The Small Faith of a Philosopher

I wrote this several years ago but it still rings true to me:

Religion is nothing but the systematization of the experience of the divine. Let me explain: first, someone sees a shooting star. Then, they turn to the person next to them and say: “did you see that?” The person replies: “See what?” Then religion begins. It is based on the experience of God, but is more properly the articulation of what God is and how we ought to act in light of God’s existence. Thus, we get creeds, religious texts, and rituals. The most important part of religion, I propose, is the experience of the Divine. (Any mystic would propose the same thing.) This is the part that all religions share. The systematization part is important too for each particular religion, because it brings people together; but this part should not be taken as seriously as the experience of God. Many bad things can happen from considering that there is only one particular way to articulate, worship, or think about God. I’m not saying that there are many Gods. I’m simply saying that if one God existed, would not people have different experiences of that God? And would not people, living all around the world, come up with different descriptions of those experiences? And would not people come up with different ways of worshiping God?

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My faith is small in the sense that it is minimalist. I believe that God exists. It’s easy to say the word god, but when we understand how powerful and beautiful this idea of God is, we would realize that a small belief in God is larger than any system of belief that you could ever make up. The belief in God is enough for me, and has been enough for many in the history of the world. I need no more. God is too large. The simple belief in God is too incomprehensible and amazing to worry about other beliefs. Indeed, I suspect that the more beliefs a person has, the more that he actually doubts the existence of God, which is supposedly foundation for all these beliefs!
What God do I believe in, you ask? My simple answer is this: if you believe in a God, then it’s probably the same one I believe in. What I mean by “God” is fairly simple and universal: creator of the universe and perfect. Theology can try to add more to the idea of God, but probably in vain. The idea of God is fairly simple and yet ungraspable, understandable to children and yet transcendental. In a sense I do not understand God, and in another sense I easily do—and I’m content with that.

I am a Christian in the sense that I believe in what Jesus taught. I think that Jesus was right about pretty much everything he said. But his message is a universal one; available to you, to me, and to the kid growing up in an unknown African village. He simply preached the will of God, as he saw it. As far as I can tell, he was the most perfect person who ever lived, and has always been the best role model for me. A friendly, unbiased reading of the Gospels—one that is free of built-in assumptions or beliefs about who Jesus was or what the Bible is—confirms my sentiments. Was Jesus God? To be honest, I don’t think that makes much sense. To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that when Jesus refers to his “father in heaven” he is referring to himself; and when Jesus is praying to his father in the garden of Gethsemane, he is praying to himself? That doesn’t make sense. I do not see how making Jesus God helps faith or theology or my life one bit.

I am open to the fact that Jesus may have sacrificed himself for me in some way. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why Jesus’ death has anything to do with my sins, but I am still open to the possibility. Why? Because Jesus was a great person, and his death must have meant something extraordinary, especially since he did it voluntarily. He wouldn’t have given his life for any ordinary reason. I’m tempted to think that his sacrifice was much like Socrates, that is, in the name of justice; but it seems slightly different. When it comes to salvation, i.e. Jesus dying for my sins, my only worry is that people might use this belief to justify a life of habitual sin. After all, if Jesus died for my sins, doesn’t that continually take the blame off me? Therefore, if I sin, perhaps I should feel guilty for a moment, and then feel relieved that Jesus takes the guilt? No. That is certainly wrong and a direct contradiction of his teachings. If we are to believe in salvation, it must be interpreted in such a way that does not allow for this behavior. In my own experience, I believe that Jesus has “saved” me, but perhaps I’m using the word in a different way. The truth is that his teachings saved me, not his death. His teachings brought me from a life of questionable moral worth, to a striving for moral perfection; to amazement, to the belief in the greatness of human potentiality. An unbiased reading of his words truly touches our hearts and gives us a longing and passion for being a moral person in the kingdom of God. His teachings completely changed my life, more so than any living or dead person has; and this can certainly be called “salvation,” especially when those teachings brought me closer to God Himself than ever before.

The existence of God, intellectually speaking, is more likely than not. Many people are surprised by that statement, but those are the people that either haven’t pushed themselves intellectually or are too biased to see the truth. There are many more hints that God exists than hints that God does not exist. The theist has a stockpile of arguments, and a solid intellectual defense against all atheistic arguments. The problem of evil is, I believe, the only serious objection to theism, and it is answerable. This is why a person can both be a philosopher, in love with rationality, and a theist, in love with God.

What does faith amount to? That is one of the best questions we can ask; because if belief in God does nothing, and has no practical effects, then what would that say about belief in God? In my experience, faith does several things: firstly, it gives us a philosophical foundation. What I mean by this is that it gives our metaphysical questions grounding in the face of groundless, intellectually void alternatives. What was the first cause of the universe?—God, an uncreated mind-like being. How can we trust our senses?—God, a benevolent being. What is the source of the laws of nature?—God, a perfectly wise being. Do I have a permanent, unchanging identity?—A soul, created by God. Where do moral commands ultimately come from?—God, a perfectly rational being. Some would say that my answers—“God”—really amount to nothing but a word; that they explain nothing. In a sense, I agree! Perhaps they don’t explain anything, but they do give support and foundation, which is precisely their role. Those questions remain no matter what; they constantly nag at our intellect. Theistic answers give me a great sense of intellectual satisfaction, completion, and peace of mind. The alternative to these questions is no answer at all, which would only be intellectually satisfying it the answers were of an empirical, discoverable nature; but they are not. They are metaphysical questions and answers, which is why “God” is not an explanation in the scientific sense of the word; rather, it is a metaphysical explanation—a grounding.

Secondly, faith amounts to a radical change in perception: belief in God changes our perception of the world in a psychologically real and beneficial way. After all, a schizophrenic has a changed perception, but not beneficial. To believe that God exists is to believe that everything is a creation of God: and thus sacred, meaningful, and beautiful. We must admit that there is a fundamental difference in looking at an object as a) an accident or b) a purposeful creation. Why is a child sad to hear that his parents did not mean to have him? Why are parents unwilling to tell their children this? Either this universe was meant to exist, or it wasn’t. The truth of either claim changes our perception of the universe. Which do you think is true? Furthermore, to look at every object as sacred immediately has environmental benefits. All theists, according to their beliefs, should try to take care of nature because it is a purposeful creation. Environmentalism follows from the belief. Of course, in practice this does not follow from some peoples’ beliefs, but this is contradictory to their beliefs. Furthermore, to look at all objects as sacred and meaningful is to look at all people as sacred and meaningful. Usually theists think of all people as “God’s children.” The practical effects are obvious: if all people are created by God, then all people deserve respect, love, and care. Nobody is expendable. Nobody is not worth it. This is precisely what Jesus, and all great thinkers, taught as the most important moral principle.

Along a similar vein is the perspective shift that comes with belief in a transcendent Being. To believe in a transcendent Being (beyond time and space) is to believe in a mode of existence that is entirely different from the one we all live in. Perhaps only God exists in such a place—a space-less, time-less, and eternal place—but perhaps not. At any rate, the effect of such a belief is an expansion of your mind, a broadening of your conception of what exists. More specifically, it has brilliant effects on how we handle the situations of life. Your job interview goes badly; you break your arm; your best friend lies to you; you get in a bad car accident. To the normal human being, these are bad things that warrant depressive behavior. But with the perspective shift that comes with belief in God, all these events seem much smaller, a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. We can easily brush them off our shoulders, perhaps shed a tear or two, and simply move on with a smile. I’m not saying that life’s events are less meaningful or insignificant—only smaller.

Thirdly, belief in God is a great source of happiness and joy. Personally, happiness for me comes down to believing that God exists. Out of all the possible sources of happiness—food, money, friendship, family—belief in God is the most permanent and life-sustaining. Why? Because if God exists, then the universe is a great place to be. Every time I seriously consider God permeating throughout the universe, I immediately become happy. This is the greatest psychological benefit of belief in God because happiness is the greatest psychological end. By “happiness” here I mean two things. Firstly, we have emotions that tend to flare up daily; some are happy, and some are sad. Belief in God can affect these in a positive way. After hearing a song that promotes belief in God, for example, we can have an emotional reaction that only can be described as “happiness.” Secondly, happiness can be thought of as a more permanent mind-set. Belief in God promotes this sort also.

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The Small Faith of a Philosopher

What Causes Atheism?

Now of course there are many causes for atheism–personal, intellectual, emotional, societal–and I respect them all in varying degrees, but the one I come across a lot is this: a bad experience with a particular Christian or with a particular Christian institution. In other words, I believe that hypocrisy and setting a bad example accounts for much of it (not all of it, much of it). (I tried to research the causes of atheism in academic journals but didn’t come up with anything…so this is just my anecdotal opinion).

What I’m saying is not to be confused with the reasons for Atheism, the justifications and arguments that support it. That’s a different topic. And as I’ve said in the past, explaining the cause of something doesn’t explain it away. Theism has psychological causes too. What’s interesting about atheism is that only 2 to 11% of the world is atheist, and many in China apparently, making it an anomaly.

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Atheism is the view that there is no God and that religion is generally false; but when you talk to most American atheists, 90% of what they say is actually just about one religion: Christianity, and usually a particular version of it – fundamentalism. Chances are they think Buddhism is super cool (most people do). That’s a hint. Atheism is the drawing away from something, a revolt, a critique.

Update! I stand corrected. The title should rather be “What Causes Agnosticism?” I was told by someone, and I agree with him, that religious hypocrisy can and does lead a person towards agnosticism, away from organized religion – but not necessarily atheism. That’s a good point.

What hypocrisy? Hating gay people and abortion, just to take two big examples. If you are gay, you probably were judged and hated by Christians throughout your life. I don’t blame any gay person for being hostile to Christianity; it’s only natural. And as the world moves on and young people are more and more okay with gay people, and as Christianity drags behind on this issue (except the new Pope and more progressive forms of Christianity), this will still be the natural reaction. Now hating abortion is one thing (hate the sin, not the sinner…right?), and I think there is a compassionate way to be pro-life, but Christians have taken this to another level. To the point that I don’t want to be part of that crowd anymore. Sometimes pro-life is thinly veiled sexism or classism. Also, where’s the perspective here? On the one hand, there are real people dying from hunger, war, and poverty all over the globe. On the other hand, there are potential people being aborted for various reasons (including rape protection of the mother, or poverty). Hmm…I wonder where we should spend our resources, and time, and judgment on? I wonder what Jesus would do? When we have solved all the worlds imminent problems (hunger, poverty, discrimination, war), then maybe we can start yelling about abortion and how terrible it is. It takes up too much of our moral outrage.

Alas, this is how it was, is, and will always be. A significant percentage of the Christian population will be hypocrites. That’s human nature and math really, and Jesus predicted it:

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Religion tends to set the bar pretty high in terms of morality, so, for example, loving your enemies will be difficult for Christians. This goes for any religion. Calling yourself Christian is very easy, but it should be the hardest thing to call yourself. This explains why Jesus called out the hypocrites, chastised the religious people who were keeping people from God. It made him angry. I suppose he was judging them, but it was by their own standards (Jesus teaches that God judges people by their own words). I suppose Jesus loved the hypocrites too, and would easily forgive them, but they were blinded by their own self-righteousness; the same blinding, ignorant self-righteousness that infects religion today.

Judge ye not, yet Christians love to judge. When you are constantly around religious people, it’s very tempting and natural. Keeping my distance from religion, while accepting its teachings, is one way I try to cope. The only perfect Christianity is the one in your heart.

What Causes Atheism?