It pays sometimes to ask yourself the question, what would change my mind? To what extent could my mind be changed? What alternatives would I consider?
Asking this kind of question is an important part of basic mental hygiene. After all, if you never consider the possibility of being wrong, then for all you know you are wrong. If you never consider the possibility of truth in other systems, then for all you know they are true.
This is a personal post, where I'm going to talk about my religious beliefs. That's not what I normally do on this blog, but it's my blog and I'll do what I want. I should mention, this post was inspired in part by a good friend of mine, Nathaniel Givens, in his post here on Times and Seasons.
I am (at this point at least) an evangelical Christian. What does that mean? I believe that the principle author of the Bible is God, and given that God is its author, this means the Bible is correct in all that it teaches. The proper way to read the Bible is historically and grammatically; as a book that describes events that happened in history, written in normal human language, in terms of the language, customs, conventions, and culture of the writers. If symbolism is appropriate, then it should be clear from the context; if literalism is appropriate, then that should also be clear from the context. Because I believe what I do about the Bible, I also believe that God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that humans are sinful, and this sinfulness touches all aspects of their lives (their minds, their brains, their bodies, their wills). This sinfulness finds forgiveness by means of the sacrifice of Jesus, whereby all penalty due to me was given to Him, and whereby also all merit due Him is given to me (these beliefs are called penal substitutionary atonement and double imputation). There are very many other things that I believe, but that is the crux of what it means for me to say that I am an "evangelical". Those aren't really the point of this post so I state them only in passing, just to make it clear the position where I'm coming from.
But could my mind ever be swayed? Could I be made to believe something else? What sorts of arguments would sway me? If I stopped believing what I believe today, what sorts of other things would I believe?
|Look! I even made a cover for it!
I could write it pretty quick, too. Some witty quips about Christians being dumb, some vague references to science solving all our questions and making religion antiquated, some passages of the Bible I don't like or think are stupid, and now I've written every bestselling book on atheism ever. I'd be rich!
But I don't think I could ever become an atheist. I think the furthest I could go in the atheist direction is Deism. To me, atheism is extremely intellectually dissatisfying. But, let's at least consider it. What arguments would drive me that direction?
I am sort of inoculated against the Problem of Evil, but I acknowledge this as one of the key arguments in many people's loss of faith. I don't consider it an argument for atheism, as I don't think atheism's answer is any better. I think the Problem of Evil is actually a pretty cogent argument for the existence of God, and more for a God like that in the Bible. All this argument does it make me want to assert the existence of a supreme Good in opposition to the Evil we see; otherwise there isn't a "Problem of Evil" at all, as there isn't "Evil" or even really a "Problem". There's just "stuff" and people who find it sad.
Think of a starving African child, maybe eight years old, whose eye has been infected with parasitic worms, slowly dying from dehydration. This happens. This is happening. Somewhere in the world this hypothetical child is actually a real child, really dying right now. When you consider such a child, your reaction should be sadness and even anger. This is something evil, and evil should make you angry. When you then say there is no God, you also say that there is no evil and that there is no way you should feel. There may be ways that you do feel, but there's no way to normalize those, and more importantly no way to make those feelings describe an actual injustice. This is merely something that happens, just as some raindrops land in the ocean and others on dry land. That's just the way it is. I don't find that to be a very satisfying answer to my outrage.
What does make me question my faith, however, is the more serious problem of the Christian struggle against sin. In case you didn't already know, faithful, pious Christians who fervently pray for holiness do in fact occasionally do sinful things.
Now, to say that Christian hypocrites do bad things is so obvious as to be uninteresting. People who are "Christian" and go to church to be approved by their friends likely feel so much positive-moral affirmation that they think they can get away with all manner of cruel and wicked behavior. Religion is dangerous. The Christian author George MacDonald, in his fairytale "The Giant's Heart", describes a monstrous giant who kidnaps little children and eats them like radishes... but every Sunday he wears the whitest socks to church. To quote the story,
We are all able to fall in to that trap, whether it be church attendance, vegan diets, clicking "like" on some social cause's facebook page, or any of a million other things that offer us the label of "good person".
But I'm not talking about Christian hypocrites. I'm talking about honest people who feel terrible about the bad things that they do, wish they weren't so compelled by the bad things, who pray fervently for God to please take these temptations away and to give them strength to resist them. Sometimes, for some people, God just doesn't. He just lets them go on falling in to temptation and even in to sin. For years, sometimes for decades.
That process bothers me. It is so much more worrisome than merely the problem of evil; not only is there evil, not only am I participating in evil, not only can I not even stop myself from being evil, but also God is unwilling or unable to help me stop, too. At one point this seriously disturbed me, to the point of making me question if I wasn't after all damned to Hell.
I'm not in any danger of succumbing to that sort of despair at the moment, but while I was in the grips of it, atheism started to seem more and more appealing. Not more truthful, per se; just more appealing. And it wasn't necessarily atheism per se, just the idea of moral license. If I'm constrained to be wicked after all, why not go all out with it? But I think, were I ever to become an atheist, that line of thinking would be the central impetus.
|smbc nails it here
I don't think I could be a nihilist, as it is just physiologically impossible to maintain that system of belief in your head for longer than about 20 seconds at a time. As soon as you determine that it is important to keep being a nihilist, you aren't actually a nihilist anymore.
But I would view any other kind of atheism as intellectually dishonest with itself. If you are an atheist and you think it is immoral to _____, then you aren't an atheist. You are at that point a supernaturalist. Or, if you object to that, then find me the immoraltron particles that actually adhere to murderers making them immoral. You can rephrase your statement to "I dislike it when _____", but so what? I dislike peas and carrots in my rice. Get over it, or just eat around them like I do.
But... that would put me back at nihilism.
Really, like I said, at this point in my life I don't think that I ever could be an atheist. It's not just that I disagree with it now, it's that I can't think of a way to find it satisfying on any emotional or intellectual level.
Not only could I never be an atheist, but I could never be a pantheist or a polytheist, either. I guess physical evidence could convince me of the existence of what the Romans and Greeks called "gods", but I'd never believe such entities were actually gods. I would consider them fellow creatures, albeit very strong ones. Maybe they can manipulate forces and events in subtle ways, maybe even in supernatural ways, but that doesn't really make them gods in my book.
If I were asked for physical evidence of God, I would dismiss the questioner as theologically deficient. But for so-called pagan gods, it's a reasonable request. Hercules was born when Zeus had physical intercourse with a mortal woman. Krishna literally drove the chariot of Arjuna in to battle. Odin flew around on a horse and would actually leave gifts to good children. The pagan gods had bodies and their blood was ichor, and you could touch them, you could trick them, you could outperform them, you could physically wound them, you could have sexual relations with them. So asking for physical evidence of them is not entirely absurd.
But even with physical evidence, such as the literal Thor standing in a scientific laboratory shooting literal lightning from his magic hammer Mjolnir, I would never believe Thor was a god. I'd believe Thor existed, and had incredible powers, but not that he was a god. I guess it'd be neat to know how the magic hammer-lightning works, but otherwise I'd find his existence uninteresting and uncompelling.
By his very nature, Thor is not a god. Any physical entity who is part of creation is by nature not a god.
Aside from direct physical evidence, I would never believe that any of the entities called "gods" actually existed; even with evidence I still wouldn't worship them.
The only religions I could accept would have to be monotheistic in nature. Or, at the least, the only object I could direct worship to would have to be the Prime Mover/Creator who formed all the cosmos and who authored all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Anything less simply cannot be called a god.
At this point, I'm not talking about different gods like Zeus or Mars or Vishnu or Loki, but different conceptions of what is fundamentally the same being, God, the God, who is from first to last. When I use the capital form, 'God', I'm using it as a proper noun to refer to the only entity who can be rightly so called.
My commitment to monotheism is not limited to my commitment to evangelical Christianity. It rather comes to me from my observation of the natural world.
When you go to some popular science pages, like "I F-ing Love Science", you will see a lot of amazing things. But what you're seeing largely isn't really "science". What you're seeing is nature. It is nature that you love. Science is the study of nature, and science helps make these amazing things of nature known to us, but science is not the natural world itself.
Science also does not give us the cool natural things. It helps us know them, but that's different from giving them to us. The Andromeda galaxy was just as beautiful before we ever saw it.
When we look around at the manifold wonders of the natural world, everything from the vastness of space to the hideous deformity of an angler fish, I think that the only proper reaction we should be left with is "Who can I thank for all of this?"
Sure, thank scientists to a certain extent for showing it to you. It's hard work to make some of these findings. But the scientists are even more in awe by it than you are. Speaking from personal experience, that awe of seeing the beautiful inner workings of the natural world is what led me down this path of study in the first place. I wanted to see more of it. So much so that I've spent the entirety of my youth studying it.
|This picture brought to you by science.
This actual flippin' ginormous galaxy brought to you by ____
So I want to know who to thank for this amazing, complex, and stunningly elegant system we call the universe. Who do I thank for electromagnetic fields? Who do I thank for spacetime curvature? Who do I thank for quantum mechanics?
This points me to monotheism. Whatever it is that made a universe like this, who gave it its laws, and who keeps it functioning, that entity deserves my worship, because that entity is frankly pretty awesome.
I am not merely referring to whatever it is that caused the Big Bang. Right now, quantum mechanics keeps on working. There is a principle to it, and that principle remains true. Numerous scientists, Einstein amongst them -- while definitely not Christians of any stripe -- have believed in and honored this understanding of God I'm describing. When speaking of physical laws, they did not speak of them as things contrary to God, but rather as the very mind of God itself.
This kind of thought is called Deism. My principle disagreement with Deism is merely that it doesn't go far enough in describing God. However, in terms of the intellectual motivations that lead me to monotheism, I think Deism is able to satisfy those. So I think Deism is a possible description of reality. If confronted with serious challenges to what I currently believe, to such an extent that I lose my faith entirely, my fallback will be religious Deism, actively honoring whatever this entity is that made everything.
Further, any belief that is not basically Deism+ cannot possibly be true in my mind, for the same reasons that polytheism can't possibly be true in my mind. Any kind of monotheistic belief that does not present a notion of God as the one whose thoughts and mind govern the fabric of the reality we experience is not a true expression of monotheism.
After all, a single god hovering in outer space squashing dirt together to make the Earth is nothing more than a lonely Zeus.
However, amongst those beliefs which qualify as monotheistic, I think any of them could, potentially, be true. I know I may seem dismissive of atheism and polytheism, but I am definitely not dismissive of, for instance, Islam or Sikhism. Their notion of God is, to me, sufficiently developed that they may possibly be true. I've dedicated a lot of time to trying to understand Islamic theology because I really do think it may possibly be right. I don't think it is, but there's a possibility for it that I don't find in atheism or polytheism. I have not devoted much time to Sikhism, mostly because I have not been confronted with it yet on an intellectual level, but I'm open to hearing about it. The One from neoplatonism or even the Socratic Transcendentals are also possibilities, in my mind.
When I say they are possibilities, I mean that I think one or another of these conceptions might be developed enough to account for just the basics of existence. To decide which among them is correct, or most correct, requires critical study and evaluation. It is possible, at least, that my mind might be changed from what I believe now to one of these other systems of belief.
So how would this process of changing my beliefs go?
If today you took away completely my faith in the New Testament as inspired, I would still be a Christian, but I would lean more to the side of Eastern Orthodoxy, still believing that Jesus was divine. This would represent a pretty serious divergence in my current beliefs, as the Eastern Orthodox don't believe a lot of what I do in terms of atonement, sacraments, prayer, images, or even 100% on the Trinity. But I would still be a Christian, and a fairly devout one.
If you took away my faith in Jesus as divine, then I would see him as just another Jewish rabbi out of the 2nd Temple Judaic milieu. This would convince me of the truth of Judaism; I would continue worshipping the God of Israel. Being a gentile, I am not required - and it isn't encouraged either - to become a Jew and be circumcised and follow the kosher regulations; I merely have to obey the few precepts of the Noachide covenant -- abstain from illicit sexual relations, don't eat meat with blood in it, don't worship any other gods, don't murder, don't steal, obey the laws of my country. This is exactly what the early church, meeting in Jerusalem, asked of gentile believers, so in effect, even if you convinced me that Christianity was completely illegitimate, in practice nothing would really change in terms of my behavior. I'd probably even still go to Christian churches; I'd simply stop worshipping Jesus as God.
|The Kaaba during a pilgrimage
If you further took away my faith in the Old Testament as inspired, then you would reduce me to Theism. Islam and Sikhism are no longer options at this point, neither is Bahai, really, but perhaps there are other monotheist belief systems that don't try to fold-in the revelation of God to Abraham and Moses? I'm sure such a monotheistic religion exists, but none come to mind.
What's most likely, at this point, is that I'd take the view -- which I believe is the majority view in my country -- of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God is a nice person, he made everything, he loves everyone, he wants us to be happy and he wants us to be nice to other people, and if we're good people then when we die we go to heaven. The Bible is mostly symbolic and is a bunch of stories, and contains some bad parts but mostly has the right idea about being good people and being nice to each other. God doesn't care what you believe, really, as long as you're a good person and don't do anything mean or hateful. I'm not mocking this view; if I stopped believing the entire Bible as the inspired word of God, this is really what I'd most likely come to believe. (The use of "Deism" in the name is inappropriate as this is actually a theistic belief).
I think, today, this is where most people are. Whether they call themselves Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, if you asked them in detail, most people really believe what I outlined above. Maybe the Christian MTDs would also have a belief that "Jesus is the Son of God", while Muslim MTDs have a belief that "Jesus and Muhammad are prophets of Allah". Aside from that, I think most people who believe in God understand him as I explained above. That might even be the most natural or basic way to think about God. While other Moralistic Therapeutic Deists probably don't think of themselves as such, I would definitely be conscious of being one; it would take a denial of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and most other established monotheistic faiths to get me to this point, after all.
Practically, being a Moral Therapeutic Deist, I would still not be much different than most Christians. I'd still probably go to church (most Christian MTDs do), and I'd still probably behave in ways identical to how I behave today. I may be slightly more loose in what I consider to be "bad" -- as long as people are still happy and no one gets hurt, it's still okay. Otherwise, not a lot would change.
(As an aside, this is also why I think some atheistic arguments seem so devastating in the modern era - most "Christians" are really Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.)
If you took away my belief in the personability of God, then I'm left with Deism. There are a number of different forms of Deism. The most compelling Deistic conception, to me, is to consider the three Transcendentals of Socrates -- Truth, Beauty, Goodness -- as being three expressions of a single entity, which I would then call God. Unless I am mistaken (which I likely am), this is also very similar to what is believed in neoplatonism, in their conception of the One. Both of these, to me, seem plausible, and I would look in to them more at this point.
Practically, even as a Deist, I would feel a personal affinity for the person of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the four Christian gospels. Even without believing in his divinity, inspiration, prophethood, or anything like that, I'd still consider him a very exemplar man and a noble teacher. I would totally just ignore C.S. Lewis insisting I don't have that option (sorry, Jack), due to how compelling Jesus' moral ideals were. In the sense of taking to heart Jesus' commands against judgment, hate, envy, greed, and moreover pride, I would still be in some sense a "Christian". I'd probably pick up a copy of the Jefferson Bible and stick to that. I would also still probably be active in a church, but maybe just as a donor or a volunteer.
Up to this point, also, barring my conversion to a religion such as Islam, I think I would maintain a significant amount of belief in belief in evangelical Christianity. I would continue to see evangelicalism as a good thing, and support evangelical expressions of faith. I myself would not believe them, but I'd find them to be good for the person believing them.
I don't think you could ever take away my belief any further than Deism. You may convince me that God is more cruel, or more distant, or less compassionate, or more heartless, or less loving. You could possibly even convince me that God is a sadistic monster who wants to torture us as much as possible. But I don't think I could be brought to completely disbelieve that there is such an entity as God, no matter how much of my current belief structure you can get me to surrender.
If you convinced me that God was somehow evil and not worth my worship, then I would stop associating with churches altogether. I'd also probably change a fair number of my moral beliefs, such as things about drug use or sexual morality, or even things like lying, stealing, or just being a bully. Whether anyone else would or not, I would. A lot of what keeps me wanting to be a good person at all is my belief that there is actually such a thing as goodness; if I didn't have that, then why bother?
More or less, as tenets of my current beliefs are removed, I would come to positions where I consider other religious beliefs as serious possibilities. Barring my conversion to a system such as Islam or Sikhism or Baha'i, or my rejection of goodness altogether, I'd mostly still attend a church and still have the largely conservative moral views that I hold, and more or less identify with conservative Christianity, even if I stopped agreeing with them theologically.
I am theoretically open to a number of religions and beliefs. For theological and philosophical reasons, I do not consider atheism or polytheism to be plausible candidates. However, I do consider other monotheistic religions to be possible, and worthy of consideration and study.
To me, now, it seems that the absolute furthest I can be brought is to a belief in a real God, perhaps better described as an "it", which is impersonal, distant, uncaring, or even cruel, yet still the creator of all things and the reason why all the universe continues running its course.
Of course, this has been assuming a particular progression, and one motivated by intellectual challenges. This is based off of my predictions now, given what I currently believe and how I currently feel, of what I might consider in different circumstances. Maybe some particularly devastating event in my life could make me jump all the way through the list all at once? There's no way to really know what philosophical or religious ideas would seem appealing to me in some future state of my mind, but it's still fun to consider the possibilities.