Monday, September 17, 2012

Believers Arguing on Behalf of Their Beliefs

After years of struggling with something, it's nice to be able to come to a new understanding.  I suppose some of my readers may dispute the validity of my new thoughts.  If so, I hope they will offer comments here.

For a long time, I've wondered, 'What's the point of trying to rationalize religious beliefs?'  My understanding of christianity (i.e., that resulting from my upbringing) is that one should accept the existence and divinity of Jesus purely on faith - in his words from Mark 10:16 - "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."  This classic case of biblical ambiguity leaves open the definition of receiving something "like a child".  Just what exactly does that phrase mean?  Various interpretations exist, but the obvious one is that it means to accept something entirely without evidence, trusting in and accepting the "gift" without any questions as to its validity.  A child-like trust in the teachings of leaders is one that accepts things as given.  Questions are impertinent and out of place.

If this is a valid interpretation, then it follows that believers are supposed to accept Jesus as their "Lord and Savior" without question and without evidence.  If that's what someone chooses to do, then I'm fine with that.  It's their choice and their life.

Where I have a problem is when christians attempt to use logic and, yes, even evidence to validate their faith.  This has always seemed pointless to me - if you accept it on faith, why seek to make something irrational seem to be rational?  I observe that all humans in my experience have both rational and irrational aspects, including yours truly.  It's not an insult to label a belief as irrational - it simply says that logic and evidence have little or nothing to do with it.  If a christian has faith, then s/he has faith and that's that - end of discussion.  There's no need for, or point to, trying to create some sort of house of cards to justify that faith to someone else, if you truly have that child-like faith.

Such faith has no need for explanation.  In fact, explanations are antithetical to religious faith.  Of course, it's well known that the blind obedience associated with religious faith leads people to commit monstrous acts on behalf of their chosen belief system.  But perhaps most importantly in the context of this blog, it represents a source of cognitive dissonance in the mind of any reasonably rational person.  Religious faith inevitably clashes with logic and the rule of evidence.  In most aspects of a believer's life, they accept the rule of logic and the use of evidence.  Is such an acceptance based on faith, just like religious belief?  No, not all all.  It's a faith that's based entirely on evidence and empirical observations.  Hence, the word "faith" has two diametrically opposed meanings - I talked about that here.

It now seems clear to me that attempts at rationalizing religious faith (e.g., those of C.S. Lewis) are simply a manifestation of cognitive dissonance.  Despite claims of childlike faith, believers may seek to convince others of (i.e., to try to justify) the rationality of believing in a divine lord.  They sense that an unbeliever isn't likely to be convinced by an irrational argument.  They implicitly understand the weakness of their position in a logical discussion.

Just whom is it they're really trying to convince?  Most such attempts I've seen are pretty transparently flawed in their logic and completely devoid of any credible evidence.  Such rationalizations are not the province of true fundamentalists, who've accepted such things as the creation myth, the age of the Earth as less than 10 thousand years, the evil of homosexuality, the subservience of women, and so on.  No, the ones who seek to rationalize their irrational faith are those otherwise rational people who accept the validity of science and logic, but seek to put some sort of handwaving "spin" on the biblical passages that clearly are not consistent with our modern understanding of the world based on rationality.  Perhaps they seek to interpret biblical myths as reflecting the late Bronze Age absence of science-based understanding.  Perhaps they choose to see unsettling biblical passages as metaphors, or representing the concepts of a time 2000+ years ago that are no longer relevant.

If someone grasps the irrationality of religious faith, why not let it go with that?  Seeking to rationalize religious faith seems to be the direct consequence of - dare I say it? - doubts lurking in the minds of such believers (likely at an unconscious level).  It generates a clash between the rational and the irrational in their brains, and their rationalizations may be at least as much directed at themselves as they are to others around them.

Keep trying, and perhaps you can convince yourself - but it doesn't convince me.  I think I now understand why you hope to construct a logical argument for your religious belief.  The very effort to do so undermines your credibility as a believer - it seems faith isn't enough for you, after all! 


Matt Bunkers said...

Thanks for posting this Chuck. It now makes sense to me why I do not feel compelled to defend or prove my faith to anyone. It’s my choice to believe as I do, period.

Chuck Doswell said...

A footnote ... I recently learned of an idea of William James regarding the so-called "Will to believe doctrine".

As noted in Wikipedia,

"This idea foresaw the demise of evidentialism in the 20th century and sought to ground justified belief in an unwavering principle that would prove more beneficial. Through his philosophy of pragmatism William James justifies religious beliefs by using the results of his hypothetical venturing as evidence to support the hypothesis' truth. Therefore, this doctrine allows one to assume belief in God and prove His existence by what the belief brings to one's life."

This doctrine offers no evidence to justify belief, but postulates the value of belief (in the absence of evidence) in accordance with the presumed good things that flow from having this irrational belief system. Clearly, this ignores all the negative things that could flow from an irrational belief, or perhaps assigns them less weight (for no logical reason).

John Colquhoun said...

Chuck, I was delighted to learn you believe that Jesus said the words you quoted.

Actually, they are from Mark 10:15 rather than Mark 10:16. To understand the Bible or other writings, context often important. Mark 10:13-16 (ESV) says the following:
Mark 10:13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.
Mark 10:14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.
Mark 10:15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Mark 10:16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

Jesus’ followers, the disciples, had little regard for children, they did not think them important enough to be in Jesus’ presence. Jesus’ view is quite different. He wants even children to come to him, hence into the kingdom of God. To be in the kingdom of God is to live with Jesus as your ruler. Jesus says to enter it is necessary to come like a child. Children are trusting; especially where there is evidence that trust is justified. Children do nothing deserve or earn their relationship with God, needing to accept it as a gift. For any person to come into the kingdom of God they must trust, or have faith, in Jesus. As you say, we Christians accept Jesus as “Lord and Saviour”, but not without evidence.

You believe that Jesus said the words in Mark 10:15, but do not believe that he is Lord. Christians believe that he is Lord from Mark’s gospel, because he: had power over evil spirits, Mark 1:23-26; healed sickness, Mark 1:30&31; cured a leper, Mark 1:40-42; healed a paralytic and forgave his sins, Mark 2:1-12; is Lord of the Sabbath, Mark 2:23-28; fed five thousand from five loaves and two fish, Mark 6:35-43; etc. He demonstrates the power of God.

If it is rational for you to believe that Jesus said the words of Mark 10:15, why is it irrational to believe he is Lord based on the evidence of the writings of the same author?

Christians believe that Jesus is Saviour from Mark’s gospel because he: predicted his death, how he would die and then rise to life, Mark 8:31; said how to receive salvation, giving one’s life to Jesus, Mark 8:35; died as he predicted, Mark 15; and rose to life as predicted, Mark 16:1-7.

If it is rational for you to believe that Jesus said the words of Mark 10:15, why is it irrational to believe he is Saviour based on evidence of the writings of the same author?

Concerning the definition of “faith”, while recently browsing the "Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms" (Grenz, Guretzki &Nordling, IVP, 1999), on p41 I read the following:

"Duns Scotus, Scotism (c.1266-1308). A medieval Franciscan monk, philosopher and theologian who generally opposed the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. Scotus argued that faith is more a matter of exercise of will than reason. As a result, Scotism is the assertion that when the conclusions of philosophy (reason) come into conflict with the conclusions of theology (faith), the conclusions of faith must be accepted. Eventually the name Duns (dunce) became a term of ridicule, especially by certain Protestant Reformers, for those who believe without reason."

So should we, therefore, label the definition of "faith" that says it is not based on reason or evidence the "dunce definition"?

Chuck Doswell said...

John Colquhoun,

Thanks for the correction on the citation. If I quote from the bible, that is not an implicit admission that I accept any of it as truth, or even historically correct. Generally, when I quote from the bible, it's to illustrate what some believers accept as both absolute truth and absolute historical fact.

I've discussed the definition of faith at some length. There are two diametrically-opposed definitions: belief based on evidence and belief not based on evidence. I respect your right to disagree, but I think most christians are using the latter, not the former definition. Generally, most christians I know consider it a virtue to believe in something for which no credible evidence can be found.

Evidently, you think you have compelling evidence (although I don't accept it as even credible) and so your position is that your belief is based on evidence. Scriptures can't be used as evidence at all, in my opinion.