Saturday, March 10, 2012

Believing Without Proof

Respectful Atheist has a thought-provoking post entitled Do Atheists Need Faith? I have some rambling thoughts.

The definition of "faith" that Respectful Atheist is assuming in his post is essentially believing in something without proof. As he notes, many Christians consider that to be a virtue. I myself have heard Christians treat it as such. "God does not prove his existence to us because, if he did, our belief wouldn't be faith", they have said to me. But what's so great about believing in something without proof? I'm with Respectful Atheist on this. I don't get it.

Respectful Atheist does not believe that it's good to believe in things without proof. But Respectful Atheist does acknowledge that there are things that he believes without absolute certitude. He states:

"My current belief is that it's perfectly alright to have varying degrees of certainty about pretty well anything and everything. For example, I feel around 99% certain that I will wake up tomorrow morning. I am a relatively young man, without any significant health problems (that I am aware of), and it is pretty rare for people like me to die suddenly in the middle of the night. I am about 75% sure that I won't have to replace either one of my aging cars within the next year. I feel roundabout 60% sure that it will rain tomorrow."

But do those things constitute believing in something without proof? My hunch is that Respectful Atheist would say "no", for, although there is not absolute proof for any of these things, they do have some basis in reality. He looks at reality, and young men without significant health problems usually wake up the next morning, and so he concludes that there is a decent chance that he, too, will wake up the next morning. For him, that's different from a belief in God or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy because it is based on observable reality.

But what about those who believe that they've experienced God or the supernatural, in some way? Many atheists dismiss that as anecdotal evidence, or they say that those experiences can be interpreted in a non-supernatural fashion, or they say that they should not have to believe in God on the basis of experiences that they themselves did not have, but that others allegedly had. I sympathize with the last one. At the same time, I don't think that those who believe in God on the basis of what they believe to be experiences with the supernatural are believing without any proof or basis at all.

Yet, I do get tired of Christians getting in my face with their Christianity, telling me and the rest of the world that we should do this and not that, when there doesn't appear to be any proof for their worldview. Sure, people can experience the supernatural, and that can even occur within the context of Christianity, but does that prove that conservative Christianity in its entirety is true?

Yet, would God leave us in the dark without giving us a revelation, such as the Bible? But do we have to accept all of the Bible to be recipients of that revelation? Even conservative Christians downplay or explain away parts of the Bible that contradict our notion of justice. Moreover, there are many who do not believe that the Bible is fully consistent and clear, and the existence of many denominations and forced interpretations of the Bible shows (in my mind) that there's something to that view, so why would the Bible be the revelation that we receive?

Some then say that God reveals himself through other things, such as life and nature. I'm not sure, though, if life and nature communicate unequivocal messages. Does nature teach us to be kind? What about animals not being kind to each other? I think that those who claim to be receiving God's revelation through life and nature are projecting their own views onto those things, as do I.


  1. I like a Wittgensteinian approach to these things (or anyway, what I believe is something like that ...!). We are all immersed in some culture, that we don't choose, as a starting point (the culture containing a range of variations). Using the resources of the culture, we can to an extent think about and to an extent choose what sort of life to lead. There are various reasons around to be some sort of Christian, as well as reasons to be some sort of something else. I feel comfortable being some sort of Christian - one quite like yourself, I suppose, one thoughtful, exploring etc! By 'comfortable', I don't just mean some arbitrary 'feel good' factor, I mean, taken all round it looks to me 'true', to my intellect, emotions, experience of life, etc.

    Will there be 'proof' when we are (so to speak) living in heaven? ... that it won't suddenly change or end, or ... I reckon there can be no more proof in heaven than here now on Earth about these things. Presumably, it will be a much nicer place to be than here, but going about our living there will be on the same sort of basis as living our lives here.

  2. I read about Wittgenstein recently in a book by David Novak on natural law.

  3. I found these extracts in Google books:

    Natural Law in Judaism By David Novak

    Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory By David Novak
    pp.80 and 81

    and Novak is saying what I understand to be Wittgensteinian things, though in passing!

  4. Yeah, the one I read was Natural Law in Judaism. Soon, I'll be starting his book on the Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism. I wrote a few posts on Natural Law, but they'll appear in April. But, before then, I may write a post quoting what Novak says about Wittgenstein, since I found it interesting.


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