A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 2

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 2 January 13, 2014

This is part 2 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my first post and Andrew’s reply.


Thanks again for your fairness and hospitality at the Midtown Scholar debate last month. It was a pleasure for me as well! You’ll have to come out to NYC some time in the coming months so I can repay it.

So, with your assent, let’s table the debate about morality for now and turn to this question of how it is that people come to be religious.

To answer your question, I think that believers and skeptics tend to approach the question of God’s existence in different ways. As you say, most religious skeptics, like myself, treat this as an empirical question; and finding the evidence insufficient, we withhold belief. But I think few, if any, theists come at the question this same way. That would mean becoming a theist by way of investigating the evidence and deciding that it’s sufficient to support one particular conception of God while ruling out the others. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who can credibly claim to have done that, and since you say that the Christian-specific conception has “irrationality written all over it”, I’d assume you agree.

In any case, I’m not sure if you meant your three possibilities to delineate the logically possible routes to faith, or the means by which most people in fact arrive at faith. But in either case, I think you left out a fourth possibility, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the most common one: the route of tradition.

What I mean by this is that most people believe in God because it’s the belief held by most people in their cultural in-group, the one that defines their identity and differentiates them from outsiders, and it’s safest and easiest to go with the flow. In some societies this is backed up by ostracism, harassment or even severe legal punishments for nonbelievers and dissenters, but it’s not usually enforced so harshly. More often, it’s simply passed down as received wisdom, what everyone in our society knows, what makes us who we are. When a belief is woven into the culture like that, few people will even think to question it.

Obviously, many people are taught a certain set of religious beliefs as infallible truth from childhood, which is the major way that any tradition perpetuates itself. But even if you’re not indoctrinated during childhood, it’s also the case that people who go through an existential crisis and convert later in life will tend to pick the religion that’s most common in their culture and social circles, just because it’s the one they’re most familiar with and/or have the most chance to encounter. (I once wrote about a pastor named Dave Schmelzer, who converted to Christianity because he was lost on a late-night drive and came across two large, floodlit crosses in a row, which he attributes to divine providence. Well, what other large religious symbols was he expecting to see in the United States of America?)

Now, you mentioned a presuppositional, an evidential, and an existential approach to becoming a theist. But I notice an inconsistency that you didn’t remark on: these three approaches all contradict each other! After all, if God’s existence is a self-evident prerequisite for knowledge (presuppositional), then it can’t be the case that it’s believed because it’s a leap into absurdity (existential). Similarly, if God’s existence is believed because it’s absurd, or because it’s a a priori truth that precedes evidence, then that forecloses the possibility that God’s existence is a conclusion derived from studying the evidence. The opposite holds true as well, of course: if God’s existence is a conclusion grounded in evidence, then it must be the case that evidence can overthrow it, which wouldn’t be true of either the presuppositional or existential approaches.

Since you said you relate most to the existential approach, I’ll focus on that. I think this goes a long way toward explaining your “doubting theist” self-identification. That had intrigued me, since doubt isn’t treated as an essential element in most forms of Christianity, whereas you seem to place it front and center. That seemed like something I hadn’t come across before, and I always like to learn about new things. Besides, I think excessive certainty is the cause of some of the worst harm that’s done in the name of religion, and doubt is a welcome and necessary corrective.

And on that note, I hope you’ll clarify something for me. You said that this approach is an irrational leap of faith. Fine, but why this particular leap, rather than any of the other countless ones that were open to you? Why do you believe God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, rather than, say, believing that God expressed his will for humanity in a perfect Arabic document called the Qur’an which was given to the final prophet Mohammed? Or why not believe that God is a cosmic being named Brahma who created himself out of a lotus flower which sprouted from the navel of Vishnu?

This is where tradition and culture weigh in. If belief in God was purely a leap of faith, a free embrace of the absurd, then choosing a set of religious beliefs ought to be as random a process as picking numbers out of a hat. Obviously, that’s not what happens. Religions rise to dominance at certain places and times, thrive for a while, then mutate into new forms or fade away as they’re replaced by different beliefs. Just by knowing where and when someone was born, you can predict with a reasonable degree of confidence what beliefs they’ll hold, and that would only be true if the acquisition of religious belief was culturally influenced.

If you were born in Mecca, that Kierkegaardian leap into the absurd would very likely have landed you in Islam instead. In Kolkata, it might instead have taken you to Hinduism. However you personally came to hold your faith, do you think it’s a coincidence that you’re a Christian in a time and place where Christianity is dominant?

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