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Belief in God
Barry L. Whitney


The great majority of humanity has always believed in God. It is a testament to the depth of this belief that it has persisted despite an aggressive challenge that has become increasingly prevalent in contemporary society. This challenge presents itself as science, but it is in fact a perversion of modern science, more properly called “scientism.” By scientism, I refer to an ideology based on anti-religious bias which presumes, without proof, that the empirical method of science and human rationality are the sole means for determining what is true about reality. Ironically, there is no scientific proof for these assumptions. Scientism fails to consider seriously whether there are other means for discovering truth, ignoring what theologians have argued for centuries, i.e., that besides empirical evidence (and the rationality based largely on a reflection on the empirical evidence), truth is communicated to our inner experience, the truth revealed by God. Empirical verification, in itself, is irrelevant to God’s existence, since God is not a physical object which can be observed and studied by science. Indeed, very few aspects of life can be directly verified by the empirical method of science. In focusing solely on rational empiricism, scientism has perverted the proper limits of science and misunderstands the nature of religious belief.


Despite the fact that scientism has an alarming number of adherents in the scientific and philosophical communities, many of whom have confused and disillusioned many people by their publications and teaching, it has not prevailed. Religious belief has withstood scientism’s aggressive challenge not only by convincing defenses of belief in God by theologians, but in the revival of spirituality. The contemporary religious revival, especially its focus on seeking God’s presence inwardly in religious experience, has its impetus largely as a direct reaction to the meaninglessness and despair brought into society by decades of skeptical, anti-religious scientism.

          
It is important to note that science, unlike scientism, is not (or, rather, should not be) a threat to religious belief. Science advocates a “naturalistic” (rather than a “supernaturalistic” or spiritual) focus, to be sure, and an “empirical” verification method for determining truths about the physical world and the universe. Yet, the proper mandate of science is restricted to the investigation of the workings of the natural (physical, empirical) dimension of reality. With scientism, however, there has arisen an illicit ideology which seeks not only to explain all things “naturalistically” but assumes — without proof — that the spiritual realm is irrelevant, if non-existent. This unproven assumption is based on the mistaken belief that nothing exists unless it can be verified by the empirical method of science and human rationality, a belief which is an invalid reductionism that explains (reduces) all of reality to physicality. The ideology of “physicalism” is a major aspect of scientism. It is nothing but a naive over-extension of the capabilities of science. Had scientists honored the proper mandate of science  — and many have not — there would have been far less antagonism between science and religion, each focusing on its proper field fo
study to produce a much fuller view of reality (physical and spiritual) than otherwise is attainable. 


Scientism’s exclusive emphasis on human rationality and empirical verification are not, of course, the proper means by which to evaluate religious beliefs. There is, then, no justifiable reason to accept scientism’s skeptical dismissal of religious beliefs as myths and superstitions. Nor is there any good reason to accept their claim that religious beliefs are irrational (opposed to reason) or non-rational (lacking in rational justification), meaningless and “nonsensical” (literally, “not verifiable by the senses”). Such claims are themselves nonsense. Yet, incredibly, many scientists and philosophers have misunderstood this, i.e., those who engage in a scientism that overestimates the limits of both the empirical method of science and human rationality. Proper science is limited to a study of the physical world. It has no competence in, nor should it express opinions in the guise of scientific conclusions about the spiritual realm.


We should be aware, nonetheless, of the important fact — often overlooked by scientism — that not only is there evidence for God’s existence, but evidence which is impressive and which is indirectly derived from rational reflection about the empirical data. The traditional arguments for God’s existence, the so-called “theistic proofs,” are the prime examples. There is evidence for God, furthermore, in the more direct experience of the assurance of faith, i.e., in response to God’s revelation of His presence in inner experience and in the Scriptures (see below). Theology accepts as sources of truth not only physical scientific evidence and the reasoning abilities of human beings, but also the spiritual truths revealed by God. These two sources are referred to, respectively, as “natural” and “revealed” theology (or as “general” and “specific revelation”). Natural theology refers to our natural or rational abilities to affirm God’s existence by reason and empirical evidence, while revealed theology affirms God by the more specific truths revealed by God to inner religious experience and in Scriptures.


Science (unlike scientism) has understood the limitation of its method and the limits of human rationality. It is not the empirical method of science but the inappropriate and overextended use of this method by scientism that has caused the antagonism between religion and science. The early scientists (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc.) rightly understood  that the mandate of science is restricted to the investigation of the naturalistic (physical) realm, a fact which, unfortunately, has been forgotten or ignored by far too many scientists and philosophers. It is difficult to explain this attitude of scientism other than as incredible naive about the limits of human reason and sense experience. It is difficult not to infer that scientism has its basic motivation, not in the seeking truth, but to promote its anti-religious bias. The claim that human rationality and the empirical method of science are not just one means for discovering truth, but the sole means, is an outrageous abuse of proper science.


Not all scientists have succumbed to this. Many scientists have understood the proper limits of the empirical method and have engaged in successful careers while maintaining belief in God. In two recent books edited by John Ashton, In Six Days (2000) and On the Seventh Day (2002), more than 90 scientists, for example, were willing to have their testimonies and arguments for religious beliefs published. They did so in response to skeptical ridicule by popular and influential scientists like Stephan Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr and others who contend that no respectable scientist would believe in such things as creationism (the biblical account of creation by God, rather than accepting the current evolutionary dogma of science). Examples of this skeptical, anti-religious scientism, unfortunately, are far too prevalent.


Philosopher A. J. Ayer, for example, a popular figure in philosophy classrooms, claimed that unless religious belief in God can be verified by the empirical method, we ought to reject such belief as nonsense and meaningless. Ayer was aware that God could not be proven nor disproven by the empirical method, but his conclusion was not the respectful agnosticism that would admit there is insufficient evidence to decide the question. Rather, he boasted that the empirical method could demolish the truth claims of religious experience on the referent of religious experience (i.e., God) is not empirically verifiable. This reveals not only the naivety of scientism, but its anti-religious bias and unconscionable lack of awareness of longstanding theological argumentation for the validity of its doctrines.[1]


Carl Sagan was no less subtle in demonstrating his skeptical, anti-religious bias. In his amazingly popular Cosmos book and TV series, this modern prophet of scientism made the infamous statement, one of the cult-like mantras of scientism, that “the cosmos is all that there is or was or ever will be.”[2]  This statement, of course, is nothing but Sagan’s skeptical opinion, not the scientifically verifiable truth he pretended it to be. It is unfortunate that such skeptical scientism has become so influential a challenge to the existence of the spiritual realm. This misleading and mistaken view is assumed, without proof (for proof is not possible for such a self-inconsistent view), by far too many scientists and philosophers, including popular figures like Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, W. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Peter Atkins, Michael Martin, Paul Kurtz, Kai Nielsen, Anthony Flew, Francis Crick, Michael Newdow, and the Humanist Manifestos (1933, 1973, 2000) which advocate a “secular humanistic” ideology that rejects all religious beliefs as lacking empirical verification. Again and again, in apparent ignorance of the limits of the empirical test and human rationality, scientism extols these as all-encompassing. Such a claim is nothing more than an ideological opinion, driven by skeptical bias.


Sagan, moreover, voices the misinformed view of scientism in his infamous challenge that God should demonstrate His existence by displaying physical evidence which could be verified by science — for example, a burning cross in the sky. This challenge, repeated by countless skeptics, displays a disconcerting lack of awareness of the absurdity it involves. It is little more than an emotionalism that misrepresents and misunderstands the proper limits of science and the nature of God. God, of course, cannot be coerced or tempted by such nonsensical challenges, nor is God a physical object of scientific study.


The same naivety is exposed over and over again. Consider one other example, the pitiful taunting of American Christians by the first Russian cosmonaut. He sarcastically announced that he had not “seen” God  in outer space. His assumption, i.e., the belief that God must be verifiable (“seen”) by the scientific method, is sadly misinformed about the nature of God and about the proper limits of empirical scientific proof. Further examples abound. It is staggering how prideful the presumption of scientism is in assigning to limited finite human minds the final authority for adjudicating all truths about reality. [3] 


It is sadly ironic that the test which supposedly determines all truths about reality, the verification test, is itself unverifiable. (The same could be said of human rationality: what confidence can we have in such a finite skill as, supposedly, the determiner of all truths? How is rationality to be trusted unless there is a God which establishes it?) What confidence should any reasonable person have in the empirical test which is so self-inconsistent that it condemns itself as meaningless? The empirical test is a naive, circular argument which engages in an illicit question-begging” fallacy, i.e., by assuming what needs to be proven. Scientism answers the question — “how is truth about reality known?”—  not on the basis of a conclusion from convincing proof, but by simply putting forth the unproven assumption that “truth is established only by the empirical test.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.


The attitude of scientism, its “I won’t believe anything unless I can see it” dogma, is hardly a reliable guide to truth. As we all know, there is far more to life than meets the eye. Indeed, it would be impossible to live our lives according to the empirical test alone, since most of what we believe to be true would then be unverifiable and shrouded in mesmerizing doubt. We live and act in faith, not on the basis of conclusively verifiable proof in most of what we do and believe. There is, in fact, a significant number of important beliefs which we know to be true but which do not meet the strict verification demands of the empirical test. These beliefs include not only religious beliefs, but the theories of quantum physics, aesthetic beliefs about what is beautiful and ugly, ethical beliefs about what is good and bad, historical statements about what occurred in the past, emotions, theoretical statements (including the main theories and presuppositions of science, i.e., that the universe is real, that other people are not illusions of our minds, ad infinitum), and much more.[4]

* * *
As noted above, belief in God is based directly on the experience of God’s revealed presence within us. Belief is based also an abundance of indirect empirical evidence. The latter presents a credible demonstration that our intuitive awareness of God’s presence is not the irrational illusion or fantasy that scientism falsely claims it to be. The empirical evidence in support of belief in God includes not only the longstanding “theistic proofs”, but other evidences (in support of belief in the God of Christianity), including the arguments for the authenticity of the Scriptures and their accounts of miracles, fulfilled prophesies and creation by God.


We must not overestimate this evidence, since human rationality is a limited skill. But it is a mistake to underestimate the impressive nature of the evidence. While in itself not able to create belief in God, the evidence prepares the way for belief by refuting skeptical arguments which create obstacles to belief. The evidence, indirectly known by empirical data and rationality, provides support for belief in God experienced in the direct revelations of God. The empirical evidence is inconclusive, as noted above, since it is based on human sense experience and rationality. Yet it is inconclusive, I would suggest, only if it is considered in isolation from the more direct evidence, the assurance of faith in God’s reality. Lighted by faith, the evidence is seen as confirming belief in God.


Interestingly, the evidence for God’s existence is ignored or misrepresented by scientism, especially by those who seem engaged in an emotionally charged crusade to promote anti-religious bias — the stuff one finds in some skeptical magazines and on websites which are oblivious not only to the evidence but to proper methods of reasoned argumentation. I am aware, for example, of dozens of debates between theists and atheistic scientists or philosophers who display a pitiful lack of understanding of the Bible and theological scholarship, as well as an embarrassing lack of awareness of basic theological doctrines and the complex argumentation for their validity. This naivety, however, has not produced the humility which is appropriate, nor a toning down of the hostility of their vendettas against belief in God.

Consider, for example, the complete lack of awareness of legitimate theological scholarship in the claim that “the Romans wrote the Bible,” and other such nonsense, like accusations that belief in God supposedly is nothing more than a childish illusion, like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, crop circles, UFOs, or ancient pagan gods like Zeus, etc. This all-too-typical kind of attack is a prime example of the “fallacy of false association” (or the “fallacy of guilt by association”). By associating belief in God with beliefs which obviously are fictional, the skeptic’s contention amounts to little more than an emotional appeal and an apparent assumption that the reader will not notice how the “argument” fails to take into account the important fact at issue, i.e., that belief in God is based on formidable evidence, unlike the fictional items associated with God.


There is one common complaint from scientism’s skeptics, however, that merits a serious response, a response that will bring us to the heart of the issue of belief in God and the essential role of faith. The complaint is that “There is not enough evidence for God,” that God ought to have made His existence more obvious, especially to those who are inclined toward skepticism or doubt. The well-known anti-religious skeptic, Bertrand Russell, for example, insisted on his deathbed that God had not provided “enough evidence” for him to believe. Similar complaints have often been expressed. Why is God so hidden?       

              
Any response to this question must concede that God is, indeed, somewhat hidden to skeptics and often to believers. The Scriptures likewise are obscure in places, as are the complex answers to important theological problems, the problem of evil and suffering, for example: Where is God in my suffering? Why would an all-powerful and all-loving God allow so much suffering[? [5] In times of trial and suffering, God often appears far too absent (cf. Psalms 22, 69; the Book of Job, etc.). We can, however, propose some answers. From the foregoing discussion in this chapter, we can see that God would indeed appear to be hidden from those who seek Him only by empirical evidence and human rationality. Such are limited means to establish the certainty of most of our beliefs, let alone the most important of all beliefs, the belief in God. In everyday life, we live more in faith than with conclusively verifiable proof  — for example, that the laws of gravity will remain in effect, that our feelings of love are real, that our experience of ourselves as independent and free creatures is not an illusion, and so on, ad infinitum. None of these important beliefs can be empirically verified.  


It is interesting, is it not, that millions upon millions of people believe in God despite empirical evidence. What explains this fact more convincingly than the acknowledgment that the empirical evidence and human rationality alone are not the sources of belief in God? The source lies in the mystery of faith as a response to the experience of God within. We can dismiss social scientific theories which seek to explain belief as cultural or psychological or biological, and by similar reductionisms. Such views reduce (limit) the explanation of belief to a particular discipline (sociology, psychology, biology, etc.), thereby distorting the full complexity of belief in God, and ignoring the theological view (which incorporates what is valuable in other perspectives).


Why is God apparently not hidden from countless millions of people? The theological response is that while God is not known in His full glory (1 Corinthians 13: 9-12), there is enough evidence for belief in God (and His attributes), yet not so much evidence that would overwhelm us into coerced belief, with or without our will’s consent. We must wonder, of course, whether any evidence would be enough to convince some skeptics. Jesus, for example, performed miracles before crowds who accepted him for what he was, but there were many others in the crowds who refused to be convinced. Would it be any different today? The point here is that anti-religious skeptical bias appears to affect the way the evidence is seen and interpreted. The point is also that God does not seek our intellectual assent, i.e., a belief which would be coercively based on conclusive empirical proof. God seeks, rather, a free response in faith to the experience of His revealed presence within our hearts (and, I would add, to the indirect empirical evidence). Such a response in faith is possible only if we are open to God’s presence. God seeks in us —  and provides the grace to make it possible without coercion —  a humility which leads to a change in our wills from skepticism and trust in our own understanding and wisdom rather than in His (Proverbs 3:5), to a openness and humble seeking of His presence.


Belief in God does not originate in a rational analysis of the empirical evidence. Belief  originates in the mysterious workings of faith. In faith, we respond to God’s direct revelation of Himself to our inner experience to our heart (spirit), rather than in His indirect revelation mediated by empirical evidence and human rationality. God’s revelation is experienced in inward religious experiences (Romans 9-10; 1 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Thessalonians 8) and in the Scriptures (which have recorded revelations historically). As such, Paul can affirm that “faith arises in the hearing of the Word” (Romans 10:17). While inner experiences of God may be expressed in specific information (propositional forms, as in the prophetic Scriptures), the experiences are more likely to be intuitive feelings of God’s presence. These are not merely a vague awareness of God, but as self-verifying assurances of God’s providential care, increasingly so as we develop in our spirituality. The truths we experience are confirmed in Scripture, the means by which we test the validity of inner experience and prophetic words (1 John 4:1, John 5:31, Deuteronomy 19:15-17).


The fact that religious experiences are confirmed also by millions of people and has resulted in spiritual transformations also testify to their validity. This transformation involves an ongoing sanctification process of spiritual growth, a development of a new awareness of a world, a world which is now seen far differently than through the eyes of skepticism. For the believer, the darkness of meaninglessness, despair, and the lack of a purpose or direction is lighted by the reality of God’s presence. Indeed, the empirical evidence is seen for what it is, when lighted by faith, i.e., an awareness of God, indirectly mediated through the senses and intellect. We experience God, as such, both in our hearts and our minds (cf. Matthew 22:37). Revealed by the direct awareness of faith, the empirical evidence becomes a witness to how “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). [6]


But what of those who do not believe in God? Why does God remain hidden from them?  Why do some of us believe in God while others do not? The reason for disbelief cannot (should not) be based on conclusions drawn from human rationality and empirical evidence. Both are limited and inappropriate means by which to achieve conclusive proofs or disproofs of God’s existence. The reason for the skeptic’s rejection of God’s existence is, then, not intellectual but moral. The answer to the question — “Why does God remain so hidden to those who remain skeptical about His existence?”— lies ironically in the question itself. Simply put, the answer is that the skeptic has a anti-religious bias, a bias against believing in God. Scriptures confirm this in passages like the following: in the darkness of our fallen nature, God’s shone His light, His offer of salvation; yet people “love the darkness rather than the Light” (John 3:19; cf. Romans 1:18f.). It is this personal inclination which keeps God hidden. God provides the grace needed to inspire all of us to accept Him freely, in faith. Not all people respond in faith, however, since their rebellious nature (a fallen, sinful nature) hinders acceptance of God’s gift of faith. Not all people are ready to accept belief in God. This rebellion often takes the form of not wanting there to be a God, since the acknowledgment of God’s existence implies that an accountability to God for ours actions and  decisions. It is moral rebellion, then, rather than for intellectual reasons, that skeptics resist belief in God.


The God of Christianity promises that those who truly seek Him with an open heart and mind will find Him: “Seek and you shall find” (cf. Matthew 7:7; cf. Matthew 22:37; Revelation 3:20). God is the source of wisdom and truth (cf. Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:12); such wisdom is not to be found in human rationality (cf. Proverbs 3:5). God offers sufficient grace to all people, sufficient for all to accept and acknowledge His reality. But this grace is not irresistible. God’s grace makes it possible to believe, but God does not coerce believe: belief, like love, cannot be coerced. Skeptical rebellion resists and distorts the awareness of God which ought to be far clearer in the empirical evidence. Faith in God’s revealed truths is resisted by a hardened heart (cf. Isaiah 63:10; Acts 7:51; Hebrews 3:8), which grieves the Holy Spirit of God (cf. Isaiah 7:13; Ephesians 4:30) who seeks the salvation by grace of all people (cf. John 3:16). Faith can enter our hearts and remain strong only if we respond to God’s grace by humbly admitting our creaturehood and God’s sovereignty, that we ourselves cannot give ultimate meaning to our lives, nor overcome the ills we suffer individually and collectively. We ourselves cannot achieve meaningfulness and true happiness without accepting belief in God, and living accordingly. Nor can our science and technology render life meaningful, despite absurd claims to the contrary by the scientism of anti-religious secular humanists. Until such skeptics are able to accept God’s gift of faith and overcome their rebellion against belief in God and seek a humility which defers meaning and fulfilment to God, their hearts remain biased and estranged from our true humanity, from one another, from the world, and from God. [7]

 

Notes
1. Ayer ought to have considered the protest of theologian John Hick, who challenged empirical verification with his theory of “eschatological verification.” Hick rightly held that e simply are not in the proper position to determine God’s existence or non-existence by empiricism. Just as we need to be a proper position to verify whether there are mountains on the dark side of the planet Pluto, for example, we’d need to be in the proper position to verify God’s existence. That proper position would be an afterlife, the “eschaton.” (John Hick, editor, The Existence of God. New York, Macmillan, 1964. See both Hick’s and Ayer’s essays).

2. Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York, Random House, 1980.

3. Postmodernists have discredited the long-standing popular myth that scientists use the empirical test in an objective and neutral, unbiased manner. Philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and others have shown that there is clearly a significant subjective bias in the scientists (as in all people) who bring to their analysis of empirical data the assumptions and presuppositions of the current ruling scientific paradigm. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the pragmatic view which now predominates in much of science, the view that seeks to establish not whether a theory is true but whether it is useful, i.e., whether it works to predict and control physical reality. For all its emphasis on the truth claims of the empirical method, truth claims have become secondary to this pragmatic focus of science, a fact ignored by many skeptics who continue to insist that God’s existence is ruled out by the empirical method]

4. Science, for example, cannot explain how the universe came into existence from nothing. A good case can be made that science will never be able to explain this fact: it’s simply beyond the limits of what science can verify. If creation is said to been the product of chance (a meaningless assumption) or that creation occurred without a cause, or by the activation of some as yet unknown fundamental equation or law, God’s causal activity seems to many of us a far more convincing explanation (the cosmological argument). Likewise, God is the more probable explanation for the order and complexity of the physical realm, especially the anthropic evidence, than the skeptic’s view that chance or natural causes produced the order (the teleological-anthropic argument). God, moreover, is the more probable source of the objective moral law and for the very basis of rationality, rather than accepting the highly dubious naturalistic explanations. In short, without God’s existence, major aspects of life (creation, order, ethics, rationality, etc.) cannot be explained satisfactorily.

5. For a systematic analysis of responses to the problem of evil, see Barry Whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil, 1960-1991 (Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1998).

6. The argument for God based on religious experience has been the subject of intense discussion. While human rationality cannot conclusively proof or disprove the veridity of such experiences, there are impressive arguments for the veridity. Such experiences, indeed, seem to be the source for faith in belief in God and for the continuance of such belief. Belief in God, we note, is not to be naively attributed to socialization or for some psychological need fulfillment. Such social scientific views reduce the complexity of belief in God to terms of reference in theiir own limited fields of study.

7. Historically, there have been impressive rational defenses of belief in God of Christianity, culminating in the scholasticism of Aquinas (13th c). Since then, in response to the increasing skepticism and secular focus in western culture, there has been a corresponding withdrawal by theists (and everyday believers in God) from the perceived necessity to defend the rational basis of religious beliefs. Outside the Catholic church, the majority of Christians have regarded belief in God as true but irrational (or better, non-rational in the sense that it is not able to meet the strict standards of truth determined by the empirical method). This was a mistake and it is encouraging to see a revival of “apologetics,” the rational defense of beliefs. The common person is not aware of the arsenal at his/her disposal.

 

© BARRY WHITNEY, 2014. This is a version of Dr Whitney's chapter in The Big Argument: Does God Exist?, Edited by John Ashton and Michael Westacott, Master Books, Portland, Oregon, 2005, and Strand Publishing, Sydney, Australia, 2005.
Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.