People believe in God for many reasons and via many different routes. Frequently a person’s lifelong belief equates to the old maxim ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. People grow up in a context and typically begin, at least, by accepting the norms of their parents and surrounding culture. Buddhists remain Buddhists, Baptists remain Baptists. But this is obviously not the whole story because people can and do alter their beliefs, sometimes radically. My question this week is not so much how does it happen, but how should it happen?
Yet here too the process is complicated and driven by individual temperament. So I propose to take a different approach. I will share with you how my belief structure is formed. And, in doing so, I make no suggestion that what has been true for me is in any way normative for others. It will merely be food for thought and perhaps a place to start discussion. Now the material I present here will, I think, seem fairly rational and organized. Yet we all iterate our thinking, grow, change our minds, discard unworkable hypotheses and – yes – I hope absorb the moving of God’s Holy Spirit. But it’s a twisty process of belief development, if we’re honest with ourselves. So this presentation will appear much more organized than the convoluted way my belief has evolved.
I would also like to suggest that a belief system may be hierarchical. Mine is, at least. Envision of one of those anatomy textbooks with transparent pages that layer one on top of another. There are bones, organs, flesh and skin. Or, another metaphor, that of layered geology. Consider a diagram like this, showing rock strata from the Grand Canyon:
I will, somewhat arbitrarily, divide my belief system into 5 layers, and explain them from bottom to top.
My Hierarchy of Belief
Layer 1 – Modified Pascal’s Wager – Pre-belief
Pascal's Wager is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because – living this way – one has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. It was set out in note 233 of his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes made in his last years.
Pascal developed this 4-quadrent matrix. The columns represent reality – either God exists or He doesn’t. The rows represent our belief choices. Now, if God doesn’t exist then it doesn’t really matter which row we choose. At the end of our lives we’re dead either way and that’s it. But suppose God does exist. Then, according to Pascal, our choice provides either infinite gain – heaven – or infinite loss – hell.
Now Pascal has been critiqued for assuming that his supposed payoff would be as outlined in Catholic (more specifically Jansenist) Christianity. But my modification is this – why wouldn’t someone choose to look and see if this ‘God story’ (with the possible Biblically-based reward) might actually be true? This is not so much taking some irrational belief leap – like accepting the Easter Bunny or Great Pumpkin – but realizing that the stakes are life-and-death, and we would be stupid not to take the closest look at the story and determine if it had substance. So this level in my belief system doesn’t actually involve belief yet. My modification to Pascal is to ground the motivation for initiating a quest for God. And it seems that there are too many people who do not even investigate seriously.
Layer 2 - Design in Nature – Power and Intelligence in God
Medieval Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) famously proposed an Argument from Design. He felt the order of the universe could not be attributed to mere chance. The idea of teleology or ultimate purpose was necessary to sustain a belief in God. And this makes good sense to me. If the cosmos only involves a bunch of swirling atoms that associate but eventually dissociate, then to what purpose do we live? It is all eventually nothing more than nihilism.
Design and purpose, argued Aquinas, is a product of intelligence – God. Therefore nature is ultimately under the direction of this Great Designer. His actual argument is as follows:
- All things have an order or arrangement, and work for an end.
- The order of the universe cannot be explained by chance, but only by design and purpose.
- Design and purpose is a product of intelligence.
- Therefore nature is directed by a Divine Intelligence or Great Designer.
In the 18th century philosopher and cleric William Paley (1743-1805) wrote a book entitled Natural Theology where he propounded his famous ‘watchmaker’ argument. In it he proposed the then compelling argument that if you were to stumble upon a watch on the seashore you would hardly conclude that it just ‘happened’ naturally. It would clearly be designed. But it is important to realize that, since Darwin, such ‘proof’ no longer gets accepted at face value.
In recent years the concept of Intelligent Design has been proposed suggesting that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Much of the controversy here has been whether this should be taught as science, which is different from whether or not it is true. Within the scope of the ‘truth’ question we find, for example, the debate between chemist Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity  and biologist Kenneth Miller’s rebuttal attempt in Finding Darwin’s God.
For me the concept of a God who designs is mandatory, which is why I have this level. However, believing Aquinas, Paley or Behe is not mandatory. I do not think Aquinas ever proved his case, although I agree with his conclusion. I find Paley’s analogy to be far less analogous than did his contemporaries. I do not accept Intelligent Design as science, but see truth at its core. But that’s just me. Your ‘mileage’ – and familiarity with the data – will of course vary from mine. What is clear is that this ‘geological strata’ level has now become more problematic for many would-be believers than it was pre-Darwin.
Layer 3 - An Answer to Evil – Goodness in God
We will devote all of Session 10 to the Problem of Evil. Consequently my exposition here will be minimal. But I would point out that if we have no answer – not even a fragmentary one – to address evil in our world, then this lack can do great damage to our belief in God. It comes back to my contention from Session 4 that we have an Anselmean view of God. We expect God to have good characteristics, and if this assumption is undermined by the reality of evil it can devastate belief.
To be sure we here at least understand what I mean by the Problem of Evil let me state the classic formulation – as articulated by Lucretius (99 BC – 55BC) in his book De Rerum Natura: “God is omniscient, omnipotent and good … Why, therefore won't he eliminate Evil? If he cannot do so, then he is not all-powerful (or not all-knowing). If he will not do so, then surely he is not good!” .
Layer 4 - Reality-fit of Ethical Monotheism
Perhaps you have noticed that as I move up this hierarchy I am adding new God characteristics at each level. The lowest layer doesn’t even involve belief; the Design layer does not mandate a good God. Design could even be performed by some committee of extra-terrestrials. What’s needed is ‘merely’ tremendous power and intelligence. But at the Problem of Evil level we now need to add the attribute of God’s goodness.
At this fourth level I now add ethical monotheism. It seems to me that one God is superior to a collection, like the Greek pantheon. And the Greek Gods were hardly ethical. We need something like Anselm’s conception of God else we may be just grafting fallen human characteristics onto our model of god. So at this level we eliminate practically all candidates except those who fit Judaism, Islam or Christianity. But we still don’t yet have Christianity alone.
What, though, do I mean by reality fit? It’s just that the story of what human nature is, how we fit into the bigger picture and our possible destiny – as described in the Bible – aligns for me with my admittedly limited experience. Pascal wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast”. I resonate with that statement and see it true in myself as well as in Bible history. Also the concept of a fall and redemption seems nobler than the improvement model offered by atheistic apologists.
You may notice that as I move up this geologically layered metaphor I am also shifting from the ‘head’ to the ‘heart’. My lower layers are more intellectual, the higher ones more emotional. This is perhaps just a consequence of my personal temperament. Your approach might be different and I see nothing particularly normative about mine. Yet I confess a need to underpin the emotional dimensions of my belief to a somewhat rational foundation.
Layer 5 - Jesus Makes it Personal
Finally, my top level. This is where, for me, Islam and Judiasm fall away, leaving only Christianity. And this is not rationally grounded either. But if I were ‘designing’ a religion I think it would be a stroke of genius to make God so accessible, as we find in Jesus. Water to wine, loaves and fishes, stilling the storm, finally crucified, resurrected and transfigured. This is personal – more than (merely) Yahweh, out there, somewhere. Again, this sort of ‘evidence’ would hardly make much of an impression in court. But it impresses me.
Now imagine what sort of landscape there ought to be on the top of this 5-layer strata. Lower rock layers are hardly hospitable places to live. But on the surface one should expect grass, trees, flowing water, flowers – in short, genuine beauty. And if I live my religious life atop this ‘Jesus’ level it should be a wonderful and hospitable place to reside. But alas, I don’t always live there.
That is because there are certain layers in this geological hierarchy that, I confess, are more prone to ‘seismic activity’ for me. The most difficult are ‘Design in Nature’ and ‘An Answer to Evil’. I struggle with fully adequate answers to these questions so I find myself living partly at these levels when wrestling with the dilemmas they represent. There are even times when I’m back to the Pascal level.
So as I said at the outset of this session I am not trying to present anything normative to you. Simply food for thought. But I hope I have stimulated your thinking and helped you gain some traction as you ask the ‘Why believe?’ question for yourself.
The Video Conversation [7 minutes, 39 seconds] – Transcript and Video
Some Questions to Consider:
Q: How rational is this belief-formation process? Some people live their entire lives with very little shift in perspective, while others make radical transformations in belief. It seems unlikely that there is anything like a ‘method’ for coming toward and/or abandoning belief in God. But are there any common factors that can even be identified? Or are we all mostly prisoners of temperament?
Q: Michael Schemer, in the video, notes that the process seems finely balanced. It’s this ‘leap of faith’. And obviously if the evidence – in either direction – were compelling then there wouldn’t be much of a faith struggle. We’d just parse the evidence, and get on with it – either belief or atheism. But in reality it seems to be much harder and more complicated. People of good will reach different conclusions. Why then – assuming God exists – does He seem to make the process so evenly balanced? And why does it seem so often that there is an element of hiddenness in God’s interaction with humanity?
Q: what do you think of this idea of Pascal’s wager? Does it make sense to come to faith this way? Can we believe anything based on consequences?
Links to the other essays in this series:
1) Introduction 2) A Transcendent Experience 3) Science or Revelation 4) The Exalted Father 5) Why Believe? 6) Miracles 7) Moral Law – Part A 8) Moral Law – Part B 9) Love Thy Neighbor 10) The Human Condition 11) Suffering and Death
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2256