How Can Smart People Believe in God?

How Can Smart People Believe in God?

is a blog entry at Stanford’s ‘Philosophy Talk’ about their Oct 22 show with Philip Clayton on ‘Believing in God’.

Commenter David Chilstrom revives the old saw that it takes as much faith to disbelieve than to believe – completely missing the point that not to believe in something is not the same as to believe in its negation.

Commenter Jody asserts that “Belief in a God is between God and oneself. Belief in a religion requires suspension of all doubts and questions that challange a religion’s writings and belief systems.” I agree.

In fact, personally, I suspect that if any God exists it cannot be described in words and that any attempt to do so amounts to blasphemy. This is particularly true of those scriptures which claim to be the word of god (ie all of them?). So if God and Devil exist then all religions are the work of the latter. But if a God does exist, perhaps it seeks to protect us from evil by inserting truth among lies and perhaps one of the truths of the Judaeo-Christian bible is the proscription against taking the name of the lord in vain which should be interpreted as condemning the very document which proclaims it.

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3 Responses to How Can Smart People Believe in God?

  1. alan says:

    This is a more detailed response to David Chilstrom’s comment at PhilosophyTalk.

    While it is true that absolute belief in the non-existence of all gods appears to lack convincing rational support (and also to require a certain arrogance in the assumption that one has correctly interpreted what every one of those who claim existence of a god actually mean by that claim), this does not contradict Ken’s point that the unbeliever relies mostly on reason. In fact the unbeliever may simply not believe in either the existence or non-existence of a god. Having been unconvinced by any argument pro or con myself, I have a lot of sympathy with that position. The question at hand at the start of this discussion was “How can smart people still believe in god?”. I don’t think Philip Clayton answered that question for me because I did not find his argument compelling, but I do think that if the god concept is sufficiently abstract then it can be believed in without too much offense to reason.

    Perhaps the more challenging question is that raised by Jody – “How can smart people believe in a single religion?”

  2. David Chilstrom says:

    If you examine my comment on the Philosophy Talk blog more closely, you will see that by “unbelievers” I was referring to atheists and not agnostics. However, the strong agnostic position that you endorse, that a singular God or many gods is not knowable, smacks of a faith based position also. Though I would agree that a deist God who touches off the big bang and exits stage right is unknowable, a theist God that has casual intercourse with the universe should be knowable or at least detectable via traces in the material sphere.

    Does the atheist primarily base his belief on reason while the theist relies more on faith? How can we know? It depends on the individual, doesn’t it. Besides, the belief that reason is superior and faith inferior, is a kind of faith in the power of reason.

    Your own field of study causes me to have faith in the intangible. Whether numbers be treasures from Plato’s heaven or plucked from the fields of fertile imagining, they certainly lack force and substance. Yet, without those ineffable nothings, and the prophets of number who divined or conjured their existence, humanity would have remained in huts and caves, rather than launching probes to Pluto and beyond.

    Might mathematics be something like an invisible treasury, with tools and methods to help us understand the universe and create in it? And might also the spiritual domain; which mystics, seers and prophets speak of, be a kind of treasury too, with tools to help us live harmoniously together and within the natural order? I hope this is the case. Our coffers of knowledge are overflowing, while wisdom seems perennially in short supply.

  3. alan says:

    I do believe that I may have been being unfair to accuse you of “completely” missing the point”, but I was reading your comment as a response to Ken’s posting, and I saw his “unbelievers” as not necessarily believing in the non-existence of gods – just not believing in their existence. This may seem closer to what you call “agnostics” than strict “atheists”, but in fact Ken did not claim to be an “atheist” when he talked of having a position based primarily on reason. Actually, I don’t really like those terms myself as they each are used with a wide range of interpretations and to try to tag people with them does not do justice to the possible subtlety of individual positions. For example there are many who prefer to use the term atheist to convey the absence of belief in any god. This definition includes some but not all who call themselves agnostic. Also, to some (as you imply), the position of being agnostic involves believing firmly in the essential unknowableness of truth about god, but there are others for whom it is merely a statement of their own lack of knowledge. So, certainly, *some* “atheists” and “agnostics” hold so strongly to a definite position as to be legitimately accusable of relying as much on faith as reason, but I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Ken (or me) of being among them.

    Your last point makes me want to say “my god is as real as i”.
    I do suspect that religious discourse arises from an attempt to express important and useful abstract concepts, but I believe (in the same sense as in my first sentence) that the languages used have been so inadequate that the effort has done more harm than good. So until we learn to be more modest about our ability to speak and write the “word of god” we may live more harmoniously together by just following the precepts of our common conscience without trying to talk about it.

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