Prayer, Belief, and More Jump Discontinuities

The post last week on being prayed for sparked some interesting questions about free will and belief.  I thought returning to that topic would be a nice complement to the discussion about choosing to alter your own will that’s developing out of Tristyn’s pharmaceutical thought experiment.

Disagreement arose over whether a petitionary prayer to God seeking my conversion was an affront to my free will or agency.  Posters P. Coyle and Hendy made the great point that belief is not a matter of will.  (Hendy’s gone into a lot more detail about the nature of belief at his own blog here).  I can’t will myself to believe that God exists, so a change in my belief (whether caused by God or any other reason) is not an imposition on my will.  This would be the case even if God poked into my head and altered my belief, though I don’t think that’s exactly what Christians pray for when they pray for conversion.

Christians I’ve talked to tend to think that there is evidence for their belief.  Some Christians think that atheists don’t consider their evidence in good faith, but many others concede that the evidence that sustains their belief is not universally accessible.  Miracles or a subjective feeling of closeness to God might be personally convincing, but they’re impossible to offer as anything but hearsay evidence to others.

What Christians I’ve talked to hope for is that I would be able to access this kind of evidence or that I would stop applying a needlessly high standard of evidence to some claims.  Some of my Christian friends think some of my other beliefs are most compatible with Christianity, so they’re hoping I get over whatever is preventing me from recognizing that fact, whether it’s pride, fear, or too much optimism that a superior system exists.  They’re asking God to smooth any of these paths to truth.

Ultimately I don’t find this kind of prayer any more of a threat to my free will than someone offering me reading material that could change my mind.  Data is compulsion, but it’s good compulsion.  My will and desire aren’t and shouldn’t be directed to preserving a certain belief, I aspire that all my beliefs are true.  The Christian who prays for me and little old atheist me are in agreement about our goal at that level.

I’m pushy in this way when I try to explain complicated science facts to someone less immersed in the topic than I am.  I have data that the other person can’t parse, which I believe would be compelling if they could understand it.  I might try to throw my interlocutor into the path of someone I thought would be better able to explain (kind of what Christians are doing) or I might cheat a little and try to convince using an appeal to authority, playing on their trust and my apparent expertise.  My preference is that they believe the right thing for the right reasons, but I can’t necessarily get there if their background is too limited.

I think we may all be in agreement here, even though we disagree about what the truth actually is.  Yudowski’s Litany of Tarski and Litany of Gendlin may be of interest to everyone here.

There’s a different issue tied up in this question that has less to do with problems of will than the continuity of self.  If God altered my beliefs suddenly while I was asleep and I woke up a Christian, the real issue is the discontinuity between my identity when I went to sleep and my identity when I woke up.  If I became aware of this kind of reversal, I’d be more likely to find my new belief to be evidence of my own insanity than evidence of God.

Identity can weather sudden changes and epiphanies without being broken, but all of these are accompanied by at least a subjective sense of cause.  Otherwise they feel like delusion and annihilation.  That’s not to say that big shifts aren’t always a kind of violence to the self, but at least you’ve sacrificed your old self on the altar of some greater good.  Remembering the cause of that shift provides some connection to the dross you burned away.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Patrick

    Well, it depends on the specific theology, but round these here parts the Christians will usually tell you that you actually DO have knowledge of god's existence, but you're kind of a crap person so you're refusing to acknowledge that knowledge because you like being a crap person so much, and if you acknowledged that god was real you'd have to be less crap. So praying for god to reveal himself to you is about the same thing as saying that you suck, and praying god will help you stop sucking quite so much.As for discontinuity of identity while asleep… I suffer that every night, and I suspect everyone else does too. I can't remember the moment of falling asleep. There is a period of time between laying down in bed and actually falling asleep that I experience every night, but which I am incapable of remembering. Likewise I have dreams but only remember some of them, and only partially. I don't think you can get more discontinuous than an amnesiac episode- anything you thought of during that time, any changes those thoughts had… kaput. I'm pretty sure that discontinuity of identity is a continual aspect of being human.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13304484454718892120 Elizabeth

    Woooo Patrick, I don't know where you find your Christians, but I don't blame you for finding them unappealing. That is inaccurate Christian philosophy and if someone made you feel like that was what we believe, I'm sorry they called you a "crap person."Leah, I like your comparison to scientific terminology and facts. I think that goes a long way with explaining Christian conviction while others can stand by confused and thinking we're crazy, but it doesn't complete it. At this point, I don't have an explanation that would be adequate for you because my philosophical equation-making is rusty.I will say that I don't think conversion is a matter of God moving around the chess pieces in your mind. I think it's closer to something in your life provoking you to look behind a veil you never knew existed in your mind. Most Christians have gone through a season or a split second of doubt. Mine was several months and I don't think I qualify as a fool or a crazy person (or a crap person :) ) for finding and peeking behind that veil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13304484454718892120 Elizabeth

    …That is *an* inaccurate Christian philosophy… I love me sum Engrish.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    I love me sum Engrish.Having just written "I am not certainly afraid of being to sleep" in another thread, I can but empathize.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    I don't know where you find your Christians, but I don't blame you for finding them unappealing. That is inaccurate Christian philosophy and if someone made you feel like that was what we believe, I'm sorry they called you a "crap person."Elizabeth, meet Ray Comfort, professional enemy of atheism and peddler of inaccurate Christian philosophy.

  • Patrick

    Elizabeth- That explanation of atheism is probably the single most common one amongst evangelicals. And it has biblical support. I understand and respect that it may not be your theology, but one of the things that has to be done every so often in conversations about religion is remind the religious that their faith is not monolithic- that there are a lot of points of view out there, that they all claim biblical support, and that if you hear someone refer to a belief amongst Christians that you personally have never heard of, that doesn't mean that they are wrong.For the record, my favorite explanation of atheism is the "god doesn't like you so he's blinded you to the obvious truth of his existence just to make sure you'll end up in hell" explanation. Thanks, John, Thessalonians, and Corinthians. You should read the Book of Jonah and ask yourself why you've inverted its teachings.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13304484454718892120 Elizabeth

    That philosophy has a basis in the idea that you're being stubborn by not accepting God/Christ/The Holy Spirit. Of course, we are also being stubborn by not denying Him. We need to acknowledge both sides of that. The bottom line of Christianity is love and when someone insults, damns or uses hateful language outright in the name of Christ or His Church, that person has denied His teaching. No good.That being said, as someone who believes this teaching, I consider the devil my enemy and I think he has a successful influence over so much. If the devil is my enemy and I believe he tempts people into believing he nor God exists, my mission is to try to counteract that (not attack the person I believe the devil has influenced).I try to love everyone and I would never condemn an atheist, though I disagree with atheism, because I believe that limits God's mercy.And now I realize I'm going off topic from this post…it just bugs me when people tout the Christian label, but then use hateful language.

  • Patrick

    Ah, ok. I misunderstood your position.I thought you objected to the idea that Christianity taught something which, from my outside perspective, is hateful. What you were actually objecting to is the idea that this hateful thing was expressed hatefully.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13304484454718892120 Elizabeth

    Disagreeing with you doesn't mean I'm hateful, Patrick.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    If the devil is my enemy and I believe he tempts people into believing he nor God exists, my mission is to try to counteract that.I don't recall being tempted by the devil into believing that he doesn't exist. Then again, if I did recall such a thing, I'd believe that the devil existed.Does the fact that I don't recall being tempted by the devil to believe that he doesn't exist count as evidence that he exists?

  • Patrick

    I didn't say you were. Read me again.Ok… let me do the long explanation.Lets say I have a relative who believes that homosexuals are literally incapable of engaging in fulfilling, loving homosexual relationships. I do in fact have such relatives.I find these attitudes offensive. But I can step back and realize: if I thought these attitudes were TRUE, then I wouldn't think it was offensive. The fact that I think these attitudes are NOT true is the key to why I think they're offensive.You can do that sort of analysis with a lot of claims. Ask yourself: If this is true, is it offensive? And if it is false, is it offensive?Lets take the common Christian attitude that atheists are rejecting God because of their love of sin.If that's true, then, well, fair cop!On the other hand, if its false, well, that's a horrible thing to say about someone. Its an incredibly offensive thing to say about someone: that they literally like evilness so much that they've created a whole world view to let themselves be more evil without feeling bad about it!I think its a false statement. So… you should expect me to view it as a hateful one…. almost all of popular Christian theology is like that, honestly.


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