Monday, April 19, 2010

Pointed Question

Crystal recently posted about the death of Antony Flew, a British philosopher. In an excerpt from one of his books (Reason and Responsibility), he describes how people engage in a watering-down of the God assertion in the face of logic or evidence.

So, for example, he says, we say we believe that God loves us like a father. Then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat, his earthly father driven insane with grief, but his heavenly father (who ostensibly is able to do something about it) apparently unmoved.

"It's OK," says the theodicist. "this is because God's love is somehow different from human love, inscrutable or beyond human love or constrained by free will or somesuch."

And so our meaty and reassuring understanding of "God loves us like a father" is redefined and eroded, until it's not really the same thing we meant in the first place.

Then Flew asks this:

"What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?"

I'm interested in how people answer this question, because I'm not sure whether it condemns me (because I have "watered down" my definition of God in order to keep it) or justifies me (because my understanding of "God" has changed significantly in the face of this sort of evidence).


Cody said...

Based on evidence I could deny the existence of God at any time. In this case, my belief is based on a decision I have made to hold on to my hope.

Matthew said...

I think what he means by "disproof" is, can you think of anything that would cause you -- essentially force you -- to change your mind about the existence of God? It seems like the answer you're giving is "nothing". Or am I misreading?

Also, I think Flew might be oversimplifying how belief works, and that might factor in here.

Cody said...

Yes, I need a better understanding of belief (or what he means by belief) to answer the question well.

But, as it is I can't think of anything that could happen that would make me decide that there is no God/Divine.

But, honestly, I don't know that I could really say that I believe there IS a God/Divine. I choose to operate as if there is. But I freely admit that there's just as good a chance that there is not.

What do you think? Do you have an answer?

Cody said...

Plus, I didn't really want to offer an answer. I just wanted to read everyone else's discussion and posting was the best way to ensure that I'll see all the comments.

Matthew said...

> I just wanted to read everyone else's discussion

Well, blog's been dormant for a while, but we'll see if anybody comes along. =)

> Do you have an answer?

Well, first, I think Flew is oversimplifying how belief works, especially belief about big things whose proofs would have to be more complex than a set of rules or transformations within a closed system (like a mathematical proof).

In my opinion, we believe things because our experiences have shaped or minds in such a way that we can't believe otherwise. And that's true of people who both believe in God and those who don't.

So I guess I have two answers to this question. The first is: I've already stopped believing in quite a few Gods. The God who is a He: I've stopped believing in him. The God who is like an impossibly big, vindictive person: I've stopped believing in him, too. And the God who sits by and watches his children suffer? I've stopped believing in that one too. But I still do believe in a God.

And so the second part of the answer would be: I doubt that any little bit of information would change my mind in such a way that I would stop believing in this God. However, I do think there are experiences that might change my mind. To be only somewhat more specific, I suspect this would have to involve catastrophic experiences that provoking a complete collapse of my faith in people and in love. But I don't think there's any syllogism or bit of news that could do this on its own.

Connor said...

I'm with you Matt. Because I'm pretty convinced that belief in God or unbelief are not "chosen" by an individual, I do not think one can answer the question "what would cause me not to believe or to believe." May sound too deterministic but it's what I got. If it does happen, then you can look back and point out what caused the change.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone read Rabbi Harold Kushner's books, for example, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? He suggests that perhaps God is not in control of everything. I haven't finished reading the book yet, but it's based on how he learned from the suffering and death of his teenage son who had progeria (a disease of premature aging).

Matthew said...


I also wonder what the question looks like from the other side: What sort of thing would cause you to believe in God? I think an honest answer to this question would look a lot like the answer to the other.

Although as I think about this I remember that Randy Harris asked the same question (what would cause you to not believe) in one of his philosophy classes, and my answer was: "If it could be shown that people don't have free will." This is because the only theodicy I found convincing was the free will defense. And I think this response was somewhat accurate, because I have become convinced that the free will defense fails, and I have stopped believing in the God that I believed in then. But I also think this answer was too simple: a change in my views on free will isn't the only thing that has changed for me.


I haven't read them, but I think I'd agree. I'm fairly convinced that the world shows that a good and loving God is not in control of everything. The God who is in control of everything is another God I don't believe in.

Smartiniz said...

I'd say I have to agree with most of what you've said so far, Matt. I, for example, have no good explanation for why I still believe in God. Yet, somehow, I do. What would it take to make me stop believing? Probably a lot of little things building up slowly over the course of several years. After all, that's exactly what's gotten me from my once strong convictions to my current state of semi-belief.

Matthew said...


I wonder about the word "semi-belief" though. If people simply believe what they believe, then it's not as if our belief is less valid, it's just that it's different from what a lot of other people believe. One of the things I'm trying to figure out how to do at the moment is articulate my own belief in positive language (I believe x) rather than negative (I don't believe y).

A problem I'm running into is that the communicating the content of belief is often better done with narrative than with a list of propositions (see The Bible for an example of this), and it's a leap that I'm finding kind of difficult.

Cody said...

Thanks, Matt, for pointing out that my belief is no less valuable than any other belief that someone holds. I just happen to believe differently than a lot of the people I grew up knowing.

Smartiniz said...

Hmmm... I certainly agree with your assertion that my beliefs aren't necessarily less "believed" because they are different than they once were. Yet, I think the distinction I was trying to draw was not between the content of my belief but in its intensity.

Five years ago, I considered my beliefs about God and religion (whatever they were) to be at the core of my self-identity. Now I see them as a peripheral issue, something more like an interesting detail about me rather than a main plot point.

I totally feel you on the difficulty of articulating my beliefs as a positive rather than a negative. Maybe this is part of the reason that I feel I only have a "semi-belief," because it is as yet amorphous and, for the most part, unarticulated.

Matthew said...

You're welcome. =)

"Yet, I think the distinction I was trying to draw was not between the content of my belief but in its intensity."

Hrm. I wish I had more training in philosophy. Surely the epistemologists have some useful words for describing the intensity of beliefs or knowledge.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cody said...

The Right Reverend Wright!

scoots said...

on not "choosing" belief.

Being married to a Catholic has adjusted my approach to this. Beth doesn't think Christians should give any particular attention to argument trying to prove God is good. Rather, she presses the angle that theology is "faith seeking understanding."

In this approach, faith is a theological virtue that can be fostered by people but is essentially a gift of God (a la Ephesians 2). A theologian could never prove God's goodness, but rather starts with the faith that God is good (and all powerful, and unchanging, and a bunch of other things you would disagree with), and then tries to understand the world and Christian practice in light of that starting point.

This isn't always satisfying, but the key point is that it assumes that faith is a gift--which is to say that we should not expect that arguments can persuade people to faith. Though, as y'all suggest, experiences can foster (or hinder) faith.

Matthew said...

I think that's interesting because it's backwards of what I thought a theologian did. I thought that a theologian tried to understand God, but that view seems to say that the theologian takes a set of propositions about God as givens, and then, using those propositions as a starting point, tries to understand the world.

The thing that bothers me about it, though, is that it seems like most theologians would have a hecka lot of axioms, and that most of those axioms would be vigorously contested by other human beings.

So if I were going to disagree with Beth's approach, I guess I'd want to argue that it's somehow more virtuous to start with limited axioms, or ones that are somehow accessible to people regardless of upbringing. Like, maybe a more limited or accessible set of axioms would be more likely to counteract your own biases and produce better results.

scoots said...

A lot of modern theology indeed starts with the world as we experience it and moves towards God. What the "faith seeking understanding" approach would argue is that starting with the world will never get us to God, so it's something of a vain pursuit.

There are rational ways for Christians to think about God. Beth, for example, as a pretty staunch Thomist, will embrace a lot of philosophical axioms about God, but really only those that make the broadest claims: God is pure being, God doesn't change, God is the first cause of all things, all things exist with God as their telos (goal/end), God is the only "necessary" being (that is, everything else depends on God for its existence).

As to faith, however, that's a far more specific matter. "Faith seeking understanding" presumes that God became flesh and redeemed the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Essentially, the Nicene Creed would be the basic points included as articles of faith, though of course faith itself is more than just the collection of propositions to be believed. Faith is a gift of God that directs us towards God in worship, hope, and love.

Again, this can't be proven. But it starts with the notion that there's very little that *can* be proven about God. So it starts with the outlines of what Christians have most often believed over the centuries. There remain a lot of points that are up for debate, as the creed is fairly limited in its details. If you look at the Nicene Creed, it's very specific about Jesus' divinity, and very broad about most other things.

Vincent said...

"In my opinion, we believe things because our experiences have shaped or minds in such a way that we can't believe otherwise. And that's true of people who both believe in God and those who don't."

When you say this, Matt, I'm in complete agreement, though personally I make the choice to strip off belief, where belief is a an unprovable theory constructed to make something coherent of our experience.

I tend to think that this kind of belief comes naturally, that is to say we are hard-wired for it. Along with prayer and thanksgiving directed towards the Unknown.

If it is hard-wired then it is superfluous, and even harmful, to overwrite one's delicate and fragile experiences with intellectual justifications. Like trying to restore a crumbling Renaissance fresco with a broad-nibbed marker pen.