Do we come to belief in God through personal encounter, or arguments, or both? When we ask ourselves ‘Why do we believe in God?’ our faith provides the first response,” offered St. John Paul II during a 1985 General Audience. “We believe in God because God has made himself known to us as the supreme Being, the great ‘Existent.’”
We believe in the unseen Trinity first and foremost because we have been convicted by grace through faith. “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” affirms St. Paul (Rom. 10:17).
Faith comes by the authority and testimony of another; and as recipients of God’s Word—which may come to us orally, in writing, or indeed through a direct encounter with the incarnate Logos,
Jesus Christ—we can come to know truths that transcend the humble faculties of reason alone. We believe principally because we trust in what—or who—we have heard and encountered.
But if faith comes to us principally through the authority of another, does reason have a part to play in the acquisition of faith? According to St. Paul the answer is yes. For him it is not only God but that which God has created that can be revelatory.
For as the Apostle says in his Letter to the Romans, the physical world can testify and reveal God’s “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are” (Rom. 1:20).
St. Paul placed great value on the revelatory capabilities of the senses. He believed that through philosophical contemplation that followed upon sense experience, we could come to know the existence of the divine Creator (Rom. 1:20).
For St. Paul the senses could indeed reveal to us the real; indeed, by way of the proximately real the senses had the capability of leading us to the really real—the one God who simply and infinitely is.
But St. Paul knew that God might also reveal himself directly, through a person-to-person encounter, by the power of the Holy Spirit: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15).
We might be moved to believe in God because we have directly experienced him, independently of rational argument. But now here’s a question pertaining the reasonableness of belief based on experience: Would such a religious experience alone, in the absence of other evidence, be adequate to justify religious belief?
From Sigmund Freud to Richard Dawkins, skeptics have often expressed intense discontent towards the justification of faith based on religious experience. This is understandable. We can be tempted to believe many false things if we base our conclusions on feelings alone.
But in recent times, Christian philosophers like the (rightly) esteemed Alvin Plantinga—inspired by Calvin’s notion of the sensus divinitatis or “sense of the divine”—have argued that belief in God may be treated as a “properly basic” belief—that is, a fundamental belief that requires no further justification to be rationally held.
On this view, then, belief in God based solely on religious experience may be fully justified if the belief is, 1) true, and 2) undefeated by objections. In such a case then one could be fully justified in believing in God even if they do not have “positive” arguments supporting their belief. Their interior experience of God would be enough.
But now let’s return to our initial question: Why do we believe in God?
We have already noted that God may reveal himself to us directly through the power of the Holy Spirit. But unless God reveals himself in this way, which is entirely by grace, God’s existence is not immediately evident to us.
As St. Thomas tells us, God is self-evident in himself but not self-evident to us. Thus, even the unbaptized know God—but in a “general and confused way.”
And this is where human reason comes in. Indeed, rational arguments have much to add to brute religious experience. First of all, arguments serve to clear the mental debris that prevents us from seeing God more clearly.
Second of all, they serve to authenticate our religious experiences and perhaps reveal more to us about the divine person—or persons—we have encountered experientially. Thus,
just as religious experience may authenticate in a deeper way what we already know by demonstration, so also may philosophical demonstration authenticate religious experience.
Even if Plantinga is correct that arguments are not necessary to warrant belief in God, it would not follow that arguments have no important part to play in the life of faith.
For if belief in God can be warranted by authentic religious experience and we can prove with positive arguments that theism is true, then as William Lane Craig has pointed out, we are doubly warranted to believe in God: first by grace through faith—but also by reason.
In Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII echoed St. Paul’s affirmation of the possibility of natural theology when he wrote, “Human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world.”
There are many paths by which we may come to philosophical knowledge of God. Such knowledge always begins in wonder—and then diverges. “Instinctively, when we witness certain happenings,
we ask ourselves what caused them,” wrote St. John Paul II. “How can we not but ask the same question in regard to the sum total of beings and phenomena which we discover in the world?”
That the world exists unnecessarily—that is to say, that there is something rather nothing—is a fact that has incessantly poked at the minds of the deepest of thinkers. “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” mused Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus.
From St. Thomas Aquinas to G.W. Leibniz, great thinkers through the ages have concluded that that the world exists, despite not having to, points to a deeper metaphysical truth—a necessary being that explains all that is. Indeed, for St.
Thomas it was not a necessary being but only (and necessarily) Being itself which could sufficiently explain the universe, who possessed all perfections—love, intelligence, creativity, and the like—without limit.
The ways to God by reason are many, and rarely work on the mind in isolation from the others. As St. John Henry Newman reminded us in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, all of our reasons for belief converge upon one single subject from a variety of angles in a symphony of “converging evidences.” Echoing this insight, St. John Paul II observed:
A myriad of indications impels man, who tries to understand the universe in which he lives, to direct his gaze toward his Creator. The proofs for the existence of God are many and convergent. They contribute to show that faith does not humble human intelligence, but stimulates it to reflection and permits it to understand better all the “whys” posed by the observation of reality.
Indeed, the order, intelligibility, and “finality” (or goal-directedness) of nature also compel the mind, intuitively and discursively, to ponder the Supreme Intellect behind it all. Pope John Paul acknowledged the evidential power of such features of the natural world:
The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.
Of course—as John Paul carefully notes in the passage above—it is the physical sciences that are best appropriated to investigate the phenomena of nature. But science does not precede nor supersede philosophical contemplation. Rather, science presupposes the philosophical, and at the same time integrates it into its method necessarily when it moves into the process of analysis.
For many, a study of metaphysics—that is, what is beyond (meta) the physical—has fallen out of style and into the shadow of the physical sciences. As particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne has observed,
“Metaphysics is not a word that many scientists feel happy with. It is not uncommon for the concept to be dismissed.” But, he counters, this dismissal is in vain. “In actual fact,” says Polkinghorne, “it is impossible to think seriously without taking a metaphysical stance, since this simply means adopting a world-view. We think metaphysics as naturally and inevitably as we speak prose” (emphasis added).
Indeed, we do. Granted, our metaphysical thinking is not always concretely discursive; that is to say, we are not always aware of our assumptions, premises, and ways of getting to our conclusions, nor are we always thinking in
—or even able to think in—the technical jargon of philosophy. That being said, by the virtue of the fact that we are rational, we are ever in the state of mentally peeling back the layers of reality, always drawing conclusions and making distinctions about what is and what ought to be.
That being said, we are not often explicitly cognizant of our mental activities as metaphysical. “All men have a reason,” wrote St. John Henry Newman,” but not every man can give a reason.”
When it comes to the existence of God, then, we cannot help but seek understanding to supplement and fortify our faith. God has created us for himself; and as art reveals something of the artist, so also does the world he has placed us in reveal the nature and divinity of God.
Every person by nature desires to know, wrote Aristotle famously. And we might also add that every person—at least in a general and confused way—desires to know God.
Our rational nature permits us as human persons to intuit God experientially, but also all-at-once instills within us an irremediable appetite to know God intellectually. Thus, both experience and argument play pivotal roles for belief in God.
Why do we believe in God? We believe in God, first, by faith. Trusting in the authority of the Church, strengthened by the wisdom and witness of the Sacred Scriptures, inspired by the testimony of the saints, and moved interiorly by the Holy Spirit, we believe by grace that God has revealed himself to us.
But we believe also because our minds tell us that God is real and Christianity is true. We believe what we know, we know what we believe, and the coming together of faith and knowledge happens not by force but by a harmonious integration.
As grace perfects nature, so faith perfects reason. Or in the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith presupposes reason and perfects it, and reason, enlightened by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and spiritual realities.
Why do people believe in God? For most people in the world, the answer seems obvious: Because it’s self-evident that God exists. From the point of view of the believer, the really puzzling question is how anyone could not believe.
And yet, as University of California at Irvine psychologist Brett Mercier and his colleagues point out in a recent article, there was once a time in the prehistory of our species when nobody believed in a god of any sort.
Our evolutionary ancestors were all atheists, but somewhere along the way they found religion. So we’re back to our original question: Why do people believe in God?
As is common practice in evolutionary science, Mercier and his colleagues distinguish between ultimate and proximate causes. An ultimate cause explains how a behavior evolved in the first place, while a proximate cause outlines the conditions in which that evolved behavior will be performed. Consider, for example, birds flying south for the winter.
The ultimate cause of bird migration is the increase in survival and reproduction experienced by those who seasonally moved to warmer climates where food was plentiful. In contrast, the proximate cause is the decrease in daylight hours, serving as a trigger that it’s time to head south.
Religious belief of some sort is a nearly universal feature of humanity, so there’s quite likely some ultimate evolutionary cause that explains it. At the same time, not all people are religious,
and furthermore the forms of belief among the religious range widely, so we need to understand the proximate causes for this variation. In their article, Mercier and colleagues outline several ultimate and proximate causes for religious belief.
Fully modern humans arrived on the scene about a quarter million years ago, and until quite recently they all lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles. In these primitive societies, the men hunted, fished, or scavenged for meat, while the women gathered fruits, roots, and vegetables.
They lived in small groups of around 100 to 150 people because this was the largest population that the surrounding terrain could support.
Still, these groups were considerably larger than the societies of primate species, which tend to number in the few dozen range. Furthermore, humans are far more capable of cooperation than other primates, enabled by certain evolved cognitive mechanisms.
Chief among these is a sense of agency. As tool users, humans quickly developed an understanding that they can intentionally cause things to happen. The nut cracked open because I smashed it with a rock. The apple fell because I shook the tree.
Humans then apply this sense of agency to interpreting social interactions. That is to say, we not only believe we have agency, we also believe others have agency as well. Thus, we judge the actions of others depending on whether we deem them to be intentional or not.
We can easily forgive the person who accidentally steps on our foot, but we really need an explanation and an apology if someone purposely treads on our toes.
In fact, we’re rather hypersensitive about other people’s agency, inferring intention where none existed. For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we generally assume they did it on purpose—that is,
knowing full well how dangerously they’re driving—rather than supposing they looked but just didn’t see us. We’re quick to assume that people act purposefully and discount the extent to which people’s behaviors are shaped by their current circumstances and limitations.
Because of hypersensitive agency detection, we also have a tendency to infer intentionality in natural processes or inanimate objects. Beliefs in water sprites and woodland spirits, specters and spooks, ghosts and demons, are ancient and observed in every culture around the world.
Because the natural world is complex and acts in mysterious ways, we detect agency all around us.
By the way, if you think that you—an intelligent human being living in modern society—are free of such superstitious nonsense, you need to ask yourself: Have you ever begged your car to start on a cold winter morning?
Or have you ever complained that your computer has a mind of its own because it doesn’t behave the way you want it to? We tend to automatically detect agency in inanimate objects whenever the situation is unpredictable and out of our control.
This kind of animistic thinking—that is, the belief that supernatural agency inhabits the world and can influence events—is a universal human trait. Such thinking is common in children, and as adults our animistic thinking is shaped by the norms of our culture. Animistic beliefs are also common in hunter-gatherer societies, but what they don’t have is organized religion.
Some 15,000 years ago, humans gradually began adopting agriculture. At first, humans domesticated a few animals and tended gardens to supplement their hunting and gathering, but eventually,
all but a few societies around the world shifted solely to farming and herding. Agriculture can support many more people per acre of land compared with hunting and gathering, but this came with a cost.
As long as our group sizes were small, we had the psychological mechanisms to deal effectively with the members of our community. If you live day in and day out with the same 150 people, you get to know them really well.
But if your numbers are in the thousands or tens of thousands, most of the people you interact with on a daily basis are strangers. Thus was life in the first cities that arose thanks to the food surpluses that agriculture yielded.
At this point, we see cultural evolution taking place. Human existence depends on cooperation. When we live in small groups, cheaters are punished by other members, and they quickly learn that they have to get along.
But in anonymous societies, it’s easy to take advantage of others, as there’s no way for the rest of the group to punish those who take advantage of the system. The solution was to invent ever-watchful gods who’ll punish cheaters for us. Thus, organized religion grew hand-in-hand with the rise of the city-state.
Fast forward a dozen millennia, and here we are living in a technologically advanced society driven by science that tells us the world moves according to the laws of physics and not the whims of spirits or deities. Nevertheless, religious belief in one or more gods that watch over our actions and judge us accordingly is quite common.
At the same time, religious belief has dropped precipitously over the last century, and here we need to look at its proximate causes
Mercier and colleagues divide the proximate causes of religious belief into three types: cognitive, motivational, and societal. One cognitive factor is an analytical thinking style. People who tend to act according to reason rather than intuition are also less likely to believe in God.
Perhaps relatedly, we also see a tendency for people who are higher in intelligence to hold agnostic or atheistic beliefs. In contrast, people who are high in what’s commonly called “emotional intelligence”—that is, the ability to easily discern the emotions and motives of others
—also tend to be more religious. Of course, it’s exactly this ability to read others’ minds that led to the rise of religious belief in the first place, hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savanna.
The old saying that there are no atheists on the battlefield is no doubt true to a large extent. Furthermore, faith in God increases when situations become uncontrollable, as in the case of natural disasters. Believing that God has a plan helps people regain some sense of control, or at least of acceptance.
Another motivational factor is self-enhancement. If you live in a society where religion is prized, it’s in your best interest to say you believe, whether you truly do or not. I’m sure there are plenty of doubters in the pews at Sunday services, though none will admit it.
(I was one of those for most of my teenage years.) And it’s not uncommon to hear stories of priests or pastors who’ve lost their faith but continue to preach because it’s the only way they can make a living
Finally, there are societal factors that influence the degree of religious belief within societies. As a general rule, religious belief is considerably lower in developed countries compared with the underdeveloped world. For instance, Japan has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but only 4 percent of its population claims to be religious.
Traditionally, Japan was a Buddhist country, and religion played an important role in the daily lives of the Japanese until after World War II. A similar trend has occurred in Western Europe, which many social scientists now characterize as “post-Christian.”
The United States, with its high standard of living and high religiosity, is the glaring exception. However, as Mercier and his colleagues point out, Japan and Western European have universal health care and extensive social safety nets, as opposed to the U.S.
The Japanese and the Europeans know their governments will come to their aid in their hour of need. But the laissez-faire attitudes of American society make people’s futures less certain and the belief in a benevolent God more attractive.
Although many people in industrialized societies have abandoned traditional organized religion, many of them still confess to some sort of spiritual belief, such as a life-force or divine spirit that pervades nature and humanity.
As societies become affluent and egalitarian, perhaps people perceive less need for a benevolent God to keep watch over us. Organized religion may no longer be needed in such societies, but it’s still human nature to perceive agency in the complexity and unpredictability of the world, even when there is none
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