Belief in God

Does God exist?

Here are the best links, both "Yes" and "No", that I have found. Whether you are a believer, a nonbeliever, or undecided, you will find these links challenging and provocative.

The case for belief

The case for non-belief

How I decided

It is a matter of first principles for me that the only good way to learn about the world is to observe and test it. I am an empiricist. I defend this attitude by pointing to the spectacular success of science, and the fact that we are relying on the empiricism of science, more or less, when we ordinarily say "I know this" or "I believe this". Further, I have no idea how to argue with a non-evidentialist.

There does not appear to be any standard terminology on which theologians agree, nor do theologians seem to have clear criteria for evaluating one another's statements. I cannot even offer a definition of "God" which I am sure is non-circular. I would suggest that "God" is the primary focus of religious discourse when that focus, at least in some ways, is alleged to resemble a person.

There are a variety of classic arguments for the existence of God. I find these deficient.

Anselm's ontological argument defines "God" as the best that we can imagine, and since it would be better for good things to exist, then God must exist. Aquinas's proofs assume that an infinite regress of causes cannot exist, that all motion must be preceded by other motion, and so forth. The design argument assumes that our well-ordered world and wonderful bodies must have been designed by a cosmic engineer. This is a focus of classic creationism, a pseudoscience which is still popular in some circles, but which was denounced as a pack of lies by every U.S. Nobel science laureate. The new synthesis of progressive creationism is for honest Evangelicals. By contrast, the five principal purveyors of "evidence for design" is presently being offered to the public by three lawyers, a mathematician, and a Moonie. The argument from the clotting cascade requires its proponents to conceal the key facts, and on the evidence, its own proponents clearly realize this. I can't approve this kind of breaking of the ninth commandment, even for a larger cause that I think is a good one.

The argument from our supposed innate moral sense claims that all cultures recognize certain acts as right, and others as wrong. A non-believer, of course, would see sociobology in action, and ask why certain cultures have done the same horrible things for so many years.

"Because my holy book says so" is another familiar argument. When I have asked its proponents how I would recognize an infallible book (pastor, etc.), I have always been told immediately that believers are virtuous and non-believers are wicked and that the discussion is over.

The prevalence of belief across all cultures might be due to the common workings of the human mind, or might be evidence for the existence of phenomena which are hard to test in a laboratory setting. I cannot see how anyone would be fair in dismissing either idea.

Mystical experience is fairly common, and persuasive for those to whom it happens. Since these people seem to agree that familiar words are incapable of describing the experience, I am unable to understand how we can consider this to be "knowledge", as we usually use the word. This is not to deny the value of these experiences.

The New Testament cites miracles as signs of the Kingdom and reasons (among others) to believe. The religious experience, a personal, subjective encounter which may take various forms, converted Paul and began systematic Christian theology. David Hume argued against belief in miracles ("Enquiry Concerning Human Knowledge, ch. X"), on these grounds: Even if miracles occur, we cannot know that they occur, because of the human tendency to wishfully invent tales of the miraculous.

My answer to David Hume is twofold.

First, the stories of the miraculous that have impressed me have almost always contained heterodox elements, which would not be present if they were fabrications. Paul of Tarsus was a fanatical Pharisee when he had his encounter on the road to Damascus. Julian of Norwich had to include a long disclaimer when Christ seemed to tell her that her Jewish friends would be saved. Francis of Assisi insisted that his stigmata had been inflicted by a crucified seraph, a theological impossibility. George Richie, the psychiatrist whose writings launched the current interest in near-death experiences, went neither to heaven nor to hell, but to Vicksberg, Mississippi. Nowadays, stories of children returning from near-death experiences and saying "The angels don't have wings" are commonplace. I'll leave the reader to continue the list.

Second, I would cite the autoscopic near-death experience. As an empiricist, I cannot do much with tales of bright lights, panoramic memory reviews, and so forth. But I am impressed by tales of folks who have found themselves out-of-body who gained information that they could not have gained through their ordinary senses. Michael Sabom, M.D., who was a cardiologist at the Atlanta V.A., told me in 1989 that a large minority of his resuscitated patients remembered witnessing the event, and that their recollections were uniformly accurate. He played me a tape of man who watched his own open-heart surgery, and who said the same things that a layperson often does witnessing an autopsy. ("The heart isn't heart-shaped after all." "Look at the epicardial fat pads, I never knew they existed.") He accurately described which surgeon had blood spill into his shoe, and so forth. This should not happen if scientific reductionism is true. I think this means we finally have a reproducible finding in parapsychology -- and other doctors have been telling me for years about what seems to be spectacular ESP around the time of death. Regrettably, we have not been able to reproduce these findings among people who "can voluntarily leave their bodies".

Since both of these phenomena (heterodoxy in reports of miracles, autoscopic near-death experience) often occur in conjunction with supposed encounters with heavenly (or hellish) beings, I consider that belief in God is the best fit for the limited information available. So it's my working hypothesis. Actually I'm quite confident, though of course I'm tolerant of good people who have reached the opposite conclusion.

Accounts of the paranormal aside, no reasonable person questions that quantum theory is basic to our best understanding of the material world at the deepest level. Especially for Bohr and Heisenberg, mind/consciousness is somehow basic to how the material world works, in ways we cannot understand. Ever since I was a small child, I've been surprised that I was conscious and could not imagine how it arose in myself and evidently in others just from having a material brain. Whatever mind/spirit is, it is inviting to believe that it interacts with the material brain. Heisenberg explicitly re-framed on Socrates's allegory of the cave, stating that a human being may meet God in inner space, discover that moral facts exist, know that what they have seen is true, but be unable to explain or convince others. Did Heisenberg himself have this experience? Was this tied up with his heroic decision to deceive his Nazi bosses and prevent them from producing nuclear weapons? This will always be "uncertain."

If I am right, what is God like?

The above arguments may be unfamiliar, but provide a starting- point to know of God's personality. I would cite the literature of the miraculous as the basis for believing that God is:

Is God omniscient? Omnipotent? Why doesn't God cure my disease? Why does God allow child abuse? Is God a Democrat or a Republican? I don't know. Like Job, I prefer incomplete answers to obviously wrong ones. I do know that most of the bad things in this world have natural causes, and I also know that the really rotten things are the results of human evil.

Based on what I've cited above, and the credibility that this gives to the world-faiths (I prefer mainstream Christianity), it appears to me that God intends to transform us, by means including at least one life on earth, into creatures that have the ability to love others as God loves us. I am grateful for this, and in my more lucid moments, I want the same thing.

Can we trust Him/Her/Them, in the long run? I say, "Yes". I would also suggest, based on what I've listed above, that God's personality is best reflected, on our planet, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

I would like to hear your own reasons for belief or non-belief. Write me at No texting or chat messages, please. Ordinary e-mails are welcome. I'm swamped right now helping folks with medical stuff online, so please keep it short.


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Postscript: Ed's Wager...

"Pascal's wager" on God's existence says, "I'll believe. If God does not exist, I lose nothing. If God exists, I have everything to gain." It is better explained here. ("If the thing I want most is to be with Christ, then it is smart to act in such a way as to make this most likely, despite all my doubts.") Objections by empiricists to the simplistic statement of Pascal's wager include (1) "Which god? You're asking to be the victim of any con-artist claiming some cosmic revelation." (2) "You lose not only your sinful pleasures, but your credibility with yourself."

A few people have written asking whether there is anything they can do to see for themselves. You have already read multicultural accounts of "vision quests", and "New Age" books supposedly offering supernatural powers. I recommend this experiment instead, especially for scientifically-minded people. But it will take some real work.

I learned about this by word of mouth, but it is not esoteric knowledge. If you are going to try it, you must make a real effort. Do not disregard any of the points.

This is a secret experiment. Speak of it to no one, except perhaps your pastor.

For now, your only working hypothesis will be: "If God exists, then God is like the good people who I know." This is a reasonable place to start. If God were NOT good, then you would not want anything to do with Him. Remember that good people can be demanding of others, as they are of themselves.

You may have been taught that some holy book or teaching ministry is error-free. Assume that any passage which seems to show God as cruel or arbitrary or has unreasonable expectations, or that is contrary to what we know about the natural world, or that doesn't make sense, must be a "hard passage" which has been misunderstood.

Now take a hard look at how you are living and how you have lived. If your priorities are money, power, casual sex, mind-altering substances, and/or revenge, simply say to yourself, "Maybe something different would be more satisfying."

Practice the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would reasonably want them to treat you. This includes going out of your way. This will be where you place most of your real effort. It will also take brain-power.

When it is possible, return good for evil. You may discover during this experiment that this is possible more often than you had thought.

Consider those you have genuinely treated badly. Make apologies and restitution where you can. Try to understand how you can treat others more kindly in the future.

Undertake some special effort to be of use to those who cannot help you in return. You'll have to use your ingenuity. The best is something that nobody else will know about.

Now for the arcane stuff. When you are able, speak briefly to the Good Lord. "If You are there..." Say you are ready to receive guidance and answers, both for your intellectual satisfaction and to live a happier life. Also say quietly, "If You are there and You have helped me without my knowledge, thank You."

When you have a few moments, put down whatever you are doing, and simply reflect that you are listening, ready to hear anything the Good Lord may tell you. Unlike systems of "meditation" or "prayer" which you may have been taught, this is entirely a matter of attitude. It requires no effort on your part. And you are not going to exercise your imagination during this exercise. Ignore whatever pictures come into your mind.

If there is something you want or need for yourself or somebody else, mention it to the Good Lord as if in casual conversation with another person. The answer to most specific prayers will be "No", but help often comes anyway.

There are no guarantees. But within the first month, you will probably have at least one big surprise. If you have some experience that seems to be supernatural, evaluate it. If your experience makes you feel loved, safe, humble, and more willing and able to turn in love to those who will not love you back, you've gotten what you sought and your life will be better for it.

If you feel strongly directed to do something, and it's in conjunction with an experience like this, and it seems reasonable and doesn't hurt anybody, then do it. This is a "call". (All experienced Christians know about these "calls".) If it is genuine, it will be something that you more-or-less wanted to do anyway, it will help out somebody in special need, and it will be successful. Calls come with a weird, pleasant, humbling, safe feeling.

If your experience makes you feel important, powerful, flattered, or entitled, or if you find yourself thinking you are innately better than anybody else, or if you find yourself believing something that doesn't make sense or is unscientific, or if you find yourself believing that you should hate somebody, your experiment has taken a wrong turn. Talk to a decent pastor before continuing.

Whatever else happens, you are very likely to start noticing good coincidences in your day-to-day life. Don't forget to say "If that was You -- Thank You!"

Again, this experiment is secret. If anybody remarks on a change in your behavior, deny everything. If this is impossible, then give some lame explanation or say that you don't know what's going on either.

While there are no guarantees, this kind of experiment typically gets results that are very surprising in a very nice way. The worst that can happen is that you become a nicer person. Nice doesn't imply weak. Become a nicer person will hurt you if you work in a rotten business or political environment.

For the final time, do not talk about any of this to anybody except perhaps your pastor. Especially don't tell me about it. If something does happen, follow the guidance that comes with it. Always test your experiences to be sure that they make sense. This is only the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.