Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete?

The Issue as We Find It Today

Some scientists have made the assertion that belief in God has become obsolete in our modern world. But let’s ask ourselves, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?”  That anyone could take this title question seriously betrays the abysmal ignorance concerning the nature of religious belief that is so common nowadays. Simply googling the question returns over two million hits, most of which reply in the affirmative. My assertion is that no matter what some scientists may say, belief in God is not obsolete.

Science, understood as hypotheses about the nature and workings of the cosmos, couldn’t possibly make belief in God obsolete. The fact is belief in God is an answer to another, and very different, question from those which science asks. Science ought to be defined as asking for the nature and workings of the cosmos.  Religion, on the other hand, is centrally focused on the question of the identity of the self-existent reality on which all else depends. That self-existent reality is what we as Christians call God.

What is Self-Existent?

Think of it this way. The sum total of reality must be self-existent either in part or as a whole, because there is nothing else for it to depend on. But any belief as to what is self-existent is a religious belief, because that is the one thing all religions have in common. What is central to all religions is a belief in a divine reality.  The invariable core meaning of “divine” is the self-existent reality that is the Origin of all else, no matter how that divinity is further described. 

        So if some part (or all) of the cosmos itself is held to be that self-existent reality, that is the religion called “Naturalism.” By contrast, belief in God – the transcendent, personal Creator – is called “Theism.” But both, on this definition, are types of divinity beliefs. 

A Brief Historical Review

        The claim that one or another divinity belief is what is common to all religions is based on an extensive survey the official scriptures or traditions of dozens upon dozens of religions of the past and present. Moreover, the surveying has been done by a large number of highly distinguished thinkers over a period of 2650 years. It was held by virtually every Pre-Socratic thinker after Anaximander, who was the first to propose it around 650 BC. It was also endorsed by Plato, Aristotle, and later by virtually every medieval thinker. It was held by John Calvin in the 16th century and Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th century – to name but two of its advocates between the middle ages and the 20th century. In the 20th century it was accepted by: Wm James, Norman Kemp Smith, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Hans Kung, C.S. Lewis, Herman Dooyeweerd, Paul Chenau, A.C. Bouquet, Mercea Eliade, Joachim Wach, Robert Neville, and Will Herberg – to name but a few![i]

Among other things, this definition makes clear why belief in God and atheism are not exhaustive options. Atheism relates to religious belief as vegetarianism does to eating: if I know you’re a vegetarian I know what you don’t like to eat but not what you do like to eat. Likewise, if I know you’re an atheist I know what you don’t believe is divine, but not what you do believe is divine. But the Naturalist who believes that part or all of the cosmos is self-existent has a divinity belief every bit as much as any Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Such a person simply has a different divinity belief, rather than no religious belief at all.

Naturalism’s Religious Basis

Moreover, the fact that what Naturalism regards as divine is also what the sciences study does nothing to make Naturalism itself scientific rather than religious. The claim that Naturalism is somehow supported by science just because Naturalism deifies what science studies, is what is sometimes called in logic a “howler”: a mistake so bad that it provokes laughter and defies being classified as any specific fallacy. In fact, that claim is precisely parallel to claiming that the study of farming must itself be healthy because it studies the production of food.

But no one needs to regard any part of nature as divine in order to study it and/or discover how it works.

There is really no good excuse for missing the religious character of Naturalism, because Naturalist religion has been around for a long time. The belief that matter is the self-existent (divine) reality was widespread in the ancient world, for example. The main difference between modern materialism and its ancient forms (other than the increased sophistication of contemporary physics) seems to be that the ancient materialists admitted it was a religion while their contemporary counterparts claim to oppose all religion. That they are actually opposing all other ideas of divinity in the name of their own divinity seems to go unnoticed.

The Core Misunderstanding

This definition of religious belief, though marginalized in present day religious studies, is exactly what is needed in contemporary discussions of the relation between science and religion. For while there are differences among philosophers and scientists about the nature of the scientific enterprise, there is also a large area of agreement about it. By contrast, there is very little agreement among participants in the science / religion dialogue concerning the nature of religious belief, and the most commonly held ideas about religious belief are patently false. For example, divinity beliefs are not all accompanied by worship, do not all have an ethic associated with them, and do not all result in a cultic organization. Nevertheless, despite the lack of any clear idea of what makes a belief religious, thinkers by the scores plow ahead with their pronouncements about how religion relates to science.

In addition to the prevalent misunderstandings of the nature of divinity beliefs, there also presently persists an equally grievous misunderstanding of the ground on which they are believed. One of the cheapest shots in the entire science/religion discussion is the one that goes: science is matter of observation and reason while religion is blind faith. I call this a cheap shot because it is made in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary.

Blind Faith Disproved

To cite only Christian thinkers (and only a few of them) it is contradicted by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. How anyone could ignore all of them and still claim to have correctly described the Christian idea of the grounds for belief in God, I do not know. But it is done with appalling regularity by people who hold prestigious positions in major universities, some of whom have notable accomplishments in one or another science. All I can say about that, is to note how often success in one area tempts those flushed with such success to proclaim (with great confidence) the most ludicrous mistakes in other areas of which they know next to nothing. So let’s get this much straight right away:

There is not, and never has been on this planet, a religion whose scriptures asked anyone to believe it on blind faith.

Neither have the scriptures of any religion attempted to prove its doctrines as though they were theories. Rather, every religion that has treated the subject of the ground for knowing its doctrines to be true, has insisted that a person must be enlightened to know the truth of its teachings. That is to say, their truth is to be known by experiencing their self-evidence. Put another way, divinity beliefs are not hypotheses in need of proof, but are experience reports.

For that reason, it is doubly absurd first to mis-describe divinity beliefs as based on blind faith, and then dismiss them as bogus claims to truth unless they are proven. That makes no more sense than it would to demand of logic that it either prove its axioms or admit they are blind faith.

Sense Perceptions are not Blind Faith

Moreover, these twin mistakes are usually conjoined to yet another, namely, the inexcusably false claim that if a belief has no proof then the only alternative is that it must be blind faith. Many participants in the science/religion dialog have asserted this position without noticing that it would not only make the axioms of math and logic blind faith, but also all beliefs derived from normal sense perception. None of these are provable, but they are not therefore blind faith!

Nor do sense perceptions need proof. Nothing believed because it is experienced as self-evident needs proof. And please notice that it will not do to reply to this last point by saying that when it comes to logic, math, and normal sense perception everyone agrees as to what is self-evidently true, whereas the disagreements over what is divine render its alleged self-evidence false. That isn’t even close to being correct. There are as intractable, head-butting, long-standing disagreements about axioms of math and logic as there are about divinity beliefs. This fact shows that self-evidence is a proper ground for belief. I will go on to assert that although it is the ground (and often the only ground) for a belief, it is not infallible.

John Calvin and Blaise Pascal

Lest you think my claim that divinity beliefs are held because they are experienced as self-evident is weird and idiosyncratic, let me add that quite a number of Christian thinkers have held it. There is room here to quote only two of them to demonstrate that point. The first is a Protestant theologian, the second a Catholic scientist.

First, John Calvin:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that

        [Scripture] came from God?… it is just the same as

if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish

light from darkness, white from black, sweet from

bitter? Scripture bears on the face of it as clear

evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their

color, sweet and bitter of their taste.[ii]

They who strive to build up a firm faith in Scripture

Through disputation are doing things backwards…

Even if anyone clears God’s sacred Word from man’s

evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their

hearts that certainty which piety requires… unbeliev-

ing men… both wish and demand rational proof that

Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply

that the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than

all reason.[iii]

Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it,

deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but

owes the full conviction with which we ought to

receive it to the testimony of the Spirit of God.[iv]

Just to be sure there  is full understanding here: when Calvin speaks of the testimony of God’s Spirit he is referring to the experience of enlightenment. The New Testament consistently speaks of this. He is not speaking of hearing voices or seeing visions, but of the opening of one’s heart and mind to the light (truth) of the gospel.[v] I recognize he doesn’t use the expression “self-evident” in the quotes above. In my opinion he may as well have done since what he says conveys exactly the same idea. So, too, does the following passage from Pascal’s famous work, Pensees:

portrait of blaise pascal

We know truth not only by the reason but

also by the heart, and it is this last way that

we know first principles; and reason which

has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them…

[For example] we know that we do not

dream… however impossible it is for us to

prove it by reason… the knowledge of first

principles, such as space, time, motion, and

number is as sure as any of those we get from

      reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions

of the heart, and must base every argument

upon them… it is as useless and absurd for

reason to demand from the heart proofs of her

first principles before admitting them, as it

would be for the heart to demand from reason

an intuition of all demonstrated propositions

before accepting them…Therefore those to

whom God has imparted religion by intuition

are very fortunate, and justly convinced.[vi]

It should be obvious that Pascal also appeals here to the idea of self-evidence, but without using the term.

This is not to say that you can’t find any writer who has ever recommended a divinity belief be taken on blind faith. I was careful to phrase my denial by saying that none of the scriptures of the major world religions ever say this. The study of comparative religion will show that they in fact present a different account of the basis for their divinity belief, an account that is inconsistent with blind trust. So I’ve not denied that you can find, say, a Christian fundamentalist who will all too gladly agree with the Naturalists’ accusation that belief in God rests on blind faith. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it excusable for participants in the science / religion discussion to accept that as an accurate account of Christian faith. Attacking Theism’s divinity beliefs by attacking Christian fundamentalists is analogous to attacking science by attacking alchemists.

Stay tuned! We will pick this topic up again next time.

Footnotes

[i]           Varieties of Religious Experience (NY: Longmans Green & Co, 1929), 31-34; The Credibility of Divine Existence (NY: St Martins Press, 1967), 396; The Dynamics of Faith (NY: Harper & Bros, 1957), 12; Christianity and the World Religions (Garden City: Doubleday, 1986), xvi; Miracles (NY: MacMillan, 1948), 15-22; A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Phila: 1953), I, 57; The Reformation (Gloucester: Allan Sutton, 1989), 18; Comparative Religion (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 37; Patterns in Comparative Religion (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 23-25; The Comparative Study of Religions (NY: Columbia University Press, 1961), 30; The Tao and the Daimon (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1982), 117; “The Fundamental Outlook of Hebraic Religion” in The Ways of Religion, ed. R. Eastman (NY: Canfield, 1975), 283.

[ii]           Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.2

[iii]          Ibid. 1.7.4

[iv]          Ibid. 1.7.5

[v]           E.g., Cmp. Rom. 1: 21, 25; 2 Cor. 4: 4-6; Eph. 1: 18, 5: 8-13.

[vi]          Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), 58.

Public Justice : Affordable Care Act

Admittedly, many controversies have swirled around the Affordable Care Act. Yet, there is a more basic issue, namely public justice. It has not received the attention it deserves. But although the issue of public justice has receded into the background, it still remains a driving motivation behind much of the controversy concerning the Act.

A Basic Issue : The Proper Scope of Government

We should not confuse this issImage result for public justiceue with people’s opinions of the actual provisions of the Act. Just about everyone thinks the Act needs to have been much better. But the issue I’m pointing to is whether it falls within the proper scope of government to pass any act at all to make health care accessible to its citizens. Some opponents of the Act think government has absolutely no responsibility in health matters. Meanwhile, others think that state governments may have such a responsibility but the federal government does not.

First Objection

Let’s consider first the objection against any and all government involvement in health matters.

This issue was actually addressed in one of the founding documents of our nation, the Declaration of Independence. The first of the universal rights it mentions is the right to life, followed by the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The clause then closes with the assertion “that it is to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men.”

It would be wildly implausible to argue that this clause intends to assign to government the responsibility of protecting life only from threats due to war or crime. The need for government regulation to protect public health was clear to the American colonists early on.  For example, Cotton Mather advocated compulsory inoculations in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1721. If it isn’t a government responsibility to see to the safety of food, water, air, transportation, and medicines, upon what institution of society does that responsibility fall?

Second Objection

The second objection agrees that the protection of life is a responsibility of government, but maintains that it should fall entirely to state governments rather than to the federal government. Those who hold this position usually do so on the grounds that the Constitution does not specifically delegate any such authority to the federal government.  Furthermore, it specifically requires any power it does not delegate to the federal government to remain with the states. Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano argues this way, for example. In an article written for the blog  LewRockwell.com, Napolitano says that “the power to regulate for health, safety, welfare, and morality” should be “reposed with the states,” and that there should be “no federal police power” whatever.

But is such a position really tenable or is it a way in which the Constitution has become inadequate for modern life? Can each state reasonably be expected to inspect all roads, buses, trains, elevators, bridges, airplanes, foods, and medicines, as well as deal with epidemics, air pollution, drug enforcement, and forest fires? Is it plausible to have as many as fifty different standards in the same country governing each of these needs?  And does it make sense to say that even where these issues cross state lines the federal government is to have “no police power” as Napolitano asserts?

An Approach to Public Justice that is Almost 500 Years Old

In matters of health and safety, as in so many others, we continue to be hobbled by the way the writers of the Constitution replaced the Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty with the idea of competing governments as the chief means of forestalling totalitarian governance. And the course of history since has shown just how unworkable it can be to have fifty legislatures and police forces enacting and enforcing contrary laws within the same nation. (As an example, see the American Bar Association’s article regarding the ethics of the marijuana laws now in effect.)

Sphere Sovereignty

“Sphere Sovereignty” is the name Abraham Kuyper gave to John Calvin’s insight that the New Testament recognizes a number of distinct kinds of God-given authorities in human life: the authority of parents in a family, owners in a business, clergy in the church, and officials in the state, for example. Each type of authority relates to a particular aspect of life that is its proper “sphere.” Then each type should enjoy a relative immunity from interference by the other types of authority. Moreover, there is no one type that is supreme over the others or the source of all the others. The reason for that is only God is supreme over them all and the source of them all.

Consequently, government must not do what Calvin called “over leap the prescribed bounds” of its proper authority.  Its proper sphere is recognized to be that of public justice. This means that the way to avoid totalitarian government is by framing our laws so as to restrict governmental power to matters of public justice.  Instead, we have attempted this  by creating competing states within the same body politic. Calvin puts it this way:

Hence, he only who directs his life to [God’s calling] will have it

properly framed; because free from the impulse of rashness, he will

not attempt more than his calling justifies, knowing that it is unlawful

to over leap the prescribed bounds… The magistrate will more willingly

perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his

proper sphere… (Inst. III, x, 6)

For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the

highest gift of His beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves

their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever

description they may be, they derive their power from none but him.

(Inst. IV, xx, 25)

Conclusion

On this view, the central issue for government is not whether there is one or many or how big a government is, but whether it recognizes its authority as limited to the sphere of public justice. Having one overarching government that recognizes its proper limits beats having fifty little ones that don’t. The central issue for health care is whether it is a public injustice to leave millions of citizens without access to the means of safeguarding the very first right the Declaration guarantees to them. 

Roy Clouser                                        Roy Clouser

Resident Philosopher at Christian Leaders Institute

Professor Emeritus of The College of New Jersey

Former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.

 

 

God Is Real: A Philosophical Approach

The subject of this entire blog is whether  we can know God is real;  we will be taking a philosophical approach to the question of God and his existence. When we are surrounded with cultural agnosticism, we debate the question of God while having no real personal knowledge to enlighten our conversations. The answer this blog will give to the question of God is, “Yes., we CAN know God is real!”

How many questions can we answer?

Questions Questions

It is intended for those who believe in God but are confused about their intellectual right to that belief.  And this blog is for those who do not believe in God but are willing to inquire as to whether there is more to it than blind faith. It will also be of interest to anyone who is simply curious about the subject.

Is This Acceptable In Polite Conversation?

Neither the question posed nor the answer that will be defended is considered a topic for polite conversation these days. Religion seems to have changed places with sex as a taboo subject in public. It’s all right to acknowledge that there are such things as religious beliefs, but only so long as we don’t go into any further detail. The least acceptable form of going into further detail would be a discussion such as the one that will take place here. Which discussion is that?  A consideration of how to tell which, if any, of those beliefs are true and which are false.

In fact, many people nowadays even regard the thought that some beliefs may be true and others false as reprehensible.  Unfortunately, too many people know very little about the tradition they personally are most familiar with, and absolutely nothing about other traditions. These same people are, nevertheless, certain that all religious beliefs may be true at once. They’re also quite sure that “faith” means accepting a belief without knowing it’s true. As a result, they see a Berlin Wall between faith and all we can truly be said to know – such as science. ( For a description of the actual Berlin Wall which has become a literary metaphor, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall )

Is Religious Belief a Mere Invention to Frighten Others?

Another thing a great many people are sure of is that religious belief was invented as a scare story to reinforce ethics. The ethic found in the Bible is OK; who would disagree with the Ten Commandments that murder, theft, dishonesty, and so on, are wrong? But on the other hand, who needs the scare story? Why do we often suppose people won’t be ethical unless they’re told that there’s a big Umpire in the sky? Will this Umpire  penalize them in the next life even if they escape retribution for their wrongdoing in this life? After all, the reasoning goes, we know firsthand that we are ethical without repeatedly hearing the scare story. As a result these indiviuals consider that scare story to be irrational and useless. It is then advocated that what we really need to do is keep on enforcing that Berlin Wall.  The hope is that one day the advance of science will cause religious beliefs – all of them – to fade away and relieve the world of a needless source of tension. (For John Lennon’s hymn which gives the underlying “scriptural” text for this belief and has been viewed nearly 100 million times, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkgkThdzX-8)

The only trouble with these gems of popular wisdom is that they are all wholly false.

Our discussions on this site will show how clarifying the nature of religious belief can a llow us to see that, under the right circumstances, religious belief can have the same kind of justification that is enjoyed by beliefs that have long been considered to be the most certain we have. Thus if justified certainty warrants us in saying we have knowledge, then belief in God can also be knowledge. In that case it is not merely wishful thinking, blind trust, or a scare story invented to promote ethics. (A discussion of this concept and its resulting affirmations can be found at https://www.iep.utm.edu/epistemo/ )

The Need for Clarification

What is more, clarifying what counts as a religious belief makes it plausible that no one can really avoid it, though this fact goes unrecognized for two reasons. The first is that such beliefs can be unconscious assumptions. The second is that many people call their religious belief by another name. In both cases people think they have no religious belief when actually they do.

The clarification of the nature of religious belief also makes it possible to see why it cannot successfully be walled off from the rest of knowledge. The fact is, religious belief is one of the most influential beliefs people hold. This belief effects not only their conceptions of human nature and destiny, but also their ideas of society, justice, ethics, and even how they do science.

Looking forward to discussing this with many readers,

Roy Clouser

Prof. Emeritus

The College of New Jersey

Blog Philosopher-in-residence

 Belief in God Though Religious Experience

 Belief in God Though Religious Experience

 Belief in God Though Religious Experience

Can you know God is real? Does Belief in God Though Religious Experience really mater?

The well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, has frequently claimed that religion and science are the exact opposites. Science, he has said, is based on observation and reasoning, and it tests its hypotheses. Religion, on the other hand, discards reasoning and testing and is based on blind faith alone. The comparison assumes that belief in God is just like scientific theories in being a hypothesis, but unlike scientific theories in remaining unreasoned and untested.

This, however, is a serious misunderstanding. Belief in God is not a hypothesisat all. That is, it is not an educated guess in need of argument or testing. Rather it is an experience reportfrom people who have experienced God. Religious belief is based upon religious experience.

For many folks, the mention of “religious experience” conjures up thoughts of ecstatic visions, furniture flying around the room, or visits from angels. But the truth is that most of the experiences that generate belief in God are not wild or strange.  If we define “religious experience” to mean any experience that generates, deepens, or confirms a religious belief, then the most frequent of all religious experiences among Christians is:

Belief in God Though Religious Experience –  Seeing the gospel to be the truth about God from God.

That is the most basic sort of religious experience had by Christians. And since it is the experience of the truth of a belief, it is the same sort of experience which, in mathematics and logic, has long been called experiencing a truth to be “self-evident.” In Ephesians 1, St Paul tells the members of that church that he is praying for them concerning their knowledge of God which comes from having “the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” That is the same visual metaphor that had been used for centuries for self-evident truths: they are ones which we simply “see” to be true.

Notice that Paul doesn’t offer a proof that God exists; he doesn’t pile up “evidence,” or claim that there are features of the world that look designed rather than accidental. No, he speaks of believer’s hearts being “enlightened” so that they see (for themselves) the truth of the gospel. That truth is not inferred from other beliefs, but is “seen” directly, says Paul.

Paul’s position is therefore just about the reverse of the one taken by most Christian thinkers since his time. Most of the Christian theologians or philosophers who have written about belief in God have taken the approach of trying to prove its truth. Most, but not all.

There have always been some who rejected the idea of proving God’s reality, and I’m now going to quote two of them. The first is a Protestant theologian, John Calvin; the second is a Catholic scientist, Blaise Pascal. See if you don’t find them to be taking the same position despite phrasing it quite differently. Here is the way Calvin put it:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that [scripture] came from God… it is just the same as if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truthas white and black do of their colors sweet and bitter of their taste

…Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it tothe testimony of the Spirit of God….

(Inst. I, vii, 2; I, vii, 5)

 

Belief in God Though Religious Experience –                                                                                         Pascal’s phrasing of the same point:

 

We know truth not only with the reason, but also with the heart. It is in this latter way that we recognize first principles, and it is in vain that reason, which has no parttherein, tries to impugn them… For the knowledge of first principles – for example [of] space, time, motion, and number, [is] as sure as any of those procured for us by reason. And it is upon this knowledge of the heart and instinct that reason must rely and base all its arguments…

Those, therefore, to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate and very rightly convinced.

(Pensees, # 214)

 

More recently this same position has been taken by the British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here is but one example of his thinking on the subject:

A proof of God’s existence should really be something by which one could convince oneself of God’s existence. But I think that believers who have provided such proofs have wanted to give their “belief” an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe through such proofs….

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And also experiences can do this… e.g. sufferings of various kinds. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjecturesabout him. Experiences, thoughts, – life can force this concept upon us.

(VB, 85-6)

 

It is this position that will be explained, expanded, and defended in future postings of this blog. I invite all who are interested in a serious discussion of this topic to respond.

 

Roy Clouser

Philosopher-in-Residence at Christian Leaders Institute

Prof. Emeritus

The College of New Jersey