Monday, 19 December 2011

An Atheist of Faith

     It's unfortunate, I think, that we so often use the word "faith" as a synonym for "belief". The two are very different things.  Belief is a matter of taking a position on the truth value of a statement, whereas faith is a matter of acting as if something is true, without necessarily believing that it is.
     In large part, it was law school that brought me to an understanding of faith, as distinct from belief. As they drill into us, "Nobody cares what you think." That's most commonly heard when preparing for a moot, when many students fall into the speech habit of saying, "I think that..." which generally speaking just isn't good rhetorical technique (though in some cases it can be very effective), but in fact it really does go to the core of legal ethics.
     Consider representing a defendant in a criminal case. You might well believe your client to be guilty. Heck, you might believe this so strongly that you'd say you know he's guilty. But nobody cares what you think (or what you think you know); your job is to give your client the best representation possible, to ensure the integrity of the legal process. You need to put aside what you think, and present to the court the best evidence and argument (subject to the proviso that you must do so with scrupulous honesty) for your client's case, and have faith that the judge (and jury, if any) will come to the proper conclusions on their own. 
     Now, you may not actually believe that the prosecutor will present enough evidence to convict your guilty client, and you may not believe that the judge and jury are actually smart enough to reach an appropriate verdict and sentence, but that is not your call to make. You are not the one charged with the responsibility of deciding your client's guilt or innocence, and your own prejudices could easily undermine the whole process if you attempt to preempt the court's judgment with your own. In order for the system to work, you must do your job, and leave it to the prosecutor, the bench and the jury to do theirs. So you must make your arguments with the available evidence as if you believe your client to be innocent, whether you do or not, and as if you believe your counterparts in the process are competent, whether you believe it or not. In short, you must act in good faith, regardless of what you believe.

     Contrast this notion of faith with religion's emphasis on belief. Many religious people go well beyond claiming to believe that God exists; they claim to know so. It is as if the fervency of belief is a measure of piety; the more certain one feels, the fewer doubts one harbours, the greater the devotion. 
     As a philosopher sharing in Descartes' radical skepticism, I find this concern with belief to be baffling. How can we puny, fallible mortal sinners possibly lay any claim to infallible certainty about any fact? It seems to me obvious that we are all capable of error, and indeed all churches seem to try to point that out: there may be a God, but we are not it. So the focus on certainty of belief itself strikes me as fundamentally impious right from the start.
    Yet faith is something else entirely, and does not demand that we overcome our human epistemological limits. All we must do demonstrate faith is to act as if we accept a proposition as true. We are free to doubt that it is true, and indeed I think that people of honest intellect are morally obliged to acknowledge doubts.

    That is why I don't object to describing myself as an atheist of faith, when I bother to describe my (lack of) belief at all. (I have also occasionally referred to myself as a Zen Catholic. A koan: What happens when you give up religion for Lent?) I have infinite faith in God's goodness, and none in His existence. This means that while I don't actually believe God exists, and more frighteningly, while I have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that if He does exist He's not an evil spiteful monster, I simply have to act as if I believe that a truly omniscient and omnibenevolent God will have perfect knowledge of my reasons and motives, and will not condemn me to the unspeakably nasty afterlife many religions threaten sinners and unbelievers with.
     These threats, by the way, lead to a curious paradox: many of those who believe (or who profess to believe) do so in bad faith: they do not trust God to be perfectly just and merciful, and thinking they err on the side of caution (consider Pascal's Wager), they go along with whatever their church, synagogue, temple, mosque or religious leader commands, perhaps expecting the "I was just following orders!" defense to be a complete answer. Me, I doubt, but I do so in good faith and with a clear conscience. At least, as clear as the conscience of one who knows himself to be fallible can be.


  1. Tom, You misunderstand what a Christian believes. Certainly we can't know God with a comprehensive intellectual understanding. Ours is acquaintance with God in a personal relationship. One can have a deeply valuable relationship with a Nuclear Scientist without understanding very much at all about his area of expertise. Turning from our sin and trusting the Scriptural testimony about Jesus brings about the experience Jesus called being "born again". Peter spoke of it as being "begotten unto a living hope", and Paul spoke of being raised from death to life. It is this experience that gives a Christian the certainty that you find so audacious. What you need is to know the living Jesus in this way. He has said, "If you seek me you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart."

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    For me, belief without understanding is meaningless. I don't mean that one must understand a nuclear physicist's work to have a relationship with him, of course, but rather that you must understand what he means when he tells you that E=mc^2 before you can be said to believe him. You can trust that he knows what he's talking about, but if someone else asks you if it's true that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, you're really not in a position to say anything other than maybe a sheepish, "Well, that's what my friend the physicist tells me, and I'm inclined to trust him, but personally, I have no clue."

    Now, you have spoken of the need to "trust Scriptural testimony", by which I take you to mean believe in its veracity. Well, I cannot do that if I cannot understand it. The problem is, my efforts to understand Scripture do not take place in a vacuum; I'm also trying to understand all sorts of other texts, as well as phenomena in the world in which I seem to be living. These various understandings need to be consistent with each other overall, and consequently the best understanding I can generate of Scripture is that it's an ancient collection of human-written texts, subject to the same kinds of cultural evolution, revision, and interpretation as any other human-written text. Try as I might, I have been unable to make sense out of the claim that it, uniquely, is divinely inspired and authoritative.

    But we are not as far apart as you might think. My personal relationship with God is probably very similar to that of many Christians of Good Faith. (I did not mean to suggest that there are none who believe in good faith; I just think there are also a lot of believers who believe for reasons of bad faith). I conduct myself in the confidence that God, if He exists, loves me and knows intimately my every thought and fear, my every sin and omission, and that He will judge me with absolutely perfect fairness. Where we differ is that I'm not at all confident He actually DOES exist, and in fact I think it very probable He does not.

  3. Opening one's eyes is a means of seeing. Trusting the Scripture to be what it claims to be is a means of obtaining the understanding you want so much. When God opens our eyes evidence for His existence, His love, His power, His goodness is everywhere. But, "unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" John 3 A blind man can argue about color, but the discussion goes to a different level if his eyes are opened to see. Read the Gospel of John and ask God to open your eyes.

  4. I'm not sure you've understood the significance of my distinction between knowing and understanding. Understanding is a matter of being able to USE propositions to make inferences, and can be done regardless of whether one actually believes the propositions in the first place. If you understand the propositions "All cats are dogs" and "Albert Einstein is a cat", then you can recognize that the truth of these statements would imply that Albert Einstein is a dog, even if you steadfastly deny that either proposition is true. My point is that you do not need to take ANY position on the truth value of a proposition in order to understand it and its implications. Belief is NOT a prerequisite for understanding.

    Now, why must I accept a particular belief (in this case, the divine authority of scripture) in order to understand? In fact, I think I DO understand what Christians believe, rather better than many Christians do, in fact. When I say I do not understand, that's actually a kind of short hand for saying I don't understand how it can be true without creating a whole lot of contradictions and inconsistencies in the bigger picture. These contradictions and inconsistencies are most often addressed by theologians with a sort of hand-waving about how there are mysteries we can never and will never understand, and of course it's true I'll never understand everything, but it doesn't mean I can't understand more than I already do. And, from all I understand about religion at the moment, it seems to me I would have to abandon an awful lot of heretofore useful understanding if I were to embrace that one proposition. Would I be happier? I dunno. Maybe, but I doubt it. It's not like I'm wallowing in abject existential misery as it is, and as a philosopher, I've learned to be comfortable with doubt.

  5. You would have things to abandon if you were to accept the Scripture for what it claims to be. Your idea that God is represented in the Bible as "omnibenevolent" is one. That is not a Biblical idea at all. God is a Judge who will call us all to account for our unbelief and pride, as well as for our outright wicckedness. Our only hope, according to the Bible, is that Jesus came to live the perfect life we could not live and to die to pay the penalty for the sins we have done. Coming to know Him personally always involves repentance for our sin and trust in Him to save us. It is abandoning our own righteousness as well as our wrong ideas about many things. But the result is knowing Him, and this is the answer we have looked for in the wrong place. He makes Himself known to those who trust in Him. It is wonderful.

  6. No, you're right, the idea that the Biblical God is omnibenevolent is of course not consistent with much of the Old Testament. But now you begin to raise (more explicitly) some of the very things about the Bible (or at least the conventional Christian interpretation thereof) which simply do not make sense. In particular, this "abandoning our own righteousness" poses some problems. We should certainly abandon our PRIDE, I agree, and that includes a prideful insistence that I am right and you are wrong. Intellectual honesty demands that I acknowledge I could be wrong; I'm a fallible being. But that is the very doubt that you are asking me to abandon; you want me to accept the Bible, adopt a particular interpretation of it, and pretend that I can be confident that I'm following God's righteousness rather than my own.

    How can this be? How can I, an inherently fallible being, POSSIBLY become infallible by choosing (fallibly) to dress up some portion of my own fallible interpretive effort as "What God Really Means", and exempting it from critical scrutiny because I (fallibly) believe it's God, not me, who is responsible for these claims?

    Let me ask you this. How fallible are you in your knowing Him? Is there any possibility you could be mistaken, or are you claiming to be the beneficiary not only of a divine revelation, but the ability to tell the difference between knowing something with certainty and simply being deluded? Because, you see, that's what it comes down to, when you try to persuade me to accept the Bible. I have to put my faith not in God, directly, but in YOU, and then in the generations of other believers responsible for the text of the Bible. I'm sorry, but I have no reason to believe you or the humans who wrote the Bible are any less fallible than myself. You're welcome to convince me otherwise, but you're by no means the first to try.

  7. Jesus is calling you to Himself, Tom. Honestly ask Him to reveal Himself to you. All the reasoning and dissecting and analyzing will just keep you going in a circle. Jesus is real, and knowing Him puts everything else in perspective. Open yourself to all the implications of knowing Him, and ask Him to show Himself to you. You will be astonished that you did not come before.

  8. Actually, I'm Anon # 2 only because I doubt I'll be back since this conversation has been had by so many before with the same pro and con. Jews will tell you the Old Testament is a history of their people and no one is required to believe in God, only to do good. the rest is optional. Doing good is not an option. The Catholics will tell you what's right and what's wrong and how much penance you must do to get a pass. The Protestants will tell you the Jews must be saved ( at least some of them do, those P's who don't agree simply begin yet another denomination because protest is what Protestants do best). Reality suggests that man made religion up so that he could control the masses and worship himself. But anyone who truly has love in their hearts knows that any divinity, like love, is an emotion that you feel to various degrees of intensity depending on a special set of factors that are unique to each of us. You do not need man or religion to believe in God. You do or you don't. What you need religion for is to feel part of a community where you can talk to others about how much you know and how good you are compared to others. You need religion to get others to look at you like you have some authority. You need religion to tell you what to think and how to behave because you don't have the faith in yourself to act in a good, kind, generous, intelligent way unless someone is telling you to do it, and then rewarding you with promises if you do as you are told. I suspect Tom has faith in himself, and Anonymous has faith in self also. So there is no atheist of faith here. And by the way, you cannot have a deeply valuable relationship with anyone you don't understand. You can have a superficial relationship that you pretend is deep and valuable, but real relationships that are deep and valuable require time, an interest in what that person does for a living and why and how, and an investment in the other persons emotional intelligence. Your deep and valuable relationships are a reflection of you. This is fodder.

  9. Anonymous #1, I believe you that all of these wonderful things will happen if I only accept your premise. The problem is, the same wonderful things will happen if I accept Islam's premise, or the Hari Krishna's, or countless others'. It's probably also true that if I tried crack or heroin or X, I'd be instantly convinced they were wonderful things.

    Anonymous #2, I think I mostly agree with you with respect to the various social functions of religion, none of which were the subject of my original post. As for my having faith in myself, I think that's a very perceptive point. Yes, I suppose I do have faith in myself, in the sense that I'm sure I'm trying my best, but I do NOT have an unyielding belief that I'm succeeding. I've been wrong too many times about too many things to take my own sense of certainty very seriously. But I don't really NEED faith in myself in this sense, because all I have to do to know I'm trying my best is to try my best. Faith is something outside of belief or knowledge, that can only really apply when we DON'T know. And I stand by my claim that in that sense, I DO have faith in God's goodness and omniscience. I NEED to have that kind of faith, in some sense, that by trying my best and being as honest as I can, I am not going to incur some excruciating punishment in some afterlife. Trying to game the system, to second-guess what will ingratiate me to some supernatural despot, is no way to live. At the end of the day, I am ALWAYS left with my own judgment, which can be advised and informed by all sorts of other sources, but there's no escaping responsibility for my own decisions, including by surrendering it to someone or something else.

    I'm not sure what you mean when you say there is no atheist of faith here. If you DO happen to come back to this thread, I'd be grateful if you'd explain that.

  10. If you have faith in anything at all, even it is only that you are doing your best, there is no atheism involved, since an atheist is a non- believer, in your case, you claim, a non-believer in faith. You are a contradiction. That is to say, if you believe you are doing your best - even if you don't know for certain you are because we can't know until we discover we've made a mistake - then you are proceeding by faith by default.

    As for faith or belief in God, people can have all the faith in God they want, they can shout it, they can wear it, they can believe it, they can think it and write it and insist it and pray it for naught. It doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that God believe in you.

  11. Not so, Tom. Other religions don't even claim to have a living God who actually comes into relationship with the one who trust in Him. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. One truly can know Him, and He is what you are looking for in the wrong place.

  12. Ah, I see, Anonymous #2. You're using "atheist" in a rather extreme way, to mean "without belief in anything". In fact, "atheist" just means "without belief in a deity or deities." I do not consider myself to be a deity, so believing I exist does not mean I can't be an atheist.

    Also, it appears you haven't actually read the original post to this blog, which was all about drawing a distinction between "faith" and "belief", because you are conflating the two as if they are synonyms. I have FAITH in God, in the sense of trusting that (even if He does exist)) I'm not going to burn in Hell for honest and well-intentioned doubt. However, I also very much doubt that He exists at all. Do you see the difference between belief and faith I'm trying to articulate?

    Anonymous #1, you identify a difference between Christianity and other religions that is ultimately cosmetic, at least with respect to the kind of distinction I'm asking for. It isn't the specific mode of redemption/salvation/nirvana/satyana/bliss that concerns me, but the connection between the putative reward and investment of belief. ALL these other religions promise me a spiritual happiness or fulfilment or peace that I can only get by way of believing in them. Saying that only Christianity offers that reward by way of a personal relationship with a divine being is sort of like saying that no other car company offers a vehicle in this unique shade of blue. If a personal relationship with God were important to me, sure, that'd be a selling point, but it's not. What matters to me is whether or not it helps me come to a better, more complete understanding of the universe and my place in it. Your previous post, showing a certain disdain for all this "reasoning and dissecting and analyzing", indicates either that you don't place as high a value on understanding as I do, or that you believe the understanding you have gained to be superior to mine. That may be, but I must have some evidence of that before I'm prepared to abandon mine, which has not been completely useless to date.

  13. Anon #2 here: In fairness to me, perhaps you should define your title to this blog so the playing field is level. I merely followed your Atheist of Faith lead and accepted the premise as your disbelief in faith. Ergo, I did not identify you as a deity, or proceed as disbelief in the same. I accepted the premise as a disbelief in faith.

    According to Oxford, faith and belief are interchangeable words. So to scold me as a non-reader, implying foolishness, is unfair and incorrect.

    No, I do not see what you are trying to articulate if only you know what that is based on I 'm no longer certain what. To profess you can have faith, or not, in anything thing, or theory that you doubt exists might make perfect sense to you, but not necessarily to English.

    Regardless, I would appreciate it if you do not talk down to me.

  14. Apologies if you felt I was talking down to you. That certainly wasn't my intention.

    Yet, in fairness to myself, I DID write an article that (I think) made clear what I meant by "faith" and "belief", so it's not really fair to insist that I defer to one of several Oxford definitions that put them as synonyms. I quite explicitly said I thought it unfortunate we conflated the two so often, and proceeded to explain why.

    Further, the construction "An atheist of faith" doesn't really seem to imply "A person who does not believe in faith". We do not, after all, say "an atheist of God" (which is redundant) or "an atheist of homeopathy". We DO say "person of faith" when we refer to people of religious faith, and it was this construction I was alluding to in my title. Which, I think, would have become clear to most people reading the article.

    The meaning of a title cannot always be understood until the text itself has been read. It's a very common literary device, to make a someone paradoxical title that suddenly takes on a new meaning in light of the content. I'm not calling you foolish, but it is a bit hasty to assume you know what the author's talking about based only on the title of the work.

  15. A writer who is not arrogant knows that the interpretation of words is left up to the reader and welcomes insight rather than insists on control. A writer who is arrogant is content to talk to himself. Or post.

  16. With respect, I think you're mistaken about the process of writing. People who writes generally have ideas they hope to convey, and they choose the words they use to express them in accordance with generally accepted conventions of what those words mean. Yes, the writer DOES try to control the interpretation, by composing the text in such a way as to make the intended interpretation the only viable one.

    Now, there is some give and take involved. A writer must be sensitive to other ways of parsing his words, and do his best to avoid misleading ambiguities (unless they serve a rhetorical purpose in themselves). At the same time, a reader should read charitably, trying in good faith to understand the meaning the author intends. At a minimum, that involves reading more than just the title of an article.

    I do welcome insight, which is why I keep this comment thread open, and set it by default to display all comments without my vetting them first. I'll only delete those that are spam failing the Turing Test. But this is a two-way street; just as I welcome and encourage readers to scrutinize my ideas with polite but ruthless critical thinking, the comments posted here should expect the same treatment.

    So, I will remark that pointing out that I believe in faith is not a particularly helpful insight, because it's rather obvious, and I never claimed any real disbelief in the concept of faith. Evidently you assumed I WAS claiming not to believe in faith, based solely on your reading of the phrase "atheist of faith", which not only involves a non-standard meaning of the word "atheist" but also completely ignores the text of the article. Am I arrogant for deciding that the insight you offer is of little value? Perhaps. Are you arrogant for believing you are qualified to provide useful insights on my ideas based solely on reading a four-word title?

  17. I've been thinking a great deal about the importance of faith lately. Faith serves many purposes, but the most important in my mind is that it motivates us to continue functioning when our beliefs fail to do so. It's what gets us up and moving when we hit rock bottom and are questioning whether life can ever get better. A safety net between us and despair, if you will.

    The confusion I see most often is the assumption that faith must be religious. Faith in an ideal is just as effective, and just as valid, as religious belief.

    So I don't see any contradiction whatsoever in being an atheist of faith.

  18. I don't think I'd say faith motivates me, but it does certainly allow me to act and think without fear. It's POSSIBLE, of course, that there's an evil, spiteful deity who will punish me for acting in accordance with my conscience. If I were constantly second-guessing this deity, I'd never be able to do anything without being paralyzed by fear that I was dooming myself to eternal punishment. Including, as I do, honest doubt.

  19. God is not an evil, spiteful deity, but a wonderfully gracious one who happens also to be holy. Man is not a poor soul who has wandered away, but a meaningful being who has rebelled. God will not punish us for being confused, but for knowing what we should do and not doing it. God loved the world in such a way that He sent His only Son in order that we not perish. Jesus is the only way that a Holy God can forgive a sinner without ceasing to be Holy. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live. Don't badmouth Him. Look at yourself.

  20. I'm not saying I think God is an evil, spiteful deity. Rather, I'm making the point that I have no way of knowing WHAT kind of deity God might actually be if in fact He exists. There is no rational reason for me to infer God, if He exists, is good or evil or indifferent. He or It or They could be anything, and we'd have no way of knowing. (Needless to repeat, I do not see the Bible as epistemologically privileged.) So I choose to act "in good faith"; that is, AS IF any god that exists is perfectly just and perfectly omniscient.

    And there, again, is where we differ. As I stated in the original post, I object to the way most religions emphasize BELIEF at the expense of cultivating FAITH. I am told again and again that I must BELIEVE in the message of the Gospels in order to be saved. Why is it not enough to have faith? Why must I take a position as to the truth or falsehood of a number of propositions that seem to me not merely improbable, but logically impossible? Why has mere Credulity been dressed up and sanctified as not only a virtue, but a necessary prerequisite for salvation?

  21. How can you say you have no way of knowing? God has revealed Himself in the Bible, and He has become man in the person of His Son in order that you may know. When you begin by rejecting that He has done so, your not knowing is entirely your fault. You philosophers say that there is no way, there is no truth, there is no life (after death). That itself proves the words of Jesus, who claims to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that you cannot know God apart from Him. Surrender your unbelief and embrace the truth in Jesus. Seek Him in His word. He will be found of you.

  22. I can say I have no way of knowing because I have no way of knowing that the Bible is a reliable authority. Knowing something isn't simply a question of entertaining a proposition and accepting it as true. In principle, I could BELIEVE that way, but it wouldn't count as knowing. In practice, I can't even believe that way, because I generally require some kind of reason (evidence, usually) to accept a proposition over its negation. In short, before I can believe something, it has to appear to me as likelier to be true than not. And the story you're asking me to believe appears to me very likely to be false.

    You are asking me to accept as true what appears to me to be a falsehood. I could not do so in clear conscience. I cannot knowingly embrace dishonesty, even if it's only with myself. Nor am I prepared to believe that a just God would require me act so dishonestly.

    Think of it this way. I have before me a number of different candidates for divine truth to embrace: the (Christian) Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Vedic Hymns, the various Buddhist sutras, and so on. Any one of them, were I to decide "I believe this!" would then take on a kind of moral certainty for me, and I would remain convinced of its truth against all subsequent evidence. It would become the nature of reality for me, as it evidently has for you. Now, I am but a fallible mortal. I am not qualified to decide which reality is the true one. I prefer to defer to that ultimate reality to provide me with clues, with evidence, with which I shall labour to improve my understanding of the universe, however it turns out to be. In other words, I am not so certain of myself that I feel qualified to decide the nature of the universe. It's not for me to do, because regardless of whether or not there even IS a God, I AM NOT IT. I cannot and will not pretend to that authority. The very best I can do is to try in my often (but hopefully not always) failing human way to make sense of things, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

    You accept as a premise that "God has revealed Himself in the Bible", but don't seem to be able to get around to understanding that I simply do believe that. That's the thing you're really going to have to convince me of before you can make any headway, and to do that, you'll need to understand and overcome my many objections to the text. You are more than welcome to try, but it's been my experience that those who do either never come to understand my objections, or if they DO understand them, they begin to doubt as well. It may seem like I am not eager to be convinced, but that's really not the case; I'd be DELIGHTED to be saved, if such a thing as salvation truly exists. I'll do everything in my power to help you understand why I have such a hard time believing, so you can explain how I'm mistaken. But so far, no one has been able to do this, and from our comments so far, it actually sounds kind of like you just want me to ignore all my objections, suppress them and forget about them, trusting that they just won't matter to me once I embrace your truth. If that's really the core of your argument, then it's no better than telling me my objections to using heroin will disappear if I just give it a try. (However true it might be, it doesn't actually persuade me that taking heroin would be a good idea.)

  23. You accept Copenicus' explanation, even though it goes against what you see with your eyes, and you understand the way the solar system works. Ptolemy had most of the answers, but he was wrong. If you will accept the authority of the Scripture and build your thinking on what it reveals, you will know the truth. Jesus said, "If any man is willing to do God's will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." Your problem is not that you can't believe, but that you don't want to. It is God who works in us to will and to do of His good purpose. Ask Him to make you want to.

  24. Your statement that I simply don't WANT to believe is a dangerous rhetorical gambit. The payoff could be great, if it turned out you hit a nerve and I really am just avoiding belief because I don't want to. But on the other hand, if you're wrong, then you're claiming knowledge of something about which I am the closest thing to an authority on: my own wishes. Do you have any idea how ridiculous you might look to me, confidently proclaiming that I want or don't want something, when I know with the greatest certainty that you're wrong? Didn't St. Augustine warn against betraying ignorance in this way while proselytizing?

    But even that is quite irrelevant. What I WANT to believe doesn't enter into it. I believe a great many things I would rather not believe, inconvenient and painful and embarrassing truths abound, much as I would like to pretend they do not. And in fact, I don't particularly WANT to doubt your story; rather I feel compelled to doubt, because (and I here I repeat myself) it APPEARS FALSE TO ME. I cannot by mere will make it APPEAR to be true, nor would my conscience let me if I could.

    Really, all anyone has to do to convince me to adopt a belief is to show that it is more probably true than false. The Copernican model satisfies that requirement, because explains observable phenomena better than the Ptolemaic model. True, it violates a gut intuitive sense that something so huge as the Earth cannot possibly be moving under our feet. But I grant that gut intuitive sense no more privileged authority than any other of my impressions or prejudices; it's just another thing I can be wrong about, and evidently it isn't correct: eppur si muove.

  25. The Oracle challenged us with the words, "Know Thyself", and after all these years, we still struggle. A complication that even Socrates did not see was that the Devil has blinded our minds,and our own sin has made us dis-inclined to accept the things of God. We are all in a kind of bondage from which we must be freed. Luther wrote of the bondage of the will. Paul could say in Romans 7, "I do not understand myself". Not wanting to believe is no special problem you have, Tom. It is the human condition and one of the things from which we all must be freed. In John 7:16 ff. Jesus says, "My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." You need to choose to do God's will, Tom. You are dog-paddling, and you need to put your feet on solid ground.

  26. I'm swimming in a sea of doubt, perhaps. You, standing on what you think is solid ground, think I need to be there with you. Yet here in the water, I have a perspective on the island that you do not have: I can take a breath, and dive down to look underneath it. And I see that it is not in fact solid ground, but a raft, and a structurally unsound one at that. You are convinced that it's solid, and accuse me of just not wanting to see how solid it is, which I'd surely see if I'd just climb on board.

    I don't think you understand the nature of my objections.

  27. If you only believe because you are convinced then you are not walking by faith, but by your own judgment. The power of the Christian life is a walk of faith. The Bible claims to be God's word. Jesus claimed to be God's Son. Millions have accepted the Scripture as data that can be trusted and have come into a living relationship with the true God. God sets the terms. Those who accept Him on faith come to know Him personally, and those who do not do not. If you do not, then you have decided not to, and if you do not want God, you certainly shall not have Him. You will face Him in such a way that all doubt is forever removed, but it will be the kind of belief that the demons have, and tremble. Now is the day of salvtion. God calls you to Himself.

  28. And if you only believe because you have been told, then you are not walking by faith but by your own credulity. It is a fine thing to take what someone else tells you in good faith, that is, on the assumption that they are being honest with you to the best of their ability. It is a matter of faith in you, for example, that I assume you are not simply lying to me and making up stuff; I take it as given that you are being sincere with me, and if there are errors or falsehoods it's because you've been misinformed or made an honest mistake. But my faith in you does not extend to assuming that you are incapable of being misinformed or mistaken. At the outset, I have no evidence one way or the other of your actual honesty, and no real belief one way or the other. So my faith in you is, as a genuine faith, not based in being convinced. You might well be trying to deceive me, but I won't assume that, because on a practical level it would end any possibility of meaningful dialogue. Similarly, assuming God could be anything other than perfectly just would make impossible the already difficult project of making moral choices. So I act on the assumption, without evidence, that God is perfectly just.

    I ask why you insist I must believe, and you respond only with the things you say I need to believe. If I believed you that I'd suffer the belief of demons, I'd already be convinced. If I believed you that the Bible is a reliable authority, I'd already be convinced. If I believed you that your personal relationship with God is real and not an elaborate delusion, I'd already be convinced. None of these are in the least bit useful as arguments or evidence for someone who does not already accept them as true.

    Ultimately, you are convinced that what you believe is true because you believe it to be true. So is the Muslim, with every bit as much confidence and certainty, and approximately equal chance of being wrong despite that confidence. I believe you that I'll believe it if I believe it, but that's not what you need to convince me of. You need to convince me that I OUGHT to believe it, and the best and only way to do that is to demonstrate in some way that it happens to be TRUE. To convince me, you need to be able to see things the way I see them, and point out how they are mistaken. It's not enough simply to repeat again and again how YOU see things, and insist that you see things more clearly than I do, without actually showing me how your view is objectively superior to mine.

  29. If a blind man insisted that you prove blue you would be utterly unable to do so. There would be no hope except if his eyes could be enabled to see. God is willing to show you the truth. Will you ask Him to do so? He knows what you need in order to be convinced. Ask Him to give you what you need. He does not turn away the one who honestly seeks Him. Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near.

  30. But which of us is blind? How can you be so sure it isn't you? As hard as it is for me to believe what you believe, it seems equally impossible for you to understand what I understand. You do not address the reasons for my doubts, except vaguely to suggest they will all evaporate if I just believe. You give no hint of actually understanding these doubts, which leads me to suspect that maybe if you DID understand them, you too might cease to believe, as I did.

    You simply urge me again and again to believe. I know you phrase it as asking God to open my eyes, but you insist that I must believe unconditionally that God exists before He will answer my request. (Of course, if I believe unconditionally that God exists, He won't need to show me anything at all, as I'll already have bought into the whole story, and embrace all the rationalizations to support it and defend it against doubts. In other words, the end result of my believing in God's existence would be exactly the same, regardless of whether or not He actually exists.

    Do you not see that?

  31. It is trusting the testimony of Scripture and asking the God of the Bible to open your eyes. You want God to come to you on your terms, and He insists that you come to Him on His. If you ever come to God you will realize how proud and arrogant you have been to expect Him to comply to your terms. You remain like a blind man who insists on being shown blue by feel or by smell or by hearing or by taste. You will accept proof by any means except the means whereby it can come to you. And you think yourself broadminded!

  32. I cannot trust the testimony of Scripture the way you would have me do. I would need to understand it first, and I despair of ever making sense of it if I must adhere to literal interpretation, because it is full of explicit contradictions. Believe me, I have tried. There are truths in the Bible, to be sure, and valuable instructive allegories, and even bona fide historical accounts of things. But even those parts that are undoubtedly historical accounts show signs of having been written by fallible human beings with their own agendas and perspectives, often many years after the fact based on hearsay rather than direct observation, and distilling out of them anything like the truth is a laborious interpretive process, itself subject to my own fallibility.

    I'm not going to go into all the contradictions here (unless you're prepared to try to help me resolve them), because I'm not trying to convince you to give up your belief. You are trying to convince me, not vice versa, and if I offer arguments, it's only to help you understand my objections so you can help me to overcome them. But you seem unwilling to dignify my doubts as worthy of any consideration whatsoever, insisting that all will become clear if I just BELIEVE.

    And you attempt to belittle me for thinking myself broadminded (though I have not claimed to be more broadminded than anyone else). Look back over this whole conversation, and compare. Again and again, I have acknowledged my capacity for error, and implied that the world may be very different from the way I understand it to be. I just do not know, and doubt that I even CAN know, what the truth is. In contrast, where have you acknowledged any possibility that you could be mistaken? Where have you acknowledged that there is any distinction whatsoever between what God truly wants, and what you BELIEVE God truly wants? Where have you admitted your own fallibility, and the prospect that the universe could be different from how you believe it to be?

    You have not. You have continued to insist up on the doctrine you preach as if it is the one and only absolute truth. And you have the audacity to condemn me for falling short of broadmindedness?

    So let's turn this around. Rather than dealing with my objections, let's hear your objections to my interpretation of Scripture. Rather than asking me to accept "on faith" that you're right, show me with logic how I'm wrong. In a nutshell, my interpretation of Scripture is that the Bible is a collection of the works of many human authors, editors and translators working over a long period of time, recording their interpretations of events that in some cases they may have been present at, but in many other cases took place far removed in space and time from their writing. The various texts were selected out of a larger collection of related writings, and compiled together into a canonical work we today call "The Bible", this selection being carried out by a council of religious leaders who employed their own criteria and agendas in excluding some works, and including others. In the end, what we have is a historically interesting (sometimes; I'll admit that Numbers was a snorefest, and not all the Psalms are solid gold hits) text that tells us far more about the humans who wrote it than it does about anything else.

    Now. Tell me what's flawed about that interpretation, and why I'm wrong not to accept it instead as the divinely inspired literal word of God.

  33. Man by his own reasoning cannot find God. You are doing some very good reasoning, but the solution for you can't be found in the use of an intellect cut off from God. Tell Him that you don't know if He exists, but that you would like to know. Ask Him to help you. He can certainly show you what you need to know and direct you in the course He has for you. You can't talk a blind person into seeing. He must be given sight. Ask Him to help you, Tom.

  34. Do you think God does not know my innermost thoughts and wishes? Do you think God has not heard me ask most earnestly, "God, do you exist?" and countless related questions over the decades? Do you honestly think that it takes a particular prayer in just the right magic words to get God's attention?

    Here's the hard fact for you to confront: I have sought after God, by reason, and yes, by prayer, and yet I still find myself unable to believe He really exists. Did I not do it right? Was I not sincere enough? Or maybe God just decided that He's perfectly cool with my not believing He exists, because I have enough faith in His goodness anyway? Or maybe, and I realize this is something you probably don't want to contemplate, maybe you have deluded yourself into believing you have this special relationship, and it's all a function of your imagination and wishful thinking? From where I sit, the latter explanation most tidily satisfies Occam's Razor. Is it one you are prepared to consider, and if not, why not?

  35. Occam doesn't want us to consider anything that is not observable. God is not observable by the means the scientist has committed himself to use.
    True knowledge for man must come through a personal relationship with the One who knows all things, and an acceptance of what He has revealed in terms we can understand. You come across as one who has read and thought a great deal, but does not know very much about the contents of the New Testament. One doubts if you have read more than selected portions. If God has ordained to use the Scripture to reveal Himself to man, and you keep thinking about God without the Scripture, how can you know Him? It does not take very long to read the Gospel of John. JOHN 20;31 says, "But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." Why not read the Gospel of John and ask God to reveal Christ to you? What can it hurt?

  36. Occam's Razor has nothing to do with whether or not something is observable. It has to do with trying to keep explanations simple, and frequently that involves postulating unseen factors; of two equally effective explanations of a phenomenon, the simpler one (which often has FEWER unseen factors) is to be preferred.

    I'm rather more familiar with the New Testament than most Christians I know, and while I've not read all of it, that's mainly because at the moment I'm still working my way through the Old Testament. I'm about halfway through Psalms. Rest assured, I'll get to the whole of John sooner or later, though I've read a couple of chapters of it at various times in the past.

    But you have not answered my question. Are you prepared to consider the possibility that YOU are mistaken? Is there the slightest possibility that you might be wrong about what you believe?

  37. Once the blind man sees blue you can't argue him out of it because the reality overwhelmes the argument. Whereas once he was blind, now he sees. He views the process of argument itself as remarkably weak. The Old Testament is like a room that is fully furnished, but dimly lit. If you jump to John and find Christ, what you are now reading will be a whole new ball game. Glad to hear you are reading.

  38. Ah. So in short, the answer is no, you do not admit of any possibility that you could be mistaken.

    It's a nice analogy, and I can see how you might be so convinced. However, it's not your subjective experience I'm doubting, but your interpretation of it. It's one thing to see the color blue; that phenomenological experience just IS, with the same sort of certainty with which Descartes concluded that he had to exist. The subjective experience of thinking is undeniable; ergo he concluded that the subject experiencing that thought must exist. So I fully grant that you have had, and perhaps still have, a profound experience which you attribute to a relationship with God.

    But, also as Descarte realized, it's quite another thing to infer from the color blue that what you're seeing is the sky. He had no way of knowing that his thoughts, and his perceptions of a world around him, were in any way accurate depictions of reality. He postulated that they could simply be illusions produced by an Evil Genius, intended to deceive him.

    It is that interpretive fallibilty to which YOU remain blind, if I may continue with your metaphor, and like your color blue, it is something that once I have seen it, I cannot be argued out of it. I KNOW I am capable of error in my interpretation of sensory data or any other subjective experience. (How can I know this? Well, if I am mistaken in my belief that I am capable of error, then I am capable of error. QED.)

    So sure, I might well have the same experience you do, after reading the Gospel of John and metaphorically opening my eyes. But I would be left with doubts as to what that experience really MEANT. I might interpret it as a direct connection to God, but it'd still be fallible old ME interpreting it as such. And I'm already well aware of the neurological discoveries of a region in the brain which, if stimulated, creates feelings that some (but not all) subjects interpret as a kind of oneness with God.

    You see, you're not merely asserting the existence of the color blue. You're going much further, claiming that the blue you see is the sky, when it might well be a blue ceiling, a white ceiling in blue light, a robin's egg, or even just a random experience of blue triggered by someone poking around in your brain with an electrode. Blue is blue, not necessarily any one of these other things, and in the same way, your spiritual experience is your spiritual experience, not conclusive evidence of anything beyond that.

    I do not purport to disprove God here. Only to show that we err in presuming to know such things with certainty, and indeed commit a sin of pride in thinking our own beliefs infallibly correct. You wrote earlier that "If you only believe because you are convinced then you are not walking by faith, but by your own judgment." Perhaps you do not see it, but that is exactly what you are doing; you believe because you are convinced, but you do not seem have the faith to face uncertainty, to acknowledge that maybe you don't actually KNOW with certainty that God exists, but you believe He does, and that's the best you can do as a fallible mortal being.

  39. A Christian's grasp of the facts is very incomplete and quite obviously subject to great error. His confidence is in his relationship with the One who does know all things. God will bring him through and teach him along the way. Trusting God and obeying His revealed will keep the Christian safe and lead him to life eternal. But he is kept by the power of God unto salvation. He works out his own salvation, because it is God at work in him to will and to do of His good pleasure. He is never completely certain about what he knows--only about Who he knows. By grace are you saved, through faith, and this not of yourself; it is the gift of God. You keep trying to do it yourself, Tom. You can't do it yourself.

  40. Yet somehow YOU are completely certain not only about Whom you know, but all of the other details of how I can or can't get to him, and what will happen if I do or don't. You seem terribly confident not just that my doubt is a problem that needs to be fixed, but that you know how I should go about fixing the problem. You also seem utterly convinced that you cannot be wrong about the veracity of the Bible. You make far more claims to certain knowledge than you seem to realize, and rather few of them seem very credible to me.

    It's one thing to pay lip-service to your fallibility. It's quite another to swallow your pride and actually stand up and acknowledge that you could be wrong about a particular deeply held belief. Many people crave certainty, and shrink in horror from uncertainty and doubt. It takes a lot of faith to doubt, and maybe most people just don't have that much faith.

    Let me pick a big one, then, and let's see if you can face up to some doubt about it. You believe the Bible is the revealed will of God. Is that something you could possibly be mistaken about?

  41. It is possible that I am mistaken about the Bible being the revealed will of God. If I am mistaken, then the change in my life when I came to Christ was of my own doing. The desire in my heart to know and love God is a game. The years of encouragement, protection, provision, and amazing interventions of God in my circumstances are all to be explained as coincidences. If I am mistaken about the Bible, then I have no hope for the future and no answer to the nagging thought that it may be true, after all. If I am mistaken, then I am much more intelligent than I think myself to be. And my life is empty. I choose to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

  42. Then here is a good illustration of the difference between belief and faith, and how you have been guilty of exactly what you've been accusing me of: demanding evidence before you invest faith in something. (I demand evidence for BELIEF, true, but not for faith.)

    You doubt that life has meaning unless you can see with your own eyes, so to speak, what it is. You feel that your life is empty unless you can grab hold of something like the Bible to fill it up. You need a sort of evidence, in other words, to give you a reason to carry on. And this is because you lack faith.

    But with faith, you do not need to know the meaning of life to be confident there is one. I have no idea what the meaning or purpose of my life is, but I have faith that my life is not meaningless, and that's plenty.

    You say you CHOOSE to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, which raises an interesting point. This choosing is alien to me, at least in the sense of belief, but perhaps not as faith. I cannot CHOOSE to believe or disbelieve any ordinary proposition; rather, I feel compelled by the weight of evidence to go one way or the other. Belief is not, for me, a wilful act. But faith seems to be. I have no evidence one way or the other that God exists and is good, but I CHOOSE to act as if it were so.

    You apparently, then, place faith in the Bible, because you CHOOSE to accept it as true. It seems to me, though, that in so doing you spread your faith too thin. You need to have faith in far too many individual details and claims, most of which may be vulnerable to empirical evidence. And even if the evidence happens to support that in which you have "faith", you can become dependent on that evidence and slip into belief instead of faith. Is it not better to just take all that faith and place it in God directly, and cheerfully embrace the fact that you could be wrong about absolutely everything else?

  43. Faith comes first.

  44. I can't really disagree with that.

  45. I listed things as if they were reasons for my faith, but that is not the case. My life-change, answered prayer, sense of purpose, happiness are not reasons for believing. They are rsults of believing. If all these were to abandon me, it would not change my confidence in God. His ways are not my ways, and He can do with me whatever He chooses. He cannot actually abandon me, but that is because of His promise. I want to believe in the God who is, and not in the God of my wishes and desires. Faith in my faith does not interest me at all. There is a God , and He has revealed Himself in terms we can understand. He became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to reveal God to us. This is eternal life--to know God and Jesus Christ, whom God has sent. He said, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden,and I will give your rest." Believing the truth will change your life. Faith in faith will leave you just where you are, but more and more confused.

  46. Well, that I CAN disagree with to some extent. My faith is every bit as much a strength to me as your belief is, and just as you have no interest in "faith in faith", I have no interest in belief, particularly beliefs that I find unbelievable. Your beliefs appear to me to be nothing more than delusions (albeit delusions with a pedigree which makes them more respectable than the paranoid fabrications of a single imagination). I understand how you came to believe, because I too believed once; I was raised Roman Catholic, and told these stories from when I was very young by people who seemed trustworthy to me. Well, they STILL seem like trustworthy and basically honest people, for the most part, but even honest people can be mistaken.

    I don't want to go into all the reasons I don't believe, because clearly your belief brings you a lot of happiness, and I have no desire to undermine that, which might happen if I were successful in making you understand my reasons in depth. I'm not trying to get you to doubt, if you're not prepared to do so. The only belief I'd like to disabuse you of is the belief that I am in need of what you offer. I may be confused, I may be full of uncertainty, but I am no more confused or uncertain than you are; I just happen to accept that as a natural part of being a fallible mortal, and I have learned to live with and even embrace it, rather than try to anchor myself to a firm (yet unavoidably fallible) belief in anything. By faith alone I am able to survive and thrive in this sea of uncertainty.

    I realize, of course, that part of your belief is that if I fail to believe, I will suffer eternal damnation, and this is why you continue to urge me to believe. I don't want you to think I am not appreciative of your efforts on my behalf; I really am grateful for your concern. However, realistically, it's very unlikely that you will be able to convince me to believe, for to do so would mean you'd need to understand and then overcome my objections, and as I mentioned above, I fear that were you to fully comprehend why I doubt, your belief might be weakened or even destroyed, and you may not be as comfortable with doubt as I am.

    That in itself may pose a crisis of faith for you. Here I am, with great faith in God's goodness (but not His existence), doing my very best to be a good person and to act in good faith, and yet God has created me with a mind that is constitutionally unable to believe what honestly appears to me to be absurd, and owing to various circumstances it just so happens that one of the things I cannot believe is the one thing you think I NEED to believe to be saved. How could God be so unjust as to create me this way, you may be wondering? Well, I say, have a little more faith in God, and less in your own belief about what He can and can't do. Perhaps He has given you a way to salvation through belief, but perhaps you are mistaken to believe that is the ONLY way anyone can possibly be saved. Yes, I realize that would involve revisiting your interpretation of John 14:6, but is your understanding so perfect? Is it not possible for you to accept that maybe I HAVE come to the Father through Jesus, but in a transcendant way that you don't understand?

    Belief is brittle. It has its uses, to be sure, but the Bible itself cautions against resting upon your own wisdom, and what is belief but the product of your own judgment? All of this life-change and happiness and answered prayer you speak of comes from your own judgment that X is true and Y is false. And by placing so much emphasis on belief, you let your faith atrophy. I say that with strong enough faith, you will not need belief at all. Not one little bit.

  47. Anonymous three here. Anonymous one is right.

  48. Thanks, Anonymous 3, that clears up a lot. Or at least, it will until Anonymous 4 chimes in to tell me that Anonymous 1 is wrong.