As it happens, my Reddit post was “removed [by a Reddit moderator] as it violate[d] Reddit‘s content policy with respect to personal and identifying information.” Since I am philosophically opposed to anonymous Internet posting (If you’re not willing to identify yourself, nothing you post deserves to be read, respected, or considered—certain whistle-blowers and the like might be an exception to this rule), thus ends the short, happy life of my Reddit exploration. Please join me in a brief moment of silence to mourn its passing.
That said, please find below a reproduction of what was deleted, with some cosmetic modifications to better suit the Pious Eye site, as well as an added parenthetical about all-people-of-the-book-will-be-okay forms of Islam. This was posted in answer to a question from someone claiming to be an atheist ex-Christian. That question asked “theists” the following: “how does personal experience make/help make your religion true?” The questioner also provided some information about himself that I make reference to in my response. I believe that information about the questioner should be evident from how I’ve used it below, as should any information in others’ posts that I draw upon. If any of this isn’t clear, you should be able to find out more by following the above link to the “you, violator, have been prosecuted by the moderator” message I received, then clicking the appropriate links once you arrive at the message.
My post ended with the following: “This response Copyright David M. Hodges (Reddit user piouseye). All rights reserved.” This closing is not included below, since Pious Eye site content already carries a copyright notice.
In answer to your question, experience does not make (or help make) me believe that my religion is true. My faith is not based on personal experiences, mine or others’, or on evidence or arguments. Instead, my trust that my rational and perceptual faculties can generally be relied on–and so that experience, evidence, and arguments can be used to learn truths–is based on my faith: Because I trust that the God who created me is the truth-valuing, non-deceiving, benevolent Christian God, not some other god with different attributes, I trust the faculties God has given me.
Were it not for my faith, which identifies itself as a gift of God for which I can claim no credit (Ephesians 2:8-9) (as I could claim credit for making an inference from experience), I would doubt these faculties. Having nothing better to rely on, I would continue behaving as though I trusted them in order to get by (though I couldn’t be sure I was really getting by, or that anything existed beyond this process of thinking and perceiving that “I” would be taking to be an existing person whom “I” would be calling “me” 1 ). I would not, however, think I could use those faculties to draw metaphysical conclusions either for or against theism or Christianity.
1 My wording in the preceding parenthetical has in mind Descartes’s “I think therefore I am,” which Reddit user pthor14 brought up, and which I long found persuasive. In truth, as soon as Descartes said “I,” he assumed that he existed, so nothing he said after that did anything but reaffirm what he presupposed. As some have noted, all he could have said without assuming what he meant to prove was, “There is thinking, therefore I am.”
So, I believe because God, who is sovereign over everything and “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11), gave me faith, and it is my God-given faith that allows me to trust my rational and perceptual faculties, and so to use these faculties to learn truths, both those in Scripture (which my trusted faculties allow me to read and understand) and others.
As an ex-ex-Christian myself, I can guess that you, as an ex-Christian (as noted in your flair 2 ), find this response unhelpful. Beyond making you consider asking your Christian friends to pray that God, if he exists, will give you faith, my above response can’t do much for you. It is an accurate response, however.
2 A Reddit “flair” is a bit of information users can enter that will tell something about themselves relevant to the subreddit. For this “debate religion” subreddit, one could identify one’s religious status. I used “Christian by the Sovereign Grace of God.”
As I’ve noted, I am an ex-ex-Christian. When I was just an ex-Christian taking for granted that I could trust my faculties, I became adept at finding internal inconsistencies in belief systems and in perceiving how the same “evidence” could plausibly be interpreted in a great variety of ways compatible with a great variety of belief systems. No one ever convinced me I was wrong to see the philosophical, evidential, and experiential arguments for Christianity as insufficient to compel belief. Some of the evidence might seem more readily compatible with Christianity than with other perspectives, so that I could commit to Christianity without feeling I was committing a crime against reason and evidence. But the evidence and arguments never reached the point where I could not also, if so inclined, maintain an agnostic or atheistic perspective that could explain (or seem to explain) all the evidence, including the range of spiritual-experience claims out there, in a way that seemed plausible.
Only when I realized that the very faculties I was relying upon to conduct my analysis might be doubted did I begin my journey back to Christian faith. With the help of Christian presuppositionalists like Van Til and Bahnsen, I came to recognize that Christianity fit with my up-till-then unquestioned trust in my faculties, whereas neither atheism nor agnosticism did. I could, it seemed, either accept Christianity or give up trust in my faculties. Had God not brought me to faith at this point, I might, of course, have searched around for non-Christian belief systems that would fit with my trust in my faculties. Presuppositionalists tend to assert that the failure of other systems to fit with such things as trust in one’s faculties “proves” or “demonstrates” that Christianity is true. In his “Why I Believe in God,” for instance (which recognizes the reality you emphasize, that we are all “conditioned” by our God-given environments to tend toward certain beliefs), Van Til puts it this way: “I hold that belief in God [by which he means the Christian God revealed in Scripture, not a generic “supreme being”] is not merely as reasonable as other beliefs, or even a little or infinitely more probably true…; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else” (accessed 20 May 2016).
Though, like Van Til, I’ve never found a non-Christian belief system that seems to fit with such things as trust in my faculties, I’ve also never been convinced of the claim that the presuppositionalist case “proves” Christianity’s truth, for two reasons: (1) the claim assumes that some existing belief system must be true, an assumption that is practical but unprovable; and (2) it assumes that showing how some finite number of non-Christian systems fail is equivalent to showing that every possible such system must fail, which is clearly false. As an assertion of my faith-based expectation of what I will find to be the case as I analyze any non-Christian belief system, I fully endorse Van Til’s statement. As a claim about what the arguments of presuppositionalists “prove,” however, I cannot endorse it.
In taking this position, I’m sure to be labeled a fideist, a label that I don’t mind owning, as I noted in a 2015 book review (accessed 20 May 2016). Consistent with this labeling, I’d like to appeal to you in the same pragmatic way as, and based upon the approach of, another Christian typically labeled a fideist, Pascal.
To begin, I note that you’ve already granted, in response to others, that Christianity might be true and you will have to wait until you die to find out. However, as Pascal pointed out in his famous wager, this approach makes no sense practically speaking. If atheism is true and the end of one’s physical life is the end, period, there’s no lasting payoff to believing this. Even the all-is-permitted freedom that comes with belief that there exists no authority above oneself and that earthly actions have no beyond-this-life consequences–even this freedom isn’t ultimately worth anything, since once one dies there will be no satisfied recollection of all the indulgences this freedom allowed. If Christianity is true and one lives as though it is false, on the other hand, there will be hell to pay–literally.
Pascal’s pragmatic appeal doesn’t prove anything about what is in fact true, of course. But it does show that some possibilities, practically speaking, aren’t worth considering. Atheism is such a possibility. The only justification for even looking into the possibility that atheism is true is a moral sense that one should value truth above all else, no matter how pointless-to-know the truth turns out to be. But were atheism in fact true, what would be the justification for trusting and obeying this wholly impractical moral sense? I can’t see any.
In our pluralistic age, when much more is known about many more religions, Pascal’s reasoning may require expansion. While there is no practical reason to consider or investigate atheism, consideration and investigation of every believe-this-or-face-eternal-doom religion that one deems at least possibly true does seem practically justified, even required. Religions that posit only temporary problems for wrong belief, such as a less favorable reincarnation than one might face otherwise, can legitimately be ignored until the possibility that one or another believe-or-be-forever-doomed religion is true has been eliminated: so long as one of the latter religions is potentially true, one has no practical justification for considering the former.
Until all believe-or-be-forever-doomed possibilities have been eliminated, religious perspectives holding that everyone will be saved in the end, though popular, also don’t merit consideration. If they are true, disbelieving them won’t prevent one from ultimately ending up in “the place that’s the best,” since everyone ends up there.
From a practical standpoint, then, one should only investigate and consider such religions as eternal-damnation-affirming Christianity, Islam, and such, then commit to whichever of them seems most likely (least unlikely) to be true. (Forms of Islam that maintain that all “people of the book” will be okay with God might also be ignored, at least if one thinks another religion “of the book” might be true and that other religion offers no such assurances to “people of the book” who reject it.) Embracing atheism, or remaining a noncommittal agnostic, cannot be justified pragmatically.
I realize that the vogue among philosophers is to claim that one can’t actually choose what one believes. One’s beliefs, on this account, are things one simply finds oneself with, not something one chooses. My own experience makes me skeptical of this, since I’ve found that resolutely committing to a belief system and sticking with it does tend to produce genuine belief over time. But let us assume this vogue claim is true. Even on this assumption, one still may choose what possibilities one investigates, what information sources one studies, and which in the range of possible interpretations of any piece of data one decides to make one’s “working assumption” so long as there is no irrefutable contrary argument and no evidence one cannot by any means interpret in a way that fits with the working assumption.
I hope the preceding proves of some use. If it does nothing more, it should at least reassure you that persons who have perceived the problems you perceive in experience-based religion have still been able to embrace the Christian faith. As well, it should help you focus your investigations on belief systems that there is a practical reason to investigate.
If this post is a review, it may also appear, less nicely formatted and typically abridged, on such other sites as Amazon and GoodReads. If this post has odd gaps in it, this probably means some ads have failed to display. If you miss the ads, try reloading the page. Otherwise, just enjoy their unexpected absence.
All Pious Eye™: Seeing by the True Light™ content © 2005– by David M. Hodges, unless otherwise noted. Unauthorized Reproduction Prohibited. Sharing Encouraged. Syndication Enabled.