How We Believe: Excerpt
Chapter 1 — Do You Believe in God?
The Difference in Our Answers and the Difference it Makes
The word God is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, as a not fully grasped object of the speaker’s consciousness — a literary term, in short; and mankind mean different things by it as their consciousness differs.
In my senior year of high school I accepted Jesus as my savior and became a born-again Christian. I did so at the behest of a close and trusted friend, who assured me this was the road to everlasting life and happiness. It was a Saturday night and we were sitting, ironically, at my father’s monkey-wood bar, fully equipped to allow a number of guests to imbibe just about any mixed drink their imaginations could create. We read John 3:16 (now infamous for its appearance on hand-printed signs at nationally televised sporting events): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” At the moment of my conversion coyotes began howling outside. We took it as a sign that Lucifer was unhappy at the loss of another soul from Sheol.
The next day I attended church services with my friend and his family, and when the minister called for anyone to come forward to be saved, I went up to make it official. My friend assured me that I did not need to be saved twice, but I figured maybe it was more official at a church than at a bar. From that moment on everything seemed neatly explained by the Christian paradigm. Anytime something good happened, it was God’s will and a reward for good behavior; anytime something bad happened, it was part of God’s larger plan, and even though I did not at present understand the long-term benefits, these would become clear in due time. Either way it was a neat and tidy world view — everything in its place and a place for everything.
A Leap of Faith
The whole process was premised on faith. With faith in Jesus, I now had eternal life. With faith in God I was saved. I had found the One True Religion, and it was my duty — indeed it was my pleasure — to tell others about it, including my parents, brothers and sisters, friends, and even total strangers. In other words, I “witnessed” to people — a polite term for trying to convert them (one wag called it Amway with Bibles). Of course, I read the Bible, as well as books about the Bible. I regularly attended youth church groups, one in particular at a place called “The Barn,” a large red house in La Crescenta, California at which Christians gathered a couple of times a week to sing, pray, and worship. I got so involved that I eventually began to put on Bible study courses myself.
In my sophomore year at Glendale College I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). The front cover of the book pronounced “Amazing biblical prophecies about this generation!” (with “Over 2,000,000 copies in print!”), while the back cover asked provocatively “Is this the era of the antichrist as foretold by Moses and Jesus?” My Christian friends and I began reading the newspapers to watch the millennial drama unfold as Lindsey said the Bible had predicted. I recall taking a political science course in which the professor was talking about the possibility of a European Common Market, and comparing his take on this event to Lindsey’s, who claimed this is a reincarnation of the Roman empire as prophesied in Daniel and Revelation: “We believe that the Common Market and the trend toward unification of Europe may well be the beginning of the ten-nation confederacy predicted by Daniel and the Book of Revelation” (83). Following this there will be “a revival of mystery Babylon,” and the rise of “a man of such magnetism, such power, and such influence, that he will for a time be the greatest dictator the world has ever known. He will be the completely godless, diabolically evil ‘future fuehrer.’” Skeptics beware, says Lindsey: “If this sounds rather spooky, bring your head out from under the skeptical covers and examine with us in a later chapter the Biblical basis and the current applications” (86). I threw the covers off and devoured the book with great credulity. So did millions of others: through the 1970s The Late Great Planet Earth sold 7.5 million copies, making it, according to the New York Times Book Review (April 6, 1980), the bestselling nonfiction book of the decade. By 1991, notes the Los Angeles Times (February 23, 1991), the book had reached an almost unimaginable figure of twenty-eight million copies sold in fifty-two languages worldwide. Prophecy sells, especially prophecies of biblical proportions.
Taking all this fairly seriously, I transferred to Pepperdine University (affiliated with the Church of Christ) with the intent of majoring in theology. I took courses in the Old and New Testaments, on the history of the Bible, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and the historical Jesus. I stayed after class to talk to professors and visited them in their offices. I went to chapel several times a week (students were required to go twice and attendance was taken) and prayed regularly. I even told one co-ed that I “loved” her — in the Christian sense of loving everyone — but I am afraid she took it the wrong way. (She needn’t have worried — students were prohibited from visiting the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex, and such sin-provoking activities as dancing were forbidden.)
A Breach in the Faith
There were problems with my conversion from the beginning, however, and I think deep down on some level I must have known it. First, my motives for converting, while sincere later, were not quite as pure at the time — my friend had a sister that I wanted to get to know better and I figured this might help. On reflection, howling coyotes are not exactly unusual, since my parents’ home is nestled high up in the San Gabriel mountains of Southern California where coyotes routinely come down from the hills to rummage through trash cans. More importantly, there were chinks in the armor: another friend at my high school told me I had chosen the wrong path and that his faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, was the One True Religion, making me wonder how another religion could be as certain it had the truth as my new-found one did. I was generally uncomfortable witnessing to people, especially strangers. And the normal sexual urges that overwhelm teenagers created intense conflict and frustration.
There were philosophical problems as well. I recall spending an afternoon with a Presbyterian minister whose deep wisdom I greatly respected, going over and over what is known as the “Problem of Free Will”: If God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful), then how can we be held responsible for making “choices” we could not possibly have made? If we do have free will, does this mean God is limited in knowledge or power? And if God is limited, what else can He not do? The minister, who had a Ph.D. in theology, did his best to address the problem but it all seemed like labyrinthine word games and obfuscating analogies to me. For example: “Imagine history as one long film, which God has already seen but we, the characters in the film have not, so our actions ‘seem’ free even though they are predestined.” Or: “God is outside of space and time so the normal laws of cause and effect do not apply to Him.”
Similarly, with one of my Pepperdine professors I grappled with what is known as the “Problem of Evil”: If God is omnibenevolent (all good) and omnipotent, then why is there evil in the world? If he allows evil then he is not all good. If he cannot help but allow evil then he is not all powerful. The best book I have read on this problem is Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981), but his solution — “God can’t do everything, but he can do some important things” — is not how most people conceive of the “almighty.”
To this day I have not heard an answer to the Problem of Evil that seems satisfactory. As with the Problem of Free Will, most answers involve complicated twists and turns of logic and semantic word play. One answer, for example, is based on a fundamental assumption of logic that no set may have itself as its own subset — God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it. Likewise, God cannot be encompassed in the subset of evil. Evil, like heavy stones, exists independently of the larger set of God, even though remaining within that set. Another riposte involves explaining specific historical evils, like the Holocaust, where one answer is that “humans committed these evil acts, not God.” But all this avoids the problem altogether: either God allowed Nazis to kill Jews, in which case he is not omnibenevolent, or God could not prevent Nazis from killing Jews, in which case he is not omnipotent. In either case God is not the plenipotent Yahweh of Abraham, the King of kings and Lord of lords Sovereign of the universe. Or, in explaining the death of innocent children from cancer or automobile accidents, one rejoinder is that “God has a bigger plan for us and we shall grow and learn from this experience.” The problem here is that no matter what happens — good things or bad things — God’s intentions can be inferred. Everything that happens is attributed to God, and this just puts us back to where we started with God either unable or unwilling to take action or prevent the evil.
At Glendale College I challenged my philosophy professor (and now my friend) Richard Hardison, to read The Late Great Planet Earth, believing he would see the light. Instead he saw red and hammered out a two-page, single-space typed list of problems with Lindsey’s book. I still have the list, folded and tucked neatly into my copy. Hardison took no prisoners. For example, where Lindsey writes: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken,” Hardison notes that this creates an “inevitable precision, since we disregard those prophesies that don’t occur.” On page 40 Lindsey explains that when reading the Bible we should “take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning,” yet on page 50 Lindsey says that “The bones coming together and sinews and flesh being put upon them” really means “the regathering of the people into a physical restoration of a national existence in Palestine. Isn’t it fascinating how graphic this physical analogy is?” Lindsey cannot have it both ways. On pages 55–56, Lindsey commits another logical fallacy: “Peter considered the certainty and relevance of the prophetic word to be the most important thing. He even warned that in ‘the latter times’ men posing as religious leaders would rise from within the Church and deny, even ridicule, the prophetic word (II Peter 2:1–3; 3:1–18). If you pass this book around to many ministers you’ll find how true this prediction has become.” Hardison notes that “denial of Lindsey’s position is thus impossible without proving oneself to be among those misguided persons that Peter warns about. This becomes a device to make Lindsey’s position nondisprovable.” Hardison concluded his analysis with this biting statement:
Of all Lindsey’s statements, the one I most want to quarrel with is found in the introduction: “There are many students who are dissatisfied with being told that the sole purpose of education is to develop inquiring minds. They want to find some of the answers to their questions — solid answers, a certain direction.” I think I can offer some possible explanations for this “egregious” development. But even more, I feel impelled to propose that such a student is dead.
Hardison’s analysis shook me up. I did not want to be a “dead” student in only my second year of college. So I continued reading what the great minds in history had to say about God. It was an illuminating experience that got me thinking about the concept of “believing” in God. What does it mean to believe in God or not to believe in God? Are these great questions about God’s existence answerable from a scientific perspective? Can reason alone help us arrive at solutions to the moral dilemmas of our lives? In short, does religion present us with soluble problems to be analyzed with the tools of observation and logic, or are these questions too subjective and too personal for us to come to a collective agreement on a solution?
The Art of the Insoluble
The British Noble laureate Sir Peter Medawar once described science as the “art of the soluble.” “No scientist is admired for failing in the attempt to solve problems that lie beyond his competence,” Medawar opined (1982, 2). “If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble.” If science is the art of the soluble, religion is the art of the insoluble. God’s existence is beyond our competence as a problem to solve.
This is what Thomas Huxley meant when he coined the term “agnostic” in 1869: “When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist … I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’ — had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble” (1894, V, 237–238). In the now classic 1966 Time magazine cover story, “Is God Dead,” the editors came to the same conclusion after spending a year conducting more than 300 interviews with leading theologians from around the world:
For one thing, every proof seems to have a plausible refutation; for another, only a committed Thomist [a follower of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas] is likely to be spiritually moved by the realization that there is a self-existent Prime Mover [a first being that moves all others but itself does not need to be moved — see Chapter 5]. ‘Faith in God is more than an intellectual belief,’ says Dr. John Macquarrie of Union Theological Seminary. ‘It is a total attitude of the self.’ (Elson, 1966, 85).
One either takes the leap of faith, or one does not. Faith is the art of the insoluble.
There are many positions one can take with regard to the God Question (see the essay at the head of the Bibliography for suggested readings on both the theist and atheist positions). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), our finest source for the history of word usage, defines theism as “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is defined by the OED as “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” And agnosticism as “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.” At a party held one evening in 1869, Huxley further clarified the term agnostic, referencing St. Paul’s mention of the alter to “the Unknown God” as: “one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and so far as can be judged unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing” (1894, V, 238). Belief in God is the art of the insoluble.
To clarify this linguistic discussion it might be useful to distinguish between a statement about the universe and a statement about one’s personal beliefs. As a statement about the universe, agnostic would seem to be the most rational position to take because by the criteria of science and reason God is an unknowable concept. We cannot prove or disprove God’s existence through empirical evidence or deductive proof. Therefore, from a scientific or philosophical position, theism and atheism are both indefensible positions as statements about the universe. Thomas Huxley once again clarified this distinction:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively the principle may be expressed as, in matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it can carry you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. (1894, V, 238)
Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended this position in an interview: “As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds” (Shermer, 1997b, 57). Credo consolans, says Gardner — I believe because it is consoling. Fideism is the art of the insoluble.
As for my own part, I used to be a theist, believing that God’s existence was soluble. Then I became an atheist, believing that God’s nonexistence was soluble. I am now an agnostic, believing that the issue is insoluble. Ever since I made my position known in the pages of Skeptic magazine many years ago, I have received a large volume of correspondence, much of it from atheists who accuse me of copping out or being wishy washy in using the term agnostic. One wrote: “I, sir, am a plain unqualified atheist. Would you like to hear my reason? Okay, ‘there is no god.’ That’s my reason.” Most skeptics and atheists would agree and argue that there are really only two positions on the God Question: you either believe in God or you do not believe in God — theism or atheism. What’s this agnosticism nonsense, they ask?
If by fiat I had to bet on whether there is a God or not, I would bet that there is not. Indeed, I live my life as if there was not a God. And if the common usage of the term atheism was nothing more than “no belief in a God” I might be willing to adopt it. But this is not the common usage, as we saw in the OED. (And we would do well to remember that dictionaries do not give definitions, they give usages.) Atheism is typically used to mean “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God” (not to mention its pejorative permutations). But “denial of a God” is an untenable position. It is no more possible to prove God’s nonexistence than it is to prove His existence. “There is no god” is no more defensible than “There is a God.” The problem with the term agnostic, however, is that most people take it to mean that you are unsure or have yet to make up your mind, so the term nontheist might be more descriptive.
Belief or disbelief in God is clearly a decision of considerable personal importance. But making this decision is not a science. For thousands of years the greatest minds of every generation have worked diligently to prove the existence of God, and for thousands of years equally great minds have produced valid refutations of those proofs. The problem may be in the meaning of the word “prove.” Drawing upon the OED once again, to “prove” means: “to make trial of, put to the test.” How could you possibly put God to the test? There is no conceivable experiment that could confirm or disconfirm God’s existence. There comes a time in the history of an idea when it seems reasonable to conclude that the problem is beyond the human mind to solve. God is insoluble.
What is God?
Although it is almost certainly not possible to define God in any concise way, it would seem remiss not to at least try in any discussion such as this. Studies show that the vast majority of people in the Industrial West who believe in God associate themselves with some form of monotheism, in which God is understood to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good; who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it with the exception of Himself; who is uncreated and eternal, a noncorporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans. Synonyms include Almighty, Supreme Being, Supreme Goodness, Most High, Divine Being, the Deity, Divinity, God the Father, Divine Father, King of kings, Lord of lords, Creator, Author of all things, Maker of Heaven and Earth, First Cause, Prime Mover, Light of the World, Sovereign of the Universe, and so forth.
Many scientists, however, feel that such discussions about the nature of and belief in God are meaningless, tantamount to asking, as anthropologist Donald Symons did, “Do you believe [fill in any 3 letters] exists.” Symons explained:
You have to know more about what’s in the brackets and how its existence or nonexistence might be determined or, at least, what kinds of evidence might potentially bear on the question. If you find out that the questioner has essentially no ideas about the characteristics of the [ ] (such as, for example, whether it is made of matter), and, more importantly, states that no conceivable observation could have any bearing on the existence/nonexistence question, then to me the original question is meaningless, or incoherent, or empty, or some similar concept (1997).
Vince Sarich, another anthropologist, feels that the God Question “may be one of those I have tended to term a ‘wrong question’; that is, one that wrongly assumes there is an answer in a form defined by the question.” In what way is it the wrong question? “Gods that live only in people’s heads are far more powerful than those that live “somewhere out there” for the simple reasons that (1) there aren’t any of the latter variety around, and (2) the ones in our heads actually affect our lives and, of course, the lives of those we interact with and everything else we touch.” Therefore, Sarich concludes, “the whole God Question — atheist, agnostic, theist, whatever — is irrelevant.” How so?
What difference does it, or can it, make? Who cares? Who should care? Indeed, who even should care about anyone else’s answer to that particular question? That answer will in no sense begin to define what feelings you will have in any particular situation, nor even more important, what actions you will take on behalf of those feelings. The fact is that you will have, indeed you must have, a belief system that has moral and ethical dimensions, while you may, or may not justify that belief system, implicitly or explicitly, in terms of a God or gods. I believe that gods exist to the extent that people believe in them. I believe that we created gods, not the other way around. But that doesn’t make God any less “real.” Indeed, it makes God all the more powerful. So, yes, I believe in, and, maybe, to some extent fear, the God in your head, and all the gods in the heads of believers. They are real, omnipresent, and something approaching omnipotent (1997).
This is what makes the God Question one of the most potent we can ask ourselves, because whether God really exists or not is, on one level, not as important as the diverse answers offered from the thousands of religions and billions of people around the world. To an anthropologist these differences are scientifically interesting in trying to understand the cultural causes of the diversity of belief. But from a believer’s perspective, the differences are emotionally significant because they tell us something about our personal values and commitments.
An even more extreme position with regard to the God question is that of Paul Tillich: “The question of the existence of God can be neither asked nor answered. If asked, it is a question about that which by its very nature is above existence, and therefore the answer — whether negative or affirmative — implicitly denies the nature of God. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being” (in Edwards, 1964, 2, emphasis mine). The God question cannot even be asked.
The Faith of the Flatlanders
One problem with arguing God through a series of logical definitions and syllogisms is the impossibility of finding spiritual or emotional comfort in such a rational process. For most people God is not found in the sixth place after the decimal point. Another problem is the impossibility of comprehending something that is, by definition, incomprehensible. Whatever God is, if there is a God, He would be so wholly Other that no corporeal, time-bound, three-dimensional, non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, non-omnipresent being like us could possibly conceive of an incorporeal, timeless, dimensionless, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being like God. It would be like a two-dimensional creature trying to grasp the meaning of three-dimensionality, an analogy a nineteenth-century Shakespearean scholar named Edwin Abbot put into narrative form in the splendid 1884 mathematical tale, Flatland. The story powerfully illuminates the insolubility of God’s existence and why faith instead of reason, religion instead of science, is the proper domain of God.
Abbott’s surrealistic story begins in a world of two-dimensions, where the inhabitants — geometrical figures such as lines, triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons, and circles — move left and right, forward or backward, but never “up or down.” Looking at a coin you can see the shapes within the circle, much like you could see the inhabitants of Flatland from Spaceland looking down; but if you turn the coin on its side the interior disappears and you only see a straight line. This is what all geometrical shapes look like to Flatlanders. (See Figure 1-1.)
One day a mathematician square in Flatland encounters a stranger that mysteriously changes sizes from a point, to a small circle, to a big circle, back to a small circle, and finally vanishes altogether. Since Flatlanders do not arbitrarily grow and shrink in size, the square is confused. The stranger explains that he is not a single circle changing sizes, but “many circles in one,” and to prove his three-dimensional nature to the Square he employs logic and reason: “I am not a plane figure, but a solid. You call me a Circle; but in reality I am not a Circle, but an infinite number of circles, of size varying from a point to a circle of thirteen inches in diameter, one placed on top of the other. When I cut through your plane as I am now doing, I made in your plane a section which you, very rightly, call a Circle.” (See Figure 1-2.)
The Square still does not understand, so the stranger, a sphere, turns from example to analogy:
Sphere: Tell me, Mr. Mathematician; if a Point moves Northward, and leaves a luminous wake, what name would you give to the wake?
Square: A straight line.
Sphere: And a straight line has how many extremities?”
Sphere: Now conceive the Northward straight line moving parallel to itself, East and West, so that every point in it leaves behind it the wake of a straight line. What name will you give to the figure thereby formed? We will suppose that it moves through a distance equal to the original straight line. What name, I say?
Square: A Square.
Sphere: And how many sides has a square? How many angles?
Square: Four sides and four angles.
Sphere: Now stretch your imagination a little, and conceive a Square in Flatland, moving parallel to itself upward.
The problem, of course, is that “upward” has no meaning for a two-dimensional being who has never experienced the third dimension of “height.” The Square is still confused, so the Sphere walks him through a clear-cut proof: If a point produces a line with two terminal points, and a line produces a square with four terminal points, then the next number is eight, which the Sphere explains makes a cube — a six-sided square in Spaceland — which he further proves with logic: If a point has zero sides, a line two sides, a square four sides, then the next number is six. “You see it all now, eh?” says the Sphere triumphantly. Not quite. For the dimension-challenged Square, reason is not revelation: “Monster, be thou juggler, enchanter, dream, or devil, no more will I endure thy mockeries. Either thou or I must perish.”
With failed reason the Sphere, in a throe of frustration, reaches into Flatland and yanks the Square into Spaceland, whereupon he instantly transforms into a cube. Revelation! But then a thought occurrs to the Cube. If the Sphere is many circles in one, there must be a higher dimension that “combines many spheres in one superior existence, surpassing even the solids of Spaceland.…my lord has shown me the intestines of all my countrymen in the land of two dimensions by taking me with him into the land of three. What therefore more easy than now to take his servant on a second journey into the blessed region of the fourth dimension….” But the Sphere will not hear of such nonsense: “There is no such land. The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.” So the Cube, with a touch of ersatz innocence, recalls the Sphere’s mathematical arguments, noting the Sphere’s impatience with the Cube’s impertinence:
Cube: Was I not taught below that when I saw a line and inferred a plane, I in reality saw a third unrecognized dimension, not the same as brightness, called “height?” And does it not now follow that, in this region, when I see a plane and infer a solid, I really see a fourth unrecognized dimension? …and besides this, there is the argument from analogy of figures.
Sphere: Analogy! Nonsense: what analogy?
Cube: …in one dimension, did not a moving point produce a line with two terminal points? In two dimensions, did not a moving line produce a square with four terminal points? In three dimensions, did not a moving square produce … a cube, with eight terminal points? And in four dimensions shall not a moving cube — alas, for analogy, and alas for the progress of truth, if it be not so — shall not, I saw, the motion of a divine cube result in a still more divine organization with sixteen terminal points? Behold the infallible confirmation of the series, 2, 4, 8, 16; is not this a geometrical progression?
The Sphere, now fit to be tied, will have nothing to do with this bohemian heresy, so he promptly thrusts the Cube back into Flatland where he becomes, once again, a lowly two-dimensional Square. The story closes with the Square in prison, locked up after he attempted to explain to his fellow Flatlanders what divine dimensions he had experienced: “Prometheus up in Spaceland was bound for bringing down fire for mortals, but I — poor Flatland Prometheus — lie here in prison for bringing down nothing to my countrymen.”
Like the Cube’s impudent challenge to use the Sphere’s own analogies to argue for yet a higher dimension, the proofs of God can themselves be used to consider the possibility of another being still higher, ad infinitum. Like the two-dimensional Flatlanders who could not grasp the nature of three-dimensionality despite ironclad logic and reasoning, God’s existence or nonexistence cannot possibly be understood in human terms. What cannot be understood, cannot be proved. What is unprovable is insoluble.
When I was a believer it was always my understanding from reading the Bible that religious belief is ultimately based on faith. In fact, my own “leap of faith,” like the Square’s transformation into a Cube, had nothing to do with logical proofs and mathematical reasoning. Is that not how most people come to believe in God? Is that not what it means to believe in God? Does this not help explain, in part, why, in the most secular society in history, when God is supposedly dead, belief in Him has never been so high?