We humans are interesting hybrids – evolved animals with consciousness, emotions and personality. We can think both emotionally (or intuitively) and logically (or analytically).
So we can think about God, whether we believe or disbelieve, in very logical ways based on evidence and reason. But we can also respond intuitively, emotionally, based more on personal experience than evidence.
On this website I mostly examine the evidences and reasons for belief and disbelief. But on this page I explore how you and I may be drawn to faith. Why we may want or choose to believe even when we are unsure of the evidence.
It may be that some of us need to be convinced that belief in God is something we want or need before we can consider the evidence.
Is this it ….. ?
If you live in the first world as I do, we have more than our ancestors ever did. Medical science has given us healtheir and longer lives than ever before. Technology allows us to keep in contact (sometimes more than we want!), go anywhere we want faster and in greater comfort and cut out so much of the labour of living.
And even if we live in a country without all of these marvels, our lives are likely still way more comfortable than our grandparents experienced.
All this triumph of science and technology has commonly led to the view that science is the answer to almost everything and offers us the best understanding of life and the universe.
And science seems to tell us that human beings are not as “special” as we used to think. We are, it seems, just animals with a larger brain. As biologist Francis Crick wrote: “‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Is that how you feel?
Most of us feel like there is more to life than that. People in love think their beloved is much more than “a vast assembly of nerve cells”. A heroic movie or novel can make us feel that we too want to conquer the world. Beauty can pierce us to the heart. A good novel or film can make us choke up as we identify with the very human characters.
A mother sees her newborn as much, much more than “a vast assembly of nerve cells” – something worth investing a large portion of her life into.
And if you find a cause you really believe in, perhaps the environment, or political justice or fighting for the deprived and hurting, you will feel quite sure that this is more than a matter of molecules. Our idealism can be a precious thing.
Who hasn’t gone out at night and looked at the stars and felt there was something more to life? Who hasn’t lain awake at night and felt the blackness laying heavy on them, and yet sensed that there must be more to life and humanity than that?
It’s hard to accept that all this means nothing, that these emotions are just the way we happen to feel at the time. It may be true, but our mind rebels against it. The thought leaves us empty and devoid of hope.
A philosopher tells of waking in the night haunted by the thought: “Can it be that every life – beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outwards – is cosmically irrelevant?”
There must be something more than that. As Bob Dylan has sung: “okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?”
This dissatisfaction with materialism is a major reason why many people seek something transcendent.
What does it all mean?
If we start to look for hints of something more than the bleak picture painted by Francis Crick, we can easily find other aspects of our humanity that seem to point to more than the purely scientific picture.
I am me and you are you
If you are no more than “a vast assembly of nerve cells”, then what makes me a conscious individual who experiences things in my own way, quite differently to how you experience the same events? Neuroscientists cannot explain consciousness – it seems to confer no selection advantage. It seems to point to something more.
And that resonates with our feelings. We cannot help sometimes feeling that our life, all lives in fact, are meaningful, precious and unique. We seek affirmation of ourselves, our accomplishments and our abilities. Many people look carefully at other people’s eyes as revealers of the person “inside”.
Right and wrong
If evolution is the sole explanation for humanity, then right and wrong is just what results from natural selection. But who can believe that? Who can live that way?
Most of us feel deep down that some things are really right and others really are wrong. Most of us believe in the universal declaration of human rights, which is based on real ethics, not relative evolutionary ethics. And when we see gross injustice, we (mostly) passionately want to see it put right.
And I think it is probably true that most of us really want to do good. We aspire to be better people. Not just because it’s convenient, but because we believe we really ought to be.
These feelings about right and wrong suggest to us that there is something more to our lives than being “a vast assembly of nerve cells”.
I want to be free
And of course, we long to be free to live in the way we know to be best. To choose our own destiny (as much as circumstances allow).
This freedom is the basis of so much of our culture. The freedom to choose what we believe. The freedom to choose our sexual partner without coercion.
Not only that, but we hold each other responsible for the choices we each make. That is the basis of law and ethics.
But if Francis Crick is right, we don’t actually have that freedom. Our “choices” are no more than the way the physics of our brains determined we would act, and there’s no way we could stop those processes and choose something different.
So again, we want to believe that humanity transcends the material.
Guilt and forgiveness
It is normal to feel guilty when we have done something we know to be wrong or hurtful. Lack of guilt and remorse is one characteristic used to diagnose psychopathy. Guilt and shame can lead us to apologise or change our behaviour, both of which can be helpful and lead to reconciliation and internal peace.
Yet it doesn’t always work out that way. Some behaviour may seem unforgivable. Sometimes there isn’t opportunity to apologise. Or maybe the hurt person rejects our apology and their anger leaves us feeling worse than before we started. And too often our resolutions to change our behaviour only last a few weeks.
Psychologists can help us to forgive ourselves, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes we feel the need for greater affirmation, a more authoritative sense of being forgiven.
Belief in a loving God can provide this sense thast is so important for many.
What’s the point?Human beings are motivated by purpose. Psychologist Steve Taylor says: “The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Human beings crave purpose and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it.” Lack of purpose can leave us open to boredom, anxiety, depression and addictions.
Animals have purpose, but their purposeful behaviour is basically directed at surviving and mating. However psychologists think they don’t ponder the meaning and purpose of life as humans do.
Questioning our purpose in life can lead to productive and fulfilling behaviours that give our lives meaning, but can also lead to becoming introspective and un productive. If we were merely animals with larger brains, this behaviour wouldn’t enhance survival and natural selection wouldn’t favour it.
Yet here we are, beings who worry about purpose, look for meaning, and will do great things if we find them.
It is no wonder then that many people look for something transcendent to give their lives meaning and purpose. Some find it in caring for the earth or humanity; some find it in God. And some find it in all of those.
Experience is the great revealer
All these facets of life can leave us feeling dissatisfied, wanting more, yearning for something that a modern materialistic worldview just doesn’t fulfil. For many, those hints of the transcendent are as much as they feel.
But many people feel something more. Something overwhelming and real. Something that leads them to search for God or truth with renewed vigour.
A connection with cosmic reality?
A surprising number of people report one or more experiences when they felt a new and overwhelming awareness – of themselves, the universe, or the presence of something holy and numinous. The experience was almost indescribable, beautiful and life-changing.
Many, even non-believers, describe it as a “religious” experience. Some felt they were experiencing God. The experience generally left them feeling peaceful, even ecstatic. It opened them to the transcendent in life in a new way and changed them for the better.
Many people report strange and often life-changing experiences when revived after being clinically dead – so-called Near Death Experiences (NDEs). In many of these experiences, people feel they were transported to another, more spiritual and blessed, realm, which they experienced with vivid reality.
Psychologists and neuroscientists believe they can explain these experiences naturally, but they nevertheless leave many people questioning a materialistic view of human life.
Both believers and non-believers report these two different types of experiences, but for many people they offer a reality that points to the divine.
Seeing religious visions is not as rare, and certainly not as pathological, as you might think. Some Muslims report seeing a vision of Jesus that leads to them seeking God in a new way and converting to christianity. More sceptical westerners can also report seeing visions of Jesus, often accompanied by healing or some other manifestation of divine grace.
Many of these accounts have been documented. While many will doubt the truth of the reports, or explain them in a natural, and often pathological way, the accounts are not all so easy to dismiss.
But whatever sceptics may conclude, these experiences are strong motivators for people to seek God.
To yearn is human
Who of us hasn’t felt at times a deep longing for something more if only we could grasp it? A sense that we could do more, that we could be more, if only …. ?
It seems to yearn is human.
Historian Peter Watson recognises “we cannot escape the search for transcendence and that, as a result, many people feel “something” is missing”. But he concludes: “there is something missing in our lives only if we think that there is”.
However it seems many of us indeed think there is something missing from our lives if we don’t look beyond the material. Life coach Bev Janisch puts it this way: “Many of us are driven by inner restlessness and longing. A sense that something is missing in life although it is difficult to put our finger on what it is.”
Do you relate to that? I certainly do! The question is, where to from this realisation?
Historian Karen Armstrong talks of “the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance”
So we look for stories, meta-narratives, that explain this sense of emptiness and longing, or else explain it away.
And one of the ways many people find to explain and explore these feelings is belief in God.
Does God meet our deepest desires?
Whether we believe in God or not, it isn’t hard to see that belief in God satisfies some of these yearnings.
We’re not just a vast assembly of nerve cells, we are made in the image of God. We matter. Our lives can have purpose, meaning and dignity. We can make choices to do the good we know deep down we ought to do. This God may just want to communicate with us. Our lives can be heroic, not mundane.
If God exists and cares for us
Worth a look?3>
Perhaps God-belief is worth another look. We might think it is too good to be true, but perhaps it is too good to ignore.
But where to start?
You may want to check out these pages, which try to answer these questions.
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