“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.