Tag Archives: Epistemology

Why did I ever (stop) believ(e/ing) in the first place?

Recently I was writing to someone who became an atheist while at our undergrad. They had asked me when I started doubting and why I went to seminary. I wrote an email in response explaining not only when I started doubting, but why I believed in the first place. I’ll reproduce that email in part later on.

Interesting though that a couple days later, perhaps even the next day, I talked with one of the foremost metaphysical philosophers in this country about faith and he, too, raised the question before me of why I started doubting. However, when I mentioned that I felt like for every intellectual argument for God there was a tantamount counter-argument, his insight to share was that there are no knock-down drag-out arguments in many spheres of life. Politics, for example. Thus he finds it strange that people get so worked up about these things in the area of religion. And that got me to ask myself the opposite question: If there aren’t any wholly convincing arguments for naturalism (or a closed universe or what have you), why bother leaving theism?

This doesn’t positively yield a reason to believe but may remove reason for having jumped ship to begin with. I know in “You are who you hang with”… I said I could see myself coming back to the faith. Actually, I think that verdict is out (again). If anything, I feel many more intellectual/emotional/spiritual moves are going to have to happen before I could call myself a Christian again.

The philosopher’s right that intellectual alternatives to faith probably are not necessarily superior: there are good arguments both ways. But what of the tensions I had had: A god that sanctifies me yet I seem to be getting worse? A god that “speaks” to his people but I hear nothing? These tensions are very real and seem easier answered/dealt with by rejecting the premise of god than anything else. But, then again, my assumptions about God’s sanctification, my moral dynamism, God’s communication, and my reception could and probably should be called into question (that is, if I want to make my Christian friends happy).

Again, we’ll see. Too much thinking/writing to do for the end of the year for now.

 

Excerpts from email to atheist fellow alum:

“I think I should start with why I ever believed (I’m writing for me prob’ly more than you now but I will answer your questions later – skip this if you want!). I believed because as a 10 year old thinking on my own about my grandmother’s death no coping resource was available to me but belief in a god. I had other issues – S.A.D., ridiculous amounts of HW, loneliness -then driving me to seek help beyond myself, beyond what I thought my parents could give. The idea to believe in God came from the church we attended I imagine. That summer I went to a summer camp which reinforced my new belief-choices; it was a positive experience from all I can recall. At that time I felt that I had or was experiencing God. I changed somehow between 10 and 11 and became more intentionally social and friendly; a lot of behavior issues went away.

“My faith interests continued and were nurtured by church through my middle school and high school days. Then my faith got really mixed in with depression, guilt, social anxiety late in high school. My faith didn’t diminish, and probably wasn’t completely the source of my depression, but I really languished as a person.

“Going to [college] I did the orientation program which I felt gave new life to my beliefs, and my self esteem. I “re-dedicated” my life to Jesus and started dealing with my depression more head-on ([the college]’s counseling center was crucial there). Experiences on [my orientation] made me think I was really seeing God at work in my life and the lives of others.

“Believing I was seeing God at work in my life and others’ continued through [college], probably with occasional lapses, certainly with occasional doubts. The real doubts started [later].

“___ died at [camp] in the summer of 2009, when I was working there. It was quite possibly a suicide; at best it was a tragic accident that would not have happened if he had been a little more stable.

“Though only an acquaintance, I had seen that things were not going well for ___. I had heard some stories. And I knew my own history of mental illnesses well enough to see myself in what he has going through that summer. Through the summer I prayed for ___, repeatedly. And with friends. I prayed specifically that God would protect him, and spare him from suffering. Suicide was included in those appeals, if only implicitly because I was afraid to speak the word.

“Well, the end of the summer comes and ___ is dead and I am thinking, “Wow – really pulled through for us there, God. Thanks a lot.” Those events really hurt my faith in God’s goodness, but it eventually rebounded after some time and recommended reading from a prof.

“More or less since that time though I have “felt” God’s presence very little. [Late summer 2012,] I started noticing how “sinful” my life was. I guess I don’t need to use quotes. Whether porn use and masturbation is sinful or not, hatred and lust and anger in my heart are certainly dark things. And all this while the Spirit was supposed to be alive, at work inside me?

“This tension of “sinning but indwelt by God” became compounded by noticing the silence of God in my life. Wasn’t God supposed to communicate with God’s people? And I started discovering suitable intellectual alternatives to theism, in Freudian psychology, in historical-criticism, in Hitchen’s critiques, discoveries only added to by my Duke education. In the end it seemed more sensible to let go of the tensions and accept the alternatives. “Either God does not exist or I don’t have a relationship with him” was one of my last thoughts in the process. Hence my agnosticism.”

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Language games

Language is a game. We all play it. We can bend its rules. But if we break the rules too frequently, we are no longer playing the agreed game; we are playing a different game. Only others who are initiated into that game and familiar with its rules will be able to successfully play with you. Those who have played the card game “Mao” know something of what I’m talking about.

These are more or less the ideas of Wittgenstein anyway. And this all makes sense to me: I think it’s a fitting description of what language is: twin systems of rules (grammar) and pieces (words) that we manipulate in order to communicate meaning.

I’m starting to think of this in other ways too, now. Even my studies and the disciplines encompassing them are language games. Cynics would say that’s all they are (I entertain this cynical sentiment in Rough Day).

I write to say that I’m learning to play those games. And, actually, I think this is a good thing. Even if we’re merely spinning words that don’t affect anything outside, I’m learning what the rules of the games are and how to play them. I hope I’m even beginning to succeed, start winning.

This sounds really cynical but I don’t mean it that way. I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps helpful insight to fellow students, that one way to think of our task is that we need to become fluent in the language of our disciplines. That requires gathering all the right pieces, knowing all the rules and beginning to learn strategy, effective combinations and moves.

Who are we playing with? Our peers and future colleagues, and teachers. I can’t say there are no losers. There are. When someone destroys another’s argument, book, or opus using his own words, that is a major loss. Ouch. I don’t know what you can do after that, but fortunately that’s not for me to worry about yet. However, the objective is not necessarily to squash the competition; there can be room (somewhere…) for them and they are needed, too (to write the top review for the book jacket of your next book).

There is a comfort in knowing that (in one sense) it’s all a game as well. Playing does not require you to believe in or love the game. You just have to be good at it. Which is what I’m hoping to do. For now. And if I’m not good, if I’m not “picked”, there are other games I can play. I must take hope in this.

Chiming in: the red pill reveals that there is no red pill

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It’s been a while. Here’s a brief update of where I am right now.

Still pretty happy in my agnosticism. It took some philosophical hits recently as I was thinking about the ontological and cosmological arguments for God, which I know have their problems but also have some merits. Meaning in language/behaviour and the intelligibility/order of our world – these things too have given me pause. But I think I’ll need sufficient reason to return to faith, and these things, even as a cumulative case, fail to give it.

Depression is moody. I mean, some days are good, some are not. As said in my last post (Rough day – for what it’s worth the following Wednesday was great!), I’m coming to terms with the lifelong daily battles I will have with it.

I also have come to think of myself as having Modernist objectives in a postmodern context: I want some kind of absolute objective Truth in an intellectual world where that whole enterprise has been laughed to scorn, and rightly so. I feel as if I am for the first time running up against the fish-tank walls of my existence and recognizing them for walls, knowing they limit my perspective and capacities for problem-solving and can never be transcended (O, to be a fish with wings!). Up to now, I was swimming in the same tank but blissfully unaware that I was in a tank. You might ask how I can know I’m in a tank – touche. All the same, I believe there are limits to my understanding and reasoning based on what “respected academics” tell me about the world I inhabit. (Is this a reductio ad absurdum within post-modernism? That if one’s perspectives are limited and socially-conditioned, she may be unable to perceive those limits and that conditioning?)

The following quasi-verse (quasi-poem would suggest I actually went to the trouble of reading it back to myself after writing it) intimates what I have been discussing decently well. Bear in mind, I have freely borrowed many phrases and lines here.

In.

Pulling the curtain back, and going through.

Beyond the man frantically at work behind the curtain.

Beyond the machine that makes him more than a man.

Beyond the table, the incense, the ark and its mercy seat.

Going still further back.

“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom, I’m looking for answers from The Great Beyond.”

Why must I hunt this wily snipe, chase this wild goose, pursue this damned chimera, as if answers are there to be found?

I don’t know what I think.

I am aware that I am not fully aware…

Damned red pill. Can’t I go back to conservative evangelicalism or even fundamentalism and stay there?

The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.

I don’t quite know
How to say
How I feel

Those three words
Are said too much
They’re not enough

— Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

How do I feel? Do my feelings really matter?

A friend recently saw through something I have known for a while. My questions and philosophizing about faith are pointless.

Everything hinges on the resurrection. Either it happened (for which there might be decent arguments), or it didn’t (for which there are decent arguments). I have decided I cannot reason my way to God, I can only Jesus my way to God, meaning I can either historically and spiritually accept Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at Christianity or historically and spiritually deny Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at non-Christianity. This seems to fit Jesus’ words on the subject (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — John 14.6). A third option for now would be to continue as an agnostic.

But the point is, all these “intellectual” questions I’m asking are not going to accomplish anything. Philosophers have both “proved” God’s existence and God’s non-existence. As mentioned in my post “Miracle?“, I think Donald Miller is right on about people not converting for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones.

“Emotional reasons” may be too much of a reduction. Our relationships (as I argued last week), bodies, wills, locales, education, hobbies, habits and choices surely factor in as well. How arbitrarily and complexly we are formed!

Henceforth I want to examine these non-rational issues regarding faith and life. I want to look at the intersection(s) of feeling and thought and belief and decision, etc. If mental disorders have taught me anything, it’s that many pieces constitute the whole given whenever someone drops the question “How’s it goin’?”. The same goes for “What are you thinkin’ about?”.

What are you thinkin’ about? Does this make any sense? Should I give “reason” another chance?

Miracle?

Recently a friend asked me how I would respond if I witnessed a miracle, something that could only be explained with supernatural causes, right now.

I said first it would scare the shit out of me.

Then I would question it: I would want to know why god wanted to reveal a miracle to me, what god’s purpose was in doing that; I would want to know all the details – what really happened, and how, etc. I hate ambiguity. I learned this through studying language – I always want to know why there are the slightest exceptions to grammatical rules. This hatred also explains my very direct romantic attempts/approach: if I’m interested in someone I do not beat around the bush about it (usually).

I had to also confess to my friend that I could become completely bogged down in these questions, perhaps much as I am currently in my faith life. Perhaps I ought to let things be, but I cannot find myself able to do so.

Eventually I told him I would emotionally “shut down” to the experience. My friend said this – the emotional reaction – is what he wanted me to tell him about the whole time. I distrust my emotions. I have a history of clinical depression, anxiety (social- and stress-induced), panic attacks, slight-OCD and paranoia: after this deluge of emotion mixed in with my faith life it is hard to let myself trust or give myself over to my emotions ever. Because of this, I think it is possible I would seek a way to explain the miracle away so I did not have to emotionally respond to it at all.

Donald Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz that people do not walk away from Christianity for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones. I think it is important to recognize the role emotion plays in belief. Anyone who denies emotion affects belief – be they deist or Marxist or naturalist or Catholic – is wrong: it is a Modern dream that people believe things solely because they are empirical or rational. We believe things because of reason, we hope, but also because of the community we were raised in, the community and place we are currently in, the preferences we have, the emotions we have, the bodies we have, the wills we have. I think belief is largely a choice but maybe not even wholly a choice. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he said faith was a gift of God.

I hope to engage these ideas – the role of factors other than intellect, especially emotion or place, on our beliefs; why I have walked away from Christianity; etc. – further in future posts. But for now suffice it to say that I may not be open to a miracle even if I saw one. A different friend of mine said as much happened to him – he saw miracles while in Haiti but did not allow them to affect him or his faith at all. Jesus spoke to this: he said that many will see but not perceive or hear but not understand.

If so, what could I do in the event of a miracle? I think I could only respond as my conscience best dictated, trying to open my mind to the real possibility of the miracle but simultaneously relying on my best judgment and Ockham’s razor. I think I would be an uncomfortable incarnation of believer and devil’s advocate. I think I would be much as I am now.

Questions: A) Why do miracles always seem to be unverified by modern, critical methods? Is it because verifying them would somehow miss the point? Or is it because the only miracles that can persist are the unverifiable ones, the hoaxes? B) Why would God want to avoid verification? C) Can people blind themselves to truth? Or, can/does God blind people to God/the truth (i.e., am I Calvinistically-, soteriologically-fucked)?