Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reasons for unbelief = reasons of the heart?

What are the reasons for unbelief? Many atheists – myself included – claim that they reject Christianity on intellectual or rational grounds. However, I’ve noticed a trend in Christian apologetics that seems to argue that atheists reject Christianity and God on grounds other than science and philosophical argument.

I’ve covered this before in this post – in which apologists mistakenly confuse belief in evolution with unbelief in God – but comments in Hugh Ross’ The Creator and the Cosmos have inspired me to think about the issue again.

Ross for example, seems somewhat perplexed that there are still scientists and astronomers who do not accept the idea that the universe was created by the God of the Bible. Ross provides three reasons for their unbelief:
  • Some individuals do not want to give up their sexual immorality by submitting themselves to the creator of the universe (pg 163).
  • There is stubborn rebellion and arrogance lurking under the cover of intellectual objections (pg 163). Some scientists attack the idea of a creator because “the Bible seems an affront to their intellectual prowess”. (pg 93)
  • Many who reject the creator hypothesis were once ex-Christians. They are simply reacting to their past, “holding bitterness over the wrongs and abuses they incurred in their experience with Christians.” (pg 103).

I received a recent email from a reader of this blog who shared similar sentiments:

When it all comes down to it, I believe that many of these persons [atheists] are hurting and confused individuals as well as people who find trying to live according to the standards of a Holy God just too much to bear!

Is there any room for intellectual reasons for unbelief? Alister McGrath, in his book The Twilight of Atheism, doesn’t seem to think so. He argues that nobody can conclusively determine, on intellectual grounds, the existence (or non-existence) of God. On page 179:

It is increasingly recognized that philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt. The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith . . .[this forces] us to reach two conclusions: either no decision can be reached . . . or a decision is reached on other grounds. As Blaise Pascal (1623-62) pointed out, “reasons of the heart” play a far greater role in shaping our attitudes to God than we realise.

To summarise the above: apologists argue that atheists have chosen to disbelieve because: (1) we have been hurt by the church, (2) we want to be free from sexual, and other moral, restraints; and (3) we are rebellious and arrogant.

What do you think? Do you think atheists reject theism on intellectual or emotional grounds? Maybe it’s a bit of both? And if there are valid intellectual reasons to reject theism, why do apologists insist that “reasons of the heart” are solely to blame?

32 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Personally I used my head to decide on the issue - not my heart.

As to why theists insist that 'reasons of the heart' are to blame for atheism... Maybe it's because that's how *they* decided to be theists and can't see beyond that?

Kevin H said...

There is some validity, I think, for rejecting the belief in God for mostly emotional reasons. But I think it is due to a desire for personal autonomy in all or many areas, rather than just sexual freedom, etc.

I also think that well-meaning seekers have been influenced by the writings and philosophy of atheist thinkers who perhaps did reject God for just emotional reasons.

The shift you may be noticing among Christian thinkers is due a response to postmodern thinking. In recent times, as Christianity engaged the modernist with evidential apologetics the landscape changed to postmodernism.

Now, facts and evidence don't resonate with the layperson as it once did. Now it's all "relational and relative".

Fortunately, this brings into focus an important point on evidential arguments for God. That is, they merely offer support for one's intuitive and introspective reflections about God, rather than bald rationalism.

Josh said...

I rejected god originally for mainly emotional reasons, but as an academic, I realized those weren't good reasons, so I returned to the questioned and looked at it intellectually.

Now I'm an intellectual atheist.

The problem with faith is that it's not based on reason; it's anti-reason. As such, no reasons are going to going to destroy it. It is because of this that I think that people who leave faith do so for emotional reasons, and then adapt later. I could be wrong, though.

CyberKitten said...

josh said: It is because of this that I think that people who leave faith do so for emotional reasons, and then adapt later. I could be wrong, though.

Which might explain why I believe my reasons are intellectual rather than emotional - as I never left the faith because I never had any to begin with.

Laughing Boy said...

I think McGrath's explanation is pretty straight-forward. Intellect alone is not sufficient to determine conclusively answer the God question. Those who engage the question and come to a decision (one way or the other) cannot have done so purely by intellect, but have relied on other factors as well. I don't think Ross or McGrath mean to say that "reasons of the heart" are the sole factors, rather that they are what ultimately what tilts the scales one way or the other.

"We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose....For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions of the heart, and must base them on every argument....And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them.

"This inability ought, then, to serve only to humble reason, which would judge all, but not to impugn our certainty, as if only reason were capable of instructing us. Would to God, on the contrary, that we had never need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition! But nature has refused us this boon. On the contrary, she has given us but very little knowledge of this kind; and all the rest can be acquired only by reasoning.

"Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation."

- Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 282.

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: Intellect alone is not sufficient to determine conclusively answer the God question.

Actually the only way to 'conclusively answer the God Question' is to have perfect knowledge.... which I'm guessing none of us have.

However, we can still all make rational reasonable decisions on the 'God Question' without the help of perfect knowledge and without the help of a large bunch of muscle in our chest.

Laughing Boy said...

cyberkitten said...Actually the only way to 'conclusively answer the God Question' is to have perfect knowledge.... which I'm guessing none of us have.

Perhaps. But we can't get very far in life holding only those beliefs for which we have conclusive proof; that's what underlies the apologist's assertion that the heart 'decides' such things.

...without the help of a large bunch of muscle in our chest.

Are you this literal always or only when you're mocking others? Of course, most of us understand that 'heart,' when used in contexts similar to this post, refers to the center of the personality, the source of intuition and emotion.

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy said: But we can't get very far in life holding only those beliefs for which we have conclusive proof.

That's very true. We must often decide things on limited information. But this doesn't mean that we need to fill any gap (in order to help us come to a decision) with 'heart'. We just need to be prepared to accepted that available information will never be total.

laughing boy asked: Are you this literal always or only when you're mocking others?

A little from column A and a little from column B. The use of Euphemisms oftem amuses me. I prefer plain English normally. I find that it often cuts down on misunderstandings and gets to the heart of things that much quicker.

Kevin Parry said...

I've read the discussion so far with some interest, and I would go with what josh has said. I would argue that non-cognitive reasons (such as bad experiences with fundamentalism, personality traits, upbringing, etc) do sometimes play a role in a person's rejection of belief in God, but instead of playing a primary role, I think they act as a trigger for deeper thinking and re-evaluation. It is through this deeper thinking (which involves reason, argument, etc) that a person can potentially chose against theism.

I’m not saying that this is how all atheists chose their beliefs, but I think that some atheists, who have thought long and hard about what they believe, are right to claim that they chose their beliefs rationally, but maybe their very thinking was originally triggered by something non-cognitive.

In my case, certain experiences, while not necessarily causing my unbelief, might have provided me with the realisation that I could actually question what I believed at the time. And only then did intellectual processes come into play. As time has passed, the emotional reasons have faded away, but the intellectual reasons remain.

I’m just throwing this into the discussion. What do you think?

CyberKitten said...

"It is increasingly recognized that philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt". Blaise Pascal (1623-62)

Just had this thought: Have things moved on much in 350 years....? [grin] That's quite a lot of time for quite a bit of philosophy... and some of it will be by atheist philosophers too....

Eclectic Infidel said...

Most atheists I've met have rejected God-belief after study, research and reflection. A few seem to have rejected "God" for both emotional and intellectual reasons.

Regarding: "why do apologists insist that "reasons of the heart" are solely to blame?"

-My stab at it is that theists are just grasping at straws. In order to justify why ANYONE would reject the OBVIOUS data supporting their god's existence, theists argue that it's an irrational choice based on feelings rather than logic. Of course, they completely ignore their own inability to prove, using logic, that their god exists, but that's besides the point. In a nutshell, theists are saying that since the decision to reject "God" is based on emotion, the atheist is actually in a weak position and is simply confused. It's a slimy way to attack atheists but there you go. I don't expect much integrity from evangelicals. I really don't.

This argument is similar to the one proposed by conservatives here in the United States. Here, it's common to read on blogs how "teh liberals" are just over-emotional and can't see "the truth" to the error of their ways. Same BS.

Laughing Boy said...

cyberkitten said... I find that it often cuts down on misunderstandings and gets to the heart of things that much quicker.

There's my minimum daily requirement of irony.

Laughing Boy said...

cyberkitten said...That's quite a lot of time for quite a bit of philosophy... and some of it will be by atheist philosophers too


In your opinion, what philosopher of the last 350 years has argued most successfully against God's existence? Can you summarize that argument? Why do you find the argument so convincing?

Do you think contemporary professional philosophers have come to a consensus regarding God's existence that is significantly different from that of Pascal's time?

CyberKitten said...

laughing boy asked: In your opinion, what philosopher of the last 350 years has argued most successfully against God's existence?

I have no idea - which is why I was asking the question. I do imagine though that such arguments have been put forward since the 17th Century. I'd be rather surprised if they haven't been.

laughing boy asked: Why do you find the argument so convincing?

As I have said before... I did not become an atheist because of any one convincing argument. After decades of indifference on the subject I have come to the conclusion that God probably does not exist because of the total lack of credible evidence to support the idea.

laughing boy asked: Do you think contemporary professional philosophers have come to a consensus regarding God's existence that is significantly different from that of Pascal's time?

I don't know of a philosophical consensus on the subject - if such a thing is even possible - but I doubt very much if the debate hasn't moved on even slightly in the last 350 years especially seeing the growth of European secularisation and the mainstreaming of atheistic thought.

Will said...

There are so many reasons why I gave up Christianity. Head or Heart does it matter? wells that an interesting point. Of course christians are going to believe that we left on emotional grounds.
(Because if we left on rational grounds then that would make them look wrong.) But from personal experience it was both rational and emotional. Infact when I was a Christian I struggled with it quite alot more rationally than emotionally. Christianity in hind sight became more and more irrational (and therefore irrelevant) to me for many rational reasons alone. I didnt look for these reasons because I doubted my faith in the first place . Infact I thought my faith was the truth so I welcomed argument - but IMHO in the end it failed miserably on the rational front.

In arguing their emotional points:

my lifestyle/morals hasnt changed since being a non christian.
If there was (any) good obersevational evidence that God had had some role to play in the universe I would reconsider my position.
Im not reacting to my past - I dont hold any grudges against any christian - past or present. (Infact I reakon having a grudge against someone can be as burdersome as believing in God )

Rodolfo said...

Ann Druyan described Carl Sagan as someone who preferred to want to "know" rather than "believe." That's kinda how I feel these days. Show me concrete evidence for the religious claims out there and I will have no problem getting on my knees and worshiping Yahweh or Allah. But I haven't found any so until then I will reserve all my kindness and compassion for my friends, family and community neighbors. Why waste your love on an imaginary friend? Lately I've been thinking about how my atheism functions as a survival mechanism as well. In the past when things didn't go my way I would actually curse bible god for allowing "bad" things to happen to me. After a hundred of those episodes it just got old. Instead of blaming others or the supernatural I learned to take responsibility. It was hard at first. But nowadays when things don't go my way I just step back for a little bit and connect the dots looking backwards and usually I come to a more rational assessment of the situation. I just skip the whole denial phase of recovery and jump right into the acceptance phase. I'm not robotic about things. I still take chances. I still allow myself to cry. The difference is that I simply find no good reason to ask bible god "what the hell happened there?" I sometimes wonder what the state of my emotional or mental condition would be had I not embraced scientific inquiry and skepticism. The truth is I found very little comfort in a personal god. Praying drove me nuts.

Laughing Boy said...

rodolfo said...In the past when things didn't go my way I would actually curse bible god for allowing "bad" things to happen to me.

Given a statement like this, are you are contending that you rightly understood bible god? That you gave bible god a 'good faith, fair trial' and it didn't pan out, and now you, with the full blessing of your good reason, can move on to atheism?

The truth is I found very little comfort in a personal god. Praying drove me nuts.

No doubt.

Laughing Boy said...

Just noticed I scored a link. Thanks, Kevin.

Rodolfo said...

No I wouldn't say that I rightly understood the concept of god(s). I only understood the concept of a bible god to the extent what was handed down to me through tradition and authority. I never read the bible for myself until recently. All the stories I knew were all handpicked and taught to me in bible school. But I think I gave religion and its god(s) a fair shot. I don't like to think of myself as someone who "moved on" to atheism though. We're all born atheists after all. But I use the word atheist when talking to other people as the best way to get to the core of my point of view...and I think its a sexy word. But as far as the evidence suggests I'm really just a simple Earthling with big dreams. Nothing more nothing less.

Will said...

In the bible it says that we have 2 witnesses of God - the Word of God and Nature. I have interrogated both Witnesses and both have disagreeing accounts.
In the bible God had an active role in creating the universe, in Nature I cant see anywhere where God played any role except at maybe the very first instance.
Alot of christians seem to discredit science as just a tool without providing input to this 'phlisophical' argument but the bible doesnt. Again there is a good reason why christians view science so distastefully...

Laughing Boy said...

rodolfo said...We're all born atheists after all.

Maybe not. Here's an interesting article published in Atlantic Monthly written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale and an atheist.

CyberKitten said...

I don't believe that we are 'born atheists' any more than we are born Catholics or Buddhists. It is arguable that we are born hard-wired to believe things that we are told. What those 'things' actually are will depend on when and where we are born.

bint alshamsa said...

I think I'm sort of in the middle of believer and ex-believer. I was born into a Christian denomination that didn't really preach against science. Instead I was taught that God was the person who put all of the evolutionary processes into place. Right now, I'm at an odd place. I don't believe that any benevolent being would prefer the peace-seeking adherents of one religion over another. I see association with a church as a rather effective means of carrying out community service via clothing and food banks. It's a good place to meet friendly people and find potential play dates for your kids.

So, ya' know, even if I knew for a certainty that there is no God, I wouldn't be in any rush to try to make everyone else believe that. It's just what some people need to get through the day in a world that can be pretty cruel. And I'm included in that number. Having lupus and incurable cancer, it comforts me to think that there is the possibility that consciousness may exist in some form even after this life ends. Is my belief in a God (of some sort) a crutch? Maybe. Still, I do my very best to treat others with kindness and respect regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, (dis)abilities, or age. I don't proselytize. I teach my daughter that it's perfectly okay to form her own beliefs about the world even if those beliefs differ from mine.

As long as I do those things and I allow reason to guide my interactions with others, it isn't necessarily a bad thing if I want to believe in Flying Spaghetti Monsters, Invisible Pink Unicorns, or some Morgan Freeman look-alike in a white toga walking on clouds waiting to answer my prayers.

Laughing Boy said...

it isn't necessarily a bad thing if I want to believe in Flying Spaghetti Monsters...

Not necessarily, no. But in some circumstances it could be very bad, right?

I'm trusting that you are being honest here. If so, I'm truly sorry that you are suffering. But I'm here to tell you that you can have more than vague hopes for your future. Christianity is not based on wishful thinking and happy thoughts. God has appeared in history. God has revealed Himself for all to see. He has purposefully made knowledge and assurance available to us. These things can be known.

I'm probably not the best person to talk to about what you're facing, nevertheless, if you want to talk sometime, send me an e-mail from my blogger profile page.

I pray that God will be gracious and merciful to you and your family.

bint alshamsa said...

Hello laughing boy,

I actually am being honest. I have a rare bone cancer called chondrosarcoma. I talk about it (and my other disabilities) on my blog. The fact that I am still alive all these years later, despite having all of these health conditions, is proof that whatever God there is certainly has been kind to me.

I think what I was trying to express was that even in the worst case scenario (i.e. there is no God at all), my beliefs aren't such that treating others in an unethical manner would seem justifiable to me.

Rodolfo said...

cyberkitten,

Maybe atheist is the wrong word. Agnostic perhaps? We are all born agnostic with respect to all the organized religions ever created. What's funny is I have friends who deny my atheism saying since I was baptized I will always be Christian-Catholic. I was under the impression it was a personal choice.

bint alshamsa,
I admire your faith and your courage to be open. I wish for you a speedy recovery.

CyberKitten said...

Rodolfo said: Maybe atheist is the wrong word. Agnostic perhaps? We are all born agnostic with respect to all the organized religions ever created.

We are certainly born 'without knowledge' of any particular religion but I wouldn't call that Agnostic either. If we are born into Christian families we tend to become Christians - and the same goes for every other faith and belief system. If I had children - or ever have them - I would bring them up to be free-thinking sceptics which would (hopefully) make them atheists.

Rodolfo said: What's funny is I have friends who deny my atheism saying since I was baptized I will always be Christian-Catholic. I was under the impression it was a personal choice.

Technically speaking I'm a Catholic as I was baptised at a very young age into that religion. AFAIK the only way you can stop being a Catholic is by being excommunicated. So if I have the last rights before I die... I might just make it into heaven on a technicality [rotflmao].

Laughing Boy said...

...my beliefs aren't such that treating others in an unethical manner would seem justifiable to me.

By definiton, treating others in an unethical manner is not justifiable.

I can't access your blog via your profile. If you don't mind, can you provide the link here or via e-mail?

bint alshamsa said...

Laughing boy,

Yeah, I guess that's true, isn't it? Boy, my comments sure have been muddled here, haven't they? During my years of involvement with religious fundamentalists, I've seen a lot of people claim that actions that seemed pretty cruel to me were actually okay because their religion said so. I don't think that makes their actions excusable.

I've read a lot of holy books and I can see how people can get idea that God doesn't mind if they treat people in a manner that I'd find unacceptable. Goodness knows the Bible has been the book of choice for innumerable bigots and sexists throughout the last couple thousand years. However, I'm just not sure that means I should break away from Christianity altogether. I think that there may be alternatives for people like me, those who do believe in a God but have no desire to promote the hatred that can sometimes go along with religiosity. I know that some say that those passages in holy books that seem to advocate violence are just being misinterpreted but for me, it really doesn't matter. My view is that I don't believe any benevolent God would condone hatefulness and anything that says otherwise is not from Him, so that excuse just doesn't fly with me.

Is that any clearer or am I getting even more confusing? Oh brother! Perhaps I should just stop while I'm ahead. :)

By the way, this is my blog:

My Private Casbah

Feel free to drop by anytime.

bint alshamsa said...

Hmmm. That hotlink didn't seem to work out. Here is the address.

http://bintalshamsa.blogspot.com

Bill Ross said...

I was SOOOO determined to be the person that saw it through... I was DETERMINED not to buckle.. the emotions were there, but they did not make me cave. What made me cave was when I finally understood the Bible! I saw that it described a manlike deity just beyond the clouds! A sky ceiling, with waters above.. and if you opened the windows, it would rain!
I put all of this into my book, "Bible Shockers!" - visit my site at http://bibleshockers.com

Bill Ross

enochlives said...

It must be reasons of the heart. Where proof is not conclusive one way or the other the question is why did I choose what I chose? We may not easily know this. We will be, for possibly unknowable resaons, inclined to one way or another. Therefore we latch onto the proofs or are repulsed by proofs that have some relevance to our own thoughts or experiences. We are drawn to them or repulsed like we would be to a new acquaintance.

In order to understand why we are attracted requires some thought, and even then how can we be certain we understand ourselves?