God (cont.)

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Again, it’s not hard to understand why believers might want to suppress their doubts and act more certain of their faith than they really are. Not only can it make them seem more credible to other people; it can also help them convince themselves that they’re right – and that can feel important not only during the hard times, but just during daily life too. I can attest to having done this myself when I was a believer; I didn’t just think that God existed – I knew he did. I knew that I was talking to him when I prayed; and I knew that Heaven was real. At least, that’s what I told myself. But of course, a lot of people “know” things that turn out to be untrue. Everyone before Copernicus’s time “knew” that the sun revolved around the earth (well, almost everyone). The 9/11 hijackers “knew” that God wanted them to kill themselves and thousands of other people. Millions of monotheists around the world “know” that their religion is the correct one, and millions of polytheists “know” the same of their own mutually incompatible religions.

What ought to be clear, then, is that in at least some of these examples, people’s self-proclaimed certainty that their beliefs are true doesn’t represent the actual probability that those beliefs are true. Rather, it’s just serving as a proxy for something else, like how important those beliefs are to them, or how much they want to convince others that they’re true. In some cases, people may even take the beliefs for which they have the least support and insist most strongly that they know them to be true, because they subconsciously feel like they have to compensate for those beliefs’ weakness. As Michel de Montaigne put it, “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.” Whatever the reason, though, it’s clear that the one thing their “100% certainty” doesn’t represent is actual 100% certainty.

The fact is, nobody can truly be 100% certain in their faith; that’s why it’s called faith. If you could have 100% certainty in some particular religious proposition, there wouldn’t be any need to have faith that it was true; you’d just know it was true. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard stressed this point emphatically in his theology:

Kierkegaard thought that to have faith is at the same time to have doubt. So, for example, for one to truly have faith in God, one would also have to doubt one’s beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person’s thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance. Someone who does not realize that Christian doctrine is inherently doubtful and that there can be no objective certainty about its truth does not have faith but is merely credulous. For example, it takes no faith to believe that a pencil or a table exists, when one is looking at it and touching it. In the same way, to believe or have faith in God is to know that one has no perceptual or any other access to God, and yet still has faith in God.

And TheraminTrees makes a similar point (albeit more critically) in describing his deconversion from Christianity:

I realized that […] religious faith was not earned – it was simply demanded, based on a stack of bold claims that were never substantiated. In fact, bizarrely, if direct evidence was ever offered, faith would become instantly redundant. Faith, by its very nature, was forced to reside in the ambiguous, the circumstantial, relying purely on the believers’ conviction that their inferences were correct.

The fact that some proposition is “a matter of faith” means that, at least to some extent, it must be unsubstantiated. The believer can’t know for sure that what they’re believing is true – they can’t even have good empirical reasons for believing it – they just have to believe it anyway, because that’s what faith is.

So Kierkegaard is right to say that anyone who has faith must, by definition, also have doubts. And crucially, there’s nothing wrong with that. But because so many believers feel like they have to be 100% certain in their beliefs – because they feel like to admit otherwise would be to admit that they might be deceiving themselves – they can often feel like there is something wrong with them if they have any doubts. And their inevitable failure to attain that 100% certainty in their beliefs often causes them to suffer feelings of guilt and shame, which ultimately drive them into unhealthy spirals of self-repression. Their desire to have perfect faith backfires on them – because the very idea of “perfect faith,” by definition, is an oxymoron.

Again, this is something that I can attest to from my own firsthand experience; I struggled for a long time with that distressing sense that my faith wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be. But my example is far from the only one. As I mentioned before, even the people who seem most in touch with God – the people who you’d think must surely be hearing from him directly – often secretly struggle with the same uncertainty themselves. It’s just a universal part of the experience of faith. And in fact, as Harris points out, even the most famously Christian person of our time had to grapple with the fact that, when she forced herself to be brutally honest, she just couldn’t feel God’s presence the way she thought she should have been able to – to the point that the shame of it practically tore her apart:

[We’ve recently learned] that even Mother Teresa, the most celebrated exponent of [Christianity] in a century, had her doubts all the while – about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, about heaven, and even about the existence of God:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love – and now become as the most hated one – the one – You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. – Alone … Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God – please forgive me – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

– addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

Mother Teresa’s recently published letters reveal a mind riven by doubt (and well it should have been). They also reveal a woman who was surely suffering from run-of-the-mill depression, though even secular commentators have begun to politely dress this fact in the colors of the saints and martyrs. Mother Teresa’s response to her own bewilderment and hypocrisy (her term) reveals just how like quicksand religious faith can be. Her doubts about God’s existence were interpreted by her confessor as a sign that she was now sharing Christ’s torment upon the cross; this exaltation of her wavering faith allowed her “to love the darkness” she experienced in God’s apparent absence. Such is the genius of the unfalsifiable. We can see the same principle at work among her fellow Catholics: Mother Teresa’s doubts have only enhanced her stature in the eyes of the Church, being interpreted as a further confirmation of God’s grace. Ask yourself, when even the doubts of experts are taken to confirm a doctrine, what could possibly disconfirm it?

It’s clear that Mother Teresa’s doubts were causing her to feel terrible anguish; and it’s also clear that her struggles to suppress those doubts were only making things worse. You can just imagine how bad it would have been for her if, in the midst of all this inner turmoil, someone close to her had died; not only would she have had to deal with the pain of the loss itself, but on top of that she also would have had to deal with the guilt of not knowing for sure that they’d gone to Heaven, and the shame of not hearing any response from God when she prayed to him about it. Her religiosity wouldn’t have been the answer to her troubles – it would have only exacerbated them.

If Mother Teresa had only been able to confront her doubts head-on, rather than trying to suppress them, she might have reached a point of greater clarity and not been so suffocated by anxiety. It would have been more uncomfortable in the short term, no doubt – but in the long term it would have left her better off.

Unfortunately, though, that’s not how these things usually go. When religious believers start having doubts, their typical response isn’t to take a closer look at their own thoughts and start interrogating their beliefs in order to attain greater clarity; it’s to just put their heads down and try to power through their doubts – to force them away using sheer willpower. Rather than actually trying to resolve their doubts, they just suppress them. They tell themselves that they just have to persist in their faith; and whenever the doubt starts to creep in again, that’s what they come back to – just keep the faith. Just keep believing, even if your reasons to believe fail. And usually, that’s enough to carry them along until their next “religious experience” gives them an emotional rush that allows them to feel vindicated in their faith, and they can tell themselves that they knew it all along and never had any reason to doubt. But just sticking your fingers in your ears and persisting in your belief for its own sake, even in the face of evidence that it might be untrue, isn’t a recipe for success in the long run. Merely having faith that you’re right is something that anybody can do for any belief – even the most disastrously wrong ones. If all you have to go on is blind faith, you might just as easily end up falling for any false religion – or for that matter, any second-rate scam or con game – that comes along.

If you want to be truly secure in your beliefs, and you want to be confident that they’re genuinely true, you need to actually have valid reasons for believing them. Just believing something because you want to believe it or you need to believe it isn’t good enough. As Christina puts it:

To me, this idea that it’s okay to believe in something without any evidence – and in fact when the evidence is pretty much contradicting you flatly, staring you in the face and telling you that you’re wrong – this idea that it’s okay? That’s a really harmful idea. And it’s an idea that has harm that affects every aspect of our life. You know, I look at all of these social issues that I care about passionately, and almost all of them are touched by religion. And almost all of them are touched by this idea that faith is a good thing – that it’s not only an acceptable thing, that it’s a positive thing, that it’s a virtuous thing, that it makes you a good person to believe things that you have no good reason to think are true. And to me, that just makes no sense. And it’s actually harmful.

And Maroney writes something similar:

Christians commonly […] claim that there is a virtue in believing something without proof; that is, faith in itself is held to be a virtue. [But] I see no virtue in accepting a thing on faith, since it may well be false, and it is clearly not a virtue to believe the false. Given the willingness to have faith, how does one decide whether to put it in Christianity instead of Hinduism? There is no way; you just have to cross your fingers and take the plunge. Whichever choice you take, you will hear voices in your head, see divine manifestations, and so on, so even once the plunge is taken there is no way to know you are correct.

He adds that if someone’s strategy for deciding what to believe is to simply go by blind faith and then stick with their decision no matter what, they might just as soon end up deluding themselves into serving a devil posing as God rather than the real God: “No amount of evidence could convince them that the devil was bad once they had decided to worship him; their basic assumption is that they are correct, so they are untouchable by any rationality.”

In order to get things right, then, there has to be a place for rationality – it can’t just be blind faith alone. There has to be room for taking on new information, making adjustments, and even changing beliefs if they turn out to be unjustifiable – because after all, that’s what it means to truly believe something. If you really think that something is true, then by definition, you think that it reflects the way reality actually is. And that means that you can’t just say “I believe this and nothing could ever change my mind;” you have to be able to continually update your beliefs to match the facts as you perceive them. As Harris points out:

As long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence. Indeed, if there were no conceivable change in the world that could get a person to question his religious beliefs, this would prove that his beliefs were not predicated upon his taking any state of the world into account. He could not claim, therefore, to be representing the world at all.

Again, it’s one thing to profess a particular belief – but it’s another to actually believe it (and not just convince yourself that you believe it). A lot of people try to overlook that distinction (either consciously or subconsciously), but it’s ultimately one that makes all the difference in the world.

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