Why We Believe


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.

Probability assessment

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.

Testimonial evidence

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.

Conclusion: Supernatural

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.

David Johnson


5 thoughts on “Why We Believe

  1. David,
    Just a few comments/questions:
    – How do you account for the thought process of atheists who have become Christians? (i.e. David Wood, J. Warner Wallace, W.L. Craig, Craig Keener to name a few)
    – You wrote that you had wanted to remain a Christian but couldn’t. Lewis wrote that he became a ‘reluctant convert’ to Christianity, noting that he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” He said he vigorously resisted conversion. Lewis’ experience was similar to yours but in reverse.
    – You wrote that Lewis says we have 3 options concerning Jesus: liar, lunatic, lord. He didn’t include ‘legend’ which is the popular choice of atheists/sceptics. Why not? Because of his personal immersion in the genre of legends and mythologies, he discounted it as a viable option. He said the gospel don’t read like *any* myths he’d ever read.
    – Re: the supernatural. Yes, as a follower of Jesus, I believe in a supernatural God. But don’t atheists also have to believe in some form of the supernatural, as well? How does something (matter) come from nothing?

    A thoughtful, reasoned post. I appreciate the tone.

    • Hi Joyce. Nice response. You asked how I account for the thought process of atheists who become Christians. I don’t. I can’t account for anyone else’s thought processes. I think some people who convert to Christianity already had much of the presuppositional framework in place that is necessary for faith.

      It is not as big a leap to believe in Christianity if you are wracked with existential questions about the meaning of life. You are convinced that there must be some meaning, and by extension, being, greater than ourselves. So you go looking for that being who supplies the meaning.

      If you are emotionally troubled by the fact that it is all going to end and that you are going to die one day, it doesn’t take much to seek out a framework that says you will live forever. That way, you gain a story that relieves you of some of that fear.

      Perhaps you already believe in the supernatural. You seem to think that having no exact answer detailing the first moments of the universe is a problem for atheists. It is not. I don’t know, is not an answer that poses some sort of existential crisis. For the record, I don’t believe in something for nothing. That is the Christian’s domain: creatio ex nihilo. You are tho one stuck with explaining that one, not me.

      But for the atheist who is paralyzed by the torturous anguish of not knowing exactly how things got started, they might be happy to seek out supernatural answers. It might take many more lifetimes to come up with a good natural answer. Again, that’s not a problem for me.

      There are plenty of reasons why nonbelievers my seek refuge in a belief system. I can only deal with the arguments they make when trying to convince me that their belief system of choice is correct. You don’t seem to be nearly as interested in the countless Christians who have converted to Islam or Buddhism. Should we consider those valid repudiations of Christianity?

      Here’s the thing: It is not extraordinary for a person to want more from this life, and seek it out in a faith system steeped in the supernatural. It is extraordinary for one who has supposedly reclined in the bosom of the god of the universe to one day decide that it was not all it was cracked up to be. I don’t need to explain why one might long for more than this short and brutish life. But perhaps you need to explain why so many Christians keep walking away from the arms of Jesus. If they were really filled with the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine what they found wanting.

  2. David,
    I’m confused. I’m wondering if you will talk with me in the ‘conference room’ here on your blog about your latest post (and also what happened on the comment board last week). I hope to hear from you.


    • You may not have much experience posting online on discussion boards. So please take this as friendly advice. It is definitely not cool to take a conversation or grievance from one board, and try to continue it on another. You commented on this post. And I responded to that post. It should not be considered that any response is actually required. But I thought it was worth a response. So I gave one.

      You are bringing to this place what you believe to be a slight on a different Discus board. Again, that is very poor etiquette. There is been no slight. I have no animosity to explain. And there is nothing for me to forgive. You just need to compartmentalize discussions where they belong. And keep them in the context of voluntary discussions. No need to respond to this post. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s