Dealing With Doubt (Podcast), Part 2

Twenty-One Pilots, doubtTwenty-One Pilots captivates their audience, in part, because of their honest portrayal of a complex and often painful mental life. Along with anxiety and depression, they talk about their own struggles with faith and doubt. In their song, “Doubt,” Tyler Joseph writes:

[I’m] scared I’ll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me

Later in the song, he says that he’s “shaking hands with the dark parts of [his] thoughts.” This kind of experience isn’t unique to people of faith. The song can apply to a variety of contexts. But it poignantly portrays what many believers go through in their private moments.

I do love poetry and song, but I think there is also a place for careful thought and analysis to inform our beliefs. Joseph doesn’t answer the question, “Is it a sin for a Christian to doubt God?” or “What do I do with my doubts?” And that’s OK. But as a philosopher, part of my calling is to tease out these questions more precisely, so that  our worldviews can become more coherent and logical.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 2 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” Philosopher Andrew Moon (Virginia Commonwealth University) has influenced my thinking a great deal in this area. I borrow Moon’s distinction between “verb doubt” and “noun doubt,” and show how it helps us understand the relation between doubt and faith. I also discuss, in this episode, some of the problem passages in the Bible that seem to portray doubt as sin.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Dealing With Doubt

doubt, faith, beliefWe all deal with doubt, no matter what you believe. It is a normal, healthy part of a thinking life. But doubts can cause distress and anxiety for many of us, especially when we think it’s wrong to have doubts, or when we really want to believe something.

Most of us experience significant doubts between middle school and college, when we really start asking questions. Too often, when we go to adults or teachers for help, they dismiss our concerns or imply that there is something wrong with us. (I suspect this is because most adults also have unanswered doubts!) Tragically, this can cause many young people to abandon their beliefs prematurely.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 1 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” I think the model I propose helps anyone who wrestles with the interplay between doubt and belief, whether Christian or otherwise. This model is still a work in progress, so feel free to push back on it or ask questions.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

TRUTH, obvious, God, evidence

Why isn’t God more obvious? This is a fair question. Large parts of the Bible evade our understanding. Many people lack any recognizable experience of God. If God wants everyone to believe in him, why doesn’t he have better marketing? This line of questioning attacks the coherence of the Christian worldview. God should provide more/better evidence, but God doesn’t . As a Christian, I have to acknowledge that this seems problematic. Here’s how I might represent the problem: (skeptics, tell me if you think I’m getting this wrong)

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe that he exists, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe that he exists.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

I’ve formulated it as a valid argument. So the only thing I can quibble with is whether the first 2 statements are, in fact, consistent with the Christian worldview. If #1 and #2 are part of the Christian worldview, then this argument succeeds in casting serious doubt on Christian coherence. (Which indirectly casts doubt on the truth of Christianity.) But if either of them is not consistent with Christianity, then the argument fails. (See footnote 1)

program, logic, God, obvious, evidenceNow, let me just admit up front that asking “Is such-and-such a statement consistent with Christianity?” is an extremely difficult matter. People will ask, “which version of Christianity?” or “on whose interpretation of the Bible?” Fair questions. Do I need to defend the coherence of all possible versions of Christianity?

Suppose we have 10 versions of a computer program, and we suspect some or all of the versions contain bugs. If I find a bug in one, that doesn’t mean I should throw out the other 9. I have to check them all. By analogy, if 10 different versions of Christianity exist and we don’t know which of them is the “correct” version, then proving one of them to be incoherent won’t prove that Christianity itself is incoherent. (I apologize if skeptics feel I’m saddling them with too large a burden, but when a worldview hangs around for 2,000 years, it’s bound to spawn lots of variations.) On the other hand, all the Christian needs is for one of the versions to come out coherent to refute the charge that Christianity is coherent.

So how do we select a target? Well, as I play the role of the critic here, I’ll focus on what seems to be the most pared-down and basic version of Christianity. And I’ll try to appeal to beliefs that are common to nearly all major versions. I’ll also try to take an interpretive approach to the Bible that is common to scholars representing the major denominational groups–Main-line protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. (I’m also going to assume evidentialism.)

What Is the Christian God After?

demons believeI’m going to skip discussion of premise #1 and so straight to the real crux of the matter: #2. Is it true, according to standard, orthodox Christian doctrine, that “God simply wants more people to believe that he exists?” I don’t think so. The apostle James reminds us in his letter that mere belief isn’t all that great. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:19). So, the implication here is clear. God is interested in more than simple belief, that is, more than mere assent to a proposition.

In fact, very rarely does the Bible say anything like, “believe that God exists!” However, Hebrews 11:6 does say, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So, it seems that belief in God is a necessary condition for “pleasing God,” which means that God certainly wants people to believe in his reality. But is belief in God’s existence a sufficient condition for pleasing him? Well, if the demons believe, then I guess not. What this means is that God is after more than mere belief in his existence. So premise #2 above is false.

A Better Skeptical Argument?

Maybe the argument I gave fails, but is there a better version? Well, we do have a lot of talk in the New Testament about believing in Jesus. Belief in Jesus does seem to be a really important part of what God is after. So consider this argument:

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

J. S. Mill, utilitarianismThis, to me, seems a much stronger argument. For a response strategy, I’ll borrow a page out of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill claimed that what makes an action morally right is that it tends to promote pleasure and/or the absence of pain. His critics replied, “You make us out to be mere swine by saying that pleasure is all that matters to us!” Mill’s response: ‘pleasure’ has more than one meaning. There are lower and higher pleasures.

My response to the argument above parallels Mill’s: ‘believe’ has more than one meaning. If believe means ‘assent to the existence of Jesus’ or ‘accept that Jesus is the Son of God,’ then premise #2 is false, according to standard Christian theology. Even demons achieve such ‘belief’ in Luke 4:34 (“you are the Holy One of God!”). But if we mean something richer, like, ‘trust that Jesus, as God’s Son, will give you eternal life in God’s Kingdom,’ then #2 is probably true, according to standard Christian theology. And lest you think I’m reading this definition into the text, consider what St. John says: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:31) Many other passages corroborate this (very standard) view. Let’s call this sort of belief, “BELIEF.”

 

Better Evidence Required?

open, evidence, ground beliefSo now what? To avoid the fallacy of equivocation, we must use the same meaning of ‘believe’ in premise #1. But this makes premise #1 rather ill-fitted for the standard Christian view. God’s desire for more BELIEF doesn’t guarantee that he should change the current available evidence in some way. BELIEF, according to most Christian theologies, is a function of evidence and receptivity. Think of receptivity as not merely being willing to BELIEVE, but someone who’s heart is ready to obey God (Jn. 7: 17) and enter into a love-relationship with God (Jn. 15:1-11), should the right evidential opportunity arise. More or better evidence (whatever that might be) simply won’t help someone who is not receptive. And since receptivity could explain why so many people do not BELIEVE, we shouldn’t automatically think that God needs to provide better evidence.

Jesus seems to corroborate this in multiple teachings. In his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), he suggests that more evidence won’t help some people. Lazarus dies and finds himself with Father Abraham in the hereafter. The “rich man” dies and is tormented in Hades, but he pleads with Abraham to get a message to his brothers so they can escape his condition.

‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Too Skeptical?

They already have sufficient evidence, Jesus says. Other places, Jesus chides his listeners for demanding a sign, presumably for the same reason (Mk. 8:11-12; Jn. 4:48). There is such a thing as being too skeptical. We can be so “closed” to an idea that no amount of evidence will persuade us. If you’re a skeptic of religion, then you’ve witnessed this in people who deny various scientific discoveries. But it can happen to non-religious people just as easily.

empty, tomb, rising from the dead, JesusAnd how much better could the evidence get than someone rising from the dead? Even that, Jesus says, won’t be enough for some. So it doesn’t seem to be “better evidence” that is needed, according to the Christian view, but improved receptivity. So premise #1 is not a tenet of Christian theology, meaning that the argument fails and Christian coherence is preserved. (This is all a bit quicker than I’d like, but space prevents more detail.)

The Truth Is Out There

truth, obvious, GodIn sum, Christianity claims that God has provided plenty of good evidence. Written and spoken testimony, inferential arguments, religious experience, the indirect evidence of nature, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean you HAVE the evidence, any more than the fact that there are plenty of fish in the sea means that you have one on your plate. You may need to go out and seek it. But it’s out there. God is obvious enough for seekers to arrive at the right sort of belief.


1  Defending coherence is different than defending truth. Imagine assembling a collection of puzzle pieces that all fit nicely together, but don’t actually form the picture on the box. That would be coherence without truth. All the defender of coherence must show is that a particular puzzle piece fits nicely with the others in the collection.

Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

An Atheist, an Agnostic, and A Theist Walk Into A Bar

(That literally happened to me one time.) Ok, this joke still needs writing, and that’s not my thing. But I do want to try and tease out a related conversational knot that’s been giving me trouble. In short, the knot involves the answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be an atheist?
  • What does it mean to be a theist?
  • What does it mean to be an agnostic?

Why does this matter? Because labels matter to us. If someone called me a “feminist,” my reaction might depend on what they mean by the term. If it just means “someone who advocates for the complete social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” then I’m happy to carry the label. But if they mean it pejoratively to mean “someone who hates men and wants women to take over the world,” then I’m going have a problem with that. So which is the correct definition of feminist?

Similarly, if someone calls you an atheist, what exactly does that mean? You might accept the term when defined a certain way, but not when defined in another way. Also, if I say something like, “atheism is irrational,” the reasonableness (or truth) of that claim depends on the definition being used. If it means, “someone who knows with certainty that no gods exist,” then few people will accept the label, and rightly so.

What I want to do here is compare two approaches to defining these terms, and explain why I recommend one over the other. I’ll start with what I call the “four quadrants” model.

The Four Quadrants Model

Some people propose we renovate these terms (atheist, agnostic, theist) a bit to make things clearer and avoid foisting burdensome views upon others. Here is the renovation proposal:

atheism, agnosticism, belief grid

There is a certain elegance and symmetry to this model. You have ‘theism’ and ‘a-theism’ juxtaposed with ‘gnostic’ and ‘a-gnostic.’ Very nice.

This “quadrant model” carries other advantages as well. First, it takes some pressure off of atheists who don’t want to claim that they “know” there are no gods. Second, it also takes pressure off of theists in exactly the same way. Third, it uses the term ‘agnostic’ in a way more true to the original meaning of the Greek word. In ancient Greek, ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ and the prefix ‘a’ mean ‘without’ or negation. So, to say that I am “agnostic” literally means “I don’t know.”

Cons of the Quadrant Model

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this model. For one, the unconventional use of ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic.’ While I do love etymologies (word origins), most people find them rather pedantic. The simple truth about language is that meanings change over time. A word gets it’s meaning from usage. If we were arguing about what technical term philosophers should use, that might be a different story. But if we want an ordinary term for common usage, it is simpler to use the word conventionally. So, when it come to ‘agnostic,’ most people understand this to describe someone who is undecided about God’s existence. And when it comes to ‘gnostic,’ this term gnostic, mysticalrefers to followers of an religion that revolves around the possession of esoteric, mystical knowledge (Gnosticism). For Christians, this is especially important, because ‘gnostic’ carries a heavy negative connotation, and has for thousands of years. To be a “gnostic theist” is to be a heretic, for most Christians. So, shifting meanings in this way muddies the waters.

Secondly, this model suggests that knowledge and belief are like height and width–two separate dimensions of thought. But belief and knowledge relate more like acceleration and force. Belief is a component of knowledge, just as acceleration is a component of force (F = ma). So it is misleading to represent them on two perpendicular axes.

This quadrant model also fails to provide a safe conceptual space for the truly undecided. True undecidedness is a real position on many important questions, including scientific ones. In numerous cases (e.g., the multiverse), the most rational thing to say is “I neither believe there is an X, nor do I believe there is not an X.” But the diagram above tells me that I must pick a quadrant.  I must either believe (the space below the ‘x’ axis) or not believe (the space above the ‘x’ axis). If we revised it to allow people to be on the axis, perhaps right at (0,0), then what do we call them? There is no in-between because the model is binary in principle.

confused, atheist, agnosticFinally, the fellow in the upper-left quadrant confuses a few things. He wants to say “I don’t believe any god exists,” but he also wants to say “I’m not CLAIMING that–I might be wrong.” I understand the discomfort here. He doesn’t want to make a strong claim, because that would require a strong defense, which is a burden he doesn’t want. Fair enough. But he isn’t like a helicopter that has yet to land. He has landed, even if tentatively. He thinks there are no gods. He’s not saying he is certain, or that he can prove anything, he is simply describing where he has landed. And he admits that he may have landed on the wrong spot. That’s fine. But even a tentative landing represents a claim about what you think is true about the universe. I’ll say a bit more beloe about the the difference between “having no belief about p” and “not believing p.”

The Sliding-Scale Model

Instead of a binary-based model, and the restrictions that entails, I prefer a sliding-scale approach.  This non-binary model allows for a wide range of possibilities, grouped into three natural categories. Rather than being forced to choose from only four possible positions, people can personalize their position based on their beliefs and confidence level.

I didn’t have a cute graphic for mine, so I made this:

belief scale, agnostic

On this view, you can be anywhere between 0-100% confidence about a certain idea or claim. (“p” refers to any claim, or proposition, like “God exists.”) If you find yourself hovering around the 50% mark, we’ll say you neither believe it nor disbelieve it. This is where we should fall on claims like “this fair coin will land on heads when flipped.” Sometimes we say things, loosely, like “I don’t know.” But this conversationally implies that we simply don’t have a belief one way or the other.

pool jump, confidence, beliefIf you land roughly between 65-100% confident that p, then you clearly believe it is true.  At 100% confidence, you have no doubts and think there is no chance that p is false. (Notice that we’re saying nothing about knowledge here. This is only about beliefs, just to keep things simple and clear.)  If you fall anywhere in between 0-35%, you think that p is false, though the closer you get to 50%, the more you lean toward thinking there’s some chance it could be true. For example, suppose I’m looking over a balcony, wondering if I could jump safely into the pool. I give myself about a 15% chance of plunging safely into the water. So, if you ask me, “Do you believe you can make it?” I’d say, “no.”  If you have 0% confidence that p, then you have no doubt it is false–you disbelieve it with maximum confidence of its falsehood.

The Sliding-scale & God

Now, if we apply this to our debate about definitions, here’s how I think it works in terms of belief about God. If you have ~65% or more confidence that God exists, then you believe that God exists and we call you a theist.  (I think most of us agree with that.) But theists, like atheists, can possess little or much confidence. If you are ~35% or less confident that God exists, then you disbelieve that God exists and we call you an atheist. (Nothing about knowledge here!)

Both segments (red and green) of the scale represent a “belief state,” two sides of the same coin.

coin flip, tails, beliefBut that’s ok because merely believing or disbelieving that p doesn’t saddle you with an undue burden. I call them both belief states because disbelieving that p is roughly synonymous with believing that p is false. I.e., “I disbelieve that God exists” is the same as “I believe there is no God.” It’s like someone saying, “I don’t think the coin will be heads”– you wouldn’t need to ask whether they believe it will be tails. It’s just a belief! No big deal. Whether it is rational or whether you know is a different ball game and will require more justification. But the atheist need not attain certainty or prove there is no God in order to be a rational atheist.

Questions & Concerns

Some atheists prefer the quadrant model because they are more comfortable saying “I don’t have a belief about God–I lack belief in God.” But saying you lack a belief about God’s existence is not accurate. Atheists lack an affirmation of God’s existence, but they have a belief state (doxastic attitude), and that belief state is disbelief. They take the claim “God exists” to be false. If you don’t take it to be false, then you are either undecided or a theist. The only people who truly lack a belief about God are those who have never considered God’s existence, like my dog Duke or my friend’s baby. They just have no belief state about God whatsoever.

Huxley, agnostic, agnosticismWhat about agnostics? Now, I admit that the term ‘agnostic’ as a label for the undecided is somewhat regrettable, given the literal Greek meaning. Coined by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, the term served to contrast his position against those who felt they had attained “gnosis” or knowledge of answers to the big questions. Huxley used the term to express either skepticism or humility or both. But regardless of Huxley’s intentions, the term now refers to someone who is undecided on a matter, religious or otherwise. For now, it works. Launch a campaign to shift the usage if you dislike it, but it isn’t quite right to tell people that they’re using it wrong now.

To avoid mixing up atheism and agnosticism, note that the claim “I don’t believe that any gods exist” (as in the four quadrant graphic above) can mean several different things. Consider the claim E: “the number of stars in the universe is even.” If I say that “I don’t believe E,” that could mean: (1) I think E is false, which implies that I hold the odd-number-stars view; or (2) I don’t believe E, but I don’t think it’s false either. I’m just undecided, or agnostic on the matter. So when you want to express atheism and NOT agnosticism, it is better to say something like, “I believe there are no gods,” or more simply “I disbelieve theism.”

If you discover that the belief-state you are in is difficult to defend, welcome to the club! Each position has its unique challenges and weaknesses. There’s no problem with redefining your position in order to make it more defensible, as long as the changes are not “Ad hoc” and the new definition is coherent and unconfusing.

Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.