June 23, 2004

Why I Believe

Some time ago someone left a rude comment to one of my posts, asking the question (at rather more length) of how an apparently rational person like me can believe in all this Christian nonsense. I was in a bad mood at the time, and merely pointed out his comment as an example of how not to win friends and influence people. Still, it seems to me that he deserves a real answer, not just an ill-tempered grimace.

The short answer is that by the grace of God I cannot do other than believe.

I don't expect any non-believers in my audience to find this answer terribly helpful, but nonetheless it's true.

Here's the long answer.

The first point is that (from an intellectual point of view) Christianity isn't nonsense, but rather a belief-system capable of being rationally defended. Indeed, it was St. Thomas Aquinas' view (so I am given to understand) that the propositions of the Christian faith are susceptible to rigorous logical proof--with the minor problem that the details are so lengthy and intricate that few men or women will ever have the time (or make the effort) to follow them. I mention to this say that this most certainly isn't the way I came to belief in Christ.

However, even without going to such lengths, I still claim that it is rational to believe in Christ. Indeed, what's the basis for claiming that it's irrational? There's only one, and that's materialistic atheism--the claim, in short, that only the natural exists; any belief in the supernatural is nothing more than superstition.

Abler writers than myself have disposed of this; I can recommend C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy (Lewis, I may say, is the clearest thinker I've had the pleasure to read.), as well as G.K. Chesterton, particularly Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man.

And the point is this: the claim that the supernatural does not and cannot exist is a statement of faith, not a scientific truth. It is, in fact, the statement that nothing contrary to the Laws of Nature has ever been manifest in the universe, from the beginning of time until now. Can you see the flaw? The Laws of Nature are taken as a given, as an immutable fact, when in fact our knowledge of them changes with each advancement of science. As I say, it's a statement of faith; and interestingly, it's a faith that affirms, a priori, that any counter-examples can be discounted without investigation.

On the other hand, just because I accept that supernatural events might in fact occur, and believe that they have occurred in the past, it doesn't necessarily follow that I've jettisoned my critical faculties altogether, or that I'm a credulous fool who believes six impossible things before breakfast. My worldview takes in things that the scientistic (note--not scientific, but scientistic) worldview does not, but I still don't believe things without reason.

So what's my reason? Why do I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the crucified and resurrected and living messiah?

The answer is simple. I've met him. I no more need proofs that Jesus exists than I need proofs that my wife Jane exists.

I grew up Roman Catholic, and so I was first introduced to Jesus at an early age. But you know how it is when you're little and you meet your parent's friends. No matter how often you see them, you never really know them. And then, by the time I was a senior in High School, God had begun to seem like a really bad idea--a nuisance, an inconvenience, a bad excuse for living with everlasting guilt. I decided that I was, if not an outright atheist, at least an agnostic. I didn't want to know God. I didn't want there to be a God. I wanted there not to be a God.

Baldy put, my disbelief had nothing to do with any intellectual or rational process, but only with a desire to avoid the consequences of God's existence. Which is rather pathetic, when you come to think about it.

Anyway, the change came shortly after Christmas during my senior year of high school. I attended a Christian rock concert--a friend, likewise agnostic, had been invited by yet another friend, who was a Christian; the first friend wanted company and invited me. I wasn't especially interested, but I was bored and it was something to do. And during the evening I was asked, as part of the present company, to make a decision for or against Christ.

Really, you can't be too careful. Lack of faith has to be nurtured lovingly, or the incalculable may happen.

For that's when I heard the Lord speaking to me. I don't mean that I heard actual spoken words; it was very much in the stillness of my head. And it didn't really come in the form of words; it was more of an impression. More, as Chesterton would say, of a Presence. But the message came through clearly:

Will, you know perfectly well I'm here. Are you going to acknowledge me, or are you going to live in denial for the rest of your life?

And the plain truth is that that still small voice was correct. Whatever I might tell myself, and whatever the desires of my heart, I did know. And I felt I was really being given a choice--if I elected to live in denial, God would honor that decision. Or I could acknowledge him, and accept the consequences.

I have no way of knowing what would have happened if I had chosen to reject God that night. I expect that I would have persisted in my denial, and I further expect that at best I'd have turned into a mordant, sarcastic, bitter, sorry excuse for a human being. I'm sure that I'd have come to hate Christianity with a passion; that, after all, would be the human thing to do.

God be thanked, I didn't go that way. Instead, I admitted to myself that God exists, and that he is Lord--that is, that he has a claim on me. That his opinion matters. And that was the first step. That was the beginning of my knowledge of God. It was a small step--there was so much I didn't understand--but an essential one.

Since then, my friendship with God has had its share of ups and downs. I've had bleak depressions, and upon occasion I've had "Jordan moments", times when Jesus was so present to me it was as though he were sitting next to me. And now I know him...I won't say "well", but certainly much better than I did on that long ago night. And no matter how bleak my mood or enormous my doubts, there's one thing I've always been sure of. No matter how unlikely it seems at times, I know that God is there. He told me so himself.

He'll tell you the same, if you ask him.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 23, 2004 07:43 PM

The Gray Monk said:

Thank you for this extremely well put case. Like you I have come to know and trust God over a long and sometimes very difficult journey. Whoever your rude commentator was, he may do well to consider that it possibly takes an even greater "faith" to be an Atheist than it takes to believe and trust in God. After all, eternity is a very long time to spend discovering how wrong you could be.

Lars Walker said:

I wonder if the atheist commenter might have been a European. That's not a given, of course. Many Americans have a European mindset, but he expressed a very common European attitude, which may be increasing over here too (for our sins).

I went to hear a Christian speaker from Sweden a few months ago. He talked about the difficulties of doing Christian evangelism on the European continent. He said, "In America, if two people are going to discuss religion, the 'neutral position' from which they start is agnosticism -- saying, 'There might be a God, or there might not.'

"But in Europe, the 'neutral position' is assumed to be atheism: 'We'll assume you're wrong. Prove to me why I should think otherwise.'"

To the European mind, God has been ruled out _a priori_. One doesn't contemplate the possible existence of God any more than one contemplates the possible existence of Santa Claus or the dog-headed men once thought to live in Africa. It's an intellectual prejudice, but when a prejudice like that becomes almost universal in a culture it's tremendously difficult to argue with. You have to go back to absolute first principles and reason hard, and most people don't want to think that strenuously.

I left the lecture very depressed, not only becaue I love Europe, but because I very much fear that I may have peeked through a window at our own future.

Ray Grieselhuber said:

Very well written, Will.

As you alluded, and what I what like to emphasize is that, in my experience, the decision to be a follower of Christ is not the result of an intellectual decision - it's the answer to a call coming from a living person. That's why I don't get into lengthy debates about the intellectual reasons for being a Christian, unless they are honest questions from someone who is already open to belief.

For the most part, people decide to believe or not to believe based on their subjective impression of Christianity, and their possible past relationship with Christians. Most atheists that I know are angry former Christians.

That's where love comes in.

The Gray Monk said:

The majority of Atheists I have met have, as Ray says, formerly been Christians who have somehow "lost" their faith. This is often as a result of never getting it out of the kindergarten phase and then having to face a severe test, or more frequently, finding that the simplistic and absolutist position does not stand up to scrutiny. I am also reluctant to enter in to intellectual arguments with non-believers, unless there is a genuine interest in exploring further the entire question of what God is and offers to His creation. The Michaelangelo imagery simply does not work for me and is I would suspect a large part of the problem for many. The other is the often dogmatic position of many in church.

Mark D. said:

Will - catching up on my reading after 18 days in Provence (a dirty job, but someone has to do it!)

Thank you for this direct and heartfelt testimony. It bears every stamp of the reality of following God in Christ (how not?)

I love ascetic theology as a hobby - writings on the acutal practice of living in Christ. A friend of mine who loves Wodehouse and Chesterton as much as you recommended a book to me: Transformation in Christ, by Dietrich von Hildebrand. Yes, he's German, but along with his Teutonic thoroughness he brings a peaceful depth of love and experience. A wonderful book, and I hope you might enjoy it as well.

Kenneth S said:

Will,

As you have met Jesus, and he is a living, breathing person like your wife, would you kindly introduce me to him? Apparently, in all of my eighteen years of indoctrination, I never did.

Eighteen years of alternating weekends between a Baptist and a Presbyterian Church. One weekend a month with Lutheran or Methodist Boy Scout Troop. Two weeks of Lutheran Boy Scout camp (mandatory Bible & Church services...), and the icing on the cake, four years of Methodist Military School with two years of mandatory bible class, mandatory Chapel every Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday Morning. I must've played Onward Christian Solders a thousand times. Oh, and lets not forget a little phase where I went to a Pentecostal church with for two years between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

You would think that at some point during that journey, I would have met a living, breathing person you refer to as Jesus, as real as my wife. Funny that only a select few are so much more privileged than I ever was. You would think with as much effort I gave it, I would have met the man. With such grave consequences, Jesus should introduce himself to me right now?

As I was saying, I went through the ropes with the whole indoctrination thing. My entire family, both sides, very religious. But, there was a problem for me, I just couldn't believe it. You see, every different Church I went to had a different take on the whole divinity thing. Maybe it was in how the women were supposed to put their hair. Maybe it was regarding the question of the Trinity, was there one god or three (Pentecostals insist in one god, fyi). Should we use snakes in our services? Should gays be allowed to marry? Should Gays be allowed in the Clergy? Should women have the right to choice (see Hosea 13:16 or Psalms 137:9 on this one). Should open heart surgery be legal. The list of disagreements is lengthy. If this is the gift of a perfect deity, why is there so much division?

A reasonable person would probably agree a list of commandments would include 'Do Not molest your child' or 'Do not enslave your fellow man'. Both of these were encouraged by the god of the Old Testament. I can't tell you how many times god told the Israelites to take the ones that didn't know man for themselves, and kill everything else. How did they determine which girls had known man or which ones hadn't? Then, imagine the blood bath that ensued. And the Israelite solder called to the next in line: Ok lady, I don't have a lot of time, bend over and show me your... You get the point. If so many disagree, obviously, they can't all be right? You agree with that don't you? And, I am willing to bet, there is probably someone just like you in many of the other similar (but ultimately, according to your own rules, damned to hell) denomination who thinks you are damned to hell too.

Sometime around the age ten, I got a ravenous appetite for reading. Authors including Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Kevin J. Anderson, Doug Beason, Alfred Bester, Douglas Adams, Ben Bova, David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, James P. Hogan, Dr. Robert Forward, Philip Jose Farmer, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley and a few others, shattered any possibility that I could believe in anything like the Tower of Babble; a flood encircling the world killing all the little boys and girls; seas parting; or any of the other events depicted within the bible. Simply put, Nature is Sufficient unto itself and in need of no higher explanation.

I too have known a bunch of ex-Christians, including one in my local Tampabayatheists.org group who is an ex evangelical Pentecostal Pastor, Jim Young. I know of many more ex-clergy Atheists. Can you name any intellectually honest ex-Atheist believers? I found a thread on a board naming two, but in most cases, there was a question of integrity. There is also Dan Barker of ffrf.org (Freedom From Religion Foundation), Farrell Till, and quite a few others. There are over 220 testimonials of ex-Christians on exchristian.org, including many ex-clergy.

One common question/statement directed toward many atheists is, 'You must be mad at God.' That couldn't be further from the truth. It is not mad at your god, or Vishnu, or Mithra or Oscirus or Zeus or Allah, it is just that I can just as much believe in the god I was indoctrinated into as I can the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. I would love to believe that when I died, there would be something more after that. But, no credible evidence exists than our bodies stop functioning when we die, and that is that. Nothing more. Of course, you have your bible, but let me ask you: Do you believe Joseph Smith's writings were inspired by god? How about Mohamed? I bet, if you fall in line with the majority of American Christians, the answer is an offhanded 'of course not!' Why? Just because you have a strong belief in your delusion doesn't mean that it is real, otherwise, there would be roughly 33,999 less denominations of Christianity alone, not counting the roughly 20,000 or so other known gods invented by man.

My original comment:
I really don't get how a person who must use the most of their reasoning abilities to use the best information available to them to make essentially life or death decisions about code ... completely throw that to the wind and instead think that somehow looking 'within' gives some kind of meaning.


Snake Handler Succumbs to Bite:
http://www.pfo.org/succumbs.htm

From the World Christian Encyclopedia:
The 2001 edition, successor to his 1983 first edition, which took a decade to compile, identifies 10,000 distinct religions, of which 150 have 1 million or more followers. Within Christianity, he counts 33,830 denominations.
http://www.adherents.com/misc/WCE.html

Will Duquette said:

(To other commenters, please note--Kenneth S's comment, just above, is in response to an e-mail I sent him this morning, telling him I'd written this post.)

Ken, you raise more questions than I can respond to in a single comment; I'll do my best to answer them over time. Here, I'll confine myself to a couple of remarks.

In answer to your first question, can I introduce you to Christ, of course I can. The real question is whether you really want to be introduced to the Living Word, through whom all things were created. If you're bound and determined not to be, there's little I can do about it except pray for you.

Second, your testimony reflects the scandal that is American Christianity. You've gone through more flavors of Christianity than most, but beyond that your experience is by no means uncommon--we Americans are very good at obsessing about the length of people's hair and the right way to conduct a service, and very bad at introducing our children to Christ. That's a big topic; as your testimony shows, forcing someone to live within the forms is no way to teach them the content of the faith.

Third, you say you're not angry with God. Fine; but you sure seem to be angry with someone. Who? Why? I'm also curious why you find it necessary to band together with other atheists.

Fourth, if you're looking for intellectually honest ex-atheists, I would once again commend to you both C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Lewis' Surprised by Joy and Chesterton's Orthodoxy are the relevant books.

More later, in another post.

May the Good Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you, even though you don't believe in him.