It is clear that, whether we are believer or unbeliever, our choices about our belief in God are not always as rational as we might like to think.
- If there is no God, we probably cannot choose at all in any meaningful way.
- Sometimes (some would say always), we cannot choose our beliefs, they are forced on us by how we see the truth. But we can choose the information we take in and how we process it, which leads to our beliefs.
- The way we make choices is inevitably quite complex, with emotion and intuition just as important as logic and evidence.
So, finally, what can we conclude about our belief or disbelief in God, and what can we learn about making better decisions?
Reasons to believe and disbelieve
It is hard to explain how the universe came to exist, and to be so “finely-tuned” for life, unless God did it. But it is also hard to explain the pain and suffering in the world and some difficulties in the Bible if there’s a good God.
So there are reasons to believe in God, and reasons to disbelieve.
Emotions and intuitions
Few of us approach the question of God with an open mind and neutral feelings.
We may be looking for hope, healing, meaning or guidance in our lives, and really want God to exist and to love us and help us. For others, the last thing they may want is God interfering in their lives.
Our past experiences make a difference too. A loving christian home is a strong incentive to continue in the faith, but an angry christian father or a manipulative pastor may turn us off religion for life.
And some people just seem to feel sure, beyond reason, that God is there, and loves them, while others are just as sure, and just as beyond reason, that the idea of God is foolish and incoherent.
Our emotions affect our reasoning
We like to think we make rational choices, but it is clear that this isn’t always the case.
Evangelists rarely give cogent reasons why people should believe, and many conversions are based mainly on emotion and intuition. Christians believe that faith and the Holy Spirit play a part. So while christians can give good reasons for their belief, we know our emotions and spiritual intuitions play an important part.
But I think it is often the same with people choosing disbelief. Anger seems to drive many “deconversions”. On the internet, it seems to me that anger, scorn and a sneer campaign are more commonly used against believers than are reason and evidence. Many atheists espouse the deliberate use of ridicule to win people to their side, despite claiming their viewpoint is based on reason.
Our emotions affect our reasoning in many ways, both positive and negative.
Intuition and emotions help us make decisions
As we have already seen (Choosing our religion (3): how people make choices), difficult decisions requiring assessment of many diverse factors are often not amenable to analytical thinking alone, and without intuition and heuristics, our decision-making may stall.
As a christian, I have often been accused of having confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. But I have never seen any evidence that christians are more prone to this than atheists or agnostics.
In reality, a small dose of bias towards our existing beliefs is healthy – we cannot afford to waste time on every new idea that comes to us. Even scientists, who are in theory paragons of rationality, will always try to fit new evidence into their existing theory before they may final reject it in favour of a new hypothesis.
So confirmation bias is natural and useful within limits. But if it prevents us from considering and properly interpreting significant evidence, then it becomes counter-productive.
Human beings are tribal. We like to belong and we gain security and self esteem from belonging. And so like-minded people gather in families, sporting teams and their supporters, in professional associations, in churches and in atheist societies.
On the internet, certain blogs and forums become gathering points for different interest groups. Christians discuss their faith with other christians; atheists discuss their non-belief, and the foolishness of belief, with fellow non-believers.
Several things are achieved by these discussions. Information and good ideas are shared. People have the opportunity to explore different ideas. But it often looks like the main, if not always deliberate, purpose is to reinforce existing viewpoints. And sometimes this is anti-reason and very tribal.
People feel secure that there are others who think like them. Demonising the other “side” helps us feel more secure in our own views – we are not stupid like them! Some people need this reinforcement to prevent them from wavering.
Demonising can take many forms – calling the other side “delusional” or “rebellious” as a way of avoiding the arguments; finding the worst examples of one’s opponents’ views and characterising them all that way; and criticising behaviour in our opponents which we accept in our allies. These are all ways we can reinforce our views while making it less likely we could be open to another view.
One way to guard ourselves against new and unwanted ideas is to be very careful in our reading, and only read what supports our current view.
I have found this happens particularly in New Testament history. Christians often stick to safe authors like Josh McDowell or Craig Blomberg, while atheists often limit themselves to Richard Carrier or Robert Price, who are likewise safe and suitable. Ironically, when I try to meet non-believers halfway by referencing mainstream scholars like EP Sanders, Maurice Casey or NT Wright, I am often accused of quoting apologists!
There are times when we need to build on what we already believe, but there are also times for review. And if we are discussing with someone of a different viewpoint, we need to find common ground with the best balance of input. Unless we are willing to either read the centre of scholarship, or across some of the range of opinions, we are effectively limiting ourselves to what we want to be true and limiting who will listen to us.
I have already pointed out that there are evidence and arguments both for and against the existence of God. Bloggers naturally tend to concentrate on the subjects that best reflect their viewpoint. Atheists focus on difficulties in the Bible and silly or nasty things that christians do, but less often on the questions atheism finds difficult. Christians often ignore the problems in the Bible (the doctrine of inerrancy helps them in this).
Asking pointed questions of others while avoiding answering difficult question ourselves is part of this. Focusing on one side of the question is just another way that we can reinforce our current views and help those following our blogs to do the same.
We are what we eat?
I have come to the conclusion that a narrow and one-sided focus is one reason why people can hold strong and opposite views and be very resistant to challenge. We all do it, and it’s sometimes necessary.
But let’s not kid ourselves we are more open-minded than we actually are.
It takes effort to be open-minded and widely read, but sometimes it is necessary. It’s a choice we need to make deliberately.