There seems to be a view circulating among the new atheists that religion is a completely irrational matter and that its adherents have no rational grounds for holding the views that they do. There are, however, several reasons for belief in God, though the reasons vary between individuals. One of the main reasons is that people construe their lives and/or the world as having some meaning that can be explained by the existence and activity of God, but there is also a sense that God has somehow touched or disclosed himself to the individual. This kind of experience is always mediated in some way.
Why do people believe in God?
The article examines various reasons that individuals have for holding a belief in the existence of God
The origins of belief
Most people come to belief or disbelief in God through their upbringing, but this is only part of the story. Belief can be compared with a plant. It begins with a seed and then grows or shrivels, according to how it is tended. Any kind of belief needs feeding. A certain sort of lifestyle feeds belief and makes it grow, whereas another makes it shrink or be relegated to the back or the fringe of the mind. I think that a major component of my own belief was my sternly and devoutly Catholic upbringing, but without my lifelong mass attendance and my habit of daily prayer, sometimes guiltily missed, along with my studying of religions, I would not have believed so strongly as I do.
The young non-believer, who told me that I had been indoctrinated by my parents, before quickly diverting his attention to other, less informed and less assertive members of the gathering, knew not that at twelve I had rejected my parents' creationism to such an extent that I convinced them that evolution was correct. So much for their supposed indoctrination and its numbing effects on the mind. They surely never prevented me from thinking, and they encouraged wide reading.He also overlooked the fact that throughout my life I have been cultivating religious learning.
We must realize that belief in God has some complexities. We distinguish between the God of the philosophers and the God of the prophets. They are not necessarily distinct, but they represent God as known in different ways. The God of the philosophers is God as understood [I will not say known] through philosophical reasoning, but the God of the prophets is known through the disclosure of himself to humans, great and small, through revelation and prayer, through religious experience. Just as a rectangle has length and breadth, thus God is apprehended [insofar as transcendent mystery can ever be apprehended] in these complementary ways.
This leads us to the realization that belief in God is composed of different kinds of knowledge. Take an example, the ways in which I know my wife. She is Maureen by name. She is five feet five inches tall, slim, with brown hair and blue eyes. This is objective knowing, but I also know her as a person and have grown in this kind of knowledge over the thirty four years that we have been married. Without the objective knowing I could not know her personhood. The two are complementary. Thus with God. We can have some belief about his [her, just as good] qualities, as far as they can be known, but this kind of knowing is far from the personal disclosure that Christians believe is found through Christ and accessed through prayer.
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The interior dialogue
Anyone who concentrates exclusively on the arguments for belief in God has a defective understanding of belief. Belief grows and flowers through an interior process. Religious people have always emphasised the inner life, and it is in the inner life that belief develops. Newman, the Catholic cardinal and thinker of the nineteenth century,writing in A Grammar of Assent, argued that the "preambles of faith do not lie in knowledge", but in certain conditions of the spirit. For Newman faith and moral qualities grow in relation to each other.
The personal qualities of which Newman was thinking include sensitivity to the spiritual. For Aquinas, the mediaeval Catholic theologian, sensitivity was the basis of all virtue, and was a distinct characteristic of humanity. To fully realize your humanity you must be sensitive and cultivate sensitivity. Sensitivity to the pain of others is one aspect of this basic virtue, and another is sensitivity to spiritual influences. I think that one of the most spiritually significant stories in the Bible is the story of Elijah in the cave, [1 Kings, 19:1-14.] Elijah has gone to find God at Mount Horeb and has been told to await God's presence. In succession there come a violent wind, an earthquake and a fire, but Elijah does not sense God, but when there comes a gentle breeze Elijah covers his face, as he is aware that God is there. One message of this tale is that spiritual influences are not overwhelming, they are whisperings or gentle breezes, easily ignored in noise and tumult. It is for this reason that spiritual people of all faiths have at times sought out lonely places and silence to meditate and pray. In the Christian tradition the desert experience has been significant as Jesus went to pray in the wilderness before his ,and various hermits have sought lonely places as a personal desert. In Islam, which belongs to the same spiritual stream as Christianity and Judaism, Mohammed prayed on Mount Hira in the desert of Arabia before he had his religious experience.
Another of the qualities which foster faith is humility. Being humble is not thinking and proclaiming oneself lower than others, this is the fake humility of Uriah Heep.It is to be conscious of one's limitations and inadequacies. It is easier to see humility from the standpoint of its opposite, pride. The pride that leads us to boost our egos by putting others down and making them feel small is one kind of pride. There is also the pride that is over-convinced of the rectitude of its own views and the sufficiency of its own powers. There is also the pride that thinks itself guiltless, that excuses itself and is insensitive to the wrongs that its possessor has done. The swollen ego has no place for God and too often substitutes itself for him. It blinds its possessor to that which is greater than himself and traps him in an illusion of self-sufficiency.
These conditions of the spirit are the soil in which belief will grow, as they open the door to religious influences and religious experience. Without them belief is weak or non-existent.
Transformation of the spirit
The late Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian, argued that belief begins within the individual soul. For Rahner every person of all religions and none is offered a basic revelation of God. Every person is touched in their inner depths by the divine presence/power. For thinkers of Rahner's persuasion the role of the church is to make explicit the influence that is implicit in all hearts and minds, for those who open themselves to God. The church is to eliminate barriers to God's influence. He coined the term anonymous Christians to denote those who live by the word but do not accept the Christian faith, though later he was to accept that the term might be counter-productive and possibly offensive to non-Christians. It was certainly not meant offensively. Rahner's view implies that there can be people of faith in all religions and that therefore there is no need for exclusivism, the belief that only my faith contains any truth. Yet Rahner did not go to the other extreme of latitudinarianism, which regards all religions as equal. There are significant differences between faiths and their respective truth claims must be analysed and evaluated.
This means that for Rahner there is a fundamental religious experience in all lives, a sense of the presence of the divine. This religious experience can be enhanced or impeded by positive and negative influences. A culture and community supportive of religion brings it to fruition, whereas unsupportive environments have the opposite effect. The basic sense of the divine in one's heart and mind can be enhanced by a positive lifestyle. Acting according to moral principles or out of charity involves going beyond the limitations of one's ego, and this involves opening to the divine influence in one's life. Christian thinkers are apt to say that in the act of opening onself to love we overcome ego and are opened to God. Conversely, when we act out of egoism we close ourselves to the spiritual influence in our existence.
Many religious people see meaning in their lives and discern divine guidance operating, but this is philosophically unprovable. You cannot on pure philosphical grounds justify without doubt any claim that God has guided you or provides your life with meaning. True, but this misses the point. There is an interplay between outer and inner life. The inner disposition transforms perception of external reality. Yet religious experiences also interact with the inner life and develop it. There can be crisis times in life when an individual deepens their thoughts on reality and moves forward [though sometimes also backwards, there can be failures.] It is only in the light of our interior dispositions that we can discern spiritual meanings and patterns.
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A religious life is certainly not free from tensions, and there can be difficulties when situations, such as existential challenges such as early death of loved ones challenge one's faith. These situations can either deepen or lessen belief, depending on the individual's response.But the response to the external challenge is met by interiority, what is going on inside the spirit/mind; but simultaneously the inner exists in response to the outer, and without it will be an isolated personal world of daydreams.
I have deliberately avoided the traditional arguments for God's existence, primarily because they would involve my writing a different kind of article, but also because they are to a great extent irrelevant to most people's belief. They are ways in which philosophy dons argue with each other, and they are quite good enough in this respect, but for most people they are abstruse and hard to handle. They certainly give you no grounds for faith in a God who acts in your life and loves you. I say this as one who has a master's degree in philosophy and currently teaches it at college. It is good to know the limitations of the discipline that you practice, though sadly many academics don't. The traditional arguments at best clear the ground for belief. They clear the spring of belief from obstructions, but the source of the belief wells from below