“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others…. The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” -Winston Churchil
How Can Smart People Still Believe in God?
Today's show will be about the question whether it's still possible for smart, reflective people, fully cognizant with 21st century science, fully aware of the horrors of modernity, to believe in god.
Clearly the answer is -- drum roll, please -- yes. Many smart, reflective scientifically literate people obviously still do believe in god. Thankfully (or unthankfully, depending on your perspective) religious belief is not merely the province of anti-scientific, anti-modern fundamentalists who take every word, comma and period in some sacred text -- like the Bible or the Koran -- to be the sole and authoritative truth about just about everything.
So we thought it would make for interesting philosophical radio to find an intelligent, thoughtful, scientifically-minded true believer and probe in depth the basis of his belief. We did someting similar from the other side awihle back. Then we took an intelligent, scientifically-minded atheist, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, and probed the basis of his disbelief. You can think of this one as giving equal time to the theist. Our guest will be Philip Clayton, of the Claremont Graduate University. It should be fun -- a good way to spend a Sunday Morning.
Below the fold, I'll try to get the juices flowing by thinking aloud about three different possible bases for enduring religious belief in a scientific age, filled with moral horrors of all kinds.
As a philosopher, I tend to want my beliefs to be based on either direct experience or reasoned arguments. Even if some belief of mine is not in fact so based, I like to flatter myself that all my current beliefs are capable of being, as it were, ratified by either some reasoned argument or by the testimony of direct experience. And I'd like to think that if it were to be decisively settled that some belief of mine could not be so , I would more or less spontaneously surrender that belief, more or less without regret or remorse or wishful thinking of any kind. It seems to me one could and should have much the same attitude toward religious belief. One should want to believe in the existence of god only if one is confident that such belief is capable of being ratified by either reasoned argument or direct experience.
Now there are lots of what purport to be reasoned arguments for the existence of god. The argument from design, the ontological argument, arguments from fine-tuning, and on and on. But two things about those arguments strike me. I don't think any one of them is at all rationally compelling. At the very least, an atheist can, I think, argue the theist to a stand-still with counterarguments. If you start out neutral with respect to god and try to reason your way to his existence by appeal to any of the traditional philosophical arguments, you just aren't going to get all the way to positive belief, in my humble opinion. And that I think is the very best that can be said for traditional arguments for the existence of god.
The very worst that can be said for them is that they are all demonstrably invalid and incapable of compelling rational belief in the existence of god. And if the worst that can be said is true, then that seems to suggest that belief in god is a form of unreason.
But here's the thing. I don't think the real basis of most believers' belief even purports to be anything like reasoned argument. I mean I don't think I've ever met a single person who's been talked out of belief by the failure of any of the traditional philosophical arguments or who's been talked into belief by the success of those arguments. Does that mean that most believers are unreasoning? Well, some surely are. But I'm not prepared to say that most or all are.
What then is the basis of belief in rational, intelligent, reflective, scientifically literate thinking people in the modern age? Direct experience of god's presence in the world, perhaps?
A good friend of mine sometimes talks that way about god. He -- my friend -- is a very good person. He recently went to Guatamala, I think it was, to help his church build some houses for the desparately poor people who live in a rural village there. I recall hearing him say something to the effect that he had never felt the presence of god so clearly as on that trip. I think many believers have thoughts like this. They think they experience the concrete effects of god's presence in their own lives or operating through others. When I came closest to sincere belief in my own life, it was because my very devout then girlfriend was a luminously good person. Her religious conviction seemed to me to light up her soul. Certainly her belief was partly responsible for leading her to do many, many good and caring things. I had never met a person quite like her and I really wanted and tried to believe as she believed.
In the end, though, I found that although I admired her goodness and wanted to emulate it to the small extent that I could, I could not bring myself to believe as she believed -- no argument and no experience was sufficient to bring me to belief. Though she perhaps felt god's presence in the world and took herself to be responding to it with her goodness and caring, somehow she was unable to bring me to feel god's presence. Perhaps that's just the way it is. Some people feel it and others don't. And there's not much one can do to get another across the divide.
The problem with the direct perception of god's presence is that even those who profess to directly perceive or feel god's presence in the world, have to confess that god makes his presence felt pretty sporadically and selectively. If I had been a jew in Hitler's concentration camp, or an innocent, peaceful and devout Shia Muslim in Saddam's Iraq or any sort of peace loving believer in the current chaotic and deadly Iraq, I would long for greater signs of god's presence and for greater signs of his love and wisdom. I know that some religious traditions condemn such longings as prideful and arrogant. But even believers must admit that so often, in the darkest hour, in the hour of most need, the voice of god goes silent, his hand is stilled and his face disappears as if behind a dark veil.
Now some believers will admit that arguments run out, that experience is insufficient to dispel doubt. And yet, still they believer. But on what basis?
Some turn to pure faith, grounded in neither reason nor direct experience. But making a leap of ungrounded faith seems tantamount to jumping off a cliff, intending to reach a supposed other side that you have no grounds whatsoever for believing even exists. That, I think, is an act of pure desparation. Is religious belief really such?
At this point, some believers might choose to turn quasi-fictionalist. This seemed to be something like what Howie Wettstein in our show about the meaning of life was getting at. Wettstein posits god as a kind of "cosmic partner." He sees positing god as a way of endowing life with meaning. Doing so enables one to see one's own life as part of a great cosmic drama. Wettstein would prefer to live under the guise of living out a cosmic drama than to live under the guise of living an utterly meaningless life in a universe utterly devoid of meaning.
The problem with this approach, as I see it, is that if you take yourself to be positing god merely in order to endow one's life with meaning and you do so with no rational basis for really and truly believing that god exists, then you seem to be engaging in a kind of pretense. But I wonder whether mere pretense is really enough to endow our lives with meanings that they don't already have. If mere pretense is enough, why can't we just decide to see our lives as meaningful in the first place, and skip the positing of god in whom we don't really believe.
I don't pretend to have answers to all these questions. Plus it's about 7:30 and I have to be in the studio in an hour and half. So I better stop now. I think we'll have lots to talk about. Phil is a lively and thoughtful guy. So it should be fun.
See you soon.
"If mere pretense is enough, why can't we just decide to see our lives as meaningful in the first place, and skip the positing of god in whom we don't really believe."
It seems to me that it would be a lot more natural to imagine that a meaningful fiction is true than to imagine that an objectively meaningless universe has a meaning.
Pretending that there is a god on the Christian model, e.g., gives you all sorts of contentful meaning built in (my life is significant in the eyes of an awesome eternal being, "I" and those I love will not be annihilated at death, etc.). This kind of pretense seems at least natural to me; I can relate to a fictional story like that.
Whereas pretending there is godless meaning of life without actually giving content to what that meaning is supposed to be is so narratively unnatural as to be meaningless. Fiction is supposed to have a point, and if the universe is by narrative stipulation pointless, I can't imagine what it would mean to pretend that the universe as described has a point, or a meaning. (For one, if you could give a narratively compelling account of its putatively fictional meaning, then by my way of thinking you would have described the actual meaning!)
Perhaps, finally, the only place where god need exist is within the person, as phenomenology. If one believes, life long, subsequent to a history of rearing, education and religious practices, the experience and presence of god may be well established within the person, if only as canalized brain processes. Then as life ends one may be truely with god...and perhaps even have a beatific vision in the final moments. For example, it is reasonable to speculate that Pope John Paul was with god as consciousness faded into death.
I'm reminded of this passage from Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.
If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.
Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit."
Subsequent to a well established history of faith and belief, being with god in life or eternity is forever present, if only in a final moment, when "Death is not lived through."
60 minutes of pure enjoyment listening to the human creatures with their bicameral brains possessing the limited gift of reason discussing whether I made them. They have the ability to exploit each other, consume the ecosystem and even melt the polar ice cap. But let's see them try to move the planet's rotation off it's rotational axis ! At least the rest of the universe is still safe.
Here are a few comments from a believer’s point of view drawing from what has been called recently “Reformed Epistemology” (i.e. Plantinga, Alston, & Wolterstorff).
It certainly seems correct to say that most believers do not believe in the existence of God based on reasoned arguments (or evidence). They may have a “reason” in the singular sense but believing in God based on an argument is mostly likely uncommon.
“As a philosopher, I tend to want my beliefs to be based on either direct experience or reasoned arguments…And I'd like to think that if it were to be decisively settled that some belief of mine could not be so , I would more or less spontaneously surrender that belief, more or less without regret or remorse or wishful thinking of any kind. It seems to me one could and should have much the same attitude toward religious belief.”
The general principle then is one ought not to believe in things that are not based on arguments or direct experience. As for the former it seems that this has been shown to be an overly stringent view of rationality. If we have learned anything in our introductory epistemology courses it is that arguments for other minds, induction, the external world, that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago and so on and so on are not knock down winners and the dark shadow of skepticism constantly looms. Still this seems to most to be a problem for those arguments and our need for them not for belief in other minds, etc. If our belief in other minds, etc. is rational then it’s not based on arguments, rather most likely experience (or rather it is a basic belief).
The latter then is most likely where I would place belief (rational belief since it seems rationality has extended beyond “reasoned arguments”) in God, it’s a matter of perception and experience. Your objection here seems to be that the experience is not great enough. That experience is not enough to “dispel doubt”. This seems arbitrary at best. How much experience is enough to continue on in belief? If there is something else that we have learned in our intro courses its when you find that most of the arguments run out pretty much everything is in the realm of doubt. It seems pretty stringent (Descartes stringent!) to rule out a belief because doubt can still creep up.
As for pure faith, the “I believe because its ridiculous”, it seems to me that the fideists were trying to get to something like rational belief based not on reasoned arguments but on experience and that has been the project, to a large degree, of Reformed Epistemology. I think Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Turtullian would have liked Plantinga and his cohorts.
One last point. You say;
” And I'd like to think that if it were to be decisively settled that some belief of mine could not be so , I would more or less spontaneously surrender that belief, more or less without regret or remorse or wishful thinking of any kind. It seems to me one could and should have much the same attitude toward religious belief.”
This seems unlikely, if this standard is held I would love to hear your arguments for belief in other minds, induction, the external world, that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago. Assuming you’re not a solipsist I doubt you would cease to believe in your loved ones if your arguments were refuted. Most likely your belief in other minds is based on experience and perception. What if, like your account of the experience of God, that experience just isn’t good enough. Who gets to say that? Especially when all of the evidence or arguments for other minds, etc. probably just aren’t good enough to dispel doubt. Again this doesn’t so much seem like a problem for your beliefs in “other minds, induction, the external world, that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago”, instead it seems it’s a problem for your views on rationality.
OK, we can look at how a person conceives of, say, an airplane, then proceeds to design, build, and, finally, fly it. From this we deduce that, at least on some level, existence depends on having a maker, which presupposes a designer, which presupposes a conceiver.
Upon this premise, we deduce from observing the material universe that it must have been conceived, designed, and created by someone or something . . . and we call that conceiver/designer/creator, "God."
But if we proceed from this same premise, then "God" must have been conceived, designed, and created. Question: by what or by whom?
Faced with this First Cause question in a philosophy class decades ago, I was unable come up with an answer suitable to support a belief in God.
Later, following experiences that I could not explain rationally, or consistently from a materialistic point of view, I re-examined various beliefs couched in the idea of a creator, and eventually came upon the Tao te Ching, and the concept of "The Eternal Tao." For me, speaking of the Tao does not postulate a god, but neither does it dismiss the mystery of life and existence, positing that some thread - which we constantly seek to apprehend - runs through all existence, unifying and connecting all its manifestations in a never-ending cycle of yin and yang.
For me, contemplating the Tao does not answer the question, "Is there a god." For that matter, it doesn't answer any questions definitively. Rather, it keeps me questioning and questing, which enriches my life immeasurably by expanding my experience of life and all it offers.
Thanks for your program. I look forward to it every week.
I enjoyed the show and found enough of interest in what Phil Clayton said to ask him some questions, but I am not expecting that he will overcome my impression (shared by caller Paul) that there is no meaningful content to the question of existence or non-existence of the god that Phil appears to be talking about. In the end, talk of such a god seems to amount to no more than the naming of an apparently unanswerable question and no matter whether we call it 'God' or 'Tao' or something else, it has no moral (or other) implications. (This is not to imply that thinking about it in an "appropriate" way might not have some kind of beneficial calming effect on the human mind - but then so might thinking about any other abstract problem in mathematics or philosophy.)
Another concept of god, which arose in Ken and John's response to Rob's conundrum (about the comfort of acting as a believer despite not believing), was as a "flag" or symbol for the body of shared human values.
To me the confounding of these two concepts (reason and "purpose" for the existence of the universe, and "purpose" or values of human species and individuals) seems highly presumptuous, but Phil appeared to be claiming some linkages so I have asked him about that in response to his follow-up posting. Perhaps it is true that finding some consoling sense of substantiation re both is a common human need, but that doesn't imply that they both require the same "god" (and perhaps some religions - eg Hinduism - are closer to recognizing this distinction than others).
In fact, the "source of values" concept is what strikes me as being closer to what most people seek from religion, so I want to follow up with you, Ken, about some aspects of that.
First, in response to part of what you say in the blog posting, I think it exemplifies a kind of faith that is not in conflict with reason. In fact it *is* possible for a rational person to believe things not based on reason - so long as those beliefs do not conflict with reason. One way to achieve this is by having the beliefs devoid of empirical content (as I have suggested that belief in Phil's god may be). But this does not preclude meaningful content. For example many beliefs are exhortatory in nature. Commandments have impact but are not empirically falsifiable. Whether encouraging such beliefs is a good thing is something I would question (in fact I would strongly deny it, but that's not the topic here so I must hold back), but I don't believe that they can be successfully challenged on purely rational grounds.
Second, and this may be a simple question for you to answer, but I was unable to see a clear distinction between what is represented by the "fictionalist" label you used for Howie Wettstein's "positing", and the "semantic agnostic" applied to Rob's finding comfort in faithless participation (and in fact, if I was going to make a distinction, I'd be inclined to reverse the labels).
Either way, I was disappointed by the comfort you gave to Rob. He should, I believe, have been supported instead in his apparent willingness to acknowledge and deal with the fundamental dishonesty of his position. To adjust the semantics so that a statement of faith is not a lie to oneself does not avoid the misleading effect that making that statement might have on others. In the case of religion, those who find comfort by making a statement that means something different to others than it means to themselves do harm in various ways. One is by undermining and discouraging the truth-seeking of others who may be in a similar doubting position; and another is by lending credibility to the words themselves rather than the concept you mean by them, which empowers those who would turn the same words to a vastly different (and often quite evil) meaning.
This happens all too often with scriptural religion, so I think we need to do all we can to encourage the overt rather than covert denial of literalism.
I haven't had time to read all of the other posts on this topic, but I will go ahead and state my humble opinion. There is a God. I believe that if you ask people what God is then you will receive many different answers. Thus, God is what believe it is. People have believed in God in some form or fashion since the birth of civilization. I believe that several things can be learned from holding a belief in God. And, depending on your beliefs, a belief in God can foster advances in all realms of human activity. Looking to the past, our ancient ancestors perceived God in many different forms, and each form deserved respect. However, in the scientfic age of today 'things' have been reduced to numbers and all sorts of complex calculations that I won't pretend to understand. But, what do those numbers and calculations represent? The explanation of the physical/quantum world we live in does not make it any less spectacular. I believe that God exists in everything. However, if there was/is no God that does not mean that we should treat the world differently? Should we not pay respect to world we live in and the universe that created it? What would happen if we no longer believed in a God (different from the abolishment of religion)?
In conclusion, God seems to be just a word that people use to describe the concert of magnificent forces that surround them. However, whether these forces act in.....concert or not, they are responsible for life as we know it. Therefore, the being/entity/? we know as God deserves our respect. We don't have to give it to him, but bad things tend to happen when there is a lack of respect for anything.
I think that if you want a good definition of God, you need go no further than St. Augustine's Confessions. Sure, it's a "starter level" book, but St. Augustine's idea of God, Good, Truth, and so forth, is mirrored throughout time by a multitude of thinkers.
And my cynic side has to mention that if you can sum up your religious beliefs, that is, you can infer why/how the universe was created, how you worship God, and so forth, with a single world like "Christianity" or "Judaism"... that's just plain silliness.
The original question being, "How can smart people still believe in God?" either means god believing people are not smart (as they may think they are), or to answer the "how" in the question (and giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are smart) I offer the thought that these "smart god believing people" have been brainwashed. Society promulgates the god myth so incessantly that very few people can think beyond the thought that god must exist. In the way of analogy, if there are intelligent people that do believe that humans exist as separate races, and not one human race (due to very effective societal brainwashing), then why should we not see that brainwashing by societal beliefs is behind other incongruencies?
Even ultra-rational folk can share beliefs that are not based on solid evidence or rational argument. For instance, NASA has spent many millions searching for extra-terrestial life, despite no evidence that such life exists, nor the slightest idea how probable or improbable the spontaneous origin of life may be. Given the lack of evidence, it seems just as reasonable to assume that ours is the first and only planet in the universe yet pregnant with life, as to assume that life is so ubiquitous that it is lurking under the martian ice caps, sloshing within the frozen void of Europa, or stirring in the methane lakes of Titan. Though I share the fervent hope that life is present throughout the universe, I don't fool myself that this belief is based on anything but wishful thinking.
Ken implies that the believer in God resorts primarily to faith, while the un-believer relies mostly on reason. As one caller remarked, atheists have faith equal to believers that God doesn't exist. Given that neither atheists nor theists have sufficient evidence nor a bulletproof argument to prove or disprove the existence of God, it's reasonable to assume that at bottom, both sides of the argument rely equally on faith.
I suspect that if you scratch any argument hard enough, probing mercilessly with why questions, you will eventually scrape down to a bedrock of irrational and unsubstantiated belief. For even the most rational thinkers, reason and evidence alone are not enough to stir the passion of true conviction. Superficial beliefs are easy to flip with argument and evidence. Deeper beliefs have a protective coil of emotion encircling them like a devouring serpent. Our core convictions will not go down easily, simply because the light of reason is shone upon them.