The Core of the Christian Faith Isn’t Intellectual, It’s Emotional

The Core of the Christian Faith Isn’t Intellectual, It’s Emotional August 29, 2015

Google Authenticator Recovery CodeOver the past few days during spare moments on planes and in between meetings I’ve been working my way through reading Tim Keller’s oft-recommended book The Reason for God. I’ve heard so many Christian friends sing its praises that I had to finally check it out. I also have a growing collection of formerly Christian friends whose families relentlessly pressure them to reconvert, and at some point this book recommendation always comes up. It was high past time I read the thing just to see what all the fuss is about.

I’m about halfway through the book and if I may be so bold, the thing is really kind of terrible.

I don’t mean it’s poorly written, or that he isn’t articulate. It’s just that the reasons he gives are really very weak.  I will give him credit for starting out on a high note. His introduction strikes a welcome chord of humility and of openness to dialogue between skeptics and people of faith. I was very pleased to see how earnestly he enjoins Christians to learn to listen to people who are outside the fold in order to learn from them what makes them see things the way they do. Would that all Christians approach the rest of us with that same spirit of generosity.

(Bad) Reasons for God

But after that it went downhill quickly. My response to the book will surely require a post of its own by the time I’m finished. In fact I could write several posts, examining each chapter of his book because it would take that many articles just to dismantle all the poor argumentation I’m encountering in each chapter.  Others have already done that, however, and I feel no need to duplicate their work. I feel the need to economize my time by only hitting on the key arguments and weaknesses of the book as a whole.

For an example of what I mean by poor argumentation, consider Keller’s argument for the infallibility of the Bible. He spends the majority of his time arguing for the reliability of one small portion of the Bible, but then generalizes that trust to the rest of the Bible by virtue of an astoundingly circular statement. You have to have to dig into the endnotes of the book to even locate where he addresses it, but he states the crux of his argument here:

If eventually we put our faith in Jesus, then his view of the Bible will become ours. Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible. (p.277, n.4)

If Jesus did indeed exist and if the gospels themselves are an accurate depiction of what he said and did, it still remains debatable whether or not Jesus in fact saw the Hebrew scriptures as infallible in the way that modern evangelicals interpret his words.  Keller seems convinced he did, but that in no way settles it for people who haven’t yet concluded they can trust the gospel narratives in the first place.  So it doesn’t really do much good to state it here as an argument. Its circularity is rather glaring.

And yet this is pretty common for many of the arguments he makes. In another place in the same chapter he does what so many apologists do by citing as evidence the 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus mentioned in an epistle of the apostle Paul (who incidentally wouldn’t have been among them anyway). He uses this to argue that the New Testament enjoys a breadth of attestation which many other religious texts don’t enjoy. Except wouldn’t you have to first attribute reliability to the claim that there were 500 witnesses before this claim did any good in establishing anything it argued?

Do you see the dilemma?  If I didn’t already think this book was worthy of special trust, why would it make me feel any better to be told that the same book says lots of people witnessed the events described therein? How could that help me trust its claims any further if I would first have to trust it in order to believe the claims in the first place?  You can’t use one claim of the book to establish another claim of the same book with regards to the reliability of the book.

This is weak argumentation, and yet a whole lot of Keller’s Reason for God reads this way, and Christians eat this stuff up.  I’m telling you, they gush over this book. They call it a classic and they want to put it in the hands of every skeptic they can find, thinking it will do something to nudge them to accept the claims of the Christian message. But it’s just really not very good. I don’t know how to break that to them gently.

What Are We Missing Here?

If you tell a Christian the arguments they love don’t really impress you, they can sometimes get upset. It frustrates them when the things they find so convincing don’t have the same effect on everyone else. You’re both looking at the same arguments, but you see completely different things. Sometimes they get angry and start yelling at you, or else start typing in all caps.  Too often it makes little difference how polite you were in your interchange. You’ve touched a nerve, and the emotional strength of their reaction can catch you off guard. So what gives?

Religious conviction originates from the emotions first, then the intellect. That’s why the reasons they give us for the things they believe seem so weak to us and so strong to them. They feel the heat of their own personal commitments, and it predisposes them to accept things with far less support than it would require for anyone else to accept them. These beliefs were likely built upon a foundation of emotion during a period of time in which the believer was open and vulnerable to persuasion. And yes, that’s an overgeneralization, but as a general rule it holds true and it explains a lot of what we’re seeing here.

For another illustration of what I mean, consider how often Christians say, “When I look at my beautiful children I cannot understand how anyone could doubt there is a God.”  This is an emotional argument which falls apart the moment you analyze it. Do they mean to say that beautiful children are evidence that an intelligent and benevolent creator exists? If so, wouldn’t it then stand to reason that ugly kids are evidence that he doesn’t?  Likewise, if having  healthy children means there’s a God then wouldn’t birth defects and terminal illnesses indicate there isn’t? Logically those things would follow, and yet they never are willing to acknowledge the connection between those two opposing notions.

Counterapologists like to engage believers in a kind of “devangelism” which challenges the intellectual content of their faith traditions. I suppose that’s useful in a way, but it often proves frustrating because even the most articulate and patient interlocutor will usually discover at some point that the other person hits a wall and can go no further. Something kicks in, and a logical leap happens that makes no sense to you at all. It’s as if you were walking together on the same path and then suddenly they jumped a track and now they’re inexplicably headed in a totally different direction. The leap is clear to you but they didn’t feel a thing. Again, how could this happen?

This happens because the intellectual content of any given faith tradition is really a kind of facade, or veneer—it’s  a thin outer shell that protects the squishy insides that are the emotional reasons behind people’s religious beliefs.  You can knock yourself out addressing and dismantling the fragile outer shell, but you’ll soon find yourself swimming around in a far more liquid place, frustrated that you can’t get a handle on why the other person is so convinced about the things he believes. A friend of mine named Dawn offered this account:

Several years ago when I was “falling away,” I had a friend who tried to lead me back to Christ with only an emotional argument. It took me a long time to process why we weren’t communicating on the same level, because that is so much her reality she wasn’t able to even see a different perspective. I kept saying things like, “I’m not sure there is even evidence that Jesus existed.” And she would say, “Have you seen ‘Passion of the Christ? It will clear up so much for you.” And I’m thinking, “If Jesus didn’t even exist, how is watching a reenactment of his death going to change anything?” And she would say, “But if you just understand the suffering Jesus went through for you, you wouldn’t need to doubt again.”

Her beliefs were so strongly based in how she “felt” about Christ, she was not even able to perceive an intellectual problem. That is when I realized what exactly my problem was with Christianity. I don’t “feel” saved when thinking about Jesus. I “felt” rejected by the church when I needed them most personally, etc. So without my emotional and social needs being met by the church, and without positive feelings toward a relationship with Jesus, I found I had nothing left. There is no intellectual pull toward Christianity.

Probably these beliefs were formed at a very young age, in many cases long before they learned any critical thinking skills. Incidentally, that wasn’t by accident. They have good reason for getting to us while we’re still young. 

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Eventually those critical thinking skills will come, but only after the important commitments have already been made. Those skills will form around the beliefs in much the same way that a tree grows into a fence that was there before it was planted. Or better yet, they form like an exoskeleton around the body of beliefs in order to protect them from disturbance by hostile forces from the outside.*

The belief comes first. Then come the reasons. We think in order to rationalize the things we already believe. That’s just how our brains work.

Which Emotions Gave Birth to These Beliefs?

Briefly I’d like to list those emotions and psychological needs which I believe undergird the faith commitments held to by people around me. I’d invite you to add to this discussion based on your own observation.

1. Fear. People tap into this primal emotion when they tell children that if they don’t believe in Jesus they’ll either burn in hell forever or else they’ll be put in a dark corner, perpetually cut off from everyone they love (more on this passive-aggressive version of hell, which I call Hell 2.0, in an upcoming post). Similarly, among older folks tribal boundaries are reinforced by warning people the world will go to pot if they let people outside their tribe participate too freely. Fear sells, and it works very well at maintaining in group/out group identities.

2. Shame. From the time we are very little, we get frustrated at how far short we fall when we compare ourselves to other people. We know we are capable of doing better, but we still make mistakes and find our abilities are limited. Society capitalizes on those insecurities and twists the knife whenever it can in order to get us to do what it wants us to do.  Religions are no different. Speaking of my own religious background, I can speak with authority about evangelical Christianity’s penchant for teaching self-loathing.

[Read “Anti-Humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing.”]

3. Love. Ever the social animal, humans crave affection and connection to others. Religions capitalize on this as well (in fact they probably owe their existence to this craving in the first place) and use our need to belong in order to bring us into the fold and to keep us there long after we’ve found sufficient reason to leave.

4. Survival. I would argue that our desire to live forever stems from our survival instinct. All living things have it, but as with all other things, we humans take our instincts to a much more sophisticated level. Not content to simply live another day, we wish to live forever, so we invent for ourselves many complex and competing narratives about how that can come about, expending a great deal of energy assuring each other that we know exactly how to ensure our own immortality.

There are so many other emotions and psychological needs that make up the core content of my own childhood faith: The desire for purpose, a need for a sense of security and protection, a need for power and control, the desire for personal significance and uniqueness, a desire for justice, and even the love of the sublime and a quest for wonder and awe—a sense of coming in contact with the numinous. All of these things happen in our emotions first, then later latch themselves onto a superficial layer of rationality in order to justify and appropriate the things that we felt.

So what do you do with this information? Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell you. The main thing is to appreciate the complexity of human beings and to better understand why people respond the way they do. Humans are not entirely rational beings, you know? We do things that don’t make sense. Although a friend once told me: “All behavior would make sense if you could see what’s really going on inside of people.”

I think he’s right. People have their reasons for doing what they do (and for believing what they believe) which may not appear rational. And maybe they’re not rational, strictly speaking. But emotions are their own kind of reasoning, and you shouldn’t underestimate their power to convince us of things we don’t technically have good reason to believe.

[Image source: Studycentersonline]

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* And yes, I know many people convert to Christianity as adults, which at first sounds like a counterexample to what I’m arguing here. But I’ve noticed that more often than not, even the adult conversions follow a dramatic personal experience, so that people adopt these beliefs during moments of extreme duress and psychological vulnerability. Which of course explains why they always assume anyone who deconverts must have done so for equally emotional reasons. 


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