Can you tell me why you believe?

I sometimes get asked for the reasons why I believe. Sometimes it is curiosity, sometimes people are desperate to know why they should believe.

Occasionally people ask what sort of reasons are good, with the implication that some reasons are somehow inappropriate.

So here’s the results of many years of thought and reading …..

Are there good reasons and bad reasons?

Whatever subject you discuss, different things will be important for different people.

For belief in God, I think there are four different types of reasons to believe:

  • Drawing conclusions from the world around us.
  • If God has communicated with you, or someone you know or have read about.
  • If God has revealed himself to the human race, for example, via one of the major religions.
  • We try it out and it “works” for us.

I think all of these types of evidence can be useful to draw a conclusion about God, whether negative or positive. Some people favour one, some another.

Some will say that some of these reasons are too subjective, but I feel that everything we experience and know, including science, history or personal experience, comes to us via our five senses. In that sense they are all subjective to a degree.

So provided we have objective checks and balances, subjective reasons can be trusted – and must be trusted if we are going to avoid total scepticism about everything, and come to a conclusion, any conclusion.

Five areas of evidence

I give at the end links to where you can verify the evidence I use, or see it in more detail.

1. The world around us – the science of cosmology

Perhaps the oldest reason to believe in God is explaining how the universe came to be. Either there was some cause or some reason why it exists, or there is not. The arguments both ways can become quite sophisticated and complex, but it comes down to 2 main possibilities – either the universe just is, has no cause, no reason, it just is, or it was created by a God who just is and has no cause.

To me, it makes much more sense to believe that God is eternal and self existing than to believe that the universe is eternal and self existing. It seems obvious that the universe isn’t eternal, for it is changing and running down and if it was eternal it would have totally run down by now. There are arguments against this conclusion based on time having a beginning, but they still leave us with no explanation for the universe, and a viewpoint that offers no explanation is surely weaker than one which does.

And perhaps the newest reason to believe in God is based on cosmological discoveries in just the last half century that, had any one of about a dozen universal numbers and laws been even a small amount different, life couldn’t have occurred. In fact, most likely nothing would have existed except a thin cosmic “soup” or a short-lived universe that collapsed back in on itself too quickly for anything interesting to happen.

Cosmologists say that if the universe arose by chance, the odds of a life-permitting universe are so small as to be effectively impossible. Some other explanation for this “fine-tuning” is needed. The only scientific explanation currently on offer is that we are living in one of absolutely zillions of universes, all different, and naturally life has only arisen in the rare universe where conditions made it possible.

But this “multiverse” would have to have exceptionally “fine-tuned” to achieve this result. So probabilities seems to favour another explanation, and deliberate design by God seems a much more plausible explanation to me.

So I conclude that cosmology makes it much easier to believe in God than to deny his existence.

2. The world around us – and within us

Humans are amazing beings. We are conscious of ourselves as beings which can choose, reason, do good or evil, love and create, and able to live with meaning and purpose. The value of each human being is written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is the basis of law, government, politics, ethics and behavioural norms.

But if there is no God, if there is nothing but the physical world, then our brains, our selves, are merely physical and chemical. That means all the atoms in our bodies follow physical laws just the same as a ball thrown in the air and chemical processes just the same as two chemicals involved in a reaction. They have no choice in following those laws, and neither would we. And that includes our brains.

So if the physical is all there is, our self and free will are illusory, our reasoning is all determined by those laws, and there can be no true right and wrong, no moral responsibility and no meaning or purpose in life. This isn’t just my idea, but the conclusion of many, perhaps most, philosophers and scientists.

Not only are these conclusions contrary to universal human experience, but they are close to impossible to actually live with – again, a conclusion shared by most philosophers and neuroscientists. Paradoxically, psychological treatment and therapy often assumes free will and tries to strengthen the patient’s ability to choose wisely.

But if there is a God, and he or she created the human race to be more than just physical beings, then there is no reason to suppose there is no free will, no ethics, no meaning or purpose in life. So we face a choice between a viewpoint that allows and explain all that we experience to be human, and one which denies it all, even while we cannot actually live that way.

This to me is a compelling reason to believe God exists.

3. God has communicated, it seems

People report experiences they believe are of God or from God. Maybe they have been healed after prayer, or maybe they have seen a vision of Jesus which led to them being healed or changed. Perhaps they have experienced something sublime which they lack words to describe, or perhaps they have prayed for help and find that God has helped them or guided them.

It is easy to say that these experiences are delusions, hallucinations or imaginations, but studies show that no one explanation appears to cover all the evidence. Studies also show that in most cases these experiences occur in people who are mentally well and lead to good outcomes – people benefit psychologically, their lives are purposeful and they become more altruistic.

So while it is often possible to find a natural explanation, there are some cases that defy normal explanations, and it seems to me that it is more reasonable to think that something quite unusual and beyond normal has happened. Since many of these experiences happen after prayer or in a religious context, genuine contact with God seems a reasonable conclusion.

4. Revelation – Jesus and history

Christianity is a unique religion. It claims its founder was God in human form, therefore its founder is more important than his message, and it has been studied in detail by secular scholars. So we have big claims to assess, and the conclusions of historians, archaeologists and other experts by which to test those claims.

When assessed in this way, and not treating the Bible as a divine text, it is clear that the evidence points to Jesus having been a real person, a travelling teacher and prophet who apparently performed healings and exorcisms, who believed he was God’s agent on earth to begin a new movement in the world which he called the kingdom or reign of God. After he was executed, his followers claimed they saw him alive again, and perhaps surprisingly, most scholars seem to accept that they saw something, however this might be explained. Within a short time after his death, his followers were worshiping him as God in human form, unexpected in fiercely monotheistic Jews.

The conclusions of the scholars seems to be that there are two main possibilities – either he was a prophet who believe he would usher in a new age, but he was sadly mistaken …. or else that he really was God in human form and that new age has begun, however slowly it may be coming.

These two possibilities are fiercely debated at times, but I believe the evidence points to him telling the truth and actually showing us a picture of God.

5. It works!

Religion has been the source of much good and much evil in the world, and it is impossible to compute where the balance lies. But we can say, based on good evidence, that the closer people come to sincere personal belief in a loving God and living according to the teachings of Jesus, the more likely they are to live meaningful, altruistic and socially beneficial lives.

Studies show that religious practices can improve brain functioning, belief in a loving God makes people more accepting of others (while belief in a punitive God has the opposite effect), and religious people tend to be healthier both physically and mentally, and they volunteer time and money more than average.

So if “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, christian belief in a loving, forgiving God passes the test.

Adding it up

Any one of these reasons would be enough to make me think long and hard. But the cumulative effect of all of them seems to me to be very convincing. In every case, God is as good an explanation, or better, than any other. Put it all together and it’s the only explanation that stacks up, in my opinion.

I have been a believer for 55 years, and so far I have not had any lasting reason to think I have made a mistake. While there are those whose experience has been very different, there are many more who continue following Jesus because of reasons like these

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