Every time this topic is raised, I cannot help but think of a classic remark by the Reformation theologian, John Calvin. And thinking of it is always disturbing because I’ve not been able to relocate it since reading it long ago. But somewhere Calvin remarks:
If the Bible contained no miracle stories, people would say “How can we believe this is God’s Word? If it were, wouldn’t God have done miracles to attest that it is?” But the Bible does contain miracle stories, so people say: “How can I believe this? It has miracle stories in it!”
A few years ago, the noted skeptic, Michael Shermer, reported an experience for which he still cannot think of any explanation: a non-working radio that had belonged to his wife’s grandfather in the ‘70’s suddenly played love songs for them on their wedding day in 2014. By that time, it had lain unused for over 15 years, and has never played again despite all efforts to get it working. Nevertheless, in reflecting on that event, Shermer still affirms his commitment to what sounds like physical determinism:
This is another way of saying – as I have often – that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations. *If Shermer really does mean to affirm that all things have only physical causes, then there are several things that are seriously amiss.
One is that Shermer makes the quoted statement in the context of attacking the claim that miracles prove God exists. But that is a straw man since it is certainly not the Christian position. Jesus himself said that even if he performed a miracle right in front of those whose hearts were hardened against God, they would not believe. In an earlier essay on this Blog, I pointed out that the biblical idea of the relation between belief in God and miracles is the reverse: for those who already believe in God miracles can be confirmed, but they do not entail that God exists.
For those who believe in God no proof is necessary; for those who don’t, no proof is possible. That’s because belief in God’s reality is based on experiencing God, not on proving He exists.
Another problem with Shermer’s confession of faith quoted above, is that it requires that human choices and judgments are also completely the result of physical causes, so that there is no such thing as freedom of judgment or choice. This is called determinism. If determinism is correct, then human choices, too, must be determined by antecedent physical causes. But in that case, nothingis ever freely chosen. The first obvious consequence of this position is that it makes no sense to hold anyone responsible for what they do. Some determinists accept this consequence and affirm that no one ever really is responsible in any significant sense. But they fail to realize that it is not only freedom of choice and responsibility that is destroyed by their determinism, but freedom of judgment as well. That position, however, is a self-imploding disaster. For if all judgments are forced on us by physical causes, then nothingis ever really believed for reasons.
That would have to include not only all of science, but also Shermer’s confession of faith in determinism. That, too, would likewise have to be forced on him by antecedent physical causes just as are all other beliefs held by all other people.
In short, determinism undermines itself. If it is true, it could never be known to be true; it could only be believed because physical causes had accidentally come together so as to force its advocates to believe it. On the other hand, if determinism really is a rational judgment held for reasons, then determinism is false: not all events, beliefs, and judgments are the accidental by-product of the confluence of purely physical causes, because some are decided on the basis of weighing evidence (including self-evidence) and coming to reasoned conclusions.
Roy Clouser, PhD
The College of New Jersey
* From “Do anomalies prove the existence of God?” originally published on Slate.com as part of a Big Idea series on the future of religion.
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.
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.
Philosopher-in-Residence at Christian Leaders Institute
The College of New Jersey