Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Or else, what?

I remember one time I was walking across campus with a friend, we were having a chat about what it would be like to be an atheist. As we turned a corner around the fountain, I said that I'd commit suicide; my friend agreed that he probably would, too, either that, or he'd be an unrestrained hedonist.

A few years later, I was starting to doubt earnestly. Doubt didn't sound, in my head, like I would have expected it to. In the Commons, by Pete's Arena, the crappy pizza place, I ran into a friend, and he asked me how I was doing. Always loath to give a one-word answer to any question, I said, "I think that I'm becoming an atheist." We chatted a little, then I said, "Well, I'm going to go burn down a church or something," and we laughed a little. And I guess that was funny because it wasn't true, I didn't want to burn down a church, but I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. After that I got supper.

We could go about knowing whether God exists by looking at common knowledge, or reason, or history, or spiritual experiences, or science, or some combination of these; these are all information. Regardless of the personal consequences of believing that God exists, say, salvation or damnation, these ideas about what my belief or non-belief would bring me aren't evidence about whether God is real.

Non-belief carries the threat of another sort of damnation, a death of the mind, in which my capacity to know God could by shut off by my doubting, my perceptions would be confused, maybe my heart would be hardened, as was Pharaoh's in Exodus. Or, maybe my doubts were dishonest in the first place, because I didn't want to submit to God's rules, or tradition, or to the idea of a spiritual entity bigger than people. Any of these might be the case, but there is no way to account for them in my thought process.

Apologists like Ravi Zacharias insist that we can't have a real morality without God, so it is imperative that we believe in God. Even if the nonexistence of God meant moral nihilism, that's no evidence that God is real. Presuppositional thinkers like Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Haddon Clark, and Francis Schaeffer insist that any worldview that doesn't presume the truth of the Bible and the existence of a triune God, any such worldview would be either inconsistent or futile. Schaeffer said, "If the unsaved man was consistent he would be an atheist in religion, an irrationalist in philosophy (including a complete uncertainty concerning 'natural laws'), and completely a-moral in the widest sense." Even if Schaeffer were correct about the implications of a non-Christian worldview, that wouldn't mean that it's logical to presume that God exists; it's not logical to assume that God exists just for the sake of making one's system of thought work smoothly. These arguments don't persuade non-Christians, they only make religious people more stubbornly religious.

I'm not unique in having confusions about God; knowing God is difficult for all human beings. There isn't a majority opinion, among humans, about what God is like. No matter who you are, most humans disagree with you about most important things about God: clearly, human beings aren't consistently good at knowing God. Maybe our minds are too small to comprehend God. Maybe God can only be known on his own terms, when he sends a sign or when he opens one's heart to receive him. There are many ways to impugn human perceptions of God. When figuring out whether God exists, threat of damnation, hope for salvation, suspicion of one's own cognition, none of these are evidence about God, regardless of how they weigh on one's mind.

Maybe doubt is a sin. However, the rule, "Believe in God, or else!" is meaningless without something following the "or else!" If God doesn't exist, there is no punishment for doubt. If God does exist, but would punish people for doubting that he does exist, this punishment would be unjust.

If doubt is a sin, I couldn't know if God exists. I might refrain from considering whether God might not be real; I might not pick up books by atheists, I might avoid non-believing friends, or at least, avoid listening to them with the idea that I might want to agree with them. I would avoid asking questions like, "What would the universe be like if God wasn't real?" or "If God disappeared all of a sudden, how would we notice?", or I might ask those questions, and be satisfied with weak answers. I might make my mind an aluminum-foil-lined house, impervious to secular influence, yet there would be a voice between my ears that would ask me if I knew that God is real, or if I was just too afraid to ask. I would sit in a rocking chair in this house, wondering if I knew that God is real, but afraid that I lied to myself saying that he is.

To this idea of, "Believe in God, or else!" it is sensible to respond, "Or else, what?" If God isn't real, there is no loss. If God is real and loving and good and worth having over for tea, God wouldn't punish me for doubting.

So, there's this distinction between evidence that God exists, and feelings and hopes and fears that one has about the idea of God, and this distinction is relevant, logically. Disentangling these two categories is slow, painful, and difficult, though.

The idea that God is infinite makes thinking about God a quagmire, because one can't be unbiased. I want an iPad, and I saw that I can enter a drawing to get one. It would be so useful, I could read articles on it, I wouldn't have to print things out on paper, I probably print about a hundred pages a week. There's a neat game where you tilt the iPad and a marble rolls around on it past obstacles. I was thinking about which carrying case I should get for the iPad when I realized that the odds of me winning the iPad are very low. Anyway, I was afraid that, if God didn't exist, there would be no way to have meaning or morality in life, everything would feel hollow. If God were real, experiencing his perfect love would be worth forgoing everything else. I wanted to believe in God so much that I was afraid that God isn't real and that I'm just biased to think that he is.

I recently had to buy a car. I didn't have any special knowledge on how to buy a car. There are a lot of uncertainties when buying a car, like how safe it is, how much it will cost to repair it when it breaks down, and how likely it is to break down, and how long it will last before it breaks down completely and must be scrapped. These are probably the most important things about a car, but I don't know how to know them, so I picked out my car based on price and how good its cup holders are and whether I can plug my iPod into it.

I can't think of any story in the Bible that rides on a person's belief or non-belief that God exists; what matters is how people deal with God, whether they want to be on his team. When the Israelites approached Jericho, the people of Jericho were not atheists. The people of Jericho were afraid precisely because they thought that the God of the Israelites does exist‚ and would destroy them like Og and Sihon of the Amorites. Rahab was different from everyone else in Jericho, not because she believed that God exists, but because she believed in him, she put her trust in him, she wanted to join his side, and she was rewarded for this faith.

In the Bible, the word "believe" is used in two ways, meaning either to suppose as true, or to rely and trust upon. In "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31) "believe" means rely on. James makes it clear that these two meanings are distinct, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder." (James 2:19). Thinking that God is real isn't what saves one, so mere doubt can't damn one, either. The people of Nazareth doubt Jesus (e.g., Mark 6:1-6), they have no faith, but this isn't a show of equanimous non-belief, "they took offense at him" because "prophets are not without honor, except in their home town". Similarly, the Pharisees seem to doubt Jesus, but they're not intellectually considering him, they're casting aspersions on him because he's a threat to their power structure.

Yet, religious people treat honest doubt like it's a sickness or a problem or a sin; this does more to ensure conformity among believers than to reassure doubters.

I was compulsively ruminating on contradictory ideas, that non-belief in God is empty and void, and that belief in God is a desperate fantasy. This psychological tension didn't enlighten me about God. I decided to live in a way that would be as meaningful as possible if God isn't real, and in a way that would let me find and relate to God if God is real. When I didn't think that God exists, I still tried to have faith in him, to rely on him, and not myself. By trying to minimize the consequences of my vacillating belief that God exists, I was able to think a little more clearly. Was God hiding from me because I was sinful? Was I mistaken about God not existing? How could I have meaning? How could I know what is right to do? I still had questions like these; even though I knew they didn't show me God, I anguished over them.


A previous post, The God I want to believe in, has some ideas related to this essay.

"I want God to be real, and I want to relate to him. I look for God carefully, but I don't see him. Not at all that I think that I'm saved by any of my own virtues, but if God would damn me for not believing that he exists when that's not what I have honestly seen or experienced, I don't find that God to be worth bothering with."

There is another important meaning that the phrase "Or else, what?" has for me. Normative statements, statements about what ought to be, rules of morality, for example, are meaningless on their own. "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass." isn't meaningful;

  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else people will become sad from the ugliness of the overpass."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else God will be angry at you."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you'll regret it later."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you might get arrested."

are meaningful statements. Thinking about norms, things like values and morality and purpose and meaning, by posing them this way, has been helpful for me as I've tried to make decisions as a non-theist.


  1. How about "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass because that is not what a good person would do?"

    The point being, that morality (atheist or otherwise) does not need to be based on consequences. It can be based, for example, on values or virtues.

    Moreover, the reasoning "I shouldn't sin or else I will burn in an eternal pit of fire" is not something I would call good moral reasoning.
    This is because acting as "God says" under threat is really an act of self preservation and not an act of appreciation of God's knowledge of right and wrong or consideration of what is morally good.
    Paradoxically, that is exactly what a moral nihlist would do given the existance of God.

    On a completely separate point, the claim that life without God is empty or unfulfilled is completely absurd to an atheist (well, one that isn't depressed), for obvious reasons.

  2. I was really trying to distinguish between positive statements and normative statements, and to pose normativish statements as positive statements; this makes them easier to talk about. "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass because that is not what a good person would do?" is a positive statement, and it means something if we agree what good means. I think that good is a matter of definition, it's not something handed down from space.

    I like the idea of a morality based on virtues and values, it's easier to talk about. I can care about such a morality, though, by talking about violating a norm, that act of violation, as a consequence.

    Avoiding a pit of fire isn't good moral reasoning, but it's certainly a valid way to think. I think it's equally morally nihilistic to want to obey God because one loves God and wants to do everything God says, without consideration of what his mandates mean on their own.

    And, agreed, God is unnecessary for a meaningful life. I think that the idea that God is necessary for there to be meaning is a more modern idea, it's not stated plainly in scriptures.

    Good thoughts, Yuriy, thanks!

  3. Hi Alex,

    As always, a thought provoking post.

    Today's society (western) has a huge problem living comfortably with uncertainty. We believe that everything should have an answer. It's interesting to me, that the oldest Christian denominations and Judaism are very comfortable with mystery as part of their belief in God.

    I wonder if we are loosing a key point about God when we try to answer all our questions. By definition, God should be so big that he/she can't ever be understood, yet we still try. Why do you think that is?

  4. Hi, Brian, thanks for reading and commenting!

    Now, I don't think God exists, and I'm perfectly happy to say, God does not exist, period. That's a very definite statement.

    I definitely see what you're saying, and I agree. I think that a lot of what needs to be held open are ideas that people connect with God, that they treat as being a part of God, things like beauty and virtue and wonder and hope and love. I think that what you've said about God here applies to this bundle, too: all of these things are so great we can't wrap our minds around them, we can't enclose them.

    These ideas that a lot of people have about defining God very tightly and neatly aren't in congruity with most of religious history. The forms of religion that I find the most fascinating and captivating are the ones where there's a lot of weird stuff that hasn't been covered over or talked around. I think that it's a shame that religion is bundled as neatly as it is so often.

  5. I remember this conversation, or at least a few like it with you. I'm pretty sure that I said then what I said about being an atheist because when I imagine being an atheist, I imagine that everything my life is built on being untrue. I would imagine that you meant the same thing at the time, but in the interim you've found other things to build your life on.

  6. Matthew, you were the friend I was referring to in the first paragraph. You're right to mention the distinction between the loss of a belief in God and the loss of everything that one finds valuable, believing these things to come from God. I used to think, for example, that self-sacrifice could only be valued in Christianity; that I still value it shows that it's possible to hold this value as a non-believer.

  7. Also, I forgot to mention this earlier, but I think that this is one of the best and most thoughtful posts of yours on the subject.

    As far as morality goes, I still genuinely find it hard to understand morality from a non-theist perspective. How do you make decisions about what things are right or wrong, and what happens when you're talking about decisions with consequences far bigger than painting graffiti?

  8. I can tell that I'm doing my job right, or wrong, when I get a headache.

    I'm not sure that you care about YouTube videos of people playing the piano, I think that something other than caring is going on. Ebert's recent post on frisson has been helpful to me in thinking about distraction.