Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.
—John 20:29 (KJV)
The quote above from the Gospel for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle brings to mind Sean Carroll’s argument against belief in God. In his book, The Big Picture. Carroll, an eminent theoretical physicist, asks (and I paraphrase*): “if God exists, why doesn’t he make it easier to believe in Him?” I’ve reviewed the book, but in this article I’d like to focus on Carroll’s rhetorical question.
- If there is an all-powerful and all-loving God, why does He allow evil?
- If God wants us to believe in Him, why doesn’t He give signs to make it easy to do so?
The first question, why does God allow evil to exist, is one that has occupied theologians and philosophers over the past millenia. Books and tracts on end have been written on this (theodicy), so I can’t contribute anything really new. I’ve touched on this problem in two posts, Suffering–a Jewish | Catholic perspective, and Suffering–Our Great Gift from God, but I’ll not discuss it further here.
In this post I want to show that religious faith is part of our nature and not irrational. Our faith springs from deep roots in our human nature. As St. Augustine said,
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.
—St. Augustine, “Confessions”
WILLIAM JAMES ON FAITH
Pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that produce our creeds.
—William James, The Will to Believe
Religious faith is NOT an affront to the intellect, according to William James, in his essay, The Will to Believe. (William James was the American philosopher and psychologist who wrote like a novelist; his brother, Henry, was the novelist who wrote like a philosopher.) James explains that those who do not wish to believe in God do so for fear of committing error: he cites the 19th century mathematician / philosopher William Clifford as typical:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
—William Clifford, as quoted in The Will to Believe.
This unwillingness to believe anything that might not be true, to be in fear of error, overcomes the satisfaction that would be achieved by belief in a creating, personal God:
…that it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptableness (sic) to the heart in its cup.
‘It fortifies my soul to know That, though I perish, Truth is so’
—the inner quote is from the poet, Arthur Clough. loc. cit.
I’ve shown in the web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, Essay 2,” that even the so-called rational modes of inquiry are not free from error, so I’ll not repeat those arguments here. Let’s explore the nature of faith and then go to the question: “Why doesn’t God make it easy to believe?”
Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.
Religious faith is based on reports of singular incidents, not replicable as laboratory experiments might be. On what, then, do we base our faith? Answer: The testimony of others whom we trust to be telling the truth. However, even in science it is testimony rather than direct personal observation that almost always serves as evidence. And the “scientific method” requires that testimony not be that of a single individual, but of many, yielding equivalent results by different investigators (within experimental error). So, even though I myself have not directly observed the results of a quantum double-slit experiment, I know what is supposed to happen because so many experiments have been reported about this phenomenon.
Consider these singular occasions on which we base our faith: miracles and accounts in Scripture. Some of us believe the testimony given in Scripture, and we believe it to be given by humans inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus to be the Word of God. Why do those of us who do believe Scripture, do so? There are different degrees of belief in Scripture, and many different reasons for belief. I have touched on this in two posts (and comments thereto): God’s Periodic Table… and Evolution and Can a scientist believe in miracles, redux–Is belief in evolution and cosmology heretical?
Let me focus on my own experience in coming to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Twenty-three years ago (prompted by the Holy Spirit?) I read Frank Morison’s, Who moved the Stone, an analysis of the accounts of the Resurrection in the New Testament. Reading his account, it seemed to me that an impartial jury (one not composed of evangelical atheists) would give a verdict of “innocent”, that is to say, would acknowledge the biblical accounts of the Resurrection to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.
THE RATIONAL COMPONENT TO FAITH
What struck me even more was that this New Testament bunch of uneducated yahoos–fishermen, tax collectors, women–had managed to out-talk Greek philosophers and Judaic scholars and thereby to spread the Christian faith through the Roman world, undergoing hardship, pain and death in so doing. Surely they must have been inspired by encounters with the risen Jesus and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.
So there was a rational component to coming to believe in the Resurrection, but more was required: to ignore the possibility of error in order to engage in a more complete and beautiful faith. Or, as William James puts it so well:
If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side.
—William James, The Will to Believe.
AND WHEN IT’S DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE
Now we come to the crux (literally and figuratively): why God doesn’t make it easy to believe. In the linked web-book I’ve tried to show that each way we come to believe may be in error, even that which is commonly held to achieve truth—deductive logic. There are degrees of potential error just as there are degrees of belief. It is common sense to argue, as does James, that to avoid believing because there’s a possibility that God doesn’t exist, will not put you “upon the winning side”.
This argument is a paraphrase of Pascal’s Wager, put in a non-quantitative frame. And what if, even though you might achieve a greater good, you still doesn’t believe because you don’t want to ignore the possibility of being wrong? Or, as put by the non-believer whom Pascal addresses:
I am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?
—Blaise Pascal, Pensees #233 (Pascal’s Wager)
Pascal’s response was essentially, “Fake it until you make it”, the Twelve-Step aphorism. And for some, this might work; others, not. And here we come again to behavior: some will find it easy to believe, some will find it difficult and some will find it impossible. Why the differences? Why has God made it possible for some people to believe and others not?
THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
The answer lies in Scripture: the Fall. And to make this answer clearer, let’s see what C.S. Lewis had to say in his wonderful speculative fiction work, Out of the Silent Planet. There are three sentient species on Mars; their talents and interests are widely different, but complementary. What unites them is a belief in God; for these species, there has been no Fall. Only in the Silent Planet, Earth, has Satan managed to work his will and cause God’s creation to disobey him.
So it is in the Fall: God gave Free Will to man, and man exercises this Free Will, to believe or not to believe, to choose good or evil, to choose heaven or hell. This is God’s gift to us. If God did not give us a real option, a truly available choice, then it would not be a gift–we would be his playthings, not free. For the sentient creatures of Malacandra (the Mars of C.S. Lewis) it was easy to believe because there was no Fall. Were it not for Original Sin it would be easy for all of us to believe, but instead the road to salvation (sometimes easy) is given to saints and maybe—after much travail—to some of the rest of us.
*Carroll makes this argument, not as a question, but as a proposition using Bayesian probability analysis that proceeds something like this (probability experts, forgive me for making this a “horsies and duckies” explanation); if God did exist He would make it easy to believe in Him; since it isn’t easy to believe in him, one can assume that it is improbable that God exists. And I hope you, dear reader, will see from the rest of this post that I do NOT agree with Carroll’s premise that God would make it easy for us to believe.