“The only alternatives to thinking with reason are thinking unreasonably and not thinking.”
– John A. T. Robinson
Christians, bibles, and any number of other people, movements, groups, or religions are telling us we must believe this or that. The gospels say believe and be baptized or be condemned. The medieval church said you must believe the sun revolves around the earth or burn. Surely no one today would say that threatening people with death is a good thing or a valid way to obtain knowledge. Yet how is that any different than what the bible threatens for non-belief? How can anyone in the 21st century say just deciding to believe something without evidence is good? Human beings would not have raised themselves out of the caves to ride rockets to the moon with that approach. In fact we wouldn’t have survived at all. Our only demonstrable path to justified knowledge is reason and science. Even theists rely on them outside their compartmentalized religion. Nobody reading this article can claim otherwise because they are reading it on technology derived as a result thereof.
Can anyone actually will themselves to believe something without regard to any state of evidence? The idea that you can is called voluntarism. I consider inducing a belief by a force of will regardless of evidence to be deeply irrational, even if it can be achieved. I would like for fire not to burn human flesh so I simply decide to believe it doesn’t. Therefore I will stick my hand in a flaming fire. I desire that when a bus runs over a human that it will neither kill nor severely injure them so I don’t believe it will. Therefore it is ok to step in front of a few tons of steel barreling down the street. Put this way voluntarism is obvious nonsense. Yet somehow when presented something as fundamental as the gospel of Jesus we are supposed to just believe it. This whole approach is wishful thinking – believe it’s true because you want it to be true.
Perhaps some people can sometimes “just believe”, but I don’t think this is the way normal people mentally function most of the time. On the continuum from easy to willfully induce belief to impossible to willfully induce belief, I land far towards the impossible end. I suspect human beings are distributed along this continuum and for one reason or another some people find it easier than others. I’m a skeptical person by nature, I’m OK with ambiguity, I’m anti-authoritarian, I’m scientifically minded, I like to think logically, and those things along with probably other facets of my personality make me hard to convince without evidence.
Regardless of what I want to be the case, I can’t simply just believe whatever I wish. I wish there was a supernatural being that I could have a personal relationship with and would one day take me to live forever in paradise. I really wish that was true. I would love to be for someone to show me evidence in favor of that idea. However, I don’t see any evidence for it and I don’t believe it; threats to my burning forever in hell notwithstanding.
There is clearly a difference between rational and irrational beliefs. There may be any number of reasons why people believe one thing or another. Some of those reasons are good reasons and the belief can be justified and other reasons are ridiculously bad and thus the belief is unjustified.
Believe in God and Jesus Christ and you shall have everlasting life. But what if I don’t? If every fiber of my intellect says there are no gods, how can I just believe there are? I submit this is nonsense. Those who believe have reasons. Those who don’t believe have reasons. Those may be emotional or intellectual. They may be justified or unjustified. They may be rational or irrational. They may be known to the person or not. They may be explicit or implicit. But the particular conclusion drawn is drawn for a reason not due to force of will except possibly in very unusual situations or people.
If I believe X is false, I can’t just believe X to be true because I want to believe it. I can’t believe it because it is comforting. So telling me to believe in a god I don’t believe in seems impossible.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” — Galileo Galilei
If God gave me a brain that works this way and at the zenith of intellectual integrity and effort I determine there is no god then by what justice do I burn forever in hell? By using the brain he gave me I determine he doesn’t exist, and as a result I’m condemned. Nice. Do any of us really believe that? I suppose so, but it is rather an evil idea in my opinion. I would rather burn in hell than worship a being that would toy with his creation like that.
However I came to be, I have a human brain. Having used that brain to my best effort, I have determined that I have no reason to believe in any god. Saying I should believe it is pointless because I don’t. Give me reasons to change my mind and I will. I don’t accept anything on faith. I expect evidence and logical arguments or at least the ability to justify the belief that way in principle. I don’t carve out an exception to the method for knowledge acquisition for religion. I don’t accept gods on faith for the same reason I don’t accept anything else on faith. Every other area of my knowledge is open to empirical and logical investigation. So then the gods should be treated the same.
Telling me to have faith is simply saying to believe despite reason and evidence. It doesn’t work that way. I can do my best to open my mind and consider every available argument, but in the end I’m going to believe where the evidence takes me. I may make a mistake in reasoning. I may let bias or emotions override evidence. I may not know why I believe what I believe. I try not to let any of that happen, but in the end, I believe what I believe for some reason other than simply choosing it. That’s the way my mind works, and frankly I’m glad it does. Otherwise I might end up in a cult that commits suicide on the way to ride the Hale Bopp comet.
Faith is useless to someone who doesn’t already believe. Faith is a way to justify what you already believe when you don’t have a rational reason for it. If you have reason, you don’t need faith. If your belief is justified for some reason other than faith, then faith is redundant and is not needed. It’s an after the fact justification for believing what you already believe without having to defend that belief rationally.
Faiths collide and one has to choose between them by some mechanism. By what criteria do we decide between them? You must have some criteria to determine true from false beliefs. People don’t generally kill each other because they disagree over scientific ideas. Sooner or later one wins out due to the evidence in its favor. The heliocentric view of our Solar system won due to evidence. So did plate tectonics and quantum mechanics. Science has made progress that would have once been inconceivable while religion is stuck in the ancient past of myths and magical thinking. How is an Orthodox Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Mormon, a Catholic, a Baptist, or a Jehovah’s Witness to convince others? Not by faith. That’s an excuse not to have any reasons and not to have to justify one’s belief. I have faith! So do I! They all rely on faith. If they don’t then we are back to reason.
“Fix reason firmly in her seat and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
– Thomas Jefferson