Choosing to Believe

20 12 2013

Pascal and Hobbs“How can you look at the marvelous complexity all around you and not believe in God?” This question is asked of me in honest incomprehension. The person asking really cannot imagine how anyone could not see how obvious it is that God must exist. And it is with equal incomprehension that I reply, “Because your concept of God makes no sense to me.”

Sometimes Pascal’s wager comes up. If you aren’t familiar with it, Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, suggested that humans are betting with their lives when they assert God’s existence or lack thereof. If God does exist, what an atheist stands to lose is far greater than what a believer loses if it turns out He does not exist. So, reason would dictate that it is better to chose belief over disbelief, since a person would have so much more to gain.

The logic is unassailable, except for one thing: Is belief a matter of choice?

We have a certain degree of freedom to choose our actions, certainly. I can buy a product or not, speak out or keep silent, vote for a candidate or stay home. I could even say the words, “I believe in God,” and follow up by going to church and taking communion. But if the idea of God makes no sense to me, I am not going to believe in it. The mind simply doesn’t work that way. We arrive at our convictions because their reality impresses itself upon us. We cannot help but believe the evidence of our senses and the conclusions of our reason. We can speculate about possibilities, discuss alternatives, conduct thought experiments. But at the end of it all, we go home to what’s real to us.

Granted there are grey areas where we can’t be sure. Sometimes we take a guess. We make a choice based on what we hope is true, or seems most likely. But if we are sure of something, like, the ground beneath my feet is solid, or Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, we can’t just say, okay, just for fun, I’m going to believe that the ground is actually an illusion and with the next step I’m going to fall through. Or, today I will believe that Huckleberry Finn was written by Charles Dickens.

There are a great many things that I don’t believe in because they just don’t make sense to me, and there seems to be an overwhelming abundance of evidence against them. Ghosts. Unicorns. Santa Claus. Trickle-down economics. God. Now, granted, that last one is slippery because the word is almost meaningless, it gets defined in so many different ways. I’ve heard God described as simply the sum total of all the physical laws of the universe. This depersonalized, intellectualized version is a far cry from the vengeful deity of the Old Testament, who appears in burning bushes and lays down laws about what to eat, who to lie with, and when it’s okay to stone somebody to death.

When I look at the literally inconceivable vastness and age of the universe, the mind-blowing profusion of galaxies, and how ridiculously small we are by comparison, I cannot by any stretch of the imagination reconcile it with the idea of a personal, intelligent god who created it all, yet is paying attention to our impure thoughts and condemning us if we don’t perform proper rituals of worship. I could not choose to believe in such a being no matter how fervently I might want to.

On the other hand, for the believer, it is equally obvious that God must exist. Nothing makes any sense or has any meaning without positing that an intelligent designer is behind it. They can’t help it any more than I can. We must believe what makes sense to us. We have different beliefs not because of free will, because we are virtuous and decide to place our faith in God, or defiantly choose to turn our backs on Him. Or that we are deliberately and perversely choosing ignorance over enlightenment. All right, maybe that is true of some people. We do sometimes choose to hide from things that challenge a cherished conviction.

But as a general rule, I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to people whose beliefs are different than mine. I’m assuming that they are like me, that they are following what inescapably makes sense to them. Our convictions are different because our experience of the world is different. And until some agreed-to arbiter can settle which one of us is right, we have to live with each other and tolerate our differences. We must grant each other the dignity of our intelligence and the validity of our world views. And we have to figure out how to structure a society that allows each of us, as much as possible, to do what the logic of our individual world view tells us to do.

I’m not sure if that’s possible, but we have to try. It’s the only way that makes sense.

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4 responses

20 12 2013
Mary Jolles

I’m glad you mentioned the Old Testament God whom people often invoked when they wished to frighten others into obedience or submission. While I have enjoyed reading various stories from the Bible and pondered their meaning, I bristle when some “authority” comes forward to state with aggressive conviction that everyone else is wrong and they are right regarding spirituality and human existence. That conviction sounds mighty like overweening pride to me! I loved your Calvin cartoon– speaks volumns!

23 12 2013
heretherebespiders

I would love to live in a world where belief in god, or gods, was equal to the lack of belief in god, or gods. I don’t see that happening, however, not anywhere near my lifetime. Or in my great-grandchildren’s lifetime. It also makes not one whit of sense to me, I just can’t wrap my head around any deity I’ve heard about, not even the most attractive one, Gaia. I was tentatively, half-arsededly, taught Christianity, and decided it wasn’t true about the same time I decided Santa was my parents. I didn’t bother to think about god for decades, until I moved to Ireland and found god everywhere. Now that I’ve noticed, the god in America really scares me. To not teach science because it doesn’t agree with the Bible? No, no, no. I’m on the cusp of being an activist atheist because I don’t want anyone in the new generation of my family taught faith over fact.

I think it might be best if we leave faith out of our experience so we can move on to be better people because we actually want to be better people, not due to threats of everlasting torture. Oh, that is just the most horrible idea ever, I feel so badly for those that believe in it.

23 12 2013
justinegraykin

My two boys grew up in an atheist household and were surrounded by science and active debate from an early age. #2 son, who is a bit more “out” with his atheism, suffered a certain degree of bullying in school as a result, including being warned by a well-intentioned friend how he was going to suffer in Hell for turning his back on Jesus. She was honestly afraid for him because her own family was so adamant about the terrible torments unbelievers would suffer. I don’t blame her, and I don’t feel any anger towards her parents, because they, too, are only trying to do what they see as right. I find it sad, though. Such a pity to grow up with that kind of fear. All we can do is keep resisting, gently but firmly, and bring our own kids up to be critical thinkers with a strong humanist moral sense.

I think that the best thing atheists can do is simply be “out”, the way LGBT folks came “out”, demonstrating that they are not bizarre, twisted perverts, but just ordinary, decent people. Atheists must fight the misinformed in the same way. We aren’t amoral, we’re good without God, and we aren’t a threat to anyone’s way of life. I firmly believe that there are solid, rational reasons for compassion and tolerance, and that in the long run, our own success as caring, self-assured people will set an example for others who are questioning their theism.

23 12 2013
heretherebespiders

Yes, yes, yes and yes! It is both a hard and simple thing to bring children up as thinkers rather than followers. Lets face it, kids get bullied for things they have no control over such as their looks or intelligence level. At least your boys have had something to back it up. I also feel terrible sadness for people who were taught to fear an invisible watcher. Much worse than Santa, he can read your thoughts! How terrifying! Kids are learning every second, and to teach them not to even think out of fear of repercussions… I just can’t get behind that.

My husband is very, very vocal about his atheism on Facebook. I keep it more to sharing and likes of scientific posts – but we both have friends on FB who never said anything until we spoke out first. I refuse to be ashamed, like I would have been growing up in the Deep South!

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