense of the term is the one we already discussed at some length: the seeing-for-one’s-self that God is real (Hebrews 11:1 -2). That is the sense in which faith is equivalent to a type of self-evident knowledge. I remind you again that none of these senses of “faith” as they are used by Bible writers amount to a blind leap, or belief beyond the evidence, or belief against the evidence.
But getting back to doubt: there are other kinds besides mistrusting God despite knowing His promises. And these other sorts are not serious in the religious sense. For example, after experiencing any belief to be self-evident, we may reflect on the possibility that we are mistaken. Merely reflecting on the fact that we are fallible amounts to nothing more than admitting the possibility of error stemming from our own limitations and weaknesses; it's not the same as actually thinking the belief is false. Yet another type of doubt is that which often arises from considering an alternative divinity belief. We can reflect on what it would be like to hold the other belief and notice its more attractive features. For example, we might admire the dedication and integrity of its advocates, or appreciate the art it has inspired. There's nothing wrong with this sort of reflection either. In fact, I'd say that those who never reflect on other divinity beliefs in this way have failed to take them seriously. In itself, this sort of doubt is not incompatible with belief in God. For those whose belief in God is grounded in a genuine experience of the kind I've described, taking alternatives seriously will only lead to strengthening their own belief.
What about the doubt that can arise from criticism? You've obviously thought a lot about the objections I raised against belief in God. Don't any of them ever make you doubt - even a little bit?
At times I do have what-if-it’s-not-true moments, but not because of the objections. In fact, such moments often end when I reflect on the sorts of objections we’ve been discussing, and once again find the replies far more plausible than the objections. Moreover, a great many of those replies have stood the test of time; they have been around for centuries and been examined and reexamined time and time again. The result, in my opinion, is that the replies to the usual objections are stronger than ever.
But I don’t think that such occasions of doubt are important in a religious sense. This is because doubt and belief are not related in humans in such a way that one of them dispels the other. Many people assume otherwise, I know, but they’re wrong. Believers in God often doubt while believing. Think of the story (in Mark 9) of the father begging Jesus to heal his son. Jesus says to him “If you believe your son can be healed.” The father then says to Jesus: “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” The truly incompatible attitudes are not doubt and belief, but belief and disbelief. A sure and certain belief is not one that cannot be doubted, but one that cannot be reasonably disbelieved. Maybe you recall that in one of our previous sessions I quoted Calvin on this point: “… we are never so well in the course of this life as to be entirely cured of the disease of distrust… in the believer’s mind certainty is mingled with doubt.”1
And remember: even if a believer can't effectively counter a claim that belief in God is in conflict with another self-evident or strongly confirmed belief, that fact doesn't automatically settle the matter against belief in God. As with conflicts between non-religious beliefs, discovering the conflict still leaves unsettled as to which belief should be retained and which should be given up. What usually happens in such cases is that people retain a self-evident belief over one that has a lot of evidence but is not self-evident. And where the conflict is between two or more self-evident beliefs, they tend to retain whichever self-evident belief seems to have the broadest scope of application to reality (as when mystics reject all we perceive and conceive as illusion in favor of what they experience as self-evidently divine).
What of probability arguments? I've seen a number of those lately, and they seem to draw their conclusions more cautiously and to be quite reasonable. Maybe that's the way to deal with religious belief rather than looking for reasons for or against certainty!
That doesn't sound right. Consider this analogy. Suppose I read an article containing a number of convincing reasons why it's improbable that a woman can bench-press over 250 pounds. I can find nothing wrong with the reasoning, but twice a week when I go to the gym I see Jane bench-press 260. Do I refuse to believe what I see? Do I feel compelled to find rebuttals to the reasons in the article? No. There may be nothing wrong with the article's arguments; what Jane does may be highly improbable, yet it's still true that she does it. The point is that the improbability of something's being true can never overcome our direct experience that it is true.
The writer C. S. Lewis commented on this same point. Most of his life he was an atheist, but then he became a Christian. Even after his conversion he still thought Christianity looked improbable. His conversion experience, he said, had "dragged” him “kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God."
You must admit, though, that a number of writers who defend belief in God don't see the issue of doubt the way you're describing it. They think the objections and probabilities are more important than you're taking them to be.
True enough. I think this happens when believers succumb to assuming that belief in God should be treated as a theory that depends on its evidence. If someone does that, they're treating belief in God as though it’s a large-scale explanatory hypothesis to be accepted because of how well it solves intellectual puzzles the way, say, atomic physics does. Such a person is going to agonize end- lessly over a host of arguments and counterarguments and take them more seriously than I think they should be taken. This is why it's so important to recognize that belief in God is not a hypothesis but an experience report. It's not based on arguments, so we don't have to solve every difficulty or answer every question for it to be a justified belief.2
But getting back to your question, we can notice other forms of doubt besides these. For example, ...
I'm not sure it's worth going on with this. You've answered what I had in mind.
0 K. But there's one more sort of doubt I'd like to mention just in case it applies to you (and because we only briefly touched on it earlier). This is a rather subtle form of doubt I'll call "practical doubt." It arises from being surrounded by unbelief rather than from wrestling with definite reasons for rejecting God's reality. For some it begins when their belief is ridiculed in college by religion-bashing professors or fellow students. Or it may come not from outright bashing so much as from the fact that everyone you know seems to regard belief in God as passe’ and not worth worrying about. A believer can be seduced by the vague impression that being educated and up with the times requires that belief in God be abandoned - at least in practice. It rarely occurs to those who are affected this way that the bashings and godless lifestyles presuppose an alternative divinity belief! It seems instead that religion as a whole is simply not in vogue.
Others fall into the same sort of doubt from cultural osmosis rather than schooling. From their workplace and the popular media they gradually absorb attitudes and values that conflict with, or simply ignore, belief in God. Perhaps at the same time they are turned off by a bad experience with a church or with someone who professes belief. They begin to drift away. Over time the very fact that they seem to be able to get along without belief in God playing an active role in their lives leads them to doubt that such a belief is relevant to modern life. In this way, they become practicing atheists without actually reasoning to atheism as a conclusion.
I feel a special concern for such people because it probably doesn't occur to them that their new attitudes and values presuppose belief in some alternative divinity - a belief they might even want to say is false were it to be consciously articulated and examined. The sad thing is that they have simply given in to cultural and peer pressure; they've allowed those pressures to make them feel embarrassed about the social acceptability of their belief, and so have ceased to put it into practice. In relation to your original question about self-evidence and doubt, then, practical doubt can afflict belief in God even while that belief is still experienced as self-evidently true.
Doesn't that show a weakness in such people's experience of self-evidence? Isn't the fact that this happens evidence that their experience isn't the same as the self-evidence of normal sense perception or rational axioms?
I don’t think so. Practical doubt can afflict any self-evident belief and isn't unique either to belief in God in particular or to religious belief in general. The fact is, we are the sort of creatures who can at times repress what we know to be true or be talked out of almost any belief - at least at a superficial level. There are many examples of this: the alcoholic who denies his addiction, the eyewitness whose certainty is shaken under cross-examination in court.
This is why all along I've been urging you to be self-conscious about your own convictions, and to seek to enlarge your experience and have the courage to live by whatever you end up experiencing as divine. Caving in to cultural and peer pressure is the most unjustified sort of doubt there is.
I can assure you my doubts are not of that type! I've never had any experience that has left me the least inclined to believe in God. So we can go to my next loose end, if you don't mind.
My next loose end is that I have lingering misgivings about the whole topic of "self-evidence.” Most people hardly ever use that expression and aren't even sure what it means! So why is that the right way to think about religious experience?
Well, yes, you’re right that the expression is not a common one in our everyday speech.3 But the fact that most people don't have a precise understanding of it or rarely use it, doesn't matter so long as you now have a clear definition of the way I've been using it, which is the way it had been traditionally been used in science and philosophy. Once that's clear, and the three restrictions that have burdened it are exposed and cleared away, I think it's the most helpful way to see what is going on in the formation of divinity beliefs.
But please don't take me to be insisting on a particular term! If you don't like “self-evident”, use some other word. It doesn't really matter what you call the experience of intuitively recognizing the irresistible prima facie certainty of a belief without inferring it from any other belief. So long as it's clear that's what we're talking about, call it what you like.
I don't want to waste time arguing about terms either. So let's go to what I believe is a more important issue. You've proposed that I make the "experiment" of reading part of the Bible to see if I experience it as containing revelation from God. But couldn't anyone make the same proposal on behalf of some other divinity belief?
If you say they could, then why wouldn't I have to read them all in order to be fair to all the other possibilities? If that's right, then your proposal is actually biased in favor of belief in God. What's more, it would then turn out that in order to eliminate the bias, I'd have to spend the rest of my life doing little else but reading religious works that teach or criticize virtually every divinity belief! Needless to say, I haven't got the time for that. So your "experiment" is either unfair or impractical; either way I'm led down the garden path.
You're right, of course, that believers in other divinities could advise you to read their scriptures or other works advocating their beliefs. What could prevent that? And even were you to read only the scriptures of the divinity beliefs that have had the most followers, it would, as you say, take a huge amount of time. With all that I fully agree.
What I don't agree with is your suggestion that it would somehow be unfair to the other beliefs if you made the experiment I recommend vis-a-vis belief in God. First, because it was belief in God you asked about. If you want to know why we who believe in God find that to be the truth, then it's not necessary to read everything else in order to understand our answer, any more than it’s necessary to read up on other religions in order to have the experience of seeing God’s reality to be the truth. Second, there's the reason you brought up at our last session. You noticed that the three theistic traditions are anchored on the idea that God has revealed himself and seen to it that a record of that revelation has been preserved in Scripture. The Scriptures therefore have a unique role relative to belief in God in contrast to the sacred writings of other traditions. For example, in Hinduism or Buddhism the sacred writings are aids to achieving one's own mystical experience, but they lack any binding, authoritative content such as the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Scriptures claim to have. As a Brahmin Hindu priest once said to me, "I read the Upanishads or the Gita or whatever only to aid my own experience. If my experience differs from them, it is the final authority - not them."
So there's nothing unfair about starting with the Scriptures, since they at least claim to be a message from God with definite authoritative content, and because the Scriptures themselves say that finding God is especially tied to encountering Him by contact with His word (Rom 10:1-17). The sacred writings of most other religions don't even make such a claim. The contrast can be summarized this way: whereas in the pantheistic traditions the role of sacred writings is to aid you to achieve an experience that authoritatively reveals the divine, in theism the experience is that of finding the biblical message to be the authoritative revelation of God. The experience is not itself the authority. It is the subjective side of experiencing Scripture's teaching as the authoritative source of truth about God.
Needless to say, the versions of philosophical naturalism that pick out some kind of properties-and-laws found in the cosmos to be the nature of the divine (such as, mathematical, spatial, physical, logical, etc.) have never claimed to be based on revelation; they aim to justify their choice by arguments. Perhaps you recall that we talked about this earlier. I gave you an argument I think is irrefutable to show why we can't even conceive of any of the major kinds of properties and laws as independent of all others. If that’s right, then we can't give a successful argument to conclude that any of them are the nature of what has divine status. We also saw why they can’t be justified pragmatically.
Oh yes - the ''experiment in thought" argument we discussed the first time we met. I have a loose end with that, too! I thought I got the point when you gave it, but now I'm not so sure. Just how does it show there can be no arguments to justify naturalist divinity beliefs such materialism or rationalism. Can you run it by me again?
I'd be glad to. Do you recall the basic idea? We attempted to think of some particular kind of properties and laws as: 1) the only kind anything really has, or 2) as the basic nature of whatever produces all the rest of reality. Ascribing either status to any kind of properties and laws makes that kind to be the nature of whatever is supposed to be the non-dependent (divine) reality that has produced all else.
Yes, I've got that part all right. And I still get nothing at all whenever I try to conceive of any of those kinds apart from all the other kinds. But why does that all by itself show we couldn't successfully argue for any of them as the nature of the independent reality everything else depends on?
This is one of the more difficult points of our discussion, so I don't blame you for wanting to go over it.
Let's approach it from a slightly different angle this time. Start by recalling that naturalist divinity beliefs take some parts or aspects of nature - the universe - as the divine (self-existent) reality all else depends on. When this happens in theories, it is phrased as the claim that there's a particular kind of properties and laws that is the nature of the divine part of the universe – the part that generates all the rest of it. Most naturalists today are materialists, so they support the theory that it’s some type of purely physical entities in the universe that generate everything else in the universe.
My point is that if I’m asked to buy into the theory that there are purely physical somethings that generate everything else, then at the very least I need to be able to conceive of such somethings. I must be able to conceive of purely physical realities as existing independently of the rest of the universe, in order for them to be the best explanation for the existence of the rest of the universe. If the proposed somethings turn out to be such that we cannot so much as frame any idea of them existing independently, then no one can give a good reason to think they are the entities that exist independently, let alone that all else depends on them. The term “purely physical” would, in fact, be next to meaningless.
The significance of the thought experiment is that it shows exactly that. It shows we cannot form any idea of any member (any property or law) of the major kinds of them as independent of all the other kinds. And that means that we cannot conceive of any of the kinds as being the nature of the entities that cause the rest of reality.
Our example was materialism, but we get the same result no matter which major kind of properties-and-laws we test with the thought experiment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the self-existence of the quantitative (mathematical) properties and laws, or the spatial, or the physical, or the biotic, sensory, or logical, etc. The fact is that we cannot conceive of any of those kinds apart from (completely independent of) all the others. And if you can't actually form a concept of any of the kinds as independent, then you can't give an argument for the truth of the belief that there are such independently existing things.
This fact does not prevent a person from making a claim of divinity on behalf of some major kind of properties-and-laws. Anyone can always believe that although we can't conceive of the X kind of things as independent of all non-X properties and laws, X really is the kind of things that are self-existent all the same. But that's a claim, not an argument. The fact that no one can so much as form an idea of anything that is exclusively physical, or spatial, or whatever, means no one can argue in favor of any such claim. The claim can be made, but it cannot be justified because no one has any concept or idea that could serve as the meaning of “purely X”.
From now on, let’s use X to stand for whatever a theory wants to say is the nature of what has divine status when it’s thought to be some aspect of the natural world instead of God.
As we saw, the closest anyone could come to an argument in defense of such a claim is to argue that the X type realities are the precondition for the appearance of all the non-X kinds of properties and laws. That can often be done, but it's too weak to establish that X actually produces all the other kinds. That’s because the observed order of preconditionality doesn't rule out the possibility that both X and the precondition relations, together with the other kinds X is a precondition for, have all been produced and are sustained by God.
If you don’t mind I’d like to stick with the example of materialism and drop the talk about X’s.
OK. Let’s stick with materialism. Materialism comes in two flavors. The first is that everything whatever is purely physical and is governed solely by physical laws. The second is that everything is either purely physical or produced by some purely physical entities. Let’s look more closely at these two claims.
The first way of formulating the theory, I’ll call “Strong Materialism”. Since this theory says that everything is purely physical, it already requires that whatever is self-existent is also purely physical. According to this theory, the purely physical self-existent realities produce the purely physical realities that are not self-existent. I’ll use the term “Weak Materialism” for theories that allow that there are properties or laws (or even things) that are non-physical, and (in some versions) are governed by non-physical laws. On this type of theory, the exclusively physical realities are the reason there are such things as non-physical properties, laws, or things. For example, a version of this theory says that purely physical neural processes in brains produce a non-physical mind: a something that has ideas and feelings and makes decisions, all of which have non-physical properties.
Now suppose further we succeed in amassing tons of evidence that the physical properties of things are always preconditions for other kinds of properties. That is to say that nothing has biological life that isn't physical; that nothing is conscious, perceives, or feels that isn't alive; that nothing thinks logically that isn't conscious and perceives; and that nothing that lacks logical thought can develop a language, or an economy, or a politics, etc.4 Would that show it's the purely physical entities that produce all the other kinds of properties things can have? That is, would it show that although things actually have non-physical properties, their physical nature is independent of those other kinds of properties and produces them? Would it establish the physical properties and laws as independent and thus the cause of the others?
Not by a million miles!
Even if we could show that certain physical properties are always preconditions for any non-physical property, that wouldn't prove the others are actually generated by the purely physical alone. Why not? Because it wouldn't rule out the possibility that physical properties and laws, along with their relations to any nonphysical properties and laws the theory may allow, are both produced by something else. Being a necessary precondition for nonphysical features of things won't make the physical features also sufficient to produce the non-physical.
A simple example of this difference is that the presence of oxygen is a precondition for fire, but oxygen alone won't cause a fire. So even if the physical features are preconditions for non-physical ones, that doesn't show it’s the physical alone that produces the nonphysical. To show that, you'd have to prove the physical is not only a necessary but also a sufficient precondition for anything non-physical. That is, you'd have to show not only that nothing can have nonphysical properties without having physical properties, but also that the physical is all you need to have in order to produce the non-physical.
But why worry about the strange abstract possibility of some "other reality" being what everything really depends on? If things can have biotic life or sensory perception or logical thought only if they're physical, what more do you need to know in order to conclude everything is basically physical?
It's not an abstract possibility at all, it's God. If God is the real Creator of everything other than himself, then what everything depends on isn't matter, space, logical laws, numbers or sensations, or any of the other naturalist candidates selected from our experience and elevated to divine status in place of God. This is why it simply begs the question to respond: what else could it be? Relative to belief in God, that's no more than the confession of a contrary religious belief, the belief that the physical aspect of creation qualifies the divine reality. It already assumes there's no transcendent Creator. And it does so not because of arguments but, as I've been saying, because those who argue that way already experience the divinity of their candidate for divinity as self-evident.
But they have no good argument for that belief, because they cannot conceive of any properties or laws as exclusively physical.
I think I see more clearly now why you've been contending that the naturalist ideas of divinity are actually believed because they just look (self-evidently) right rather than because of the arguments. But if that's so, I'm just going to have to try harder to find a way to avoid all religious belief whatever!
So how about this? Let's set aside the question whether everyone has such a belief and talk about whether anything really has to be divine at all. I propose that to avoid all religious beliefs whatsoever, we should replace them with the belief that nothing whatsoever has independent reality! In that case there just is nothing to stand in proper relation to, or use as the ultimate basis of explanations in theories. Everything depends on something else. What's wrong with that?
What's wrong is that there's no way to understand this proposal so that it doesn't still leave something in the role of being the non-dependent (divine) reality everything else depends on. Here's why.
Both in commonsense speech and in science, we at times talk about "the whole ball of wax" or "everything whatever" or "all reality." There doesn't seem to be anything faulty about that, and materialists, along with other naturalists do it too. But just by doing that, they are already committed to regarding something as divine! Why? Because the sum total of everything can't depend on anything; because it's all there is, there's nothing else for it to depend on. This remains true even if you propose that reality consists of an infinite series of dependent things. That still doesn’t make everything dependent because the infinite series would itself be non-dependent.5
That truth is that we can't even conceive of any alternative to only two possibilities: either reality taken as a whole is nondependent, or some part of it is nondependent and is what the rest depends on. In that case the proposal that nothing is divine has no coherent interpretation; there's just no way to conceive of its being true.6
Maybe that's just a quirky fact about the way we think rather than showing the way things are.
Of course, people can always take different interpretations of the facts that belief in something as divine, along with the way taking that divine reality to be some aspect of the natural world turns out to be inconceivable, are both due to the way our brains happen to have evolved. But those of us who believe in God have an explanation for it too: we say God created us for fellowship with him, so that we have an innate sense of divinity and an impulse to direct ourselves toward God (or whatever surrogate we put in his place). Of course, both explanations beg the question: each explains the fact that divinity beliefs are unavoidable in terms of what it believes is divine.
So what sense does it make to propose that everyone try to repress their intuitions about divinity? That's especially futile if we can't so much as conceive of how to avoid presupposing something in that role!7
Why, then, try to avoid the unavoidable? Why not instead try to become acquainted with the ideas of divinity that have seemed intuitively right to billions of people, rather than to ignore them all?
I find it curious that you engage in considerable logical analysis and argument, yet you have a fairly low opinion of the arguments for God's existence. I understand that's because you're convinced that all divinity beliefs are grounded on and justified by experience. But how then do you see the relation of rational thinking to belief in God? I suspect there's some inconsistency between your position and the way you're defending it.
I don’t see any conflict there. The fact that belief in God is grounded in experience rather than argument doesn't mean there has to be any conflict between experience and thinking. After all, the beliefs we acquire by perception are also grounded in experience, and many of them are self-evident. But the fact that they have no rational proof doesn't create a tension between what we believe on the basis of normal sense perception and the practice of thinking rationally about those beliefs. Even the fact that it's possible for rational thought to construct theories that can correct specific perceptions, or for it to enlarge our knowledge beyond what is perceivable, doesn't put perception and reason in conflict. As I said in the essay on self-evidence, the appearance of inconsistency arises between them only if a theory tries to give a logical argument that concludes perception is generally unreliable or that it fails to reveal anything that exists independently of us.
By the same token, the fact that belief in God is a justified certainty even without arguments, doesn't mean we can't think about it. Our belief doesn't require that we'd be better off with no upper brain when it comes to religion. Reason is indispensable for understanding and explaining the biblical idea of God, for contrasting it to other ideas of divinity, and for defending it from attack and criticism. Often the criticisms are based on a mistaken notion of biblical teaching or on arguments that contain a mistake in reasoning. It's important to be able to point those out, as well as to think through the relations between the teachings that make up the content of biblical revelation. For those tasks, we need all the rationality we can muster.
Nevertheless, I don't think rational argument can - all by itself – convert a person to genuine belief in God. Remember that the biblical requirement that we believe in God is not the same as mere intellectual consent that God exists; 8 it is the commitment of our whole being to love God. As the first commandment puts it, we're to "love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength." Scripture's own account of how that happens is that the Spirit of God removes the blindness of our hearts and minds so that we directly experience its message as God as “the light of the gospel” – as God speaking to us. As I've pointed out, that experience is equivalent to having our self-evidence antennae restored to proper working order when it comes to what is divine.9 Without that, an argument for belief in God is an argument against whatever is experienced by a person to be self-evidently divine instead of God.
Of course, that doesn't mean God can't use an argument to aid in the process of bringing a person to a change of heart and experience. We’ve already seen why an argument that tries to prove God's existence is incompatible with the teaching that God has created all the laws found in creation (“everything visible or invisible”), since that includes the laws of proof. But that doesn’t rule out developing arguments that expose difficulties with alternative divinity beliefs. Such an argument could be instrumental in getting that person to take belief in God seriously - to make the experiment I've recommended to you, for example. But it's the change in experience that really alters the belief, not the argument.
I'd like now to switch to another loose end. What do you say about those who follow other religions? I'm thinking now of other major world traditions rather than of the naturalist divinity beliefs that appear in theories (I'm sure you'll say those are just wrong!). The other world religions all agree in saying that no part of the world is divine, but they have very different ideas of the transcendent divine reality on which the nondivine world depends. I know you've been emphasizing the differences of those other ideas from theism, but can't they be considered true also?
Belief in God often sounds so harsh in its insistence that it alone is true!
The quick, straightforward answer to your question is "No,
they can't all be true." You're right in pointing out that the major world
religions all reject the naturalist deification of any part (or the whole) of
the cosmos. But since the descriptions of divinity in Hinduism, Buddhism and
Taoism are logically contrary to Theism, it's not possible that all of them are
true. You say this sounds harsh, but the fact is that every religious tradition
recognizes this point. Many forms of Hinduism, for example, hold that all
people will, given a sufficient number of rebirths into new lifetimes, come to
see Hindu teachings as true and so attain Nirvana. However, it is still their truth everyone will have to
believe in order to attain the experience of enlightenment that will deliver
them from being reborn into further lifetimes of suffering. Even according to
this tradition, therefore, all competing ideas of divinity and human destiny
Let's go to my last loose end. I'm worried about what I fear may result from your contention that arguments are not the basis for religious beliefs. I mean, if that's so, how can there be real dialogue between people of differing faiths? Won't those who accept your position wall themselves up in faith communities? Won't that lead to worsening relations between them? Couldn't it even incite hatred and warfare?
Just the reverse! The position I've maintained is, I believe, the best way to prevent people from being walled up, unable to communicate, and in strife over both their religious beliefs and the differences in practices which it inspires.
You are right, of course, in thinking that one consequence of my position is that reason, for all its importance, is neither infallible nor "autonomous;" it is not self-sufficient or a law unto itself.14 Rather, as we sow our assumptions and premises so we reap our conclusions. Reasoning must always be based on beliefs we don't acquire by reasoning, many of which are beliefs we experience as self-evidently true. Among these self-evident beliefs is always some belief as to what is divine (even though it often remains an unconscious assumption). So if we use “faith” to mean “a self-evident divinity belief,” then my position is that theoretical reasoning is always faith-directed. So regardless of whether the divinity belief is an unconscious presupposition or a conscious, fervent commitment, it guides the formation of other beliefs such as our ideas of the nature of reality, of human nature, of human destiny and of ethical values.
You're also right that my position makes religious belief responsible for a lot of the differences people have over a great many things, and I can see why you might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that acknowledging that fact could intensify strife over those differences.
But in my view that conclusion is a seriously misguided jump. Recognizing the root of religious differences and the existence of faith communities stemming from them is not the cause of strife between people. The cause of the conflicts between people is not that they have different beliefs and lifestyles but that they take certain attitudes toward them. In that respect, I think the view of religious belief I've defended is the best possible hedge against the misunderstanding, hatred, and strife you fear. Let me explain.
I think my general view of religion - that people can't help but experience something or other as divine but have contrary experiences of what that is - promotes the chance that those of differing beliefs will live in peace with one another. This is because it allows members of each faith community to see that the ground on which those in other communities hold their divinity beliefs is the same sort of experience as their own. That is, it allows and encourages the insight that were we ourselves to experience as divine what the other person does, we too might well be inclined toward the same (or similar) further attitudes, beliefs and practices.
I think this helps reinforce the teachings of every major world religion to the effect that everyone owes tolerance and respect to all people. And - need I add it? - belief in God specifically prescribes not merely tolerance, but love toward those of other religious beliefs and lifestyles. So I think my view of religious belief in general, as well as the requirements of belief in God in particular, ought to generate attitudes that make for peace and goodwill rather than strife.
Maybe they ought to, but surely you can't deny that they very often don't!
Of course not! We both know that these attitudes are sorely lacking in the world and are often violated even by those who profess to believe in God. So this position is no panacea for all that's wrong with the world. But that, in a way, is my point: it's neither this view of religion nor belief in God that generates strife. It's the failure to live up to Theistic ethics that generates evils ranging all the way from petty snobbery to war and genocide.
Remember: no teaching can guarantee that those who believe it will live up to it. To be sure, there have been people who have done horrible things in the name of religion, including in the name of belief in God. But the same is true of other beliefs: great evils have been done in the name of justice, democracy, patriotism, and the advance of science, for example.
On the other hand, there are specific religious teachings which when lived up to produce horrible results!
You mean religions that taught human sacrifice and things like that?
That's an example, but it's not the only one. Consider, for instance, the view that what is divine are the rational principles which both order the universe and make human reason possible. This view was held by the ancient Greeks, revived by the Renaissance, and ensconced by the Enlightenment. It's an idea of human nature that has been, and continues to be, enormously influential in Western culture. More than that, it that has often been praised for the effect it has had in encouraging the development of mathematics, logic, and science.
On the rationalist view, humans are deemed essentially rational beings: a rational being is a human, and a human is a rational being. Human reason is affirmed to be self-sufficient (autonomous), but in order to deliver truth it needs to be insulated as much as possible from all other influences. It is present in all people, though not to the same degree, since obviously some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, it is the sovereign authority by which all decisions are to be made. If there are questions it can't decide, then they can't be decided at all, and we should form no belief about answers to such questions. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, "The appeal to reason is to the ultimate judge, universal and yet individual to each, to which all authority must bow." 15
The great difficulty with this view arises when it attempts to explain why people have profound disagreements such as contrary divinity beliefs. Why do they come up with such widely differing beliefs and then draw consequences from them so diverse that their cultures surprise and even shock one another? If reason is divine, autonomous, and the essential nature of humans, there can be only one answer: people disagree because they don't have the same rational capacities or are allowing their reason to be overcome by non-rational influences. According to rationalism, if people were being truly rational they would come to largely the same beliefs, and if they were all guided by those beliefs they would live in much more similar ways. This is not to say they would all have the same subjective tastes and preferences, of course. But they would hold most of the same objective matters to be true or false, and largely agree on the same courses of action as the correct ways to behave.
It follows from this view that when one person differs sharply from another concerning how to identify the divine, one of them must have made a mistake in reasoning. The same conclusion would also have to apply to how to understand human nature and destiny, and to what is ethically right. And when a large group of people differs from another about almost all such beliefs, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that one group must be more rational than the other. This conclusion is especially tempting when the community that deifies rationality contrasts its beliefs and practices to those of another community that does not deify rationality.
This, however, is a fateful conclusion. For if being rational is the essential characteristic of being human, it will then follow that those who are less rational are also less human. And that is exactly the conclusion the ancient Greeks drew. Their mottoes included "Whoever is not a Greek is a barbarian'' and "Barbarians are fit only to be slaves to Greeks." It was these beliefs which inspired Alexander the Great’s attempt to conquer the world.
Unfortunately, the Greeks are not the only ones to have drawn that conclusion, nor is rationalism the only religious belief that can yield it. In the twentieth century, some of the most horrific evils have been perpetrated on the grounds that those being eliminated, enslaved or colonized were either less human or not human at all (think of the Holocaust). This result arises because the deification of any aspect of the world means that aspect is a divine element in humans as well as in the rest of reality. Whether that's reason, emotion, will, or whatever, it then follows that those who are superior in that respect are more human than those they judge to be inferior in that respect.
So you think that denying the divinity of any aspect of the world can help to avoid dehumanizing people?
Yes. As I admitted, whether people live up to this point is often another matter. But at least the three Theistic religions discourage dehumanizing other people, whereas rationalism, by deifying something that is also facet of human nature, encourages it. Correctly understood, the doctrine of God includes that although reason, emotion, and will are important components in human nature, their employment is guided by some divinity belief or other. And that includes the fact that what people see as divine is a product of their experience of self-evidence rather than of their being superior in reason or any other facet of human nature. Theism affirms that there is nothing about humans that is divine, and so nothing about them that entitles anyone to enslave or eliminate others.
In short, the view I've taken about religion in general regards all people as equally human because all are “created in the image of God,” which includes their being capable of religious belief. And since there are no degrees of being in God’s image, there is no place for believing that some people are more genuinely human than others. So while those who believe in God may regard their neighbors of differing faith as seriously mistaken, for that very reason they are urged by the tenets of their own Faith to be all the more just and loving toward them rather than regarding them as less human.
Once again, you've given me a lot to think about, and I'll do just that.
I still don't like a lot of what I've heard - and I'm not sure about trying the ''experiment" you've recommended. But I do see why you think that only something like it could lead to changing my mind.
Thank you for taking the time to talk about this.
I was happy to do it.
I'll be praying that you make the experiment, and that through your reading, study and contact with a believing community, God will make Himself known to you. If that happens, you will be in direct contact with the greatest love it is possible for humans to know, and your knowledge of it will have the most precious certainty humans can possess.