Sunday, February 5, 2017

Rebuilding the Foundation: My journal entries after asking why

Last month my article I don’t know if there is a God. Neither do you. And that’s okay ran on The Salt Collective. I described how I lost my footing in faith, partly due to the lack of empirical discussion and teaching in most churches. I started asking why we believed in certain things, and it took a long time and a lot of work to find a satisfactory answer. 

I got a lot of feedback, including this question:

I didn't get the interpretation that you really answered the "why" in your piece. It seems that you went from having strong doubts and deep, philosophical questions about the "why" directly to having your faith restored by a genuine sense that God was speaking to you. Maybe that's your answer to the why? You believe because you feel?

In the article I jump rather quickly to the conclusion (the "answer" to why), but in reality it took several years - my sophomore year of college when I really started asking was 2008-2009 and I didn't reach the conclusion I describe until 2013 (and I expect I'll never completely reach a conclusion).

I'd say that I only partially answered the 'why'. I concluded that I have a basis for belief, but I don't have absolute confidence in that belief - I have less confidence in my beliefs now than I did before I started asking why, but I have a better foundation for them.

You asked "You believe because you feel?" I'd say that's half the answer, and it's the half that took me a long time to figure out. In the article I present the story of feeling God speaking to me as a transformative moment. It was a transitive moment, but it wasn't the transformative moment. There wasn't a single moment, instead there were quite a few iterations of analytical, emotional, and spiritual steps in those years. The moment I recounted was just a representative story.

I have a rational framework for a *reasonable* belief in God. That framework wasn't enough to really justify belief since it's always possible to poke holes in a logic-only argument for something that's intrinsically unknowable. The missing piece was an understanding that feeling an (apparent) emotional connection to God is sufficient justification for leaping from rational argument to belief.

Journal Entries

In the hopes of telling a more complete story, I'll share a couple more of those experiences as taken from my journal entries. These are a little disjointed, but I hope they'll at least illustrate some of my thought process. 

April 2012: Is there a God?

For me this first comes down to a question of “how and why does the universe exist?” Clearly, we got here somehow. I see two potential arguments here: First, that we’re the product of some insanely long odds producing a quantum state change in which matter and antimatter simultaneously appeared. Second that God exists, and at some point in time, created the universe. 
In either argument we don’t immediately have much insight into the forces that resulted in our existence. I think that the idea that we sprung from nothing is at least as large of a mental leap as the idea that we were created.  
For the sake of argument, let’s assume a Hawking-esque physicist is able to demonstrate that quantum physics could result in our existence. In Letters From a Skeptic Greg Boyd makes an interesting counterpoint (Greg’s referring to evolution, but the principle holds in both cases): 
The theory of evolution, if it is true, can only give us a biological guess as to how humans came about. But the more fundamental question is how evolution produces the kind of results it does in the first place. What must the ultimate “force” of the universe be like for evolution to have the kind of characteristics it has? I’m asking something about the process itself. This is a metaphysical question (meta = above). Science can’t address it. (Boyd, p54) 
In the case of our existence, this begs the question “if there are a set of rules governing quantum mechanics in such a way that the universe could be sporadically created, where did these rules come from?” Perhaps this is just a limitation of my brain, but it’s hard to me to accept that the rules of physics are invariants with no source. 
Boyd also makes the argument that the personal nature of humans demands a personal creator, i.e. the fact that we ‘thirst’ for God implies that there is a God, as the fact that we thirst for water implies the existence of water. 
Independent of all of this conjecture, I find I’m left in the same situation I described above - I can’t be sure. I can make a detailed, well supported argument for God’s existence (or lack thereof), but the fact remains that there is no internal switch I can double check to confirm “Yep, I have settled that question”. I think this makes it pretty clear that this will become a question of faith (though I wish I could just put a rag in my yard...)

April 2012: More Questions 

Why should I believe in God?
I think this is a very different question from my first question, because it allows for a lack of 100% reproducible evidence.  Some potential answers:
1. Because prayer makes gut sense to me. I can’t give much rationale for this, all I’ve really got is that prayer feels right.
2. Because life without faith seems like a pointless struggle to reproduce as much as possible.
Is belief in God a choice?
This may seem like an odd question, but it’s been bugging me. My fears keep arriving at “what if I’m incapable of believing in God”.
How do I deal with the cloud of anxiety around these questions?
Since there’s so much riding on my answers to these questions, it’s hard to separate what I feel due to fear to what I really think.
Things I’m working with right now
It feels harder to accept beliefs now because it’s much harder to go back on them - if I didn’t have people expecting me to believe things, it would be easier to dive in.
“Belief” is confusing for me, because it’s impossible to verify.
I doubt whether God exists, but prayer still makes sense to me.

December 2012: Anxiety

Faith is a journey. I can never be 100% certain I won’t change my mind.
When I meet someone who might be an atheist I start to get an anxiety attack type feeling.

February 2013: Coming to terms with the possibility that miracles could make sense

I’d struggled for a while with the idea of a universe which lived by laws (physics, math, etc) but that God could arbitrarily break them. It seemed crazy that miracles could happen, and I had trouble getting myself to accept them.
Then I started to imagine God as a software developer who’d written a simulator (the universe). When I develop software, I can pause it in the middle of execution and inspect things, and I could even (if I were skilled enough) change things on the fly. Nothing inside my program has any idea how this can happen - the rules of the program don’t include the debugger. Instead, I pause it from the outside. It’s almost silly to think of writing a program which expects to be paused/changed by a programmer.

This helped me work through why the universe has rules, but that God can break them. He’s outside the universe. We can’t possibly understand how he does what he does, just as something inside a program I write can’t understand how I can debug it.

March 2013: Mythbusters and the fallacy of science vs religion

Watching Mythbusters was one of the biggest factors that prompted my asking why. I loved (and love) those guys, and they're all atheists. When I started going through rounds of anxiety about faith, I stopped watching it. 
I used to love watching Mythbusters, and stopped because I was concerned about its effect on my faith. I’m going to go back to it and embrace that God made me a critical thinker.

January 2014: Hard Questions

  1. How can we account for confirmation bias in assessing the validity of claims of spiritual experience?
  2. How can I be confident my faith is more than just an artifact of parental pressure? Can I be confident that if I were born in China, I would have eventually figured Christianity out?
  3. How can we claim that anything taken on faith (e.g. Christ’s divinity) is more correct than something taken on faith by other religions?

Unfortunately, that's where I have to leave you - hard questions without surefire answers. A lot of the feedback I got on the original article was people offering me their assurance or confidence in how they know God exists. Folks on Reddit were especially incensed by my claim that nobody knows for sure. 

On one hand I'm glad people on there have so much confidence in their beliefs. Sometimes this is called "strong faith", but I don't like the implication that doubt means weakness. On the other hand, overconfidence is dangerous - being confident that you know what's right makes it much easier to tell someone else that they're wrong. 

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