A friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a while came into the Library. I was horrified to see the terrible swelling and bruises on her face and the bandage on her nose. It seems she had been out working with one of her horses and the animal had bolted, knocking her down and trampling her. This was a big work horse, too. She could easily have been killed. As it was, she got off with relatively minor damage, no broken bones or serious internal injuries.
“God and his angels were looking after me that day!” she declared. My first thought was, If God and his angels had been looking after you, my dear, the horse wouldn’t have bolted in the first place.
It would have been useless, and even rather mean, to point this out to her. She is an earnest and deep believer. To her, God and his angels are a very real force in her life. To me, they are as imaginary as unicorns, dragons, and fairies in the back garden. So who is right? And how can we possibly decide?
A great number of atheists have expended a great deal of energy explaining in lengthy logical detail why God is a delusion. Yet they are unable to convince anyone who wasn’t on the fence anyway. Theists, on the other hand, argue back with equal fervor. All right, some of their arguments are laughably flawed and silly. But there have been some genuinely intelligent and eloquent defenses of the reality of the Divine. Belief is not a matter of faulty thinking. Nor is disbelief a matter of spiritual poverty.
It boils down to this: We cannot help but believe what our experiences and worldview tell us makes sense. Period.
Fortunately, there are a great number of things we can agree on. The reality of the sun and its course through the sky, defining day and night, for example. But there have been and still are people who would laugh with disbelief at the assertion that it is the earth moving and not the sun which creates this experience. If I did not have the benefit of a science education, which has shaped my worldview, I would be among them.
I cannot know what convinces a person to believe in God, or in conspiracy theories for that matter. But I can generalize from examining my own reasons for belief that they, like me, accept what makes sense. And all the logical arguments in the world aren’t going to change their minds if they are certain they are right. They have had experiences of God, or met a ghost, or had some other insight that makes the supernatural real to them. Buddhists, whose wisdom I otherwise respect, believe firmly in rebirth. My Western, scientific worldview keeps me from being able to accept that as truth. Does that mean I’m biased? Wrong?
How arrogant of me to assert that no, I simply have a superior understanding of the world thanks to science. Arrogant, and yet, I can’t help it.
And neither can they. Or my friend with her God and angels. Understanding this helps me to be tolerant, and introduces a degree of humility to my certainties. It also makes me wince when my fellow atheists righteously heap contempt upon theists.
But, I remind myself, they can’t help help it either.