This page in brief ….
Many people these days seem to find themselves caught between belief and unbelief. They can’t really be atheists – they think there’s probably some sort of God or higher power. They’d like to believe, but they don’t find enough evidence to hold any particular belief.
Is that you? Then this page is written for you, as well as for myself.
Are there some things that we can believe? Can they help us move towards a firmer belief, or towards unbelief?
I think there are at least ten things that most of us ought to be able to say “Yes, I believe that.” And I think these ten things can help us decide the deeper question of whether God exists, and what he/she/it may be like. There are few answers here, but some good questions to chew on.
1. I am therefore I think?
I am aware of myself as a separate human being with my own feelings and understanding of the world. I can examine my feelings by introspection, but no-one else can know what it is like to be me. And the same with you. Neuroscientists cannot explain our consciousness even though it is a fundamental aspect of being human.
And we can hardly stop thinking! Our brains sometimes let us down, but mostly we can think about issues, draw conclusions and communicate to others in a reliable and consistent way. If we couldn’t, the life we experience wouldn’t really be possible, and there’d be no reason to be reading this page.
Our minds set us apart from other animals. And they leave us with a question – how did the physical processes of evolution lead to consciousness, which seems to have no evolutionary purpose (and may even get in the way of survival), and an ability to do abstract reasoning logically? Is there something more than physical going on??
And how should we use our reasoning to approach the question of God?
2. We can know truth and reality through science, history and experience
We cannot live sensible lives without believing that the external world is real and the people we meet are other independent minds – we are not in a computer simulation or a dream. Some things we may think are true to this reality, and some things are not. Because we have minds that can think logically, we can know genuine truths about life and the universe.
Science has shown it can give us true insights into the universe, evolution, neuroscience, archaeology, medicine, ecology and much more. I know scientists can make mistakes and our scientific knowledge is provisional, but science self corrects and gets closer to true understanding all the time.
Historical knowledge is incomplete and less certain, but still gives us useful information and helps us know where we’ve come from.
And while our memories are fallible and our minds can be fooled, we couldn’t function in this modern world if we couldn’t learn from our experience and observations, and couldn’t remember what we had learnt.
3. Some things really are right and others are wrong
This is a fundamental part of being human. Almost everyone feels deep down that some things are simply wrong – things like genocide, pedophilia and torturing babies. Most people and most nations believe in human rights – that every person has a moral right to be treated fairly by their government. We admire people who altruistically serve others and stand for justice – people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.
(It is true there are some people of a more philosophical mind who deny the objective reality of any ethical statements, but it is difficult to see them carrying this belief consistently into everyday life. Their head may say we have no way to say genocide is wrong, but their feelings will likely find this difficult to live with.)
So we hold people morally accountable for their actions. That is the basis of law, government and human interaction.
These almost universal facts about human beings and human cultures imply that we have the ability to choose our actions, that our behaviour isn’t just determined by our genes or by the physical processes in our brains.
But this raises questions. What makes some things right and others wrong? If we disagree about right and wrong, is there an ethical standard to judge by? And if we are just physical, how can we make genuine choices that are not physically determined, and so be morally responsible?
4. Only God can explain the universe
Science tells us the big bang occurred 14 million years ago and produced a universe amazingly well-designed to allow life to occur. But how could the universe have just appeared out of nothing, or caused itself to appear before it was even there to do anything? And how could random physical process have set the universe up “just right” to allow life, a fact the cosmologists tell us is virtually impossible by chance?
Perhaps our universe formed out of a larger mega-universe which comprises everything material that exists. But unless some non-material agent designed and initiated the whole universe, it exists without cause or reason and we have no explanation for it all. Some people are OK with that, but others want an explanation.
5. The world is sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly
There is much beauty in the world. People watch sunsets, go bush-walking, travel to exotic places, photograph birds, and find beauty and satisfaction.
But people also suffer pain, hurt and loss, sometimes terribly. Sometimes it is too hard to bear for those suffering, and even those who are watching. So often we want to shout out “Why?”. Our moral sense tells us something is wrong. I believe this is a true insight, and a terrible feature of our world.
The beauty and the suffering in the world, and our responses to them, may tell us something about ourselves and about the universe.
6. People are capable of good and evil
There is much that is admirable and beautiful in the human race. People can love, sacrifice for others, fight for human rights and be justifiably admired. Most people will make many ethical and unselfish choices each day and care for those they love. Many will extend their care to the underprivileged, the poor and the suffering.
But we know that there is also the dark side of humanity – greed, anger, discrimination and violence – and that too often the dark side wins out. Even in each of us. Much of the suffering in the world is caused by people, and many of us seek justice and change for the victims. Yet even this points to something beyond ourselves, for we can only recognise the good and the evil if we have an ethical standard to base it on.
Whatever our worldview, it needs to be able to address and explain the good, the bad and the ugly.
7. Some people seem to experience God
Billions of people feel they have experienced God, in many different ways – a vision, being healed after praying, an answer to a doubt, in a religious ritual, a sense of presence in time of need, or the power to overcome adversity or addiction.
It may be that many, or most, of these experiences are illusory, merely the way people cope. But some have been well documented and cannot be so easily dismissed. And the interesting thing is that neurological and psychological studies show that people who have these experiences are generally happier, better adjusted, and more purposeful than they were before.
At the same time there are those who feel that God is totally absent from their experience and from the world. Perhaps they are looking in the wrong places, but they feel God’s hiddenness tells us something about the world.
Whatever is going on, there is something here to think about.
8. Religion can be good and bad
Religious belief is almost universal in human history. Even today, about 80% of the world’s population follows a religion. And despite some confident predictions, religion doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Some critics blame religion for many of our world’s ills, from war and terrorism to pedophilia and emotional abuse. But while it is easy to see examples of these evils, religion is also a force for good – studies show that religious people are, on average, not only happier and healthier, but also more altruistic and prosocial. As CS Lewis said, religion seems to make people both better and worse.
And behind all these impacts lies the question of truth. Is any religion true, or at least more true, than the others? For many, their religion is part of their culture, something they grew up with and have known all their lives, and truth is assumed. But others search for the true religion, and find many things in common between the world’s great religions, but also many significant differences.
It seems that if God has revealed himself through the world’s religions, the message hasn’t always been properly received and understood.
9. Jesus really lived a life we can know about
In some ways, Jesus was just like many other religious teachers, gurus and prophets, but in some ways he was unique. Most religious leaders gave teachings that were greater than them, and the historical facts of their life are not necessary to receive their wisdom. But Jesus is the centre of christianity – who he was and what he did seem to be even more important than his teachings. So christianity is a religion that is based more than others on historical facts – the facts of Jesus’ life and death and historical verification of those facts.
Secular historians affirm the historicity of enough of the stories of Jesus for us to be confident he lived, and know enough about what he did, how he lived his life and what he taught. This historical evidence provides a basis for deciding whether Jesus was truly a messenger from God, or not.
If his teachings are true, we can know significant things about God and how we should live. Jesus’ followers rarely live up to his teachings and example, yet Jesus remains a fascinating figure who claims to offer us a meaningful life.
10. No-one has all the answers
We can know truth, but our lives are full of uncertainties. We can have moments of great clarity, but sometimes we can be terribly blind. The best of us always has more to learn.
So we learn to live with uncertainty. We make decisions about careers and relationships, about ethical and political choices, without being assured of the outcomes. We don’t always get it right, but, looking back, we can see that we don’t always get it wrong either. We adjust our course as we learn new information. So often we long for the ideal and true, but end up with something less. As TS Eliot wrote: “Between the idea, and the reality … falls the shadow”. But despite all this uncertainty, studies show that most people are happy most of the time.
It can be the same with God and faith. We don’t have all the answers, but we can choose in the face of uncertainty, based on the evidence that we have. And we can always change our minds or update our understanding if we get new information.
It may be that the proof will be in the eating, that we can’t fully know until we try.
Where can we go from here?
Each of us makes choices about what we’ll give our time, energy and attention to. Sometimes we just need to keep on with the mechanics of life, and have little time to ponder the big questions.
But the big questions don’t go away easily (though neglect can diminish their importance to us), and our thoughts can ponder them even while we live our daily lives.
In my experience, two things seem to influence our responses:
- Whether we really want to know the truth enough to persist in looking for answers and considering evidence.
- The assumptions we make that may or may not constrain the answers we are willing to accept and the ways we will go about searching.
If you’re set on thinking through these issues, I’d suggest two things:
- Ask God, if he or she is there, to make a move in your direction, to reveal himself or some truth in a way that you will recognise. It may make the difference, one way or another.
- Read widely, not just what you agree with and are familiar with, but alternatives. As a start, there are pages on this website that explore all the ideas I’ve just discussed, and generally offer references for further reading. There are links below, I hope you give some of them a try.