Reason/Rationality In Religious Belief vs. Everywhere Else

Background
I've been an faithful, fully-believing, daily-praying, personal-relationship-having Catholic for about 7 years. This past Christmas, out of the blue, I wondered if anyone wrote about Jesus other than the gospels. Doing what I always do, I googled it. I was not happy. I don't want to get into this, but suffice it to say that even if there are some who mention Jesus by name and refer to followers who thought reported to have seen him after death, I was still left with an immense chasm. The gospels told me about a verbally prolific man who traveled the country side for 1-3 years, healed sickness/blindness/demonic possessions, that news spread of him throughout the land, and that in the end he caused a heck of a commotion and died on a cross. On the other hand, I have reports of a man named Jesus and verification that he had posthumous followers. No reference to any miracles, confirmation of his brilliantly wisdom-filled parables and teachings or other facts about his life? It was enough to plant significant seeds of doubt.

I give this background only because most don't know me and I thought it might help to provide a brief history of what began my doubt. The more I read, the more disheartened I became for I could not believe that I found the natural explanations so much more plausible to defend than theistic ones.


Main Course
At present, I have been on my quest for truth for about 6 months now and went about it how I go about most other research endeavors. I literally attack evidence and knowledge. It's just in my personality. I want to know everything I can know. I want to test what I learn against others and see how I fare. I want to not only read various sources of information but know what others think about those same sources. This, to me, seems quite reasonable and has proven to be a wonderful way to sort out my own biases, check my thought processes, and have as best a shot as I can at arriving at a rational and objectively verifiable/defendable conclusion.

In applying this method to religion, I asked questions and sought for available information. I compared responses to that information. I formed thoughts and I tested those thoughts. I talked with other believers (and some nonbelievers) about those thoughts. What I have found in the process is an immense chasm between how we deal with the pursuit of answers in almost every realm of knowable existence compared to how we pursue (or are supposed to pursue) answers in the religious realm.

Here are four points I'd like to use to illustrate this:

1) If something doesn't seem quite right, it's probably not.
We use this rule of thumb constantly. I'm not talking about pure intuition here, but how we look at evidence and decide where it best leads. The best example that comes to mind is that of comparing God to a spouse. In 'regular life' if I had doubts about my wife loving me and she was omniscient (and therefore aware of those doubts) and she did not respond or decided to hide from me, avoid me, not interact personally with me, not reassure me of her love, etc... I would simply conclude that the doesn't love me. If enough time went on, I would probably leave the relationship. Simple. Case closed.

Yet why is this not the case with God? God does not communicate with me, does not answer the attempts (though difficult to make with much feeling) I've made at prayer asking to find him, my allowance of my fellows to pray over me on several occasions, etc... yet I'm told to continue believing that he has a perfect plan and will reveal himself 'on his time.'

Revisit the spouse situation and imagine that all of your friends vouched for the love of your spouse, swore he/she was an amazing individual, etc. Would it matter given that the primary person requesting love (that'd be you) wasn't receiving any tangible sign of it?

Why do we allow this from a supposedly perfect being when we would never in a million years allow it from our own earthly spouse?

2) If your life depends on it, you better be damned sure about it.
In most cases if someone were to tell you to do X which might risk your life or to do Y in a life threatening situation to avoid death... we would think long and hard about such things. Take a decision to treat cancer as an example. While I've not had it I can only imagine that with high stakes in very serious conditions, one might wish to seek many opinions, find out about all known treatment options, and even look into higher-risk/higher-reward experimental treatments. Why? Because life is extremely valuable to us and on one hand we are willing to risk a lot to preserve it, but on the other hand we want to be as sure as possible with that risk as life is the most valuable thing we have.

Yet in religion, our lives do supposedly depend on our decisions and hardly any of us research that decision long and hard. Most research from the previous assumption that their brand is already true and look for supporting apologetics... if they research at all. My point is that we believe far too much based on far too little when it comes to religious faith.

Note what the default position is with cases like this: if it's a positive request (do something which decides the fate of your life), we tend not to act unless sure. In cases where you've been born into a religion, nothing has been proven to you. If you are already a Christian, imagine what it would take for someone to convince you that you would go to hell if you did not become a Muslim. Probably a hell of a lot. Yet in early life none of this type of information was provided to you when it came to convincing you of Christianity. Obviously this is not universal. I would bet, however, that the proof which convinces most people involves a highly emotional experience or improbable occurrence rather than tangible evidence.

In any case, the default, it would seem, should be agnosticism when positive action is requested which decides our life's fate. This is how it works in almost all of life... except when it comes to religion.

3) The more improbable the situation, the more you should try to verify it.
When I come home from work and tell my wife what I did, she hears it but probably won't even remember what I said the next day. It's mundane and most likely matches with what she hears every other day. If I tell my wife I took a trip to the moon and back on a once-in-a-lifetime business trip opportunity (and am not an astronaut), I'll get weird looks.

Or imagine being asked to jump onto an invisible platform 3ft from the edge of the grand canyon. Would you do it? No, unless you saw someone do it first. We value tangible, observable evidence above all else in countless areas of life.

The typical use of reason suggests that most religions have extremely far fetched beliefs. We would not believe them if they came from anywhere else. But from one's own religion, they are never thought about skeptically. Or if they are, one searches for some apologetics or talks to a respected, 'more informed/knowledgeable' member of one's own tradition and moves on, satisfied that at least someone knows an answer. I did this in college on a few occasions. In a theology class as a freshman we were studying the gospels and I asked who Gabriel appeared to: Joseph or Mary. My teacher simply responded, 'Why not both?' and I went on with my life. That answer wouldn't satisfy me anymore. We supposedly have eye witness testimony handed down by oral tradition, [what Christians say is] a reliable method of transferring information, so given that these people knew the holy family personally... why not get the history right? Why goof the birth narratives so much with respect to travels and details and genealogies?

In any case, we take great pains to be sure of improbable claims, especially ones that ask a lot, in all areas of life but we are emphatically asked not to do so when it comes to religion. In fact, if we do take great pains to verify these claims, we are likely to come up empty handed or deconverted. Don't do that. Simply place your trust in God and all we be clear when you die.

4) Strong interior senses/feeling/intuitions do not make something true.
Lastly, and I think possibly the most importantly, I want to talk about the 'interior sense' phenomenon. I have been asked to 'pay attention to your interior life' and to just simply try to 'sense your hunger for God' or 'recognize that inside you know that there's more to life than just nature/what you see.' Things like that. Since religion can't really be proven, I've been told that the best substitute is personal conviction and simply allowing 'Jesus to speak to me and reveal himself.'

I find this extremely unsatisfying. I take seriously the call to evangelize and one impetus of this whole quest was to be as sure as I possibly could about whatever the evidence supported: Christianity, another religion, deism, agnosticism, or atheism. I didn't care. I just wanted the truth. In conversations I wanted to be able to point to something conclusive and say, 'Look here. This is why I believe this.' Relying on personal experience is something I will accept if that's what God chooses to do, but I will be somewhat heartbroken if that really ends up forming the basis of belief. Certainty (or as close as I can come) is of high value in my life.

In everyday life, we also tend to know this. We realize that in courts of laws it would be unjust to simply shout at the defendant, 'I just KNOW you did it you murderer!!!' No matter how loud you shouted, with insufficient evidence to convince a jury, it would be absolutely unjust to condemn the man. Yet religious believers condemn people (in one form or another: perhaps not actually to hell, but in their minds by believing they practice and inferior faith or live pointless atheistic lives devoid of meaning) without evidence as a rule. Without establishing your religion as conclusively true, you have not formed a solid bedrock upon which to stand and hurl your accusations and varying levels of judgment on everyone outside of your bubble.


Conclusion
This will continue from #4 as I think it illustrates my final point well. In the non-religious world, what is considered convincing? In the jury example, typically the verdict needs to be unanimous. This means that the evidence presented has to be convincing to 12 members selected at random (hypothetically/hopefully) who have all kinds of various background beliefs, world views, and personal histories. Some states allow up to a 9-3 split if a unanimous decision simply cannot be reached, but note that we're talking about quite the majority. This is the de facto standard for serious, life-changing decisions in America. Unanimously convincing evidence.

Also note that the excuse, 'Well, the evidence is there, the jury just doesn't want to see it' doesn't fly. It's either convincing or it's not, and it's not the jury's fault what they find convincing and what they don't. It's the prosecution's role to prove its point. The burden is on them.

What about religion? Hardly anyone is convinced in a religion's evidence unless its their own. What in the world does this say about the evidence presented? Yet believers are absolutely convinced of the veracity of their stance.

In the 'real world' when evidence is not conclusive between various options, we call the choice or decision toward a particular option a preference. We may disagree but we recognize that individuals are different and thus entitled to such preferential decisions. Given that the world is a prime example of absolutely inconclusive evidence on religions, I move to call religions, essentially, a preference that is heavily influenced by the beliefs of one's parents. This is not a genetic fallacy in that your beliefs are not wrong because you 'inherited' them. It just means that something believed because it is handed down is unvalidated. Hitler teaching someone something does not make it wrong or right because Hitler is teaching it. It's wrong or right because it's either backed by evidence, experimentation, and a body of critics who have sought to test it and approved... or it's not.

Since religious beliefs haven't proven themselves in this manner, they are at best preferential and at worst false.

And this is how we proceed in everyday life. The above are rather proven methods of arriving at accurate conclusions. 1) We do our best to not invent or insist on hypotheses that contradict evidence (that your spouse loves you despite not showing it), 2) we try to be hella-sure about things that will affect our life/death, 3) we are skeptical of improbable claims, and 4) we distrust interior 'senses/intuitions' as the basis for conclusions that have any weight other than personal preference.

My question is why religious faith seems to ask for this divergence from typical reasoning methods, insisting that these methods are valid everywhere but here? Why is God outside of the realm of analysis when it comes to figuring out if he loves or cares about us or did immoral things in the Old Testament? Why do we simply believe our beliefs without being absolutely sure through verification when our eternal life/death is at stake? Why don't we seek outside opinions about the improbable claims made by religions? Why do we place so much value on 'having a personal experience of Jesus' as a basis for belief and not demand objective, externally observable, accessible-to-all evidence prior to jumping in feet first?

To be consistent, religious believers need to essentially support all other faiths and atheism equally, as without putting forth positive proof, they simply support a preference and need to encourage all others to enjoy the personal preference they have chosen as well. It's like a Chinese buffet. Have all the General Tso's chicken you want and I'll eat a huge plate of pineapple. No need to get upset about it.

Wait, Christianity has put forth positive proof? Until the world is unanimously agreed, or agreed even by generous 9-3 jury standards, I can't see why this evidence can be thought of as compelling. We don't allow this in matters of temporal judgment; why allow it in matters with eternal repercussions?

Written by Hendy

8 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Excellent analysis Hendy. These are my sentiments as well.

Ignerant Phool said...

Hendy, it's really great to see someone like you on this blog going through what your going through. You bring back memories of my thought process (and I'm sure others as well) when I also started doubting the truth claims of Christianity. Some of the things you've mentioned in this post and comments, I had forgotten was part of my analysis during my way out.

I doubt you need to wait till December; I'll go out on a limb and say that you'll never go back to christianity.

Excellent post dude.

Andre

Rek said...

Hendy, I agree with the previous comments. My own thoughts on the matter in my deconversion were heavily focused on the epistemological problems of revelation--i.e., how can I "know" something that not only does not bear any verifiable evidence, but also contradicts the rest of my set of knowledge. They were also based in the "jury problem", as you aptly put it; how is it that god claims to be 3-O awesome and yet could never convince more than 1/3 (to be inordinately generous) of humanity?

All in all, this post resonated quite strongly with me, and I applaud and thank you for articulating the ideas so well. Now, back to refuting Justin Martyr...

Chuck O'Connor said...

Well said my friend.

You've articulated why I no longer consider the label "believer" a positive thing. I want to be a "knower"; and "investigator"; a "reasoner" but never again do I want to embrace credulity because it provides emotional pleasantries.

What I've additionally found is that those who are "believers" don't care at all that I've become an apostate. I still socialize with them, attend small-group bible studies and offer contrary agnostic and atheist perspectives to the positive truth claims, dialogue with those who wish to discuss their faith (most don't) and even attend church because I like to sing and like most of the people (it is a good social club - I look at it like a pick-up game of baseball - the stakes are the same and sometimes it is even sillier.)

I do despise apologists, theocrats and christian re-constructionists because I think they are dangerous to liberty and justice but the garden variety christian is often choosing the belief as you so ably say because it is a comfortable preference that feeds their appetite.

The sad thing is that there is more nourishing food elsewhere.

Good stuff my friend.

Hendy said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I do think I could write more here and there... though I obviously don't want to infringe on someone else's blog past my welcome!

I'm grateful for the opportunity to post.

Crowhill said...

Hendy,

Have you read "Jesus and Christian origins outside the New Testament" by F.F. Bruce? It might be worth your time.

Also, why would you expect a lengthy documentary trail from an itinerant 1st century preacher? It's not like we know a lot about other characters from this time. IOW, I would find the alleged lack of documentary evidence for Jesus much more of a problem if we did have lots of documents about similarly situated people. But we don't.

On your individual points, I have had similar thoughts about comparing God to a spouse, father, friend, etc., but I've always found such analogies rather poor -- going either way, I should add. When preachers say "a father is like this, therefore God is like this," I don't buy it, and I also don't buy "a father is like this therefore God must be like this."

There's supposed to be an analogy, but who says how far you can take it?

The whole question of our moral culpability for unbelief gets into psychological depths I don't think we can plumb. How can we possibly know if we're "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness"?

I definitely know that people believe what they want to believe, so I can't deny the possible moral element of unbelief.

That doesn't convince me. IMO it's not an argument either way. Sure, I may be morally culpable for not believing. So what? Is that supposed to convince me to believe? Or not believe? I just can't see it.

Also, the whole improbability thing doesn't work for me. People like to say "fantastic claims require fantastic evidence," but is there some objective definition of fantastic? The existence of ghosts seem incredibly likely to some people. The spooky stuff in quantum mechanics seems incredibly unlikely to others. Who's to say what's a fantastic claim?

I am also suspicious of intuition, but I have found over the years that my intuition is often right when my "rational" mind is wrong. So, again, I'm loathe to come to firm conclusions about the role of intuition.

In short, I believe I'm far more agnostic than you are. I don't believe anything -- including arguments for why we shouldn't believe anything.

Greg

Crowhill said...

Oops. Some clarification on that "a father is like this" comment above, which comes off rather confusing.

Believers will say "a father is like this, and God is a father, therefore God must be like this, so you should believe this about God."

Unbelievers will say, "a father is like this, God is supposed to be a father, but God doesn't seem to be like this, therefore there is no God."

I find both arguments lacking.

Hendy said...

@Crowhill:

Thanks for the comments. I disagree about the analogies. If we can't use the reason we have to determine the nature of the god who gave us those faculties... what other method is there?

Perhaps that's where we differ -- you believe we that we can't do so and thus you seem to reject any attempt to do so; by naivety, inexperience, or correctness I do think our reasons can establish a more probable answer to whether god in the Christian form exists.

Even more so given that Jesus liked this analogy. He specifically wanted to call forth a vision/perception of a loving and caring being in, for example, Mt. 6:25 and 7:9. If Jesus uses the example... doesn't it suggest that we can examine it for truth as well?

Carrier seems to think Mt. 6:25 isn't even from Jesus, which is instructive (see section 'Stoic and Hellenistic...').

Lastly, perhaps one can't stretch the analogy to say '...therefore there is no god.' But that's not where the analogy leads, anyway. You goofed the final fourth. It should read like this:

"...a father is like this, God is supposed to be a father, but God doesn't seem to be like this, therefore god is not like a father."

And that's the point. If god is not like a father, god is not the god of Christianity and we can walk away with reasonable confidence that we've done due diligence.

You're right that we don't agree that we just can't know anything!