Could The God Delusion change anything?

One WayI promise this is the last I’m going to write about The God Delusion. I’ve been trying to move on, but I keep thinking about this, and I think it’s worth developing a bit further. I’m feeling rather unsatisfied with my reaction to the books I read – not because I’ve changed my mind, but in a strange sort of way because I’m not sure if I could have changed my mind.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. The arguments both for and against God can seem utterly compelling if you have the right mindset or presuppositions, and completely ludicrous if you have the wrong ones. On most subjects covered by these books, I can easily imagine myself taking a position on either side of the debate, simply by starting from a different place. I suppose that might be because I don’t have a settled starting position at the moment, but I’m not sure if that really explains it.

For example, there’s the argument from first cause and the standard question in response “Who created God?” I can see at least some sense in either position, and over the last few years, I’ve held all sorts of views on this subject, always (I think) in line with my wider position on the existence or not of God. Basically, I think I approached the argument in such a way as to be consistent with my existing beliefs, either yes, no or maybe, and my various responses always seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.

I reckon this means that issues like this have little effect on what we actually believe, which would be consistent with my suspicion that the staged debates which seem to be so fashionable at the moment rarely trouble anyone’s beliefs; the biggest effect of the exchange of views is to make us realise what we really believe, rather than to change those beliefs.

But having said that, I can’t avoid the fact that my beliefs have changed over time, albeit slowly. Maybe there are certain areas where I’m open to persuasion, where my views don’t simply follow my general conclusions, but drive them. If that’s the case, though, I don’t know what those areas would be. Or is it just that my views creep at the pace of continental drift, too slow to notice, but enough to see a clear movement over time?

It’s also tempting to refer to the cliché that “you can’t reason someone out of a position they weren’t reasoned into.” I think it’s more of a partisan slogan than a meaningful statement, but it’s entirely possible that my beliefs aren’t nearly as rational as I’d like to think, and that what I’m noticing is the effect of post-hoc rationalisation of beliefs I hold instinctively without really thinking about them.

So that’s why I feel unsatisfied. I want to examine different arguments and I like to read a variety of perspectives, but when I step back and think about it, I’m not sure if it actually makes any difference. Obviously, something makes me believe what I believe, but I have no idea what that might be, and I find that a little unsettling.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

15 responses to “Could The God Delusion change anything?”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    I know exactly what you mean. I find that I think of myself as an atheist until I try to reason God entirely out of existence. It just can’t be done. I can reason most organised religions out of existence, but God won’t behave like that.

    Plus, if there is a God, it is usually held that He can do anything – that literally nothing is impossible. If that’s true, any argument based on probability isn’t applicable, because it’s like fan fiction about Superman: If impossible doesn’t exist, then unlikely is irrelevant.

    So here’s how I reconcile it. If God existed the way the religions present Him, then having made every effort to believe, He would have given you the faith you need. The fact that you have honestly looked for God and not found him is evidence against him.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Glad you know what I mean, because sometimes I’m not sure myself. I don’t have any intention of suddenly changing my beliefs, but it’s quite strange to notice how easily we can rationalise our existing beliefs and how hard it can be to work out what changed.

      I love the comparison with Superman fan fiction – you could also include a whole load of retconning of awkwardly genocidal OT texts.

    • Heretic Husband says :

      ” The fact that you have honestly looked for God and not found him is evidence against him.”

      I like this argument, it makes sense. I’ve found God, lost him, found him again, and lost him again. To paraphrase a quote from Mark Twain: “Finding God is easy. I’ve done it dozens of times.”

      • raintreebranches says :

        Just to chime in that ‘looking for god and not finding him’ is the most compelling evidence to me too!

        Which is why I find deconversion stories so fascinating (there are so many moving ones to be found online); in many the stories, the individual starts out very close to God, very confident in their faith. But it was precisely the act of wanting to know more and get closer to god, that drove them away! And, if you’re faith was such a centre piece in your life and so important to you (as it was in many of the stories), how hard you would have prayed and pleaded with god for answers, for faith, for the doubt to be gone! And yet…

        why would god let that happen?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Yes, this rings true for me as well. A God who plays hide-and-seek is bad enough – one who holds the threat of punishment over you if you lose the game is undeserving of any form of worship as far as I can see.

      • Heretic Husband says :

        If you like deconversion stories, check out my blog: http://heretichusband.blogspot.com

  2. Heretic Husband says :

    I find that the more arguments I hear, the more entrenched in agnosticism I become. To me it seems ludicrous that the universe doesn’t have a creator. But if it does, who created the creator? You could say that the creator is timeless and has always existed, but then why couldn’t the same be said of the universe?

    I like your analogy of continental drift. I’ve felt the same way about my beliefs – I can’t point to a moment in time when they changed, but I can look back a few years and realize that they’ve changed drastically.

  3. Joan Barleycorn says :

    I always liked Julian of Norwich’s image of the cloud of unknowing.

  4. raintreebranches says :

    I think that the best-case scenario (having the strongest argument or the most confidence in your own position) is when you’re able to truly understand the other pov, truly get exactly why that other party thinks that and how they think it. If you truly can see what they see, then either you’d be convinced to that view, or you’d be able to see where they ‘went wrong’ and thus can argue from their starting point. But I’m not sure how possible it is to achieve something like that.

    I also do think a lot of our views tend not to be rational, especially if we haven’t taken the time to examine them. We like to think our reasons hold up the views, but more likely than not, it’s our views that come first, and we find reasons/justifications to fit that later. I think it’s partly just due to our nature– quick judgements are (historically) more useful to us than long analytical analysis, but this is precisely why I think we need to be aware of our tendencies and counter them as best we can when need be.

    I think it may not feel like listening to various arguments make a difference, but probably it does in the long run? Especially if you keep mulling them over. It’s like picking up little jigsaw puzzle pieces, or knick knacks and odds and ends… they may not look convincing, useful or meaningful now but perhaps in the future you’d find you have a use for them and they help complete a picture or fix a problem. (Or, I suppose, if they prove useless for too long, they’ll just be chucked out eventually. But you can’t really tell right now.) You may not feel convinced by an argument at the moment, but at least, having read it, you know that such an argument exists.

    So… all we can do is keep collecting pieces, broaden our horizons, and keep thinking? 🙂

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I think that’s probably right, especially about instinct and justification, which is an awkward thing to consider when I’m engaged in a supposedly rational evaluation of my old beliefs. I like the idea of picking up little bits of a jigsaw.

  5. Lorena says :

    Do I hear you say that most books are preaching to the choir?

    I think that’s true for most people. We usually read materials and look for confirmation of what we already believe. If the book/article disagrees with where we are at at the time, we either put it down or rationalize the disagreements away.

    However, that’s not true for everybody. Some–very few mind you–will de-convert by reading the God Delusion. I would profile that person as honest, sincere, and real. It will be the Christian who believes because he/she truly believes the Bible is the truth, thus has studied it carefully.

    In other words, a pew warmer won’t be de-converted by a book. He/she will be thinking the whole time, “My pastor would trash all these arguments.”

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Preaching to the choir? Probably. It’s certainly alarmingly easy for anyone to read books that say what they want to hear, or to find reasons to reject anything we don’t like – I managed to do that for years without even picking The God Delusion up.

      But what bothers me more than that is that however careful I am to evaluate everything even-handedly, I feel like I could easily turn either way on the basis of the same arguments. Somewhere deep inside me there’s some sort of overarching instinctive belief which seems to determine my responses. I’d like to think that I’m a rational being, but I’m not sure I could claim that with any degree of confidence.

      • Lorena says :

        I totally hear you. Anything can be, and is, rationalized. If we didn’t have that ability, most of us would be divorced. We tell ourselves a lot of things in order to stay in relationships, be it significant other, religion, or gods.

  6. raintreebranches says :

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/03/outsider-test-for-faith_20.html

    Some of the paragraphs reminded me of some of what you were saying in this entry about beliefs and rationality, and also what I was saying in my comment about truly seeing from another’s point of view. Thought you might find it interesting.

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