Why do people believe or disbelieve in God? Do they have good reasons for their conclusions?
I think I can see some trends in the way both believers and non-believers think about God. Working out how to respond is exercising my mind. See what you think.
The ups and downs of theistic arguments
When I was a young christian, I was very interested in ways to show people the truth of what I believed. And to learn more myself. The books I read back then (mainly CS Lewis) weren’t all that deep, but they satisfied me.
But as I went through life, I found few people were interested in these arguments. People seemed to believe or disbelieve for more personal reasons than objective reasoning. I kind of lost interest in apologetics for a while.
The age of atheistic hope
Then just before the new millennium dawned, things changed radically. The Internet Infidels website started, publishing fair-minded articles from an atheist-naturalist viewpoint. Atheist blogs and forums sprang up to enthusiastically critique theistic and christian thinking, often in a very caustic manner. Books supporting atheism proliferated, with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion the go to text for many exultant atheists and doubting christians.
Perhaps one of the high points of this “movement” was the Moving Naturalism Forwards workshop, almost a decade ago now. Fourteen eminent atheists and naturalists, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and Stephen Weinberg, met to discuss the next steps in their campaign to rid the world of erroneous “magical” thinking. They grappled with issues such as meaning, free will and ethics, without always arriving at cogent answers that would be publically acceptable.
Of course the christians fought back, with replies to Dawkins on every front, not all of them effective. William Lane Craig was debating atheists and more often than not winning the debate, as even many atheists agreed. They didn’t think his arguments were right, but they generally agreed he was a skilled debater. Christians joined atheist forums in an attempt to show their viewpoint was intellectually respectable. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often they found it was their own views that were called into question.
I found myself drawn into this world of competing ideas. I started this blog in 2005. I joined four or five atheist forums and followed several atheist blogs. I avoided argument as much as possible, tried to discuss as a friend, and generally learnt a lot. But after a while it started to seem pointless. A lot of heat, a little light, but few changes of mind.
The decline of argumentation
As quickly as it all started up, the debate seemed to run out of puff. Atheist bloggers like Luke Muehlhauser and Nate Owen faded out of the scene. Some professional philosophers proclaimed that theistic arguments weren’t worthy of attention. Richard Dawkins seemed to lose his impetus as an atheist evangelist and several atheist forums closed down. The Internet Infidels and William Lane Craig continued, but the fire had gone out of the debate, which wasn’t a bad thing.
It seemed that people generally were a little tired of it all. It is hard to see how an atheist would maintain the rage when their view was, at core,negative – as they often said, not so much believing something as simply NOT believing in God. The christians, like me, came to see that argumentation wasn’t an effective tool, and was having little impact. Those looking on tired of it all and went of do somehing more enjoyable and purposeful.
I continued this blog, which had never been argumentative and always tried to be respectful and informative. But the visit numbers fell from 15,000 pages a month to about 2,000 currently. It seems that less people read blogs these days, and less are interested in “proof” for or against God-belief.
This shouldn’t be a surprise
This shouldn’t be a surprise. People make choices for all sorts of reasons, not all of them based on evidence and logic. This applies to religion, both belief and disbelief, just as it does to other parts of life.
Some say it is a product of postmodernism. Argument about facts, and especially about God, is modern, “so 20th century”. But postmoderns have less certainty and are more likely to choose what feels right to them rather than what the evidence suggests, and less likely to want to persuade anyone else.
People who have a firm belief either way may be less likely to change their minds, even if presented with hard facts against their view. But postmodern people who doubt, who are unsure or just not very interested, are rarely likely to delve into in the finer points of theistic and anti-theistic arguments.
So how are people making up their minds?
How do we know what we know?
Philosophers tell us there are many ways that we make choices in ordinary life. Some of them are:
- Does it work?
Different ways of knowing are appropriate to different types of information – and for different types of people:
- We know most things we know by authority – from a doctor’s diagnoses to world news to places to visit in London.
- Evidence is necessary in courts and in science, but sometimes it is contradictory or uncertain.
- Everything we know comes to us through our senses, and all our memories and knowledge about ourselves and our lives comes from experience, sometimes via introspection.
- One of the ways we evaluate ideas and implements is by asking does it work? If something doesn’t work in the cut and thrust of life, few people will accept it.
- Psychologists tell us that while analytical thinking is useful for many aspects of life, when things are complex and unclear, intuition can be a better guide to the best answer. Our brains work out heuristics (rules of thumb) that guide us towards good intuitive decisions.
How do we know what we “know” about God?
It seems to be the same with thinking about God.
- We start life learning about God (or not) from parents, teachers and other thought leaders (authority). Even as adults, many of the facts we use to base our beliefs and form opinions come via the authority of an academic, writer or blogger/podcaster.
- Many believers and even more non-believers believe there is objective evidence that supports their view.
- Many christians and many non-believers (especially ex-christians) come to their beliefs via their own experience. Some christians believe God has communicated with them or guided them.
- Asking “Does it work?” has been used by atheist critics like Christopher Hitchens to argue that religion poisons everything, but there are well-based psychological arguments that indicate that religious belief is beneficial to individual and society.
- Because religious belief is a complex matter not readily resolved by logic and evidence alone, it isn’t surprising that intuition supports many people’s beliefs for or against God.
This changes the game
This blog has always tried to be broader than just arguments and evidence or theism. I have always included people’s stories, assessments of the social and personal impacts of belief and the views of experts of all persuasions. Hopefully you’ll find something for every type of belief and disbelief here.
But are there new, postmodern, ways to address the basic questions I address here? How should people who are reviewing their beliefs take account of the different ways we know things?
Do you have any thoughts?
I have examined in more detail this question of how we might know the truth about God in a new page, called (yes!): How is it possible to know the truth about God?
Photo by elifskies