Here's a scenario:
You work at Company X. You've been there for three years, and you've always gotten along well with your coworkers. You work with a man, Abraham, who every month runs out of money. Every month Abe asks to borrow $20 from you until payday. You've always lent Abe the money and he's always paid you back. Sometimes before payday.
But at any time you could decide to not lend Abe the money. It likely wouldn't have anything to do with whether you thought he'd pay you back. Maybe some month you didn't have enough to lend. Anyway, you don't lend him the money. That doesn't mean you didn't have faith that he'd pay you back if you had lent him the money.
This is part one.
I won't say anything silly like "I know the Bible better than most Christians," but I have read the whole thing three times through. I have the ability to understand and analyze the words. Of course I did well.
Knowing what's in the Bible doesn't mean much though. Jim Jones and David Koresh likely had a better idea than I do what it says. So did Tomas de Torquemada and any random member of the Ku Klux Klan. There's simply no connection between Biblical knowledge and morality.
Let’s imagine Jasper, a thirteen-year-old boy. Jasper lives in an average suburb and attends an average middle school which subjects him to average social concerns. He wants to impress girls, wants to be popular, wants to avoid getting pounded into his locker every time the football players pass by.
Jasper has a closet full of shirts. Jasper can wear any of those shirts any day he wants to, provided it’s clean. Luckily for Jasper, his dad does laundry every night, so Jasper can always wear any of his shirts.
There are a number of factors influencing Jasper’s choice of shirts: his mother likes him to wear the shirts with collars because they make him look responsible, a girl once told him he looks good in green so he thinks he’ll do better with the ladies if he wears green shirts, the football players pick on him less if he wears a Vikings jersey. The problem is that Jasper doesn’t like any of those shirts. Jasper likes his plain blue T-shirt, the one he wore to the zoo last summer, the one he wore when he won a chess match.
Long setup to get to this analogy: Jasper can choose to wear any shirt he owns for any reason, but he can’t choose which shirt will be his favorite. Likewise, a person can choose what they say about belief, they can choose what church to attend, they can choose whether to sing hymns, chant chants, or take communion. But they can’t choose what they believe.
Something could happen to change which shirt is Jasper’s favorite, but it won’t be an act of his will. He could have a great day while wearing his Adrian Peterson replica jersey—maybe the football players invite him to a party where they have soda and pie. However, he can’t decide that this morning he likes the football jersey better than the blue T-shirt. And so it is (it seems to me) with belief. Something could happen to change what I believe, but it won’t be my decision. I may be introduced to a new idea, a new perception, that changes what I believe, but I can’t decide to believe one thing instead of another.
Or is there something I'm missing?
For the moment I'll set aside the issue of religious faith and concentrate on more mundane instances of belief.
If a belief can be chosen, if it's a simple act of will, then it should be easy for me to choose to believe that George W. Bush is a lesbian. But I can't. I keep trying, but experience and definition get in the way, suggesting to me that my choices in belief--if they exist at all--are subject to my sense experiences and my ability to reason.
But I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong. Anybody have a nuance I'm missing?
- Christians often tell me that I can choose to believe in God and/or Jesus, as though this choice is as simple as guessing which checkout line will get me out of the grocery store more quickly. I'm still mystified, though, as to how a belief can be chosen. Can someone explain this process to me?
- To arrive at a belief that God exists (in the way(s) in which He is understood to exist by at least a majority of Christians, if such a thing is possible), it seems to me one must have faith in a number of things that are not God: faith that the stories of the New Testament aren't fictions, that they were preserved in accurate form in the decades between the events and their recordings, that the Council of Nicea and the Council of Trent (as well as the earlier Church Fathers such as Irenaeus) accepted the true versions and rejected the false ones, that the various schisms through the Church's history were survived by the correct side, that the texts are translated in the proper contexts and that they are understood as intended. These things are not divine--how does one justify faith in all of these things just to get to the possibility of God?
- Why is God's ego so fragile He needs my approval, and why would He create so many souls out of nothing just so He could eternally torment some of them based on this qualification? (I realize this one involves specific beliefs about more than just God, but I thought I'd toss it out there).
- Anything you'd like to add to the pile?
I don't mean to pick on Christians, but they are the ones who insist most often that I need to believe a certain way.
Since my first blog is devoted mostly to my less-serious side, daily life, and updates for family and friends, I've kept most of my deeper observations away from there. Most people who know me have gotten tired of my questioning things that normal people accept, decline, ignore, or can't care less about. So while I spend as much time as possible reading about and pondering the big picture, the complex ideas, the controversial points of view, I rarely discuss them. That's unfortunate, because I find philosophy, religion, and all of their associated concepts critically important and deeply compelling.
So this is where I'll exercise those thoughts.
My intention is to be dispassionate and impartial. Although I'm an atheist and an agnostic it's not my intention to be "anti" anything. Sometimes my tendencies toward taking the Devil's Advocate position and for the quick riposte derail serious consideration of ideas. I'll try to keep those impulses under wraps here.