Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Basics of Belief

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see
It's a story we've heard throughout the ages.  I was miserable.  I was depraved.  I was suffering.  My life was lacking something.  And then I found religion, and my spiritual needs were fulfilled.

Some variant of this theme is ubiquitous in stories of conversion.  I have pointed out in the past that the big difference I have observed between accounts of religious conversion and accounts of de-conversion is as distinct as night and day.  The atheist de-conversion story is usually a tale of intellectual dissatisfaction with the fantastic claims and the illogic of theism, while the religious conversion story tells of emotional dissatisfaction with the vagaries of life.

If you're a Christian reading this, you're probably thinking, That's not true.  My belief is founded on logic and evidence.  And I'm sure that's what you believe, but we hear this story over and over again.  Just now, I saw this from Joe Hinman:
I start from the premise "I was in need i called fror help and I got help,who answered?" You must seignior the reality of that fact because you have to validate your ideological assertion of no God. All I have to do is account for my experience in a way that makes sense to me,your ideology is dishonest because it demands that your forget your experience. Or it would tell me to forget my experoemce. - Joe Hinman
What is Joe saying here?  It's clear that he is describing an emotional event in his life.  He felt he was suffering in some way, and then he says he was answered, presumably by God, and this is what changed his life for the better.  I have no doubt that this religious experience did make him feel better.  But at the same time I recognize the fact that it was an emotional experience rather than an intellectual understanding of some logical truth.  But notice that Joe is trying to make it sound as if it is a rational basis for his belief.

Joe never even questions whether it was actually God that answered him, or if it might have been a psychological experience.  For Joe, the subjective religious experience provides a direct knowledge of God that is beyond any skeptical doubt.  It is perfectly rational.  But the rational nature of this belief is highly questionable.  I call it "Refried Epistemology".  It's something that I can't take seriously.  Joe insists that skeptics just don't know the truth of this experience because we haven't had it ourselves.  As an empiricist, I say that a private, subjective experience like that is something that can never be subject to verification by objective observers, as would be the case with any empirical evidence.  On this issue, we can never come to agreement.  But I recognize that it seems quite real to him.

Joe describes the religious experience as "warrant for belief in God", and he attempts to justify this claim in his book, where he discusses a collection of peer-reviewed studies that mostly show a correlation between spirituality or religious experiences and well-being.  This correlation is well-known in the field of psychology.  But Joe makes the mistake of inferring from this correlation that God is the cause of the well-being.  This is something that none of his studies would ever conclude, and for good reason.  There isn't any scientific justification for it.  Instead, it is generally understood that rather than God making it happen, it is the psychological and social effects of religious belief that produce the observed outcomes, as discussed here.

One of the major benefits of religious belief is that it serves as an effective resource for coping with stress.  And this is probably a key factor in the conversion stories we see so often - like Joe's for example.  He was in need (psychologically stressed) and he called for help.  So he submitted to religious belief to help him get through his rough time - just as so many others have done.  Read the conversion stories.  This is a common theme among them.  But let's not go overboard and assign credit for their psychological boost to an imaginary being.  It is belief itself that makes them feel better.  It is the comfort of believing that there's a simple answer to everything that has perplexed them, believing that they will live forever, and having a sense of purpose, along with a supportive social community of believers.

It doesn't matter how much Joe thinks he has felt the presence of God.  It's still a subjective feeling.  Plenty of people are absolutely convinced of things that simply aren't true because of feelings they have.  The best way we have of distinguishing reality from fantasy is to recognize the difference between objective facts and subjective feelings.  Objective facts are verifiable.  Belief in God is not properly basic, as Plantinga would have us think.  But the effects of religious belief are real.


  1. You are badly mistaken about the foundations of Christian belief. They are firmly grounded in historical evidence. You ought to look at this before you comment any further.

    Pay special attention to this line "Christianity is not fideist, that is to say, reliant upon a pure and uncritical act of faith on the part of its adherents. Rather, it happily embraces reason and welcomes critical questions." as well as to the lines which follow immediately after.

  2. They are firmly grounded in historical evidence.
    - HMM. Christian apologist Lee Strobel says "Christianity is a stubbornly historical religion". But he is not a historian himself.

    First, let me comment on his own conversion story. It is yet another case of what I describe in this post - belief prompted by emotional experience. According to your article, "It is the story of a young, ambitious (and atheist) reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who fell into a psychological and spiritual crisis when his wife became a Christian."

    Second, the historical "evidence" Strobel cites is highly dubious. You should read this.

    "Christianity is not fideist, that is to say, reliant upon a pure and uncritical act of faith on the part of its adherents. Rather, it happily embraces reason and welcomes critical questions."
    - There was a time when Christians openly espoused the virtue of faith over reason. Many of today's more educated Chrisrtians are embarrassed to admit that. But the catechism of the Catholic Church still reflects the more traditional position on faith, as noted in my earlier discussion about faith.

  3. All human beings are composite entities, who cannot hope to attain to even a semblance of a connection to objective reality without employing all of the facets of his being. These would include both his reason and what you (apparently derisively) term his emotions.

    We are not computers, and to shut down a major portion of how we perceive and interact with the external world is surely the height of folly. It's like trying to build a stool with only one leg. Good luck with that!

    I recently came across this on another blog. One premise of the posting is that atheists have an unacknowledged burden of unexamined emotional baggage that prevents them from seeing the logical consequences of their worldview. Are you able to answer this critique (without simply dismissing it)?

    1. I will answer this. Because there is so much there to respond to, and partly because it diverges from the topic of this post, I will make a new post (tomorrow, I hope) to address the issues raised by Bob. I welcome your comments and discussion.

  4. WRT religious conversion, a historical view is presented by Susan Jacoby in her book "Strange Gods".

    While there are certainly the emotional and psychologically profound conversions, the vast majority of religious conversions happen for practical and mundane reasons.

    1. jdhuey,

      I haven't seen the book you are referencing. Is the label "practical and mundane" a negative, or simply neutral?

    2. When people convert because of marriage, or force, or for reasons of practical advantage, that's not what I would call a belief-based conversion. It's a different category altogether, and probably not the kind of thing that someone would write a conversion story about.

    3. Mortal,

      From my secular perspective, the terms are pretty neutal; however, I would surmise that from certain religious viewpoints the terms are very negative.

    4. Im

      I don't disagree. I just think the evidence is there that of all the conversions the belief based conversions are a minority.

  5. Mortal. two questions about what you claim as the factual historicity of Christianity:

    1. How is it that, even after 600 hundred years of unrivalled and hegemonic authority to establish the veracity of the alleged "facts" founding the christian narrative in the Middle East and right round the Mediterranean area, that a a completely different alternative history emerged to not only directly counter every christian New Testament claim, but rebutted and rejected those very tenets of the christian claim? To Muslims Jesus was no god, he was only a misguided prophet, and there certainly is no such beast known to be the triune god in charge of the universe, etc etc. Muslims had every one of these so-called facts in their possession for over six hundred years, and yet, could. not. be. convinced. of this apparently insuperable and incontestable mountain of foundational historical evidence. How do you explain this in any philosophical or intellectual way that does not fall back to apologetical special pleading?

    2. How do you explain the fact that the original religious entity, Judaism, owners of the Old Testament, out of which christianity's New testament was spawned, did not, never have, and would never subscribe to the apparently incontestable historical facts before them? Judaism was never, ever, convinced by the so-called veridicality of or the historical evidence for the Christian narrative from the very get-go. Why so?

    Robert J Funk (d. 2005), bible scholar, Chairman of the Graduate Department of Religion, Vanderbilt University, eruditely noted:

    "If the evidence supports the historical accuracy of the gospels, where is the need for faith? And if the historical reliability of the gospels is so obvious, why have so many scholars failed to appreciate the incontestable nature of the evidence?"

    Not until, and when these questions are properly addressed, the work of the apologist will stand for nothing more than self-serving rhetorical bluster.

  6. Papalinton,

    Why should I be concerned about either of those things? The United States is approximately 250 years old. Yet even after all that time, we still manage to produce a generation of voters so ignorant of the Constitution and the principles of democracy that they can vote in a man diametrically opposed and actively hostile to this country's every last foundational principle. How is it that millions upon millions of people around the world believe in the most unlikely conspiracy theories, despite mountains of evidence against them?

    The truth of Christianity is no more threatened by the existence of rival belief systems than is NASA by the Moon Landing Hoaxers. If the bar for accepting something as proven is that every last person in the world must believe it to be so, then we could never be sure of anything.

  7. How interesting. Your claim of ignorance is pretty much the claim Muslims make of the Christian Bible. Indeed they say Cheistianity tried to make a fist of it but ultimately Christianity is a flawed attempt which they have corrected in the Koran. None of your analogies explains the evidence for why Muslims and Jews never subscribed to the christian mythos, either after 600 years of historical hindsight in which to weigh up the evidence, and yet despite the "evidence", chose a different route, rejecting the christian narrative.

    Equally, 'other' belief systems were never rivals to christianity. They emerged separate and severally, unconnected to christianity, from the cultures and societies they represented, just as christianity spawned from within the milieu of Middle Eastern societies. Their emergence clearly demonstrates that religions arise not by any historical determinant. And the anthropomorphising of the central character that can apparently walk on water, turn water into wine, walk through walls, float off bodily into the blue beyond, together with a host of other magical tricks. doesn't make it any more believable than the central characters Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Xenu or heaven forbid, the Angel Moroni and the golden tablets.

    Christians still have all the work ahead of them. It seems the Tipping point isn't too far ahead.

  8. Papalinton,

    I note from your many comments that you are confident in the future triumph of atheism over Christianity. Well, this article says otherwise.

    From personal experience, at my own parish of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, ten years ago a dozen persons showing up for Sunday Mass was considered a good day. Nowadays, the pews are full of families - parents, children, and grandparents - perhaps 120 people or so in all. An amazing increase in attendance over the decade.

    No, I see no signs of an imminent disappearance of Christianity. Quite the opposite!

  9. The article makes no one any more the wiser about your claim; full of anecdote, personal wish-listing, misplaced hope; short on facts, evidence, proofs, no citations of any reputable research undertaken to substantiate the claim. In short, Mortal, a feel-good story, the operative word here is, 'story'. It has about the same credibility as a father, who, attending his son's marching-out parade at a military training barracks, proudly cries out from the crowd, "Look. There's my son, the only one in step."


    1. There are facts and (as some people would like to believe) alternative facts. Mortal apparently chooses the latter. While it is always possible to find articles like that from religious sources,here are some unbiased facts. (note the census statistics.)

    2. There are facts, and there are "alternative facts" - but there are also lies, damned lies, and statistics. How do you respond to the ground truth that attendance at my own parish church has increased by an order of magnitude over the past decade? How do you respond to the fact that a new Catholic Church opens its doors in Sub-Saharan Africa every single day, and yet they still can't build them fast enough to meet the needs of the growing number of the faithful? How do you respond to the trends showing that within our lifetimes, the Christian population of China will exceed the total population of North America?

      Call it "anecdotal" if you wish. I call it believing my own two eyes. Christianity is here to stay.

    3. I don't doubt that a single church could experience an increase in attendance, even as the rest of the country is seeing decreases. It it also true that Christianity is increasing in certain parts of the world, especially in poor and stressed areas. Where people's lives offer them little comfort, and they lack control over their circumstances, they turn to religion.

    4. Mortal, HERE is something a little more intellectually sophisticated and observing a higher degree of due diligence around the facts about religion going forward. It provides a much more reasoned overview looking carefully at the underlying assumptions for why religions are growing in some areas of the world and dying in others that your little feel-good homily does not.

      But as Skep has noted, your proclivity for alternate facts, 'believing with your own two eyes' is fraught with cautionary variability; See Here and AND HERE. Eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Just ask any genuine internationally renowned Biblical Historian or researcher who is not also doubling as an apologist.

      The global movement of Christianity cannot be properly assessed in the absence of the multitude of religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, taoism, etc, along with its direct rivals, Islam and Judaism, who all try so hard to peg out the same truth claim, that they are the one and only 'true' religion.

      And as you really do know, such a claim from any one of them is as much a nonsense to others as they are to you. I would even hazard an informed truism, they are all as nonsensical as each other.

    5. Mortal, for whatever reason, the first article does not respond. HERE it is again.