User:Woozle/Reasons to believe in God

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[edit] What to Believe

One of the patterns I've noticed in people who are attempting to break away from a religion is that they find themselves not knowing what to believe in anymore. Having escaped from the compulsion to accept a pre-packaged set of beliefs from an external source, they are a little like someone who has lived in a cave all their lives and one day is suddenly thrust into bright sunlight. They're overwhelmed with input; they haven't really worked out a good system for deciding which beliefs are worth holding on to and which are bogus. They often confuse the need to reject the religion's control with a need to reject all of the religion's beliefs – and many religions will encourage this confusion. They also find themselves suddenly in a bit of a spiritual vacuum, needing to find (and quickly!) a set of beliefs and philosophies to enable them to get through the day, while their former religion is often busy trying to strip them of every last shred of self-confidence in their ability to make that kind of decision.

So, speaking as someone who is basically non-religious but who has nonetheless spent a lot of time working out spiritual and philosophical stuff, let me see if I can both give a little spiritual first-aid and at the same time demonstrate how there is a middle ground – i.e. that you can reject the parts that make no sense while accepting the parts that do – by listing some reasons to believe in God. (And no, I'm not going to cynically refute them afterwards. I'm trying to be paradoxical here, not intellectually dishonest.)

  • First, all the obvious stuff: kittens, puppies, true friendship, summer days spent roaming the woods – whatever it is that, to you, most represents the best things in life. If there was no God, how would these things ever have come to be? How could they possibly survive, in the face of all the random destruction in the world?
  • The fact that life exists at all, as incredibly improbable as it seems given what the universe started with, has got to be some sort of evidence for cosmic benevolence. The very slightest of tweaks to the handful of fundamental constants which define how the universe works would mean that not only life as we know it would be impossible, but even the basic furniture of the universe (suns, planets) wouldn't be possible. (We don't know whether some other sort of life would be possible, but it seems unlikely.) How could this happen by accident?
  • Fractals. 'Nuff said.
  • The fact that, despite several decades of having the ability, we haven't managed to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons.
  • The fact that something as massively complicated as mathematics can exist, and yet be self-consistent in ways that we can learn to understand.
  • The fact that you can prove mathematically that math can't prove everything (Gödel's incompleteness theorems)
  • The fact that selflessness, love, friendship, art, music, and literature can all emerge from the apparent mindlessness of Darwinian competition and, ultimately, from the random recombination of lifeless molecules.
  • The sheer hugeness and vastness of the universe – not just its bigness, but also how much detail there is at the small level. Entire universes exist within a dust-speck.

It seems fair to look at all these things and say "Wow, there must be some force at work here that is just far bigger and more complicated than we can understand. Let's call that force or power or phenomenon, whatever it is, 'God'."

Now... is that God the same God as the one found in the Old Testament – who punishes people for arbitrary social transgressions, tests their faith with seemingly pointless hardships, requires human sacrifice on occasion, and encourages rape? Well, I don't know... but how does it make sense to assume that it is the same God? Which of the following makes more sense:

  • the creator of the universe, the same force or entity responsible for all the wonderful things listed above (and many many more, of course), is the same entity who is both sole author and main character of the Bible, a book written over the course of many centuries but not substantially modified since the Middle Ages
  • the Bible was written by humans, perhaps originally with sincere motives (e.g. preserving moral codes, cautionary tales, and then-current theories of creation) but later subverted into a tool for controlling people by coming up with the idea that God was something far less than the God I have described – not a pure force for good, but a petty tyrant with his own agenda who nonetheless controls the universe and is GONNA GET YOU if you don't do what they say the Bible says
  • some other theory (you should always feel free to come up with other alternatives; more about this later)

Religions like to lump stuff together: "Oh, you believe in a benevolent force that created the universe and is responsible for all the really good stuff? Then you have to believe this other stuff too, because that force is God and [we say] God says..."

That part is the scam. The part that isn't the scam is the benevolent force. The part I don't know about is whether the benevolent force actually plays a role in guiding our lives from day to day, or is even interested in us personally. There's no solid reason to suppose there is, but there's a lot of weird stuff that happens in people's lives, and nobody has really studied it to see if there's any way to detect outside influence. It's generally impossible to prove the absence of something, so we try to look for all the possible ways of detecting something if it were there – and if they all come up negative, we kind of have to throw up our hands for the moment and say we don't really know but it seems unlikely... and always be on the lookout for new tests to try.

So it could be that there is a benevolent being who takes an interest in us personally, and maybe even guides our lives in ways we sometimes vaguely sense.

But why would that being say "you have to do X, or you'll burn in hell"? Without even an explanation? You don't have to accept that idea in order to accept the idea of the benevolent being. The "thou shalts" might actually be an accurate reflection of that being's wishes, but again -- which theory makes more sense? Why isn't this benevolent being (omniscient and omnipotent or not) making its wishes clear?

One theory (believed by a relatively small portion of religions, I think) is that God is not omnipotent and is in fact off somewhere being busy with other projects, and has kind of left us to tend to our own business for awhile. That answers the immediate question of "why isn't God making things clear now, in the light of the one or two things we've learned since the Bible was written, and in an era when we could now make countless videos of His Word and distribute them all over the Internet so nobody would ever doubt what God looks like and what he wants from us"... but again, is this absentee-God the same God who puts the crinkly bits at the edges of fractals, and keeps us from nuking ourselves back into the precambrian? How is it that he can do all that but can't write a book which explains, with mind-shattering clarity, just what it is that he wants us to do and why? How can he keep us from nuking ourselves if he's off somewhere else? Why is it so terrible if we make a mistake while Daddy-God is off getting groceries -- can't he fix us when he gets back? If we're not supposed to do something, where was the explanation of why? Or are we little children, not expected to understand why it's important not to jump on the sofa?

In any case, it all comes down to this: you don't have to accept or reject everything in one lump as long as you are aware of alternative possibilities (or can think of any). If they claim there aren't any, then that's one of the parts you might want to reject.

Just as you don't have to accept everything they say in a big lump, you also don't have to reject everything either. That's why I thought I should start out by giving reasons to believe in God. Maybe you've rejected belief in how they define God -- but that doesn't have to mean rejecting everything that you think is important in life. It only adds options, it doesn't take them away. Even li'l ol' me, someone who has never believed in anything remotely like God, can imagine (and argue for) the existence of a sort of cosmic meta-spirit, which might or might not be interested in us personally. I can hypothesize that there is a higher purpose to human existence that we're not in a position to grasp more than dimly. I can allow the possibility of both of those quasi-religious ideas, and keep my mind open to them as I keep my eyes open for evidence pointing either way.

Being free of religion gives you the ability to truly explore the spiritual realm, and find out all the things that are important to you – not just the ones they think are safe.

[edit] Alternatives

One of the games some religions like to play is that they will claim you either have to believe everything they tell you or none of it. This makes no sense.

Suppose I were to come up to you and tell you one hundred true things and one false one (which I claim is true), and then claim that if you rejected that one thing you had to reject all of them. What would you do?

Or, alternatively, going on the theory that every religious claim is in fact true: let's say I told you one hundred and one true things, and then made the claim that if you disbelieved any one of them, you had to disbelieve them all. Let's then say that you thought about the things I had said, and decided that even though I might be correct (and even though, as it happens, I was correct), for some reason you just couldn't convince yourself of one of the things I had said. So you reject that one thing – but, quite sensibly, you continue believing the others. Does my claim that you have to accept or reject all 101 statements together mean that you are wrong for continuing to accept the other 100 things I said? It seems to me that it just means that I did, after all, say one untrue thing: the 102nd thing I said, i.e. my statement that you must either believe all or none of what I say.

You don't have to accept or reject the totality of any body of knowledge as a single unit. You are always free to question any part, without rejecting the whole. Nobody can stop you!

The only situations I can think of in which you might have to regard a set of facts as monolithically "accepted" or "rejected" are:

  1. when they are part of an explicit agreement of some kind – either you agree to every part of the contract, or else you have rejected it.
    However, even in this case there is nothing stopping you from fulfilling part of your end of the deal if you want to; you just don't get the benefit of having the other party agree to hold up their end as well. Many religions are a lot like an unspoken contract: you agree (via the invisible fine-print) to say that whatever-they-say-is-true is true. If you disagree with one thing, then you've broken the contract and you aren't allowed to maintain preferred member status – but just because you decided not to agree with the contract as a whole doesn't mean that you now must believe that every clause in the contract is somehow wrong. (Indeed, in most contract negotiations, your next move would be to say "Well, I like all of it except this bit; can we change that?" and your potential contract-partner would be free to either suggest a modification which you might find acceptable, or else break off negotiations. The hard-line churches always effectively break off negotiation at this point, and the more liberal ones tend to avoid the problem by not putting stuff in their doctrine which they know any sane person would find ridiculous.)
  2. when a set of conclusions is based on a particular fact -- if you believe the fact may be false, then the conclusions may be as well.
    The church might have you believe that the facts in their doctrine are all part of an argument supporting some conclusion, and that this somehow means that if you reject any of the facts, you are not only rejecting the conclusion but all of the facts in support of it. This too is fallacious. (In case the reasoning here isn't obvious: Let's say I state "The sun rises every morning and moves across the sky at a measured pace because it rides on the back of a giant horse who is extremely well-trained, and therefore we can be guaranteed of a certain amount of daylight every day." You could certainly agree that we can depend on a minimum stretch of daylight pretty much every day without having to swallow the horse theory.)
    There are plenty of reasons to continue to believe what seems true to you, regardless of whether it is included in someone else's doctrine. Taking away the doctrine doesn't change (or take away) the truth, regardless of how much of the doctrine happens to be truth.

Nobody owns the truth; it can't be copyrighted or trademarked. It exists whether or not someone has written it down. It exists whether or not we understand it. These statements may sound almost like a religious catechism, but the idea that truth is something which does not change depending on context is actually one of the cornerstones of science. Religions that try to "package" the truth in some kind of unopenable black box -- which you must accept or reject as a whole -- are implicitly contradicting this idea, regardless of what they might claim. If a set of things are true, how does it not make sense to believe as many of them as possible, even if you find you can't believe all of them? If a religion has a set of things which they believe are true, why would they want you to reject any of them, ever, even if you couldn't believe all of them? Why would anyone want you to do this, if they had your best interests at heart?

The obvious explanation – which may or may not be true – is that they are trying to use the truth as a hostage, to keep you in line. "Well look," they say, "if you doubt that, then you might as well doubt the existence of God." To someone whose philosophy is based on the idea that there is an essential goodness to the universe that protects you from harm and is the source of everything important, and that God is the name of that essential goodness, that statement is very scary, and has the force of threat: "You doubt this, and we'll take away your world – your right to believe in goodness."

But it's not true. They can't do that. You can believe whatever you want to believe, and still question whatever you want to question. You can even talk to other people about what you think, and see how they react to it; they may have some ideas you hadn't thought of, or see contradictions in what you suggest, or be able to offer confirming evidence that your guesses are true. But ultimately, you decide what to believe. (This is true even if you're part of a religion; it's just that you have essentially made an agreement in advance to decide that the truth is whatever they tell you it is. Remember, though, that you never signed anything promising this, and they can't throw you in jail for breach of contract if you change your mind. The worst they can do is be childish and reject you personally. It's all mind-games.)

So actually, I should have said that it makes no sense logically – but it makes perfect sense if you see it as part of the way they manipulate people into swallowing stuff that makes no sense at all.

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