If belief is the only tool, what of those who feel they can’t believe? There are many who may read this blog and say, “That’s nice that belief is the only tool that you can use to know God, but I just can’t believe at all. I feel I’d be giving in to superstition” or “I just can’t believe in something that I can’t see and for which I find no empirical evidence.” I can empathize with this statement. I personally hope and search for empirical things and am skeptical of some claims from believers.
Something has brought you this far. Whether to get an answer for yourself about these questions, or to try to refute my words; out of curiosity, or out of trying to objectively understand a believer’s point of view, or, perhaps, because you may already agree with me, you have come and you’re willing to read. And hopefully, you’re willing to try the only tool we have for knowing: to believe.
There are many who say they would be willing to believe if there was some great and irrefutable manifestation of God’s existence, such as the earth beginning to orbit the sun in the opposite direction and us not feeling the reversal or flying off the planet—then, they say, they would believe. And that desire to have such a manifestation is understandable; nothing speaks to our intellects like direct, objective accounts, preferably measured by third-party scientists (if such neutrality existed regarding belief in God).
But the problem is that such a grandiose manifestation doesn’t create belief. If it came from God, it would produce knowledge: He could make it very obvious. However, as we’ve already discussed, there seems to be some redeeming quality about belief that God wants us to cultivate. As far as I know, all those people who have come to an undeniable knowledge of God have not done so solely, even primarily, through empirical evidences; they have done so through the tool of belief.
(I can imagine many thinkers willing to attempt to prove that turning the globe backwards couldn’t possibly be miraculous or divine, or that nothing, for that matter, could have divine origins, no matter how creative the physical manifestation is. As I said before, there are many who just don’t want to believe, and as such, there will be relatively nothing, except an actual beholding of God after death, that will seem convincing. They may say, “Well, if divine events or miracles were possible, I would not deny them, but since I know that they are not possible, there must be another explanation.” There are many who share this circular reasoning: “I don’t believe that miracles, however defined, are real, therefore your belief they are real is unfounded.” To those, I share my thoughts, and encourage them to at least be open-minded to those who feel differently.)
Even with undeniable knowledge of God, if some supernatural bizarreness were to happen, there would be plenty of scholars willing to attempt to show why it was a natural occurrence. People always seem to be able to convince themselves to believe or disbelieve evidences, depending what they want to believe—I have to recognize this statement from my standpoint as a believer. (This point in greater detail: forthcoming.) Belief on the part of scientists is akin to the belief that we are talking about: they, in order to perform an experiment, have to have some idea of what they think is going to happen. They have a belief in an idea, which they test. We also must have belief in an idea which we test, but the test we perform cannot be done with laboratory study.
This is where the necessity for the desire to believe is apparent. Without a desire to believe, we definitely won’t go on believing. This point resembles in some ways my previous point about “don’t want to believe” and “can’t believe”.
For some, asking the questions “Is God there? Does He care? What is His role in my life?” can be liberating. It can provide meaning to life and answers to deep questions of identity. It can provide peace. In a previous entry I mentioned a modified version of Pascal’s wager. Now, I understand that there are arguments all around the wager itself; we won’t justify Pascal’s logic. But the wager does illustrate a point: If God exists and can provide a happiness and joy greater than anything that we can find in this life, wouldn’t it be worth any price in this life to find out if that is true?
Though this is not the case with all who don’t believe, I have noticed that there are many who don’t believe because of what that would entail. If there is a God, the ones who know of Him historically speaking, in their various ways, say He expects righteousness, however defined. I will site a story from a Judeo-Christian text that gives an example of people who have no desire to believe because of what it entails. I recognize that there are those who disregard sacred writ, so for those people, I offer it as an illustration of the principle.
Ahaz was a king in the time of the Judeo-Christian prophet Isaiah. He didn’t really want anything to do with God and didn’t really live in the way God would expect him to, even though his kingdom was about to be attacked, and he would need all the deus ex machina he could muster. Isaiah, who is the mouthpiece for God in this record, offered Ahaz a remarkable proposition that many of us wish that we could have offered us. Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.” Basically, ask for anything as proof that He exists, and you can know that God exists and is available to help you. God is actually concerned. I think many of us would say, “Yeah! Have God do such-and-such! Then I’d believe!”
There would be many who would take that offer, but if God is interested in cultivating belief, there must be something else. In response to this question, Ahaz said, “No. I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.” Why? Why on earth would someone turn down the opportunity like this? He had everything to gain from the experience, didn’t he? Everything except one thing: if Ahaz knew or even believed that God existed, he would have to change his behavior to the way Isaiah told him God expected him to act. This story is illustrative of people whom I have met. Sometimes we are too concerned about protecting our small piece of intellectual turf or our demands for hedonic rights or our fear of losing something that is popular, convenient, individualistic, or prestigious. Being more concerned about maintaining our status quo than learning if God (or anything) is real gets in the way of even beginning to really try experimenting. The desire needed to move forward or to have belief is gone.
That is not to say that those who prefer to never ask the question are somehow inferior people. They obviously have found something worth living for, which can be commendable. But if God does exist, passing up the offer to come to know Him, just because we’ve found something satisfactory to bide our time, would deprive ourselves of greater richness, depth, and joy in life and eventually, a knowledge that discloses meaning in life.
I repeat: we have to desire the answer to this question before we can start asking the question. I have known another great many people, perhaps more than the refusing group to which I had just referred, who felt they performed the experiment of faith and received no results. I had shared with them some ideas as to how they could go about trying and verifying, which I will include here in an upcoming post. It seemed to me that they had tried these suggestions, but without the desire to believe. Sometimes they did it because they liked me and wanted to do it to please me. Sometimes they did it just to prove me wrong. But oftentimes they did it without the desire of knowing for themselves. And without that desire, they learned nothing. Though they went through the motions, they did not want to believe, and therefore never actually performed the experiment. It would be like trying to study the stars through a telescope, by looking through the telescope, focusing it very well, but never taking the lens cap off.
I know of people who tried suggestions given to them by believers with great diligence, and were frustrated that results did not come in the way they expected. When I asked them about believing, many had never actually started that part. They never desired to believe. I would ask them, “Just think hypothetically: if God did exist, and He did let you know what you’re asking for, but as a consequence you would have to change your lifestyle, leaving friends, maybe giving up some vice, or surrendering some behavior, would you still be willing to find out?” Those who felt like they had performed the experiment and had received nothing (from my personal experience only, N=about 45) invariably said either “No” or “I’d have to think about it”, meaning they hadn’t actually had the desire to believe up to that point. I was always surprised at the honesty of their answers, because I personally would feel sheepish for doing something like this just for the means and not for the ends. The ends in this case would usually entail that we change: we would have new experiences that we need to factor in to our calculations. If we were just going to ignore the experiences, why have them in the first place?
The desire to believe can be cultivated for some by contemplating those difficult questions of “why am I here?” and “does life have meaning?” and “can these answers be found?” I leave it to the reader to figure out what questions they have, what they’d be willing to give up in response to those answers, and ask themselves if they have the desire to perform such an experiment.