A response to a question about my belief.
I received an anonymous request recently that ran as follows:
I don’t know if you take blog post requests, but... One topic on which I’d love to hear your thoughts is how you would respond if someone asked for you to explain why you believe there is a god. (Not the more difficult topic of the existence of God, but just the existence of a god.)
I have, thus far, accepted requests for topics I have received though I do not promise to do so for all future requests. And to start of that pattern of not responding as requested I will not explain how I would respond if someone asked that; communication is not so generalizable as to have a single answer to ever question. However, what follows is, I think, related to the requester’s request.
I have written pieces of the reason for my belief in this blog before. In March I wrote
I believe in God because I have conversed with Him, and it is hard not to believe in someone while you are talking with them, particularly when they are so much smarter than you are.
Years before that I wrote part of the reason I have not written more on this subject herein:
Is there any way to bring an insider perspective to those outside? Can a world view be taught?
In matters of religion […] the answer appears to be “no;” no one I know claims that faith can be understood without faith.
I’ve also written about how faith tints perception, how perception cannot be untinted, belief, keeping faith alive, disciples as evidence, recognizing God (in section 3 of that post), confidence of truth as a divine gift, the definition of “miracle”, gradual growth of faith and understanding, and reason to hesitate to share miracles. I recommend reviewing those posts before continuing; I think that context will prove valuable.
All of that context notwithstanding, there is more that I can write on this topic.
Nothing I can write will be, in and of itself, sufficient to convince a skeptic even if the skeptic accepts my statement as something I honestly believe. This statement is even true if the skeptic is my own future self. With determination, our beliefs can be ours to control.
If I said “I’ve seen an angel The same arguments apply to seeing God; but for whatever reason, seeing angels is a more commonly accepted evidence of God than is seeing God. in the flesh”, you could counter “how do you know it was an angel, not an alien/special effect/hallucination/devil?” That counter is surprisingly popular in science fiction, but not limited to that genre; I know an otherwise sane-seeming man who change his description of his own experience from “angelic visitation” to “encounter with an alien” as part of his path away from faith.
If I said “I prayed for a terminally-ill person’s health and they were declared ‘inexplicably free’ of the previously-diagnosed incurable illness”, you could counter “mis-diagnosis,” or “coincidence”, or “either the ill person or the doctor had played a trick on you.”
If I said “I heard a spiritual voice tell me when and where I could meet a friend whom I had lost track of more than a year earlier; I went there then and met him, as revealed”, you could counter “psychic impression.” or “your subconscious mind had noticed the necessary information and was informing you of its conclusion.” or “optimistic memory revision: you added the ‘voice’ after the fact.”
The only way to know that God (or anyone else) exists is to actually meet and interact with Him yourself; and even that is not foolproof if you work at changing your memory of the event afterwards.
There are at least two popular arguments for God that I do not find compelling. I find various flavors of them in philosophy, in apologetics, and in scripture. Alma described them both in this passage:
Will ye say “show unto me a sign” when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.
Stripping this of its impassioned verbiage, Alma points out that
Many people, including clever and respectable people This point is one reason why you see so many ad hominem fallacies in discussions of religion: if I can convince you that believers of X are not clever and respectable then this argument falls apart. , believe in God.
The teachings of my religion succeed in describing the world I inhabit.
Some variant of these two arguments are the reason that I believe the huge subset of science that I have never experienced, but only when coupled with a third argument:
There are no clever, respectable people who disagree.
That third argument is key to this line of reasoning being sufficient because popularity and functionality are only sufficient while and until other popular and functional explanations arise.
In this day and age, there is no shortage of people willing to stand by alternative explanations that are sufficient for those who have not yet experienced a diversity of miracles. There is even a (much smaller) menu of explanations tailored for those who experienced miracles. Without diagreeing with Alma, I do not think this line of argument is compelling today.
It is common, bordering on universal, to conflate belief and experience. When asked “why do you believe in gravity” most people will answer something like “because I’ve seen things fall.” But you can I believe in neutrons. also believe something you have never experienced and you can fail Many arguments hinge on different beliefs arising from shared experience. to believe something you have experienced. Recognizing this, I am still left to share experience in lieu of belief because belief is a choice, and not an easy one to describe.
My awareness of experiences with God grew, and still grows, gradually. Vague but undeniable spiritual feelings of comfort, concern, and joy as a child developed by stages into more understandable communications from God. The first certainly-divine moment I can recall was when I was nine or ten; the first personal interaction was when I was in my mid teens; the first revelation of new and testable information was when I was twenty; the first back-and-forth conversation was when I was twenty-three; and so on.
Reflecting on this gradual development of awareness, I have identified four patterns:
When God’s spirit speaks to my spirit, I cannot deny believing it in the moment. Back when I styled myself a would-be philosopher I began to construct a metaphysical system based on this observation, though I have since forgotten that system’s details.
The undeniability of spirit does not seem to me In the moment. I vacillate on why I think I find certainty hard to retain. to be either neurological or hormonal, and does not itself create memories in the usual sense of the word. I remember the divine manifestations themselves and recall that I was absolutely sure that they were true, but that surety itself fades quickly.
Each time that God has made a testable prediction I can count a few dozen specific, well-defined predictions like “Mike is on the other side of that hill; if you sprint you can catch him” and many more general ones like “don’t do that, you’ll regret it.” and I have tested it, I found it to be true.
Bold and undeniable experiences only come after I already have a strong enough belief that they do not cause much of a ripple in said belief.
On this last point, let me say a bit more.
I have experienced no shortage of miracles in my life
Since experience has taught me that this statement can be misunderstood,
let me be clear:
plentiful miracles are not evidence of righteousness or divine favor.
Few mortals were the direct recipient of as many dramatic miracles
as was Moses’s Pharaoh.
including some that I suppose many would call big and amazing.
Not every type of miracle, certainly
Immunity to vipers,
raising the dead,
speaking in tongues,
curing blindness, and
altering waterways and landscapes
come to mind as things I have not yet experienced.
Though I suppose I might be immune to vipers… I’ve never had any urge to find out. ; but I have been given knowledge, both grand and mundane, both via miraculous sensation and via direct cognitive gift; and I have seen the laws of physics and biology as I understand them overruled by the acts of God. However, for me these miracles have always seemed as I imagine parting the sea seemed to Moses: I’ve been surprised that God decided to do what He did but not surprised that He could do it. Miracles can sound impressive, and I am usually grateful for them, but they are not why I believe.
I personally find conversations with God to be the most powerful evidence of Him. One could see mountains move and people walk on water without accepting that God created those miracles, or even that there is any god to be involved in them at all. But a conversation, an interaction with Deity, is direct evidence of the existence of something with which to converse. Of course, “something exists” is a long way from “God exists”, but coming back to pattern 1 above, the divinity of the “something” is undeniable, even seeming self-evident, during the interaction itself. Paraphrasing what God said through Isaiah, Paul, Alma, and Joseph Smith, “every knee shall bow unto God, and every tongue shall swear that He is God” in the day when every eye shall see Him. You can’t interact with God and fail to believe that He is God.
But again, direct evidence though conversation is and undeniable though the certainty it creates may be, I find that in my life evidence follows belief, it does not cause it. So what, then, was the origin of my belief? How did it become strong enough that the ratchet of miracles could lock it into place? That was a choice, a choice that preceded the first evidence that I can recall. The realization that it was a choice bothered me as a missionary: I could teach about God all day, but why would my hearers choose to believe? Why does anyone chose to take the first step of belief, opening the door to the subsequent evidences that follow? These are questions that I have pondered for almost fifteen years now, and ones I still cannot fully answer.
My faith is not yet perfect, leaving room for belief to grow; my evidences are not yet beyond the ability of my rationalization to attack, leaving room for belief to shrink. The choice to strengthen or weaken my belief in God remains mine each day.