Why Do You Believe What You Believe?
The last time I wrote on this site I was concerned with the “meaning of life” (in parts one and two). The theme continues in this post (as well as a continuation from one of Simen’s articles), but only because the questions I have been asking myself and others has consistently led back to one answer, despite the variety of questions. I have been asking myself why I believe what I did when I was an evangelical Christian and why others continue to believe what they do – in relation to that which we cannot perceive by the five senses. Granted, there are many of those who simply do not engage in such self-reflection. This is as common among non-religionists as it is religionists. However, if you visit sites such as this one or even your favourite seminarian blog, then you probably do think about the deeper aspects of life – continually questioning your own assumptions and conclusions as well as others.
When I took a “Christianity and Contemporary Thought” course at my Bible college, one of our texts included James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door. The book is essentially an oversimplified, biased walk-through of some major philosophical worldviews without too much polemic. It touches on deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, pantheism/monism, postmodernism, and of course, Christian Theism (postmodernists would love the neat and tidy division of such classifications). I only introduce this book because it is a relatively recent example of subtle apologetics which attempts to explain competing philosophical ideologies and then give a Christian’s response to such theories or modes of life. I recently went back to this text because I remembered it being at least honest in its simplicity. Skipping the summations of other worldviews, I looked for what reasons Dr. Sire gives for believing in Christian theism. Apart from his peculiar negations and critiques of other worldviews, Sire more or less limits his argument, in 200 pages, by saying all other arguments are false, ergo Christianity is true; but it is on the first page of the first chapter the Sire gives away his actual reasoning:
Stephen Crane captured our plight as we in the late twentieth century face the universe. A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist.”
“However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.”
How different this is from the words of the ancient psalmist who looked around himself and up to God and wrote: O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is they name in all the earth!…
Sire, in about 200 pages, gives the same answer that the majority of my family and friends give when I ask why they believe what they believe: because it gives purpose by seeing the universe as a grand narrative under the thumb of an eternal Knower, an all-powerful Doer, and an ever-loving Friend. “Why else would I be here. It cannot all be a mistake, random chance, pure naturalist materialism. It just cannot.” The mundaneness of the natural just does not satisfy the wonderment of such supra-naturalists.
I’m not going to beat the “purpose-filled life” to death, but it is does seem to me that this is the main reason people continue to believe what they do – or at least this is the most common answer I receive. But is it a reason? It is certainly wonderful to think of a grand narrative that we are all apart of, especially if you are in “the club.” It is comforting to think that we are not in this life alone, especially for those who are afflicted with various ailments or are experiencing grief. Of course these are, at best, merely psychological constructs, or at worst, delusional fantasies – not actual justifications or rationale for believing something to be true. Simply believing something because it feel nice only makes you a fool. Sire himself gives a threefold criteria for believing a worldview to be true:
internal consistency, adequate handling of data, and the ability to explain what is claimed to be explained.
Certainly the first is important: if a belief system is not consistent, it probably contains a fallacy along the way. However, this only means that one aspect of the system is incoherent, that is unless that aspect is crucial to that entire belief system. Internal consistency can only judge various truths, rarely making judgments about the entire system – this is just as true for Christianity as it is with “naturalism”. The second criteria forces much more subjectivity: who sets the bar for the “adequate handling of data?” Some might say Michael Behe and Greg Neyman, others might say Stephen Gould and Ernst Mayr; how about the differences between Josh McDowell and Bart Ehrman? Who handles the data accurately? The third requirement says nothing about the truth of the system. It is, rather, only a requirement for the politics and proselytizing of the belief system: if I cannot succinctly explain the sound of a tree falling, it does not mean the tree doesn’t make a sound.
And so I head back to the beginning. Why do people believe what they do? Why does Sire believe what he does? I don’t believe the Christian belief system, whether in its various infancy, imperial, medieval, modern, or postmodern forms, is internally consistent. I don’t believe that Christians, including my former self, adequately handle scientific or scriptural data correctly. And whether someone can explain a story in a believable way or not is of no concern to me in my search for truth: I have as much evidence to believe that a special ring can make a hobbit vanish as I do to believe a man was born of a virgin, raised someone from the dead, walked on water, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into heaven. And so I am stuck at the beginning.
I fully admit to my agnosticism as a “cop out,” although I prefer “withholding judgment.” I don’t believe in nothing, but I certainly doubt that their is a coherence to our lives apart from what we make of it. How foolish is it really to begin with the belief that the things I perceive are real? Most would agree not very foolish. But why is it foolish or wrong to question the belief in the existence of objects or beings that have no or little evidence? Why start with the miraculous and unseen down? Because it is comfortable. Because it is grand. Because we are attracted to amazing stories, whether true or not. One wonders how many people believed the disclaimer at the beginning of Fargo to be true, simply because someone said so:
“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”