For some time, I have been in discussion with a number of Christians on matters of faith. One of the questions I explore at least a couple of times a year is why Christians believe the things they believe.
Talk to them long enough, and you will always get two sets of reasons. The first set of reasons are the ones they use to try and convince you to believe. The second set of reasons are the real reasons why they believe?
The reasons in the first set are usually based on evidence or philosophy. They will bring up their favorite apologetic arguments. After that, they might talk about fulfilled prophecy, the empty tomb, and the historical fact of the resurrection.
And while these things might serve to support a flagging faith, or provide reasonable talking points for communication with unbelievers, they are seldom the reasons anyone initially comes to faith. Those reasons are usually rather more subjective.
The real reason most people believe can be traced to where they were born and raised. It is also determined by the belief system of the parents and culture surrounding the individual. But notice that these are never the reasons given when a Christian is waxing poetic about why they believe. They understand that to be credible, they need better reasons. Thus, apologetics.
The apostle Paul is my goto example. Before becoming a Christian, he was a persecutor of the church. He literally murdered Christians for a living. He seemed to be doing so on behalf of the Jewish leadership. And he had the finest Jewish education.
All of this is to say that he had access to all of the evidence for a risen Jesus. And he had training in all of the messianic prophecies. None of that convinced him to be a Christian. What actually convinced him was that he had a religious experience: a vision.
But there lies the problem. You can’t just go around trying to convert people on the strength of your religious experience. You can’t just tell others to have their own religious experience. You have to use something else to convince them. So in typical fashion, Paul used the same scriptures he rejected, to try and convert others.
This is a similar path to where I normally go with this topic. But I decided to expand the question to why atheist believe what they believe. Because I have been both a believer and nonbeliever in my adult years, I started by questioning myself. Do I believe differently as a nonbeliever than I did as a believer?
I think about how I came to beliefs before versus how I come to beliefs now. And there does seem to be a difference. I wanted to know if I just believed what I wanted to believe. Did I believe in Christian things when I wanted to be a Christian, then believe in atheist things when I wanted to be an atheist? Is it all just wish fulfillment?
I don’t believe it is. One reason is that when I gave up faith in god, I didn’t want to. I was doing everything I could do to maintain faith. When I was a Christian, I really wanted to believe in Christian things.
So examining why I stopped believing has provided me insight on the different methods and mechanisms for belief depending on whether one holds to a faith-based system, or if one is a skeptic. There is yet another major difference in how believers and skeptics come to believe things:
When anything is possible
One of the main reasons Christians believe differently is because for them, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, everything is possible. Atheists tend to have a smaller set of things that are possible. Their possibilities are usually limited to the laws of nature.
Christians have a builtin mechanism for infinite possibilities. They believe in an infinite god who can do anything at all. There are a few things he can’t do such as lie, or sin, or anything that Christians don’t really believe in. But otherwise, his capabilities are boundless.
Atheists have no such mechanism. Nature is vast, but limited. It functions based on rules that can be learned and understood. A lot is possible, including many things we cannot explain. But we would not subscribe to the notion that anything is possible, because it isn’t.
Believers take a lot of things on faith because even if they don’t know how it is managed, they have an underlying belief that it is possible, whatever it happens to be. It is very hard to believe in something that you think is impossible to begin with. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for belief is that you have some belief mechanism that renders the proposition possible, if not probable.
Not only do believers tend to believe more things are possible, they believe that those possibilities are far more probable than they really are. Even if they know that causing a cancerous tumor to disappear via prayer is only marginally possible, they nonetheless convince themselves that it will happen because god is not limited by probability. In other words, they have a builtin defeater for probability.
In this way, the least likely thing can become highly likely. They use a type of faulty reasoning that informs them that the least likely thing, as long as it is mathematically possible, is just as likely as any other possibility.
The believer has the same issues with probability as the gambler. The gambler buys 10 lottery tickets instead of 1, thinking that he has increased his chances from improbable to very probable. He might also rub a lucky rabbit’s foot, and wish upon a star to increase his chances even further.
While more tickets help mathematically, out of hundreds of millions of tickets purchased, 10 tickets does not really help. If it did, millionaires would spend a million dollars a week on tickets to win a hundred million. They don’t. They tend to be better at math.
The believer does similar things. If one prayer makes it probable, 10 makes it likely. In addition to prayer, the believer can do many good deeds, and give money to charity. They will not only pray more often, but more fervently. Surely these things improve their chances. But they don’t.
The atheist has no such fallback. There is only cold, unyielding probability. If the odds aren’t very good, we see no reason to play them. We tend not to place our bets on the least likely possibility. We deem many possible things to be implausible. And there is nothing we can do to improve the plausibility of the least likely event.
Believers tend to place a lot of weight on testimonial evidence. There is something to be said for a good, personal testimonial. But it is not exactly the same as other types of evidence. Not all types of evidence are the same. But Christians tend to treat all types of evidence as the same while atheists don’t.
Even in a court of law, testimonial evidence is rarely enough. When two disputants disagree on the facts, other evidence has to be considered. Even a confession of guilt would not be admissible if that confession was that a person committed a murder via magic. The confession might get a person time in a psych ward, but not prison.
Christians tend to believe that stories written in the Bible are the same as carefully vetted history. They also tend to believe that miracles happened to others on the bases of their testimony alone. When evaluating extraordinary claims, atheists tend to put less faith in testimonial evidence.
A lack of proof
Another major difference between Christian and atheist belief systems is that for the Christian, a lack of proof is not a problem. Believing a thing hard enough, itself, becomes a sort of proof. This works alongside testimonial evidence. If the person presenting the testimony believes it enough, their belief adds credence to the testimony.
They think that if the earliest apostles were martyred for their beliefs, then their beliefs must have been true. The martyrdom argument is made by the most notable apologists. No less than C. S. Lewis made the case that because Jesus actually believed what he said about himself, we should too. He was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. Lewis sees not other options. And Christians eat this logic up. Atheists don’t.
At the end of the day, believers always have the supernatural to fall back on, while as a general rule, unbelievers do not. Everything about Christianity that makes it interesting is heavily steeped in the supernatural. That includes the information delivery system by which we learn of it.
It comes telepathically from the mind of god, to the hand of writers, in a way that leaves the message uncorrupted. We are given aid to read and understanding it courtesy of the Holy Spirit. By that same spirit, we are granted a gift of faith in that message. The truth of the message cannot be accessed without help from the supernatural. For the Christian, it is supernatural all the way down.
Do I have some confirmation bias? Of course. But it is also held in check by many checks and balances I have in place. I read and follow Christian thinkers as well. I never stopped reading the Bible. I still probably read it more than the average Christian. I routinely engage in online conversation with theists. I test my arguments before making them, and change them if they turn out to be bad.
Since becoming a nonbeliever, I have been to church, prayed the seekers prayer, was open to religious experience, made arguments in favor of god and faith, just to see if I could, and did all the things Christians suggested I do to find god. He remains unfound. And I remain unconvinced.
Now compare what confirmation bias I might yet have to the absolute certainty of the supernatural held by believers. That is so much worse than confirmation bias fueled by skepticism. For the record, I am skeptical about everything. But the believer always carries a trump card that can overcome anything, any objection, any scientific fact, any logical necessity. The supernatural is not confirmation bias. It’s confirmation crack.
My bias can be proved wrong. But the supernatural can never be proven wrong. It is unfalsifiable, completely immune to skeptical inquiry. Because it cannot be proven wrong, the supernatural explanation is always as good as any other explanation.
Unfortunately, the supernatural is a place where inquiry goes to die. Your supernatural explanation can be trumped by someone else’s unfalsifiable, supernatural explanation. Rational inquiry is barred from entering the arena.
Because the Christian believes in the supernatural, there is no objection that can stand. Because there is no way to test the supernatural with natural means, every theory that includes the supernatural is confirmed by the supernatural. As you can see, confirmation bias is a minor issue compared to that.
Expect another post in the near future exploring why we skeptics think the way we do.