Human beings disagree about many things – politics, ethics, religion, beauty and even football. We like to think we are right in our opinions, and often argue vehemently against counter views.
But we can’t all be right. So how do we know who is right? How do we know if there is a “right”? How do we know whose opinions are based on good reasons?
And what if there are reasons quite apart from truth and evidence that determine our opinions, as the psychologists often say?
Asking these questions about christian belief and atheistic disbelief can lead to some interesting thoughts ….
Reasons why people believe?
Christian believers generally believe for one or more of four reasons:
- Authority or tradition: someone they trust told them.
- Trust in eye-witnesses and scriptures: they believe that the christian scriptures (principally the New Testament) give reliable information about Jesus and God.
- An experience of God: they experienced healing, guidance, a vision or an encounter that they believe can only have come from God.
- Proofs and evidence: the well-known (and not so well-known) arguments for the existence of the christian God are convincing to them.
Each of these can be disputed, but they are convincing to those who believe. (I have written more on these at How believers see it.)
Someone who bases their belief on several of these is in a strong position to respond to criticisms and doubts.
Reasons why people disbelieve?
Atheist disbelief also seems to be based on one or more of four reasons:
- Science & history: science and history provide better explanations of the world and religion than does faith.
- Philosophy & logic: the theistic arguments can all be refuted, so there are no good evidential reasons to believe in God, and no way to test for his existence.
- Social & personal: atheists have no experience of God and religion does more harm than good.
- Religion itself: the inconsistencies and unbelievable aspects of the different religions make it difficult to believe in any of them.
Again, there are answers to these points, but these reasons are convincing to those who disbelieve. (I have written more on these at How unbelievers see it.)
Some atheists would claim these reasons show beyond reasonable doubt that God doesn’t exist, while others simply say they are enough to make disbelief the more obvious choice.
But does reason determine our beliefs?
Many psychologists have concluded that other factors other than reason are important, and perhaps determinative, in forming our beliefs. For example, Jonathan Haidt says that when dealing with complex matters such as the existence of God, our analytical minds find it difficult to assess all the evidence and arguments, and so we make a more intuitive decision, and then try to rationalise it afterwards.
Non-believers have often argued that religious belief is based on psychological rather than logical reasons, but if Haidt is right, it is much the same with non-belief too.
Psychological reasons for belief
Psychologists have studied religiosity extensively and identify these reasons as bases for belief:
- Cognitive: people think they have reasons to believe which they think are sensible and true, as outlined above.
- Motivational: if people believe God has helped them in the past, or will help them in the future, or if they feel uncertain or anxious, they are more likely to believe.
- Societal: people in poorer, less developed and less safe countries are more likely to believe in a religion, and belief is more likely if a person observes credible displays of religion in others.
- Evolutionary: religiosity confers many beneficial psychological and personal outcomes and so confers a natural selection advantage that has strengthened religious belief.
All this adds up to religious belief being generally beneficial to the individual and to society. This was true in the past, and seems to be still true today, though perhaps not as strongly. (I have looked at this in more detail in What the psychologists say.)
Psychological reasons for disbelief
Psychologists haven’t studied disbelief as much, but identify these reasons as bases for disbelief:
- Analytical and reflective thinking: analytical and reflective people are probably more likely to be non-believers, in rich western countries at least.
- Lack of moral concern: moral concern is linked with religious belief, and it seems that a lack of moral concern is associated with analytical thinking and thus with disbelief.
- Security and wealth: in wealthy stable societies where secular institutions take over roles once performed by the church, atheism becomes more likely.
- Emotional deficit: people who are less emotionally expressive and poorer at “mentalizing” may be more likely to be atheists.
- Lack of credible displays of faith: people who don’t observe credible displays of faith are more likely to be atheists.
- Evolutionary: secular institutions can sometimes provide the same evolutionary benefits as religion has done.
It isn’t so clear (to me at least) how atheism could be beneficial to natural selection, so it seems to me that these psychological reasons may not be evolutionary, but arise out of modern society. (I have looked at these in a little more detail in What the psychologists say.)
The arguments for belief seem to me to be significantly stronger than the arguments against.
- Personal experience trumps lack of personal experience: people who believe they have experienced God have stronger reasons than those who believe they haven’t.
- The theistic philosophical arguments are more fundamental: the origin and design of the universe and the basis of human ethics, rationality and freewill go deeper to the heart of things than any atheistic argument.
- Christian belief is consistent and liveable: I don’t believe people can live consistently believing we have no freewill, there is no objective right and wrong, and our consciousness is illusory – all beliefs logically entailed by atheism.
- Different forms of christian belief: some anti-christian argument are based on some forms of christian belief that I do not hold.
Points 2 & 3 highlight a major difficulty with atheism…..
Where’s the logic?
If the psychologists are right (and I don’t regard that as certain), then the reasons we offer are rationalisations that result once we have formed our views for more personal and psychological reasons. This has interesting implications.
If reason doesn’t lead to beliefs on either side, why do people on both sides argue about the existence of God and write so many books? That wouldn’t be the way to change people’s minds.
To win people over, each side would mostly have to appeal to emotional reasons. For example, atheists might choose to show how they think the emotional advantages of christian faith can be equally or better provided by secular society. Christians might need to show more credible displays of faith, for example, by more clearly living as Jesus taught.
The fact that we still discuss and argue suggests we don’t believe the psychologists.
But if logic “works” ….
If our beliefs really are based on logic, it is interesting to ask how this happens.
If atheism is true, then it seems almost certain that this physical world is all there is – certainly most atheists see it that way. But if the physical world is all there is, everything is controlled by physical laws …. including our brains. There is nothing else to intervene in the working of our brains, so our thinking is determined by those laws.
This seems to imply that we don’t have free will, and again, that is how most atheist neuroscientists see it. So how does logic enter into our choices? We can argue that the physical processes in our brain have evolved to argue logically (most of the time!), but since natural selection is based on survival, it is difficult to show how logical processes would arise.
After all, a zebra that waited to determine logically that the rustle in the long grass was a lion would not be long for this world. Better would be to run away regardless – in which case genes for quick reactions would be passed on rather than genes for logic.
So, strange as it may seem, there is some doubt that atheism can be based on logic, but rather is based on psychological factors that are determined.
The christian, on the other hand, believes there is more to the world than the physical, and this opens the door for genuine free will
One reason why I am a christian
Consideration of these matters is one reason why I am a christian and not an atheist. For more detail on these matters, and a load of references, see Why would anyone believe ….. or disbelieve?
Interested to hear any comments or other views.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels
Nice, quick summary of the problem. With much needed neutrality. Thank you very much.
I’m a new subscriber and this is the first post I’ve received. Just as I’m debating on Twitter with a die-hard atheist.
Thanks for the encouragement. That post took a while to get done, so I’m glad it worked out OK. Thanks for subscribing, and welcome.