Saturday, March 24, 2012

Supernatural Relationship vs. Probabalistic Belief

The possibility has occurred to me recently that perhaps I've had the wrong idea of Christianity all along.  What I have considered to be the main verifiable claim of Christianity (a personal relationship with a loving God) does not seem to be the evidence offered up by most Christians.  Nobody claims to "know" God in any relational sense of the word.  I do not intend to be contrarian here, and I think a lot of Christians would have a gut reaction disagreement with the previous sentence, so allow me to clarify: when you press the Christian for how exactly they "know" God, it is almost never through direct interaction.  It's through a particularly impacting experience, or through a word spoken from a friend at the right time, or through reading a passage of the Bible at a point in their life where it seemed particularly applicable to them.  For the most part, God does not act as a tangible, interactive presence in daily life. (I must pause here to admit that I have met people who claim this, but they generally tend to be a little bit crazy.  People who "hear" from God are the same people who's testimony I wouldn't trust in court)

This goes against what I was always taught.  I was always taught that Christians ought to have a real, self-authenticating relationship with God.  Indeed, my lack of a real relationship was the thing that ultimately drove me away from Christianity.  It was recently pointed out to me, however, that to focus on this relationship (or lack thereof) is to focus on only one pillar of the entirety of Christianity- and I agree with this sentiment.  However, in my mind, the Christian must have a good answer to the question "what is true about this reality that would not be true if my religion were false?"  Specifically, the Christian must say what about their religion or religious experience would be different if God was not real.  I am of the opinion that most of the rest of it would hold together- living a moral life, loving your enemies, experiencing authentic community with other believers- as this is exactly the portion of other (presumably false) religions that holds together.  But the "relationship" part would be conspicuously absent.  And that's what I saw in my experience.

Moreover, if we say that our "relationship" with God is not a two-way relationship, in the sense that he is not tangibly present to the believer to any extent greater than he can be "seen" in nature, then what does this say about our belief in him?  It seems to me to say that it's probablistically based.  We have no "assurance" of anything.

Put it another way- let's pretend for a moment that I'm convinced by the arguments for the supernatural.  By "convinced" here, I would simply mean that I consider the weight of the arguments for the supernatural to be greater than the weight of arguments against the supernatural  (and indeed, I'm actually much closer to this than I ever would have expected).  My belief is therefore Bayesian- probabilistic in nature.  I would remain convinced only so long as I didn't hear new arguments or gain new experiences that render old arguments more or less compelling.  Certainly my belief would not be the "assurance" or "self-authenticating" faith that Christians tout, and I would be just as willing to give up this faith, in light of new evidence, as I am to give up any other fact of nature.

In my mind, such a belief implies two things: first, a totally impersonal "relationship" with God.  You don't accept the existence of a friend, mentor, father, or any other personal relationship on probablistic evidence.  If we fall back on probability to explain God, then we've lost any semblance of a bi-directional relationship.  Second, this strikes me as not true "belief".  Certainly it is not the belief the Bible asks for.  Saying "I accept God as being sufficiently likely that I will act as if he exists" seems to me a much different thing than saying "I have faith that God exists"

It seems, then, that Christianity leaves no room for probabalistic belief.  If you are to believe, you must believe with everything you have- all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul.  For someone like me to do this, I would need an incredibly high level of confidence in its truth.  A level of confidence, I think, that far exceeds what mere rational argumentation can give.  A level of confidence that can only be achieved via a Supernatural Relationship with a being that is clearly and undeniably God.

I must admit I'm a bit confused by those who describe this demand- this requirement of an undeniably supernatural experience before I will believe- as "testing" God.  It is looked down on as a request lacking "faith".  To both of these I say, yes.  I AM testing God- not the personal character of God, or his faithfulness, or his power, but rather his very existence.  To do anything else is irresponsible.  And yes, I do lack "faith" in the blind sense of the word.  Faith, in my mind, is earned.  I have faith in my parents, in my brother, in my good friends.  I trust them, not because I close my eyes and hope really hard that they have my best interest at heart, but because they've demonstrated it throughout my life.  If we are prepared to accept on faith the final conclusion of a religion, then we've lost any basis for differentiating between religions (or more generally, world views), as I could just as easily accept on faith the existence of Allah, or of reincarnation, or of no God at all.

So it seems to me that without some evidence- something I can point to and conclusively say "This would not be true if God were not real"- I can't go beyond my weak Bayesian belief.  And therein lies the heart of my problem.  I have already deconverted on the basis of Bayesian beliefs.  I see no reason to think I won't do so again.

I would be interested to hear any comments from Christians about whether you think it's viable to believe in Christianity on Bayesian principles.  Is it enough to say "I think this is likely, but I'm not sure"?  Or is true, 100% buy-in required?


  1. Could you talk about your thoughts and perspective from reading Bible this month? Do you see it any differently from before (both when you were a Christian and when you were not)? How has that text affected your thought process?

  2. You state "What I have considered to be the main verifiable claim of Christianity (a personal relationship with a loving God) does not seem to be the evidence offered up by most Christians"

    Why have you always considered this to be the main verifiable claim of Christianity? This strikes me as the least verifiable claim of Christianity as it would always be subjective. Even if you did hear from God, couldn't you possibly tell yourself that you just really wanted to hear from God and made it up. Plus if the only verifiable way to believe in God is to have an experience first, then how do you pass that along to others. What if the first believers went out and told others, "I have had a tangible yet completely personal experience of God, and I can’t really explain it, but you will have to experience it and then you will believe me"? Not very compelling. Should there not be something objective and verifiable about Christianity?

    Could that maybe be the resurrection? Perhaps we were not there personally, but 11 out of the 12 men that hung around Jesus were all willing to die horrible deaths at the hands of others for that belief. And so were many others that followed in their footsteps. No body was brought forth as evidence by those who sought to destroy the fledgling Christian church (that I have ever heard of). And despite being an extremely poor, small, and hated ragtag bunch of fishermen, they went out and turned the world upside down. For this is what they proclaimed, that Christ was crucified and they saw Him raised and then worked wonders in His name. That got people fired up.

    I don't know that I personally could handle God talking to me. I would be freaked out! I would feel compelled to believe in God by natural and moral law, beauty, reason, love, and the witness of the Church through the ages even if God never chose to reach out to me personally. The fact that I know God pays any mind to the likes of a pitiful thing like me is just mind blowing.

    I happened to find this quote in an old handbook for Catholics: "A person who is seeking deeper insight into reality may sometimes have doubts, even about God himself. Such doubts do not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. They may be just the opposite - a sign of growing faith. Faith is alive and dynamic. It seeks, through grace, to penetrate into the very mystery of God. The person who seeks by reading, discussing, thinking or praying eventually sees light. The person who talks to God even when God is "not there" is alive with faith." You may have more faith than you think.

    I'll have to think more about the Bayesian principles, as I have already written far too much.

  3. I agree that a relationship with God is not objectively verifiable. But it seems to me that a relationship with God ought to be subjectively verifiable. To put it another way, if you actually have a relationship with God, there should be absolutely no doubt in your mind. It should be the thing you are most sure about in the entire world. I understand the argument that we could convince ourselves of a false God based on the strength of our feelings, and I agree that you have to be really, really careful about trusting our feelings in matters of fact (I'm making a distinction here between "feelings" and "experiences", though I haven't nailed down what exactly I think the distinction between the two is. That probably deserves its own wholly unsatisfying blog post).

    But the truth is, we can convince ourselves of just about anything if we have enough incentive. The presence of so many religions seems to indicate that reason is not immune to this criticism either (all religions that I know of claim to be at least partially based on reason). we need to be better in applying our truth-telling mechanisms, not discard the truth-telling mechanisms themselves. And subjective experience a really convincing truth-telling mechanism. I believe in science because science works, not because I truly understand it all (look no further than Quantum Mechanics for an example of that). Empiricism itself is really just a formalized version of subjective experience, validated by the congruent subjective experiences of other people. I may believe in math because it is objectively reasonable, but I believe it a lot stronger because I see that it consistently gives us the right answers. And I'm honestly not smart enough (i.e. not confident enough in my reason) to hold some of the more complicated bits of math with very much conviction without actually seeing them work. The point is, our subjective experiences must be validated by both reason and "peer review", but I would still expect a really strong subjective experience if I'm engaged in a relationship with the one and true God of the universe.

    As for the objective verifiability of the history of Christianity- I think the best answer I can give is the following quote:
    "Could [he] have been a liar or had motives for inventing the [Holy Book]? The early years of [his] mission were punctuated by persecutions and sorrow. His followers were brutally tortured, killed, and forced to migrate... his enemies even offered him wealth and kingship if he abandoned his call to the belief in [God]. Instead, [he] lived a very austere life and never pursued any worldly gains like fame, power or wealth. Furthermore, [his] life ... was a practical embodiment of the Divine message and a study of his life... provides an appreciation of this fact."
    As you may have guessed, this is not a paragraph about Jesus. This is a paragraph about Mohammad, from a pamphlet called "The Origin of the Quran", which I was given along with a Quran by some Muslim evangelists back in college.

  4. Do I think Christianity can make a compelling case for something to have happened 2000 years ago centered around a man named Jesus? Absolutely. Can I believe in a miracle based on eyewitness testimony of a few religious believers? Not a chance. We see claims of miracles by religious believers all the time. There are cult leaders even today who sucker people in, convince them of absurd things, and get them to take absolutely ridiculous actions in response (you probably remember Harold Camping, who convinced a lot of followers to spend their life savings to advertise that the end of the world was coming). I'm not saying Jesus was or was not the Son of God- I'm just saying there's absolutely no way I can take second hand accounts written down more than 30 years after a supposed "miracle" as anything close to authoritative. Moreover, Christianity is not the only religion that makes this claim- Islam does as well, and uses many of the same arguments. Why should I trust that Christ's followers were more rational and critical of miracles than Mohammad's? I don't think historical arguments are that strong in the first place (because they tend to get you stuck in the status quo, even if the status quo is wrong), but the presence of an equal and opposing historical argument for a mutually exclusive religion seems to me to shatter any credibility the historical argument might have.

    Now to be fair, I'm not learned enough in Islamic history to say how well supported their claims are. All I know for sure is that they make almost identical claims to those of Christianity- and they've spread just as far and fast as Christianity, despite Christianity's 600 year head start.

    btw, if you're interested in learning more about Bayes theorem, check out
    yudkowsky runs the "less wrong" blog, and will absolutely scramble your brain if you let him :)

  5. I would like to understand better what you meant when you stated “I was always taught that Christians ought to have a real, self-authenticating relationship with God”, and that your experience did not live up to the claim. Sometimes Protestants and Catholics believe and think a little differently, so please explain what you were told Christians could expect from God, and what it is based on (a scripture verse perhaps)? I know you mentioned in another post that the Israelites in the Old Testament were able to have tangible relationship with God, but I think it is interesting to note that after working many miracles in the sight of the Israelites and leading them out of slavery, they end up wandering in the desert for years and we find them asking, God, what have you done for me lately? Which leads me to a question, would one miracle be enough? If you were then to have to go years without “hearing” from God would you start to doubt that first miracle? I know we can’t really answer that question, just food for thought. I hope to address all the points you make, there is just so much to discuss!

    1. Hey Jennifer,

      Sure, I can be more specific on that. I talked about this a little in the post on the Christian view of conviction, but here's the summary:

      As William Lane Craig (a fairly prominent modern day Protestant theologian) says, "the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it”. And again, "How then does the believer known that Christianity is true? He knows because of the self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit who lives within him”. I believe the theological source is from the Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit descended on believers as "tongues of fire". Additionally, Jesus says in John 16 7-11 "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement". Jesus calls Christians "Children of God" and "Children of the Kingdom" several times. Paul also talks a fair bit about living "in the Spirit" and "with the Spirit". All of these seem to point to a "living and active" (a favorite Protestant phrase) Holy Spirit that quite literally interacts with you in daily life (though not, most would say, through direct speech; what type of interaction is left, I'm not sure)

      But to be honest, I don't think the "Non-Denominational Christians" I grew up with even know what this relationship is supposed to look like. This link is a pretty good approximation of what you'll get if you ask a NDC. It's a lot of hand waiving, some vague references to a relationship, and an admonition to pray and read your Bible. But there's absolutely nothing relational about it. Absolutely nothing different from how a Muslim would interact with his God. This was the motivation for this post, that perhaps this "self-authenticating" and "personal relationship" business isn't actually what the Bible is claiming.

      The part of this that fails for me, by the way, is that I found nothing relational about reading my Bible and praying to... something. I was doing exactly what anybody who believed in a false religion would do- offer up platitudes to an unseen, unfelt deity and demanding no confirmation of his existence. I felt no "other half" to my prayers.

      Yes, it is interesting that these miracles didn't work to convince the Israelites. Of course the atheist will simply say, of course they didn't- that's because there were no miracles. I'm sort of inclined to say that these miracles must be really unimpressive for the Israelites to turn so quickly. Particularly in Exodus, where the Israelites a) complain about starving when food is literally RAINING DOWN FROM HEAVEN EVERY MORNING and b) build a golden calf idol the second God turns his back. This wasn't God not showing up for several years; this was like a few days.

    2. But to be fair, I actually DON'T think a classical "Miracle" would convince me. The problem with a miracle is that it's not reproducible, and I've seen to many magic tricks that I couldn't figure out the first time they were done. It seems much more likely (almost by the definition of "miracle"?) that it is my perception that is deceiving me, rather than reality changing out from under me. Add to that Leah's recent post about how religious experiences are actually pretty easy to produce, given the right circumstances, and there's just way to much doubt for a miracle to really be conclusive (although it would admittedly heavily inform my Bayesian priors, depending on the miracle)

      This begs the question of what would actually make me believe. That is deserving of at least one whole post, but the short answer is a) a lot less contradictions within Christianity (in particular, the Bible), b) a much more "set apart" history than the Church actually has, c) if Christianity made any substantive real-world predictions that turn out to be true (things that aren't already known. I suspect you'll point to prophecy here, but so do Muslims. It needs to be verifiable, not just a claim of prediction), and d) having a legitimate personal experience with God (I admit to not knowing what I would expect the last one to look like. It seems like this could manifest in a number of ways, one of which being an absolutely assured knowledge of Christianity's truth, despite my objections. Another would be direct interaction. Another would be the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside me in an unmistakeable way)

      Thanks for all your thoughts Jennifer. I'll do my best to respond to any questions, and it's helpful to have some of the holes in my reasoning pointed out :)

  6. Do you leave open the possibility of God working to have a relationship with you through subtleties and in relationships with others? You stated in the WFC post “I’ve seen it work, both in myself and in the lives of others. It makes you a "better" person. It makes you a loving person, a generous person, a person less concerned about yourself and more concerned about fixing this world that we've broken so badly.” But you also state in this post “I am of the opinion that most of the rest of it would hold together- living a moral life, loving your enemies, experiencing authentic community with other believers”. On the one hand you seem to say following the precepts of Christianity are what helps you to be a better person but on the other say a person is able to do these things completely apart from them. The main problem is our society is so intertwined with Judeo-Christian concepts of right and wrong that it is hard to separate the two. Would we even know the bar was set so high as to require self-sacrifice and love of our enemies if they were not first given to us? I would argue they are not even universally held values. Would at least not poking each other in the eye and not taking each other’s things not be enough? I think that is the one thing that sets Christianity apart and could not be done without it and that is the attainable perfection of man. Do you really find it easy and natural to love Stalin, the man that just punched you in the face, or how about just other drivers on the road. Turning my anger and hate into I would lay down my life for you is so hard as to be supernatural. The point of a relationship with God is to conform me to his likeness. Under the Old Covenant God had to be aloof and work outside of us, because the chasm between us was too wide. Under the New Covenant, He comes very near to us, so near that we have trouble discerning Him. But that is a good thing, because it means he can work on me to be be more like Him, not through strict discipline but through a right seeking will.

    1. I do leave open the possibility of God working to have a relationship in subtle ways and through others- the problem is that this looks an awful lot like God not existing (or alternatively, a different God than the Christian one). There's not much difference in a world where God whispers to you through relationships and small coincidences than there is in a world without a God where relationships and small coincidences happen anyways. I certainly think it's possible, it just doesn't seem like particularly convincing evidence one way or the other (that being said, I do find the human psyche probably the best argument for God- it's really difficult to explain love, morality, the desire for meaning, etc. without invoking some sort of supernatural component)

      Let me try to clarify- I do think following the precepts of Christianity help you to be a better person. But I also think following the precepts of Islam helps you be a better person. The point I was going for in both posts was that the basic premise of religion- that there is some moral standard that out ought to uphold- is pretty empirically convincing. Life is better when we do indeed uphold that standard, both for ourselves and for those around us. And any system that promotes that standard will lead us to living these "better" lives. That absolutely doesn't mean that all of these systems have the same level of truth- which is why we need to look for differentiators between them. The "relationship" part of Christianity seemed like a differentiator, since Islam is pretty hands-off and non-relational with Allah. But if that differentiator fails (or I have an incorrect conception of it), then I lose some specificity in talking about why Christianity is in any way superior to other religions (I don't mean to pick on Islam every time, it's just the easiest religion for comparison due to both its scale and structural/historical similarities to Christianity)

      It's an interesting argument that these values aren't universally held. It's basically the opposite of the one C.S. Lewis makes in Mere Christianity, where he says the Moral Law is powerful because, though the specifics may be tweaked, basically everybody agrees on the big points. I doubt "love your enemies" is very common (and indeed, as you point out, I certainly don't live that way on a consistent basis), but self sacrifice definitely is- bravery, courage, and martyrdom are pretty much universally appreciated, I think.

      To turn your original question back on you, what exactly do you mean by "He comes very near to us, so near that we have trouble discerning Him"? Are you saying you think that the very fact that we recognize morality is proof positive of the New Covenant with God? And if so, do you think people before the New Covenant didn't have the same moral intuitions we do?

    2. Sorry, let me clarify. I don't disagree with C.S. Lewis in that matter. I do agree that the moral law is given to all men, but while most would agree that they should love their neighbor, not all agree that they have to love their enemies. Do you believe that loving your enemies is a self-evident truth? One that you believe all men should hold and strive for? Should a religion need to teach this to be true?

      To answer your last question, I don't think innate moral intuitions changed. I believe the natural law was given in the beginning. Rather, it is the relationship man and God are able to have that has changed due to the Incarnation.

      CCC 1972 The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who "does not know what his master is doing" to that of a friend of Christ - "For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" - or even to the status of son and heir.31

      To answer your other question, I don't see the fact that we recognize morality as proof of the New Testament as much I see it as a proof for God in general. If we can look at the world and know it is not as it "ought" to be, then there must be way in which it "should" be. And the "shoulds" need to be absolute and not relative from person to person.

    3. I don't think loving your enemies is a self-evident moral imperative- most civilizations historically don't seem to value that, so I don't think it meets the "self evident" standard of, say, murder being wrong. That being said, the world would certainly be a better place if more people practiced this.

      I'm having trouble answering your question "Should a religion need to teach this to be true?" I can think of the negative examples (when people don't apply this heuristic) and how much damage they cause, and I want to say yes. But I can also think of examples where the enemy truly needs to be stopped by (almost?) whatever means necessary. I know the Christian response is that those two aren't orthogonal, and you can "love" your enemies and still fight against them, but I'm not sure if I really understand what that even means. But generally speaking, treating other people with human dignity seems like a good thing (if we're to go down the non-nihilistic path of religion and claim that humans indeed have an inherent dignity)

      The fact that this idea seems pretty unique to Christianity is one of the more compelling aspects of the religion- though it would admittedly be much more compelling if it was practiced among Christians with greater regularity.