14
Jul

Belief In God Is Not a Feeling

“Restmember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” Obi-Wan’s admonition to Luke Skywalker sums up what some skeptics probably think about Christianity. If it were real, they would be able to “feel it” in some tangible way, and perhaps also be able to manipulate its power. A skeptic I spoke with recently framed it this way:

“I don’t ‘feel’ God in my heart the way most theists claim to, I don’t see any external justification for his existence, and I simply see no good reason to believe. So why is it my fault that I don’t believe? God supposedly created me just the way I am, after all. So, I’m not ‘rejecting God’ since he never made himself known to me in any real way. So why is non-belief a crime at all? What is the effect of non-belief that is so horrible?”

These thoughts express, I suspect, what Americans are thinking in larger and larger numbers. Raised in a culture led in many arenas by a secular – and in many instances anti-religious – elite, they feel increasingly confident that their view that nature is “all there is” comports with the way things actually are.

So, what is wrong with “non-belief?”

I suppose the first and quickest answer is that the thought itself is a bit incoherent. Consider what is being said. “Belief” is that state of mind in which one concludes that a fact is true. I believe that the car is red. I believe that John’s explanation regarding the accident is false. There is, of course, an issue of certainty. My belief regarding the car’s color may be mistaken, due to poor lighting; or my belief that John is lying may be wrong. But it makes little sense to say that, as to the car’s color, I have no belief. Or that I am hearing John’s explanation but believe nothing about it. Claiming to have “no belief” may seem high-minded and impartial, but it simply mistakes the way the human mind works. Whether we will it or not, our minds naturally move toward forming and reassessing beliefs. Indeed, at a basic level, we need to do so to stay alive. We must be constantly assessing our environment, our surroundings, to make prudent choices as to what to do next. Believing something about those choices and surroundings is indispensable.

As it relates to the question of ultimate things, one must acknowledge that complete certainty is not possible. So it’s fair for someone to say “I believe there probably isn’t a God, that the evidence I perceive of his existence is less compelling than the evidence which supports a conclusion that he does not exist.” But this begs the question: what is it that you are relying on in forming this belief?

And this takes me to the second point, the one raised at the outset. If one approaches this assessment with the unspoken premise that God would cause himself to be “felt” in the manner suggested in Star Wars, then believing he is not there gains traction, since few, if any, people have such mystical experiences. Most committed believers I know never have such “feelings.” They conclude from the testimony of their senses, and the working of the reason of their minds, that a staggeringly complex and exquisitely organized creation requires a Creator. Though there are numerous logical proofs that support the belief in the existence of the immensely powerful and intelligent being behind all this, the common sense notion that something cannot be created by nothing has been more than sufficient for most people who ever walked this Earth.

As it relates to Jesus, and his divinity, the case is an historical one. The body of evidence relating to Jesus, safeguarded and passed down through the centuries, establishes that he lived, that he was crucified and that he rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb and galvanizing a following that changed the course of history. In so doing, he fulfilled numerous prophecies that predated his birth. The resurrection and the miracles he performed provide a solid foundation upon which one’s belief can rest. Numerous authors have detailed the evidence, but the PleaseConvinceMe website (here and here, for example) is as good a starting point as any for beginning to examine the logical proofs as well as the historical evidence.

So, is “non-belief” a crime? No more so that not believing in the power of medicine is the cause of someone’s death. A person with a fatal disease is not “punished” for refusing to get medical help; it is the disease, and not the lack of belief, that is causing the problem. So too with matters eternal. Christianity teaches that God’s law is written on our hearts, so that we are all “without excuse.” Our own consciences will testify against us in the end. Christians do not believe God punishes us for “not believing.” He punishes us for rebellion – for the things we said and did which manifested this rebellion – by separating himself from us. Mercifully, he also provides the means for re-uniting with him, through the work of Jesus.

Feelings are a wonderful part of human life. But in this galaxy, and in this time, they’re not particularly reliable in reaching sound conclusions or making wise decisions.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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4 Comments

  1. Francois Retief says:

    I don’t have any feelings of God’s presence, and from my conversations with many Christians, I concluded, as you have, that “mystical” experiences are infrequent. However, most Christians with whom I discussed the topic could relate a small number of experiences that underpinned their faith. My wife turned from atheism to Christianity based on her experience, and she has without a doubt had some divine guidance (four times in her life).

    Very few Christians that I have met base their faith on rational thinking, and the idea that one can base your faith on a rational analysis of evidence is almost unknown. I once walked into a Christian bookstore and asked for their apologetics section. The woman was bewildered. When I said I am looking for books that explain why Christianity is true, she pointed me to a shelf, but there was nothing useful there. The section on Power of the Holy Spirit had about 50 books, if not more.

    When I read articles on apolgetics web sites, the impression I get is that it is all focused on philosophy, science and historical evidence. As an engineer, this suits my way of thinking, but I miss the empirical side of the evidence for Christianity. The Bible creates expectations that things will occasionally happen in people’s lives that provide personal, first hand, evidence of a spiritual realm. It is like electricity: you can’t see it, but you can certainly see its effects. As mentioned above, those Christians who have had such experiences point out that they are fundamental to their reasons for believing.

    I find it perplexing that many people, including myself, never seem to have such experiences, and I find it perplexing that apologists seem to avoid the issue (perhaps because they are also rationalists?), and I find the mismatch between the expectations created by the Bible and reality perplexing. My experience of studying apologetics is like someone studying aerodynamics without ever getting to fly a plane. The theory is beautiful and we know it is true and we even see some pilots flying aeroplanes, but studying aerodynamics doesn’t make you a pilot.

    • Al says:

      Thanks for weighing in. I think you raise valid points and I certainly don’t have definitive answers. Perhaps your expectations as to what qualifies as an “experience” are higher than many (most) other people. Or perhaps you are trying to funnel things through a filter -science – that was not intended for that purpose. I might be able to analyze the paper and ink used to write an ancient poem but if I don’t learn the language of the writer I will never know what he meant to convey. Or perhaps more aptly, I can analyze the colors of a rainbow with scientific instruments but can never experience their “beauty” that way.

      • Francois says:

        Christianity claims that God intervenes in the physical universe; that He responds to prayer; that the Holy Spirit works in people (including providing guidance about critical matters). My expectations are that there should be evidence of this.
        I know several devout Christians who are suffering from acute emotional problems due to childhood experiences, and I see no evidence of healing, the “fruit of the Spirit”, or the “peace that passes all understanding”. I see good Christians who want to do the right thing, and who pray for God’s guidance make disastrous decisions – repeatedly. I see too many unanswered prayers. Well designed experiments to test the impact of prayer on healing comes up with no measurable impact. (The response by some Christians that God is sovereign and therefore the tests are invalid, just confirms the point of the test: i.e. prayer does not affect healing.)
        Besides this there exists significant confusion amongst Christians about basic Christian doctrine: John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon held opposing views about infant baptism (I dare anyone to say that one of them did not study his Bible meticulously and tried to live according to his understanding of what it commands people to do).
        We know electricity exists because we can see its effects, why can’t we see the effects of the spiritual world and its interaction with the physical?

        • Al says:

          Again, good questions, for which I cannot provide a definitive answer. My sense is that you are approaching the issue with certain expectations that need to be considered: that the spiritual world intersects and affects the physical world in measurable and repeatable ways. That is true of electricity, as you use in your example. It’s worth noting that Christianity may be true even if the spiritual world does not regularly intersect with the physical. I can’t interact with the past, or test the past using repeatable scientific experiments, but I know that the past exists. If Jesus rose from the dead as he claimed, this would make him a reliable source as to the spiritual dimension, even if I can’t myself test his claims.

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