Monday, January 18, 2010

How the Improbable God
Probably Works
A World View and a God Hypothesis
Shane Hayes

Here’s a world view in a thousand words – and it took me only fifty years to compose it. I offer it as a theory, a hypothesis for your consideration and comment. Try to assume each part is true till you get to the end. Then, when you view it whole, decide if it’s a plausible account of what we can see and what may be behind it. For me it is.

There is a cosmic intelligence, an all-powerful personal God who created the universe. The Big Bang, evolution, and natural selection may have been his modus operandi. His mind is infinite, and his methods are very subtle. A sense of humor is one of the finest aspects of human intelligence, so we should not suppose our creator is without one. Irony, and a predilection for the incongruous, the unexpected, the mysterious, and the imponderable are manifest in all his works. He has made some of the greatest truths about his world – from the roundness of the earth, and the stillness of the sun, to his own invisible existence -- appear improbable. He reveals himself, but always under a cloak of ambiguity that lets us explain him away, if we want to. He does this not maliciously, but with a benevolent purpose that has something to do with freedom and what might be called soul making. His “heart” is as vast and limitless as his mind.

Man is the creature in whom he takes the greatest interest, because man is the most Godlike creature – the most able to reflect on his condition, and alter it by using his mind and his power of choice. Man is the only creature capable of knowing God and forming a relationship with him. The only creature with a sense of humor.

God loves all of his creation, especially man, and he has made man more capable of love than any other creature. He can love not only himself, his mate, and their offspring (as other mammals do), but a wide circle of other human beings – potentially all of them. And God made it possible for man to love him. He has made love crucial to a healthy human psyche. We are happiest when we love God and other people, but we are free not to.

Such choices are the essence of morality, and God constructed the universe around them. Despite the vast sweep of its galaxies, it is essentially a moral universe – designed to provide moral challenge and opportunity, to require moral striving, and to produce in every life a measurable degree of moral success and failure, which are of keen interest to God.

Our happiness is important, but must often be deferred. God is eternal – he takes the long view, and requires that we learn to. The long view includes both life, which is brief, and its Sequel, which is endless. Though the Sequel is infinitely larger than life, it’s as invisible as God, therefore easy to forget or not believe in.

God has filled his universe with ironies. The principal irony is that often things are not what they seem. Learning to deal with that is a great moral challenge. We must learn to “see” the invisible, to “hear” the inaudible, to grasp what we can’t touch, and to believe what we can’t prove. The most important reality is God, but he’s hidden from us. Deliberately, maddeningly, and distressingly hidden. The shining Sequel to life -- its fulfillment, point, and purpose -- is so out of sight as to be generally out of mind, even for those who expect it.

God has made it possible for man to know a great many things with certainty. We know obvious things by simple observation. Much that is hidden can be learned by study, experiment, and the exercise of reason. At its best, reason is so amazing that we’re tempted to think it’s the only human faculty that can lead us to truth. In fact, it can lead us to only certain kinds of truth: practical, theoretic, scientific. But the ultimate truth – interpersonal and mystical -- is quite beyond its reach. We can reason to the possibility of God, but he has strewn other possibilities in our path, so that certainty about his existence and our origin cannot be had.

Dealing with this uncertainty is another moral challenge. God has made himself not only hidden but unprovable. The only way to connect with him is by believing what we can’t know. Those are his terms and we must accept them or reject him. When reason brings us to God’s threshold (he is one possibility among several), other faculties must carry us across, and if we disdain them we’ll never reach him. They may work in this sequence. Hope says, “I wish there were a God; I want there to be a God; I hope there is a God.” Love says, “I find the idea of God wonderfully appealing; I love the idea of God; I love the possibility of God.” Then faith says, “I extend my hand into the darkness; I believe in God” -- and the divine connection is made!

The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing. He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Our decision is our fate.


  1. Shane,

    Your essay maturely and honestly looks at the world and makes the case for Christian belief with a minimal of theological, ethical, and psychological claims. I appreciate that. It is a testament to your life’s journey.

    Your claims as I see them are the following:
    1. A person will be happier if they believe in God.
    I say it depends on a lot of things like their personality type, possibly genetics, what they believe, how they deal with uncertainty, how they deal with everything else in their life. Psychology is complicated.
    2. It is possible to find “God” and the ultimate “Truth” through belief.
    I say that religion throughout the history of man has come up with many different conceptions of God. How do we know which one is right? It seems to me a bit arrogant to say one particular set of beliefs is right and others are false.
    3. It is a higher moral act to believe than not to believe.
    I say the act of believing can serve to intensify one's moral predispositions (for good or bad). I don’t think that one’s moral predisposition comes from the act of believing, though. I view them as separate things.
    4. To believe is not to be arrogant.
    I say although I agree that belief (while admitting agnosticism) can be a humbling endeavor, it gains a bit of arrogance when exclusive claims are made about what is true. It is not arrogant for an unbeliever to simply say “I don’t know” to uncertainty. Some unbelievers may be arrogant, but that doesn’t mean that the only way not to be arrogant is to believe.
    5. Only the humble and believing can find life’s Sequel.
    That statement is something that can only be believed. Of course it raises the question of what should one believe? Or are any beliefs sufficient as long as you are humble?

    Respectively, Jeff

  2. I love how you see faith as extending a hand into the darkness. Faith in this country, with all our comforts, seems a shallow thing to me. The more we are willing to enter the darkness, the more authentic faith will become. Keep helping us extend, Terry.

  3. I realize that you asked that we read the post, assuming each part is true, but that's somewhat problematic, because it leads to rather circular reasoning. Given that you believe that reason is insufficient to convince us of the existence of God (and, more specifically, the Christian God), it's difficult to understand how believing in this God, who may not exist, can be characterized as being a positive moral act, or disbelief can be characterized as an act of arrogance. I understand that you already believe in this God, but imagine that you don't, and that the Christian God is just one of a number of competing hypotheses for which you have insufficient evidence to conclude the truth of by reason. Given that you you don't have evidence that He exists, why would you consider it an "act of love" to decide that He exists? Acts of love are only appropriate for entities that actually exist. Or why would it be moral, or un-arrogant, to decide that He exists? If He doesn't exist - which you agree is possible - then why would it be moral to decide to believe something untrue, or arrogant to say "there's insufficient evidence to convince me of this hypothesis"? Your description of the non-reasoning faculties that lead us to the Christian God only makes sense if you believe, or almost believe, in this Christian God in the first place.

    Generally, the problem I'm having with this post, it that you say that reason is not the only human faculty that can lead to truth, and that we need something more here. But without reason, I have no idea how to choose between competing claims -- e.g. between Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, deism, or Zeus. I don't even know how to choose between your Christian God, or Pat Robertson's Christian God. I know you took umbrage at Jeff's previous Pat Robertson comment, so let me stress that I'm not comparing you to Pat Robertson morally. But it brings up the question of, once we choose to believe things not grounded in reason, what moors us to one reality, rather than another. You say that you then must use faculties other than reason, but it's not clear to me what those faculties are. You mention things like "hope," "love," and "faith," but if those are the other faculties, your path to this Christian God is (1) circular, and (2) could be equally well be used to justify any other belief not grounded in reason.



    This comes long after you posted your four-part comment under “Believing Without Proof.” Sorry for the delay. Prepare yourself for a reply that reflects my agnosticism about God’s existence and about Christianity, Judaism, etc. They are all unprovable, yet there are sound reasons for believing in any of them, and sound reasons for disbelieving. In matters of this kind none of us is objective. Yes, we weigh arguments pro and con, but our conclusions are determined more by emotional bias than by the icy logic we pride ourselves on. We end up believing what we want to believe – and convince ourselves that the choice is purely rational. It is not.

    Your detailed and multifaceted argument convinces me that nothing I can say will sway you. In matters of the kind we’re discussing, where proof is elusive or non-existent, pure reason does not carry the day. At minimum it is heavily affected by emotional, social, or cultural preference. I freely admit that I am a Christian not because the evidence compels me to be, but because the evidence is so mixed and ambiguous that it allows me to go either way – and toward Christ is the way I want to go.

    Here is the view that gets me where I want to go on this issue: Even if one can prove from the scriptures that Jesus was dead wrong about when the end-times would come, the same scriptures – all four gospels – agree on the Resurrection and that he appeared to a number of disciples after that stupendous event. One can view it as a sign of the veracity of the New Testament that the apparently wrong predictions you cite were left as they are and not edited to make Jesus look omniscient. These make the four accounts of the Resurrection (despite their minor discrepancies) more credible. The Resurrection – conjoined with Jesus’ accurate predictions about how and when he would die and rise again, and his magnificent teaching and blameless life – overwhelm the objection about the end times, in my mind. But my mind is disposed to believe BECAUSE I WANT TO. Your mind seeks and finds scores of reasons not to believe BECAUSE YOU DON'T WANT TO.

    You have done a lot of reading and are well-versed in arguments against the deity of Christ and the truth of his gospel (which does not depend on WHEN the Last Days will come). I said at the end of my comment: “I think you’re powerfully drawn to Him,” meaning Christ. Your four-part comment convinced me that I misread you. If you were drawn to him you would not have marshaled dozens of reasons to characterize him as a failed prophet and, by implication (in light of his many claims), a fraud. There are counter-arguments to all of the objections you and Bart Ehrman give, but you don’t seem to have searched them out. I don’t say they successfully refute him, but they support a contrary view.

    A friend of mine recommended a book that presents those arguments much better than I could. If you’re interested it is R. C. Sproul’s “The Last Days According to Jesus.” The back cover says: “Respected theologian R. C. Sproul… answers critics who claim Christ’s teaching was ‘defective’ and addresses several key questions regarding the last days.” I have the book (just bought it) and will be glad to lend it to you if you’re interested. I haven’t read either Ehrman or Sproul, so I can’t say that Sproul is right and Ehrman wrong. I think it likely, though, that reasonable minds might choose either view. I suggest that you NOT read the Sproul book unless and until you reach a point where your desire to believe is in equilibrium with, or has begun to outweigh, your desire to disbelieve.

    Your four-part comment ignored what I felt was the best argument I presented. I append it below as a postscript.

    [Continued in the comment box immediately below.)

  5. [Continued from comment immediately above]


    The point that most convinced me of your disinclination to believe is this passage from your comment: “You mentioned Jesus preaching in the Temple and his parents losing him. When they found him Mary said that your father and I have been looking all over for you. OOPS. Joseph was mentioned as the father. I thought God was.”

    Wayne, isn’t it reasonable to think that Mary would not have gone around telling all her neighbors about the virgin birth and that Jesus was the Incarnate Son of God? She was an intelligent sensitive woman; she knew no one would believe her. If Joseph was Jesus’ foster father from birth, wouldn’t Mary have referred to him both within and outside the household as Jesus’ father? Was that really an incriminating slip that deserves to be added to your more substantial arguments – or are you trying to make the list as long as you can?

    Remember, I’m not saying I’m objective and you’re biased. I’m admitting that I’m biased in one direction and suggesting that you are biased in the other direction. Recognizing those biases and their strength, I think we’d be spinning wheels to argue these points further. Where I can do some good with my blog, and the book I’m writing, is to help people who do not believe in God, but tend to WISH THEY DID (I was in that state for years). I can persuade some of them that THERE ARE NO RATIONAL BARRIERS TO FAITH, and help them clear the emotional hurdles that keep them from it. But where there is no wish to believe – or where the contrary wish is stronger – my best arguments will not avail. This is so, whether the question is God’s existence or the truth of the Christian faith. Neither can be either proven or disproven. It is rational to disbelieve. It is just as rational to believe.

    My goal, as I explained to you when the blog started, is to advocate theism, not any particular religion. You’ve drawn me into a defense of Christianity, which is not the issue I want to focus on now (maybe later). I must make it more clear to my readers what I mean by theism – and describe the KIND of theism that can transform their worldview and their lives. My debates with you, and my visits to your favorite atheist blog, have made me appreciate the need for that kind of clarification. Thank you.

    Shane P. S. The argument referred to above, from my earlier reply, appears in the comment below:

  6. [Continued from the comment above]


    This was the wrap-up of my earlier reply to you about Jesus and the end-times:

    "I would like to add a final argument. It wouldn’t shake my faith in Christ’s divinity, even if he was wrong in predicting when the end times would occur. The doctrine of the Incarnation posits that Jesus was both God and man – a divine and human nature, mysteriously united. If his humanness is real, must it not contain some limitations of knowledge during his life as a man on earth? BEING TRULY HUMAN MIGHT MEAN THAT THE OMNISCIENCE OF THE DIVINE NATURE OF JESUS WAS, IN EFFECT, PARTITIONED OFF FROM HIS HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS DURING MOST OF HIS STRUGGLES ON EARTH. God willed that the human Jesus bear the limitations that are intrinsic to being human. Is that not consistent with scripture?

    “Jesus, at age twelve, probably didn’t know that a caravan which included his family was leaving Jerusalem without him. He was probably unaware that for days his distraught parents searched frantically for him. As an adult preacher he had to ask at one point how much food was available for the crowd: ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ Mark 6:38. The apostles checked and reported back that there were five loaves and two fish.



  7. Shane,

    I agree that many reach an emotional position concerning religion and then after-the-fact explain it or rationalize it with reasons or arguments. I’m sure people do that for lots of other things as well.

    What can you say to those (like me) that think that all holy books are the work of human authors that, like you, “wanted to believe” and consequently viewed the world as having supernatural components and causes. With this view, the holy books are simply evidence that the religious mindset existed back then but are not evidence of the existance of what the religious authors believed in. For me, quoting scripture is besides the point on considering the existence of the supernatural. For me scripture is valuable only in studying those in the past who believed in the supernatural. The beliefs are interesting from a cultural anthropological perspective.

    To better understand the God concept as generally put forth by theistic beliefs, why do you think God values believing when the concept of believing (without evidence) so often fractionates the believers into different (and sometimes warring) camps? You seem to imply that the act of believing is so important to God that "the Sequel" is only available to the believers. Can you comment on what possible motive God might have for this? It seems to me that the "believing requirement" for a supposed afterlife is just "good marketing material" written down by the people from long ago who themselves wanted to believe.

    Also why does God want to be worshipped? Or is that belief limited to only a subset of theists?




    Your five-point comment was thoughtful and well organized.

    Your introductory paragraph says that my essay “makes the case for Christian belief.” Another commenter perceived it that way too. In fact, that was not my intent. The word “Christian” does not appear there once, nor do I make any reference to Christ or his gospel. Part of the misperception stems from my having identified myself as a Christian in other postings and comments. I must make it clear that my being a Christian does not mean all or even most of my arguments are for Christianity. I could not have emerged directly from atheism into any formal religion, so I don’t press my readers to do that. I don’t say no one can, but I think most can’t, so I don’t advocate that abrupt transition. Nor do I insist on Christianity as the destination for everyone who comes out of atheism. Organized religion is an option but not a requirement for a new believer.

    I posted a comment on the Friendly Atheist blog last week, after noticing that most of a hundred comments by readers seemed to pin their atheism on alleged atrocities by the God of the Old Testament. Here’s what I said:

    “Both the postings and comments on this blog generally deal with the question of God’s existence in a strictly Biblical context. Many incisive, forceful, and even erudite points are made pro and con. May I suggest, though, that all contributors on the Friendly Atheist LOOK AFRESH AT THE QUESTION OF GOD’S EXISTENCE COMPLETELY APART FROM THE BIBLE, Judeo-Christian theology, and the theology of any organized religion?

    “The doctrines and scriptures of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists need have no bearing on the elemental question of whether a personal and loving God exists. If he does, we can conceive of him untarnished – and unelaborated -- by all established theologies and scriptures. We can commune and build a relationship with him directly and without intervention of a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam.

    “Though I have embraced an organized religion, I was A PURE THEIST for years. That is a wonderful alternative to atheism. It should be considered by everyone who is put off by images or stories of God that are embedded in any established religion. It is this PURE THEISTIC line of inquiry and debate that I mainly follow (unless a commenter deflects me) on my blog The Believing Agnostic….” [End of quote.]

    In a future posting I will elaborate on what I mean by pure theism. For now, envision it as belief in a personal and caring God with whom we can commune by prayer. Just us and Him. The essay you commented on, “How the Improbable God Probably Works,” is meant to lay a foundation for pure theism. I don’t think it conflicts with a reasonable interpretation of the Bible, or with sophisticated theologies, any more than arithmetic conflicts with calculus. For some, arithmetic is all they need. For some, a world view as simple as that expressed in that essay is all they need. It’s a light-year from atheism.

    [Continued in the comment below.]


    [This is a continuation of the reply to Jeff, begun immediately above. PART TWO.]

    Now for the five numbered points you made:

    1. I agree that, as you say, “Psychology is complicated.” This paragraph from “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” parallels your argument: “I don’t say everyone should believe. I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist. I know how different people are. What worked for me may not work for you. But believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.”

    2. You say that there are so many different conceptions of God that it is “a bit arrogant to say that one particular set of beliefs is right and the others are false.” The philosophical agnosticism I argue for does not require a pronouncement that my belief is right and others are wrong. I concede that neither atheism nor theism can be proven. I don’t think Judaism, Christianity, or Islam can be proven either. But the fact that we can’t prove a hypothesis does not mean we can’t believe it. It is not arrogant, for example, to say that I can’t be sure your atheism is wrong; nevertheless I choose to believe there is a God who cares about us, and I reach out to him in prayer.

    3. You interpret me to say: “It is a higher moral act to believe than not to believe.” As a believing agnostic, I don’t say that – though Christian theology does. My argument is more pragmatic. If there is a God who created the world and cares about his creatures, he MAY want us to use our mind and will to acknowledge his existence and form a relationship with him. If he is, as I think, a God of love, that MAY have been the very reason he created us. If so, refusing to believe makes a relationship impossible and MAY thereby thwart the purpose of our existence. Choosing to believe MAY offer great benefits that will be lost if we choose to remain neutral or to disbelieve. In short – weighing the uncertainties and possibilities -- I urge belief in God not because it’s moral but because IT’S IN OUR INTEREST.

    4. I don’t see it as arrogant for a religion to make a truth claim for its doctrines, even if it means that other religions are more or less false. It is, after all, possible that one is right and all the others are wrong. Alas, no religion can KNOW that, because its truth claims can’t be proven. Imposing one’s religion on others by force or threat of violence is arrogant. Believing and urging others to believe voluntarily is not.

    5. You ask: “… [W]hat should one believe? Or are any beliefs sufficient as long as you are humble.” To atheists and other non-theists, I suggest they consider the world view and God hypothesis laid out in my essay, “How the Improbable God Probably Works.” It’s pretty basic stuff. To simplify it even further, I suggest they believe THERE IS A GOD WHO WANTS TO INTERACT WITH THEM. That’s the heart of the matter. A spoken or silent expression of willingness to connect can make all heaven break loose. Risk it.


  10. Response to Shane's What drives our conclusions Part 1

    The big problem with latching onto the New Testament’s belief that there would be end times is that the belief ‘evolved’ from the belief that God was responsible for all good and evil. When Israel was defeated and its people placed into exile, prophets would state that it was because the people sinned against God. However, after a time, the question arose as to why the ones who kept all of God’s laws were also punished, and also, when the people in general were keeping the laws, why were they still being punished. In order to explain this, the solution was that it wasn’t God, but the evil around them that was causing this suffering and, since God is good, though he hasn’t done so yet, he will eventually intervene and put down this evil, i.e., the apocalyptic theory. The same theory John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching. You state that Jesus appeared and spoke to a number of disciples. I believe that was only in Mark and that scholars have determined that this was added to this Gospel by someone other than Mark a couple of centuries later (I don’t remember the exact amount of time, only that it was significant). Mark originally ended with the women going to the tomb and finding the rock removed. BTW, scholars know that Luke and Mathew used Mark as one of their sources. Funny, there were many people who claimed they saw Elvis after he died. Also, remember that these gospels were written long after Jesus’ death and by anonymous authors. John is the only one that states the name John, but John the beloved apostle was known to be illiterate. It states so in the Bible. The John who wrote the gospel of John wrote in literate Greek.
    Yes, I agree that your mind is disposed to believe because you want to. I can relate to that, because my mind was the same way. So, I strongly disagree when you state that my mind seeks and finds scores of reasons not to believe because I don’t want to. Not so. My mind is seeking truth. I tried to find this truth through religious sources, but with no success. I accidentally, came across the truth when reading James Randi’s Mask of Nostradamus. I used to believe in his prophesies until I read Randi’s book and discovered that he was actually a clever fraud. In the appendix, Randi mentioned other failed prophets and Jesus was one of them when he stated that some of the disciples would be still standing when his father arrived in glory in his kingdom. A friend then turned me onto Bart Erhman’s college lectures on tape from the Teaching Company. That was an eye opener and, at last, I found the answers to my questions like why would Jesus be fervently preaching for the people to prepare for the end times when it wasn’t going to happen millenniums later. And I wasn’t looking for reason not to believe, but only wanted to know the truth. Unfortunately, it may mean that there is no continuance after death, and that hurts. But I feel better knowing the truth than a living a fantasy. You say that this is just one discrepancy, but it is one of the main keys to Christianity. The other is supposedly that Jesus died for our sins. The problem is that in order for the fact that Jesus died for our sins to be true, he would have to be divine, and if he were divine, he would have to have some idea when the end times were coming. The fact that he was preaching like it was going to happen then makes his so called divinity suspect. Some criticize Erhman and even claim he is a member of the new atheists, but what he states makes a whole lot of sense. Nothing from the religious sources comes close, including the book, A Case for Christ.

  11. Response to Shane's What drives our conclusions part 2

    You suggest I not read Sproul unless and until I reach a point where my desire to believe is in equilibrium with, or has begun to outweigh, my desire to disbelieve. Interesting, because I suggest you not listen to Bart Erhman’s college lectures on tape, The Historic Jesus, and also The New Testament or read his Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, until you reach a point where you realized that there are questions that religion has not been able to answer, and you finally wish to learn the truth even though it may be counter to your beliefs. I know that, when I believed, I would fervently defend my faith to nonbelievers and I would never read or listen to tapes counter to my belief. I believe that is where you are currently.
    You mentioned my comment about Mary saying your father and I and you're arguing that Mary would probably keep this silent. That would seem plausible, except for one big problem. Mark, the earliest Gospel mentions nothing about a virgin birth. It starts out with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. It wasn’t till later gospels where we find the story of the virgin birth. BTW, have you ever given any thought to the claim of the wise men following yonder star? Think about it. If there was such a star, everyone would have seen it and there would have been writings about it outside of the Bible. There wasn’t. Here is a large star hanging over Bethlehem. Sorry, it sounds more like a fairy tale. Also, there was nothing in Roman records that indicated that they had such a disruptive thing as an empire wide census. It appears that this was another bit of fiction.
    You state that you want to help people who do not believe in God, but tend to wish they did. Like I already stated, I do tend to believe that a creator was necessary because life seems too complex to have come about by chance. However, at the same time I am agnostic because I know a creator cannot not be proved or disproved. However, when it comes to Christianity, I feel that the evidence is there that it is man-made. You just have to open your eyes. Ehrman was both evangelical and a fundamentalist, but through all his research on the Bible, came to realize that it was man-made. There was an ex Baptist minister on the Bible Err
    errancy News Group who used to put different versions of the Bible side by side on his computer when he suddenly realized all the discrepancies and finally became convinced that it was all man-made and not God inspired. Ehrman has studied the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible and he has seen where things got changed from one copy to another when scribes were copying them. You state that your goal is to advocate theism, not any particular religion. If that is true, then why have you stated that you are a believing Christian agnostic? That is why I commented on the reason I am no longer a Christian. You are now saying Theism. I’m not sure, since I haven’t checked the definition, but a number on the Friendly Atheist blog are saying it is a god who intervenes in our lives. Deism, they say is a god who doesn’t intervene. I assume you mean Theist. If you do, then we do agree on this one point, though it appears that you are more sure about it then I am. I am willing to state that life somehow evolved on its own without a creator. Some argue that a perfect creator would not have a 98% failure rate when it comes to its creations. He would have got it right the first time. This is the Christian belief. I believe that, if a creator existed, he had to experiment, and improved on his creations as he went along. Or else, he set up the laws of evolution.

  12. Response to Shane's What drives our conclusions part 3

    You state the example of Jesus not knowing something like how many loaves and fishes there were. It could be that he knew but wanted the Disciples, who didn’t know, to confirm it so that he could show that they ended up with more than they started with. Also, in the Old Testament, God had to go down to see how many righteous people were left in Sodom and Gomorrah. God himself didn’t know. But God would know if and when he was bringing his Kingdom to earth. Since it did not happen, the most obvious conclusion would be that Jesus was just another human prophet who believed that God would soon overthrow evil and raise up his people. It didn’t happen. When you are not sure what happened, usually the simplest explanation is the best, i.e. a supernatural explanation would not be the simplest explanation.
    I once told a friend that I couldn’t figure out why many learned men were so sure that Christianity was legit. His answer was that people want to believe that there is someone greater than them that they can call on when in trouble and also that they want to believe that they are so important as to have their conscience continue on after death. I believe that somewhat sums up why you want to believe, especially now that you are getting older and closer to the inevitable. My friend suggested rather than speculate whether or not there is a god or what religion should be followed, it is best to simply live a good life and, in the end, if there is an afterlife, we will all know when we die. Otherwise, you get caught up in Pascal’s wager (I said that). Funny, Ecclesiastes essentially states that one should enjoy this life to the fullest.
    You know, at one time, I thought that Christianity was the answer and used to laugh at all the mythological beliefs by ancient peoples in multiple gods like Zeus or the goddess Isis, but Isis worship had been around a lot longer than Christianity has, so who’s to dispute their beliefs. They also believed that gods lived longer than humans, but that they eventually got old and died. Perhaps Jehovah is the last of the gods. No, as we got more sophisticated, our gods become a bit more sophisticated as well. The Egyptians believed there was a god to explain everything in nature like the movement of the sun and the wind. However, as science explained them, these gods no longer served a purpose.

  13. Response to Shane's What drives our conclusion part 4 and final.

    I just read something about Strauss who wrote in 1835-36 The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. For Strauss, The Gospels contained neither supernatural histories nor natural histories. Instead, they contained myths. For Straus, a myth was true, but it didn’t happen or, more precisely, for Straus, a myth is a history-like story that is meant to convey a religious truth. That is, the story is fictional, even though it’s told like a historical narrative. Its intent is not to convey a history lesson, but to teach about something that is true. The Gospels are full of this kind of story. Let’s take Jesus, and Peter briefly before he panicked, walking on the water as an example. Strauss states that they would have both had to be phantoms in order to float up and walk on water and it was doubtful that the other disciples were mistaken and that they were wading in the water instead. Jesus’ walking on the water is not an actual historical event but a myth—a history-like story that is trying to convey a truth. It works like this: it was common in ancient religion, Strauss notes, and in early Christianity in particular, to liken the trials and tribulations of this life to a stormy impetuous sea that threatens life and limb. Who is able to rise above the fears, the hatreds, and the enmities of this world? Who can overcome the persecutions, the sufferings, the setbacks of this life? Who can rise above the trials and tribulations of our daily existence? Who can walk upright on the stormy sea? According to this story, Jesus can. He is the one who rises above it all, who can face the wind and master the waves, who can conquer all fear, dispel all doubt, and overcome all suffering. He is the one we should follow. For if we do, we too can rise above it all and walk on the stormy sea of life, unbuffeted by the winds and unhampered by the waves. But we must take care not to be disturbed and distraught in our faith, lest we like Peter again begin to sink. The most critical of the scholars during the 20 century think that Strauss is right, not in all or even most of the specific things he said, but in the general view he propounded. But the notion that the Gospel accounts are not 100% accurate, while still important for religious truths they try to convey, is widely shared in the scholarly guild, even though it’s not nearly so widely known or believed outside it.

  14. Shane,

    Thank for you follow-up comments. I'll ponder them. I still think your "Pure Theism" as you describe is closer to Christianity than you probably want to admit. You talk of a Sequel only available to believers. That concept is definitely Christian. You could argue that some other theistic religions also share that premise, but I can at least imagine an even more pure theism without a Sequel where all the benefits of interacting with a divine presence is in the here and now. I think adding the notion of having a "judgment" that divides people into two camps (heaven bound and not-heaven bound) is a special case of "pure theism". It just depends on how you divine "general" and how you define "special".


  15. PS. I meant to say it depends on how you define "general" and how you define "special". It wasn’t a Freudian slip. It was a spell checker auto-correction “slip”. ;)

  16. Shane,
    Let's consider the story of Adam and Eve. What is the odds that that Adam and Eve were not real people? I betting that the odds are good that they aren't. If so, do you realize what that means? It would mean that fall of Adam never happened, and that would further would abolish the notion of universal sin, our need for redemtion, and Jesus' death as the necessary sacrifice. BTW, I found this over on the Friendly Atheist site. The person was pretty much talking about what I was talking about in my previous comments, that the Bible story, like Jesus walking on water, did not happen. It was merely a story to put across a religious message. That post on the Friendly Atheist site was very timely and I find it makes a whole lot of sense and tends to put another death nail in the Christian theory that Jesus was divine and died on the cross for our sins.



    Your comment of 1/25/10 makes some good points.

    Certainly the Pure Theism I sketched has elements in common with Christianity, as well as with Judaism and even Islam. Belief in a personal and caring God is a starting point, as is belief that we can commune with him. The idea of life after death is a basic doctrine of Christianity and Islam (found much less clearly in the Old Testament). The theism I propose will contain those very basic elements and others that are the bedrock of some existing religions. Pure Theism (PT) will differ mainly in the simplicity of its belief structure. Many of the dogmas that you and other non-theists object to in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – which cause you to reject all religion -- will be absent in PT. This will make God accessible to you, though you find the path to him blocked in established faiths.

    If PT had clearly defined contours, agreed on by many, it would be an organized religion. What I conceive of is more embryonic, amorphous, personal. I begin by looking back -- at what I was tempted to believe, then half believed, then believed firmly, in the misty halting process of emerging from atheism. I will write an essay about that soon.

    Each of us is free to decide what, if anything, we will believe. In your comment you said: “You talk of a Sequel [heaven] only available to believers…. I can at least imagine an even more pure theism without a Sequel where all the benefits of interacting with a divine presence is in the here and now. I think adding the notion of having a ‘judgment’ that divides people into two camps (heaven bound and not heaven bound) is a special case of ‘pure theism.’”

    That’s a keen observation. Yes, since we’re in uncharted territory, anyone so inclined can construct his own version of theism. What’s essential is to somehow connect with God. I’ve thought about your proposal and there are reasons why I can’t incorporate it into my PT, though it may work fine in yours.

    THE FIRST REASON: My deepest instincts tell me that if there is a God who loves mankind he would not let death be the final word on human life. Not let Death be the ultimate victor. He would share his eternal life with those who love him. Perhaps -- as the Universalists believe -- even with those who DON’T love him. But he would not love us, form a bond with us, then consign us to dust and oblivion.

    THE SECOND REASON: For me, believing in a God of love required coming to terms with the Problem of Evil, especially physical evil (human torment and tragedy in its extreme forms). I can clear that highest hurdle to faith only by positing a Sequel to this life in which God will heal all wounds, right all wrongs, turn pain to pleasure, and sorrow to endless joy.

    In constructing our personal theism we should not reject any belief element simply because it’s part of an organized religion that’s not for us. All of the major religions have facets that reflect the light, even if they have dark sides. We must bring those facets –and that light -- into our own theism.


  18. Autumnal Harvest,

    The legitimate questions you raised in your 1/19/10 comment in many ways paralleled those articulated by Jeff in his comment of the same date. My two-part reply to him on January 24th responded to many of your points, so I suggest you read it if you haven’t.

    As that comment explains, though I’m a Christian I’m not generally arguing for Christianity on this blog. In fact I make no exclusive claim here for that religion or any other established faith. What I urge for non-theists (atheists and non-believing agnostics) is that they consider what I have begun to call Pure Theism. I make a few observations about that in my comment to Jeff dated 1/29/10, and I hope to say more about it soon.


  19. Shane,

    I like what you are doing with "Pure Theism" and hope you continue to develop it. By developing it I mean continue to boil it down to its pure essence stripping out any remaining unneeded residues and assumptions. A good step, in my opinion, is your admission that Universalism is at least a possibility. Another notion that I would argue that might be unnecessary is the concept of a Sequel as a final destination where one obtains oneness with God and "the Truth". Why not just have "the Sequel" as another step in some kind of infinite journey in which there is no end? Why must the world work with such a pass/fail test for a final destination? It seems to me that a weaker claim would be more in line with Pure Theism.


  20. To some degree, my questions are the same regardless of whether you're arguing for "Pure Theism" or "Christianity." You're proposing that we reach conclusions by faculties other than reason, so regardless of what those conclusions are, the same questions arise: what are those faculties, and once we decide to use non-reasoning faculties to reach conclusions, is there is something that grounds us to a particular reality? It seems to me that your non-reasoning arguments for X=Pure Theism fall into two closely related classes: (1) I would like X to be true, and (2) If X is true, it's to my benefit to believe in X. (I'm attempting to summarize your long and detailed explanation into bullet points, so if in doing so, I've mangled the summary horribly, please let me know.) If (1) and (2) are the basis of the reasonableness of X=Pure Theism, then the question arises whether these would be acceptable arguments for X if X was a proposed cancer treatment. And if not, what distinguishes the two cases?

    Your Pure Theism is more general than Christianity, but as far as possibilities for religious belief are concerned, it's appears uniquely based in Christianity. You talk of a single creator god who made us, cares about us, and created us for the purpose of having a loving relationship with Him, so that believing in Him is in our interest. That looks very much like Christianity, or at least one of the three Abrahamic religions. It's monotheistic, which lets off all of the world's polytheistic religions. It has a creator god, so it's not Buddhism or Jainism. The higher force that's of such importance is a personal one, so it's not Confucianism or Taoism. It's not a creator god who creates the world, but then withdraws, losing interest in it, as occurs in a number of Oceanic and African creation stories, and which is associated with Deism in the West. The creation is purposeful, rather than the result of trickery or accident, as is common in many North American creation stories. Pure Theism is consistent with Judaism, Islam, and certain devotional, near-monotheistic forms of Hinduism, but even so, the emphasis on the importance of belief appears uniquely Christian, as those other religions have historically been much more concerned with orthopraxy and ritual, than with belief.

  21. Comments on Autumnal Harvest who characterized religious belief as (1) I would like X to be true, and (2) If X is true, it's to my benefit to believe in X.

    It gets even more interesting if the X belief also has self-referencing built into it that if X is true then it is to your advantage to believe in X. The details of X then become unimportant. As one delves into this impredicative loop, anything becomes possible. Might as well shoot for the moon. Be “one with God”, find “ultimate Truth”, have limitless joy, get your white raisons, precious jewels, virgins, or whatever floats your boat.

    Is this a mischaracterization or just a less poetic description of Pure Theism?

    As far as applying this technique to cancer, the placebo effect comes to mind.