Is It Reasonable To Believe In God?

Is It Reasonable To Believe In God? November 25, 2020

Here are some thoughts I shared for the first time many years ago, after an on-campus discussion of the subject. If the question is understood to mean whether one can prove God’s existence, then presumably the answer is no, in the sense that no argument has been found that is entirely persuasive so as to convince any skeptic. If, on the other hand, we mean whether it is compatible with reason, then the answer may be yes. Is it reasonable for me to believe that Barber’s Violin Concerto is beautiful? (I chose this example rather than the second movement of Kurt Atterberg’s Symphony No.2 because it is more familiar, but for me it is the latter that is most persuasive in leading me to believe in beauty, transcendence, and as a result ultimately in God!)

Of course, it was objected that no one could doubt the existence of this concerto, whereas the existence of God is debatable. This may be a valid point, if one is assuming that “God” refers to an object among others in the universe. But it was suggested that the question of God’s existence is not akin to the question of the Loch Ness Monster’s existence. At least for panentheists and pantheists, the question is not about the existence of another being, but of a transcendent level of reality beyond our own. In this case, the question is like a debate about whether love exists, or whether personhood exists. For reductionists, the things we call by these names are simply terms for epiphenomena reducable to descriptions in terms of neurological impulses and chemical stimuli – in other words, reducable to brain science. For many who have had the experience of these realities (yes, I dare to call them that), this scientific description is not threatening, but neither is it adequate. Those who explain religion merely in such terms have been compared in one recent article I read to the work of “tone-deaf musicologists” who regard with disdain those who talk about these scores and performances as though they had some transcendent aspect called “beauty.”

All religious language is metaphorical, and just as the discovery that the miniature solar system is not an adequate metaphor for the subatomic world, although it corresponds usefully in some respects, does not disprove the existence of the subatomic world, neither does the discovery that many of our theological metaphors are inadequate disprove the existence of God. Theology begins with the affirmation that all religious language is analogical (at best), and is inadequate to describe the transcendent reality it is pointing to. Indeed, if this were not the case, God would no longer be the subject under discussion! It is one of the remarkable features of the Book of Job that it depicts positively an individual who is willing to rethink his idea of God and God’s relationship to the world in light of experiences that serve as counter-evidence. Job (unlike his friends) is willing to judge some metaphors as too inadequate and seek better ones. Nevertheless, when it comes to language about God, we are not dealing with a component reality of our own existence that we can examine. We are rather talking about levels of transcendence beyond our own. An analogy I use far too often is that of two cells in a human body having a conversation. One says that it looks around and all it sees are cells, cells cells. We’re born, we die, and that is it. The other says that sometimes it things that maybe we’re all part of one big cell. The latter is not by any means accurately describing what it is like to be a human being with its “cellulomorphic” language, but it may nevertheless be pointing to something that is profoundly true, namely being part of something bigger, something transcendent that gives existence greater meaning. The human person is the most transcendent thing we are familiar with, and that’s why it is a preferred metaphor for God. Beyond personhood we do not know what other levels of transcendence might be like (although love might again be useful to mention as something that happens between two individuals and thus involves a limited but significant transcendence), and our language tends to get abstract. But Hans Küng is surely right to suggest that it is not inappropriate to talk about God as “at least personal” and “more than personal”, even though we have no more idea of what that really means than an individual human cell could have a concept of what it is like to be a human person.

Finally, I found myself thinking about the falsifiability of religious beliefs. Many would say that nothing could persuade them that God does not exist (although the claim is dubious given that people frequently change their mind about this subject, in both directions). That in itself might make the claim unfalsifiable and thus “not even false” and unworthy of intellectual discussion. Yet while some of those who talk about nothing they can imagine being able to persuade them to change their beliefs about God are merely those who have been well indoctrinated and find security in holding to what they have always believed, not everyone who feels this way fits this category. For others of us, language of God corresponds to a powerful and personal spiritual experience that we have had. For those of us in that category, the falisifiability of God is like the falsifiability of gravity: we have so much or so powerful and experience of what we are discussing that it is no longer an open question in any real sense. Certainly it might be necessary to completely rethink what gravity or what God is, but to suggest that new evidence will appear that will show that we have not had these experiences seems unreasonable. And so, for those who have had a life-changing religious experience, it would seem unreasonable not to believe in God. The experience was certainly psychological – were it not, it would not be a human experience. It may be that the experience corresponds to something that is a natural part of existence, rather than something supernatural, and it might be necessary to rethink what we are pointing to with our language about God. But to suggest that those who have had such experiences are all merely delusional is unfair. It is because of our own experience of choosing which ice cream to eat that we find academic discussions that deny free will unpersuasive. It is because of our own experience of the beauty of a piece of music or a sunrise that analysis in terms of chemical composition, frequencies of vibration or movement of photons may be true but is far from adequate. For those of us for whom a personal religious experience is part of our life experience, is it wrong to think that, rather than our being deluded with respect to what has been a profoundly positive influence in our lives, perhaps those who have never had such an experience and doubt its reality are simply like those who are “not musical”, and this is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but neither is it something to be proud of? I find myself wondering whether it is possible to learn to appreciate transcendence and spirituality in the same ways that we learn to appreciate good food, good music, and many other things that are acquired tastes. Might it be that some people are simply “religiously tone deaf”? One thing is for certain, to my mind at any rate: when it comes to religion, many people are settling for fast food or are too busy to eat at all, and have never even tasted some of the best of what is available, much less having learned to appreciate it in all its nuances and subtleties.

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