Curious about Belief

July 24, 2012 | 30 comments
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Is the existence of God, for you, an obvious and uncontroversial feature of any common sense way of seeing the world? Has it always been so profoundly and straightforwardly given that you could not deny it? If so, then in what sense would we be right to say that such a belief is either praiseworthy or blameworthy?

Is the existence of God an ambiguous and controversial feature of how you see the world? But do you faithfully will yourself to believe that God exists anyway? If so, then does this kind of willed faith in God – a faith that must be willed precisely because you fail to just plain believe it – actually count as genuine belief? Isn’t a willed belief a dubious kind of belief?

Is the existence of God, for you, an obviously and profoundly implausible feature of any common sense way of seeing the world? Is it something so profoundly and straightforwardly implausible that you can’t even honestly will yourself to believe it? If so, then in what sense would we be right to say that such a lack of belief is either praiseworthy or blameworthy?

If a belief is chosen, then how robust can that belief be? If a belief is unchosen, then to what extent can it be praiseworthy or blameworthy?

30 Responses to Curious about Belief

  1. Adam G. on July 24, 2012 at 11:29 am

    It is easy for me to not be a rapist, not being particularly tempted that way. The man who is but refrains is more praiseworthy than I am. But I don’t see that it makes it a matter of indifference whether I am or am not a rapist. Me not being a rapist is still a good thing.

    Indeed, one read on the gospel is that its purpose is to make us into the kind of people who find it easy to do good, because that is the kind of people we have become. We would then be worthy of praise not for the internal struggle of what we do, but because of what we are.

    However, belief in God itself does not strike me as genuinely all that praiseworthy because even the devils believe.

  2. BMO on July 24, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I’ve always believed. Sometimes it has come easily, sometimes it has been a struggle. More important to that is the question of faith. Even when believing that there is a deity has been easy, having faith in that deity has not necessarily been easy. Faith does not, in fact, follow belief as a given. As Adam G. said, even the devils believe, but they have no faith.

    I would argue that the devils believe that God exists, but are not therefore inclined to believe that God is all HE says he is.

    On a side note, a few years ago my brother-in-law went from being a life-long atheist to born again Christian. He had long been alcoholic, and in desperation and depression, reached out to God and Christ and found belief and faith. His knowledge is imperfect, but he has faith. For him, belief and faith came simultaneously.

    My point, if I have one, is that our belief is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things except as relates to ourselves. It certainly wouldn’t impact God’s reality or unreality. I think that’s what annoys me about some atheists–they claim to be ‘scientifically minded’, but ignore little things like the fact that our belief is irrelevant in the long run–belief does not change reality (and yes I’m familiar with philosophy that claims that may not be true–it’s thinly disguised ramblings of insanity).

  3. Julie M. Smith on July 24, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I used to not believe in God.

    Then I did.

    I can’t explain what happened. It is something that happened to me; it wasn’t a choice I made. I feel that I could talk myself out of membership in the church if I wanted to, but I couldn’t talk myself out of belief in God.

  4. Trevor Price on July 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    It is not obvious for me. In fact, I generally find the arguments against the existence of God more coherent than those in favor of his existence.

    Yet I believe. It is a humbly submitted, agnostic belief. I cannot say I know he exists. But somehow I feel comfortable saying I believe. I feel like I could also choose not to believe.

    At some point, I am unable to distinguish between hope, commitment, and worldview.

  5. Trevor Price on July 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I love the explanation Terryl Givens uses for laying out the “choice” to believe (or not) and whether it is praiseworthy.

  6. Rachel Whipple on July 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I want to believe, even when it doesn’t make sense.

  7. the narrator on July 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    What do you mean by “the existence of God”? Are you asking if God is a reality in my life, or that if I hop in a spaceship and fly second star on the right and straight on til morning I’ll come across a man in a robe?

  8. Jenn on July 24, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post.

    I love the Givens quote Trevor Price refers to (#5), and it helped me hold on to my belief longer than anything else, but in the end, I don’t feel like belief was a choice for me.
    I had a rock solid testimony. During church lessons on spiritual gifts, the “gift of knowledge of the gospel” was the one I always claimed in my mind. I knew it was true, it was so obvious and clear to me, and I never doubted. I questioned, but with the understanding that questions just add to understanding.
    I believed in the church for 28 years because the evidence I had dictated that I should. I have new evidence, so my belief has now changed… and I can’t WILL it back to what it was, no matter how I try. It may be my “real desire” and “sincere intent” is not there, but how do you make yourself sincerely desire something when your evidence- and I include spiritual evidence such as promptings- don’t support it?
    I definitely think I can influence my belief, but in the end I’m not completely in control of it other than how I control what things I access that may influence it.
    I realize this may vary depending on the person: I am a very analytic person, and for me, faith is an extension of logic- I simply don’t know how to separate the two.
    I highly recommend reading “The believing brain” by Michael Shermer: an interesting look at how we interpret the world around us based on our beliefs. The author is obviously biased towards atheism, but even that supports his premise: his belief system (atheism) completely controls how he interprets data. We are rarely aware of it as it happens, but it becomes this cycle of beliefs-interprets-evidence,evidence-supports-beliefs.

  9. DLewis on July 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    I’m inclined towards the middle option, but I still don’t know if I would call my belief “chosen” or willed. It still feels like a given, even though I don’t believe it is indisputable, inevitable, or natural. My hunch is we don’t really choose what we believe, that belief is beyond our will to change. We choose our actions, whether we will participate in rituals and obey commandments and offer service, and then belief is the fruit of those actions. Or it’s not, and we keep choosing to live the gospel anyways. I’d need to think about it more.

  10. DavidH on July 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    I have not been able to control whether or not to “believe” (I doubt I could develop the William James’ “will to believe”). But I do have the ability to influence my being open to belief (and open to nonbelief) and to choose which assumptions to make in living my life. That is, I can choose to live “as if” my home religion of Mormonism is true, and I do. I am open to belief that the truth claims are “true”, and can say that I accept and believe them as “true enough” to live my life that way.

  11. christine on July 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    i like to believe, most important to me is my personal relationship with God, from which I benefit and it is therefore not praiseworthy but helpful to me and may lead to praiseworthy actions in a best case scenario.

    Praiseworthy to me is not the belief in God but any behaviour that is intelligent and also selfless with others in mind. a praiseworthy action may or may not stem from the doer’s a belief system…they might just be good people who do the right thing when they are given the opportunity. lots of those around, any given belief system does not seem to have a monopoly on good people.

  12. Christopher Bradford on July 24, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    What is praiseworthy is the will to act toward a better world. The result of our collective will to act toward a better world is a manifestation of God to those who believe and the development of a society of Gods worthy of faith (including that of those who do not yet believe). Current belief in God is relevant only to the extent that it promotes our faith toward a better world.

    God, so far as I am concerned, exists definitionally and is manifest plurally.

  13. christine on July 25, 2012 at 12:09 am

    k Christopher the will to act toward a better world is semi praiseworthy since we all know the path to hell is paved with good intentions…

    God’s definitional existence is defined by what ? your definition of god? I would like to see what that is. and a plural manifestation would not be many gods (or would it ? )but god’s thoughts manifested in his creation…

    to me god is relevant in that he has a plan for us in a different existence.

    As LDS we believe that he created our current existence as something we need to endure. What we need to endure is not only our own iniquity but also and in many cases far more so, the iniquity of those poor old “sinners” around us who can make our lives miserable, seemingly effortlessly with one hand tied behind their backs.

    sometimes they send us straight to the path to hell from frustration.
    god knows our heart so how close can we get to hell with all our
    grand old intentions before there is a point of no return ?

    If (big IF) this existence has any potential to become any better than it is today, this potential and any work towards its manifestation is for those who believe in God, only marginally relevant.

    Relevant is the idea that our lives (if we play our cards right, and endure without too much sinning and via accumulating a bunch of repenting, and an honest effort to get with / closer to god, and make very sure that we do not just stop conveniently at the “intention” stage) will only start to be REALLY good when we get to the afterlife.

  14. Bethany on July 25, 2012 at 1:00 am

    I struggled quite a bit with this as a teenager. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that there’s just as much “proof” for God as against (meaning none, really, either way). Existence simply exists.

    But I also decided early on that, no matter what, I would stay in the Church because there is so much good there and my life has been shaped beyond comprehension by it, for the good.

    Later, I figured that if any church is right, it’s this one. I tend to think God would sanction the all-in approach, as LDS do.

    Sometimes I resent little things, like garments precluding my wearing of tank tops, or my guilt for wanting to swear, but the Church is me, and God is the Church. We’re all so closely entwined that I could never extricate myself if I wanted. But I don’t want to leave. I love the Church. I can’t say that I really love or know God, but I love this church.

  15. christine on July 25, 2012 at 1:33 am

    bethany interesting. I am the opposite…I say that god owns my soul, not the church. i believe in god way more than in the church

  16. Robert C. on July 25, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Great post and questions, Adam.

    Mind if I add to your list questions about the usefulness of belief, and its desirability (esp. from the perspective of a community and society)?

  17. Jason U on July 25, 2012 at 7:45 am

    I choose to believe, I don’t think that I would say that I “will myself to believe” in a kind of gritting my teeth and exercising enough willpower to believe in the proposition that God exists within material reality.

    For me, choosing to believe is being willing to make the leap of faith that there is something more to my spiritual experiences than just emotion, that there is something greater that ties us together, that there is more to life than just the space between birth and death.

    Faith (living my life in relation to God and informed by Scripture) is a motivating principle that helps me to get out of myself and engage others by “mourning with those who mourn.”

  18. Snyderman on July 25, 2012 at 8:20 am

    I am not sure I would use “belief” and “faith” interchangeably. To me, belief is… well, belief, but faith is more like trust (or perhaps exactly like trust, still thinking on that one).

    In terms of belief, I’m not sure I would put myself in any of those camps. I had an experience in high school that had a similar effect on me that the First Vision had on Joseph Smith, or that Paul’s experience had on him. “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” However, I’m not sure that the existence of God is so common sensical, because without that experience, I’m not sure I would believe in God.

    In terms of faith, however, I would put myself in the second camp. Because even with my profound experience/assurance in the existence of God, I still have great trouble trusting him; which I think is what faith is. I try to will myself to trust him, however, with the constant hope that someday I won’t need to.

  19. joespencer on July 25, 2012 at 8:53 am

    What about those of us for whom belief isn’t directed toward the existence/nonexistence of God? I guess that’s to say that the questions themselves seem bizarrely irrelevant to the life of faith/belief as I’ve experienced it. I can’t think of a time I’ve testified of God’s existence, nor of a time when I’ve attempted to convince another that God exists—although were you to ask me whether God exists, my answer would be not unlikely be “Yes.” (Not unlikely: It’s more likely that my answer would be a question or two: “What do you understand by the word ‘God’? What do you understand by the word ‘exists’?”) My belief is directed toward certain events (Christ rose from the dead, Joseph was visited by Moroni, something real took place in that experience I had), and I testify of their reality, their relevance, their force….

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 25, 2012 at 9:20 am

    The notion that one can deduce the existence and nature of God with your own mind is a theory that Christianity adopted from Greco-Roman philosophy after it had lost the belief in revelation from God. Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Chridtopher Hitchens and other militant atheists argue that this stand alone process is just trying to talk yourself into believing in God. The theory is the primary energy behind the “Nicene” adoption of the Aristotelian definition of God as a being without body, parts or passions, the unmoved mover who stands outside of time and space and creates and sustains time and space. Thus the Nicene creed cpntinues to be supported, even though these specific parts of ut durectly contradict the description of God in the Bible, especially in God’s embodiment in Jesus Christ, who has a body and psrts, and whose “passion” is the fulcrum of salvation for humanity. Traditional Christianity has substituted the intellectual thrill of a theory that allows one to deduce “a god” because it does not rely on revelation, which they kargely admit they no longer have.

    One if the great corrective virtues of the Book if Mormon is its restoring a basic map of how we recognize and know God. We are born into mortality with a compass that points to Christ and good things (Moroni 7). We have a choice between.good and evil and are tesponsible for how we choose (2 Nephi 2). God sends angels to certain people to communicate his word to mankind, and when we hear or read the words of these angels, messengers, we are using our light of Christ and our mortal agency to respond. If we “listen” to that inborn compasd, we will “desire to believe” and then enter on an “experiement upon the word” to implement the word in our lives and ser what happens. As we see the word grow and live and germinate, we have confirmatory evidence that it is good, that our initial compass was right in choosing it. Then as we continue to nourish the word.by living according to it, the exercise ofnfaith and trust in this goid word, it gradually grows into a tree whose goodness is known to us, and whose fruit are niw accessible.in our lives, fruit which is full of virtues that please all of our senses. (Alma 32) And then as we have learned to exercise faith in the word of Christ, we can ask God, as the king of the Lamanites did, to confirm the truth of the word throughnrevelation from the power of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10)

    We cannot.know God without revelation of details through prophets from angels, and tevelation to ourselves to confirm that the message carried by prophets is true. Figuring out the nature of God through human logic is not encouraged by the Book of Mormon. Seeking revelation to each of us is encouraged. What sustains the Latter-day Saints in our faith is the revelation thatnconfirms that faith and trust in the word of God.

  21. christine on July 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

    snyderman did your god not earn your trust yet ? we can know god without revelation but revelation makes it a lot easier. is belief useful ? err. can be if you want a bunch of young guys to go over to the US, learn how to fly but not LAND an airplane and harakiri themselves into the WTC. just because someone helpled them believe that this is the right thing to do….is it desirable ? for many decades the chinese said no. unless you believed in communism…religious or spiritual belief was to bourgeouis for them…

  22. Kevin Christensen on July 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I’ve oriented by faith in terms of dynamic “cause to believe,” rather and a static knowing. (I love Alma 32 interesting contrast.) Borrowing from Ian Barbour and Ninian Smart, with a dash of Nibley, a few years back, put it together like this:

    If approached without reference to any particular doctrinal interpretation, Ian Barbour suggests that these kinds of [religious] experience can serve as a common ground for discussion, a place of solid footing, a point of little disputed reference from which to examine the varied interpretations and traditions. Those I shall discuss in this paper (following Barbour) can be seen as generally framing a movement:
    (a) From responses to external impressions regarding:
    Order and creativity in the world
    The common mythic symbols and patterns underlying most religious traditions
    Key historical events that define separate traditions and bind individuals
    (b) Through the innermost experiences of the individual:
    Numinous awe and reverence
    Mystical union
    Moral obligation
    Reorientation and Reconciliation with respect to personal sin, guilt, and weakness, the existence of evil, suffering, and death, and tensions between science and faith.
    ( c) Then returning to the external world as human action:
    Personal dialogue where you begin interpret external events as God speaking to you, and you answer through your own actions.
    Social and Ritual behavior
    These matters cannot objectively prove the existence of a God (whether personal or impersonal), but, as I hope to demonstrate, they do constitute the core of religious experience for believers. They provide the ground of experience on which reasoned and feeling assessments of the validity and worth of faith are based. They encompass the ways in which spirituality is manifest in history and symbol. They are the wine—and doctrine the wine-bottles. To argue and contend about doctrine is to emphasize the wine skin over the wine. In Alma’s terms, it is to emphasize what you think you “know” over what ultimately gives “cause to believe” (Alma 32:18).

    FWIW

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  23. Snyderman on July 25, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Well, Christine, I’m not sure I’m such a good person. I find that I have much in common with Thomas, who needed to see to believe. I find that despite my best efforts, I always want to know the “why” before I do. For example, I want to know how a commandment is going to benefit me/help me become closer to God and Christ before I obey it. When receiving personal directives from God, I always want to know why before I comply. (And I never seem to get it, either, much to my frustration.)

    Furthermore, I have trouble trusting God’s trust in me. For example, if I’m ever called to be a bishop, I know that I will be horribly underequipped for the task. I could never be an adequate bishop without the Lord. Yet in accepting such a calling, not only am I accepting that God will be there for me, but I’m also accepting that God thinks I will rely on Him; because He never would have called me to watch over His sheep if He didn’t think I would rely on Him enough to adequately do it. And any time I do rely on Him and hopefully receive inspired counsel to give to members of the ward, I have to trust that my perceptions are correct that the inspiration that I received did, in fact, come from God. Which means I have to trust my own worthiness.

    All of this is to say that my endeavors to have faith in God are impeded or perhaps complicated by my doubts about my own personal worthiness and issues. If that makes sense.

  24. Andrew S. on July 31, 2012 at 12:03 am

    I still don’t understand how people perceive beliefs as being something that can be chosen. As such, I don’t really find belief to be praiseworthy or blameworthy.

    (p.s., Times and Seasons needs comment subscription by email)

  25. Carey on July 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    RE #25 — but surely you have beliefs that conflict. Which ones do you choose to believe over the other?

  26. christine on July 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    interesting guys, can you not do your best, screw up totally, talk to God afterwards, have him affirm that you screwed up and that you have to make a big step closer to him to do better next time ?
    then keep on living your life, what else is there.
    Snyderman (24), why can you not give it a chance, live a little, and JUST DO IT EXACTL as God says, for once, start with something little…will it be such a big difference if you know “why” ? my guess is the “why” will become abundantly clear after the deed.

  27. Andrew S. on August 1, 2012 at 2:28 am

    re 26,

    Carey,

    If I have beliefs that conflict, I don’t “choose” either one over the other. The very idea of having beliefs in conflict is the idea that I hold both of them — and there’s the conflict. If I were able to (or actually did choose) one or the other to believe, then I wouldn’t say I would have beliefs in conflict.

    Maybe you can give an example, though? Because I’m not quite sure I’m getting what you’re saying, though.

  28. Carey on August 1, 2012 at 11:28 am

    For the beliefs that are in conflict you choose one over the other by your actions, that’s my definition and understanding of choosing to believe anyhow. Of course I can’t choose to believe in everything — I think William James called those dead hypothesis.

  29. christine on August 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    if you have 2 beliefs in conflict and you are AWARE of it (most people including me have only a fuzzy idea of the details of what they believe) you get kind of stymied. it is good to do something either jettison both beliefs and adopt a third. jettison both beliefs and not replace them. choose one over the other.

  30. Andrew S. on August 1, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    re 29,

    Carey,

    I guess your definitions just seem really foreign to me. Beliefs and actions are different, so choosing actions doesn’t equate or relate to choosing beliefs, IMO.

    re 30,

    christine,

    how do you consciously choose to jettison beliefs?

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