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How Can Smart People Still Believe in God?
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.
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