Suspicions that God May Not Exist

Suspicions that God May Not Exist July 18, 2013
Keith DeRose

Keith DeRose, philospher at Yale and running partner of Miroslav Volf, has a long and thoughtful post on “Delusions of Knowledge” that lead to a loss of faith. Worth the read, if you have the time — and don’t miss the comments. Here’s a taste:

However, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with some people who did get to the point–often for years, during adulthood–of acting and talking as if they knew that God existed, but who later “gave up the faith,” as it’s often put (often by their disappointed relatives and/or former colleagues in the faith), becoming atheists or self-described agnostics. They of course didn’t take themselves to know that God existed at the post-crash time that I talked with them, but what I found most interesting was asking them what they now thought of their past selves. Did their past selves sincerely take themselves to know that God existed?

This tends to get complicated quickly. Though there are important differences among people I’ve talked to, they usually thought that there was some element of insincerity, lack of genuineness, or even phoniness, in the certainty they had earlier projected to the world. But it generally doesn’t seem to have been cases of straightforward deceiving of others: they often think that they themselves had been deceived about what was going on. That their earlier selves had been under a delusion of knowledge about God’s existence fits in quite well with the picture that many of these people have of their earlier, confident-sounding selves.

Often, their becoming atheists or agnostics was a process of becoming aware of the possibility (though some seem to think that deep down they always had this worry, in which cases the process seems to have begun by coming to face a possibility they had always been dimly aware of) that the certainty they seemed to feel was not an honest or genuine response to what experience of God they might have had, but was largely motivated by the desire for their experience of God to be genuine and/or was driven by social forces involving identifying with the believers (or at least folks they took to be believers) around them, and then that suspicion growing to the point that they felt the honest response was just to admit that they don’t, and never did, have any genuine knowledge of God’s existence.

Read the rest: God’s Existence and My Suspicion: Delusions of Knowledge – The Prosblogion.

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  • Thursday1

    How aware are you of the work being done in the psychology of religion? All (and I do mean all) religion is based on the perception of personality in the world. Some people, for reasons both genetic and environmental, have stronger or weaker religious perceptions. Those with stronger religious perceptions tend not to actually have much, if any, doubt. There are even studies where researchers have religious believers talk to God. Those believers use exactly the same part of the brain as if they are talking to a friend. These people believe in God because he’s right fucking there.

    My strong suspicion is that the more theologically (and socially) conservative you are the more certain you are of your religious beliefs. You certainly here hear lot more about doubt and such in emergent type blogs and books. But doubt is not actually universal. That creates problems for liberal mainliners and emergent types, in that their target demographic seems to be people who have weaker religious perceptions and hence weaker religious belief. That means less commitment and less energy. It’s tough keeping a religious organization together when your market is, well, inherently less religious.

    I also suspect that an awful lot of the people who are involved in either liberal mainline or emergent churches are people who have a conservative/fundamentalist background that steeped them in church culture. That indoctrination formed a strong bond with church and/or the Bible, but their religious perceptions (and conservative moral intuitions) aren’t as strong, so they just can’t get on board with what the more conservative/fundamentalist churches are up to. The problem is passing on progressive Christianity to the kids. Liberal mainline and emergent types just aren’t going to beat the Bible into their kids like the fundies. Yet, that was precisely what made gave them their attachment to the Bible and church in the first place. Not some conversation.

    My further suspicion is that emergent Christianity was the beneficiary of another great wave of secularization that came to the United States in the 1990s. There are an awful lot of people raised in conservative/fundamentalist homes that have left the church, but some haven’t wanted to “go all the way.” Because a lot of these people are coming out of a specifically American Evangelical subculture, not a mainline culture, they’re doing things somewhat differently than mainline liberals in areas like ecclesiology. But they’ve got a lot of the same problems with sustaining themselves after that initial wave of dechurching.

    In any event, if you want to learn more about the psychology of religion, I’d strongly suggest you start with Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds. Then you can move on to books by Jesse Bering, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Paul Bloom. You should also look up the work of Joe Henrich et al. from the University of British Columbia. No book for him, but the studies are mostly all online.

    • Thursday1

      As for the link between religious belief and social conservatism, it seems that the same perceptual system that is used for perceiving personality in the world (ghosts and gods) is also used for perceiving forms, essences and ideals in the world. The stronger you perceive those things, the more likely you are to be a social conservative.

      Obviously strong religious belief and social conservatism aren’t exactly the same thing, there are strong religious believers who are socially liberal and there are social conservatives who are not particularly religious, but there does seem to be a very strong correlation between the two, so my educated guess is that the strongest churches will continue to be on the conservative side of things on both theological and moral issues.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    What I’ve been wrestling with is the idea that God is real, present and interested, but that this doesn’t change anything. Life is the same whether you are aware of, believe in or don’t believe in God. I’m not sure if this is true but it sure seems like it. Of course, I do think that ultimately God wants us to take responsibility for ourselves and so is playing the role of the parent who refuses to intervene or rescue a kid who is resisting becoming independent. And that probably looks and feels an awful lot like a God who is either absent or inactive. Or perhaps not real for some people.

  • Ryan Hite

    God exists in a different sense than most people understand. It is part of some deeper connection that even most religions fail to understand.

  • Keith DeRose

    I responded to fairly similar comments by Thursday over at the original post, so, rather than repeat the response here, I’ll just give the link: