Someone asked me to back all the way up and address the most basic question of theology: Is there a God? So this post will be much less about Mormonism, but more about me, and why I’m a believer.
Plenty of disclaimers to get out of the way, just so you understand where I am coming from.
First, I’m not sure that I always have believed in God, and I can’t point to the day when I decided that I did. But it is an issue that I have struggled with. Moreover, I somewhat suspect that if it were not for the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I might not believe now. Mormon doctrine does not embrace a cloven-footed devil living in a region of unquenchable fires, nor an eternity of winged humans dwelling amid the clouds and doing nothing more than singing praises to God. Mormonism provides what I have found to be a more comprehensible cosmology, without which I would find it more difficult to develop my faith.
Second, I do not believe that atheism is irrational. The world is a chaotic mess, with so much ugliness, meanness and despair that I can understand how a person can look out her window and conclude that no just God could be behind it all. Moreover, most (if not all) of the world’s religions have had their moments when they have done more to contribute to the madness than to restore a sense of sanity. Let’s be honest: Religion has a checkered history.
Third, while I don’t find atheism to be irrational, most atheists with whom I have spoken have been. But I’m not being biased: The same is true of most religious people I’ve talked to. The debate between faith and atheism usually devolves quickly into shrill sound bites and name calling. Neither side seems to understand that the validity of an argument does not depend on the volume of the person making it. As a result, I find atheists and religious fanatics to be equally annoying. The problem, I think, is that each side has agreed that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. As a result, compromising one or the other is seen as surrender. But I think that reasonable men and women can have faith, and I believe that faith, if it is worth anything, should be able to withstand a little scrutiny. If you still insist that the earth was created in six 24-hour periods, for instance, you shouldn’t expect anyone to take you seriously.
So, those prejudices aside, why do I believe? As I said, my belief in God wasn’t a one-day transformation, but rather something that gradually took root, and with the passage of time I realized that I had chosen to believe in God.
And I had come to believe that faith is, in fact, a choice.
Despite claims to the contrary, no one is going to prove either the existence or the absurdity of God. Scientific conclusions are forever tentative, meaning that any scientific theory is subject to change as our understanding of observable events increases. Many of the scientific conclusions of 200 years ago seem backwards and barbaric to our current understanding, and it is only outrageous hubris that would allow us to believe that we have everything sorted out perfectly now.
On the other hand faith is…well, faith. At its core, religion is supernatural (either in sense that it defies the laws of nature or that it follows laws that we do not, as yet, understand). As a result, it doesn’t pretend to be able to prove itself to anyone. Consider, for example, the New Testament stories of Christ. Even if you accept those stories to be true (which I do), you also have to accept that there were countless people who met Christ, talked to Him, and watched Him perform miracles, but were convinced of nothing. Even direct observation of His ministry was not sufficient for people to develop faith. Instead, that faith developed from the inside out.
Thus, while the arguments of either side of the “God debate” might lead us to believe that one side or the other is more likely right, the debate never closes with a winner. Ultimately, you are left to make a choice. Choose to believe in the existence of God–and all that goes with it–or choose to believe that there is no such creature–and all that goes with that. Agnosticism in not a third option, because it is no decision at all. It is merely the acknowledgment that there is no ultimate proof either way. Agnosticism does not engage the question, but rather gives up, shrugs, and reaches for the remote control.
My choice to believe is based on a number of things, likely more than I can account for in this post, even if I do allow it to become longer than most. But some factors have played a bigger role than others.
First, I choose to believe because my father believed. Now, before you object that this proves that religion is nothing more than a continuation of family traditions, hear me out. I don’t believe because my father told me to; rather, I believe because my father was the smartest man I ever knew, and he was a believer. His faith helped me to understand that faith and intelligence can comfortably coexist. Much of the appeal of atheism is its arrogance, the smug notion that belief is unbecoming as we become educated and put away childish imaginations of God. Atheism crowns us nature’s greatest accident, the smartest critters in the galaxy. But my dad was one of countless people I have known who are highly educated and unquestionably rational, but who can still leave room for God in their understanding of the universe. He and others like him freed me from the assumption that faith is a betrayal of intelligence and reason.
Second, I choose to believe because the concept of an accidental universe is, to me, far more incomprehensible than the idea of God. Atheism carries with it certain conclusions that I just can’t get my mind around. At the top of the list is the necessary conclusion that nothing matters. If I am just an accident of nature, springing up from nothingness and irrevocably destined to return to it, then nothing I do in life is of any consequence. There is no right or wrong, because every law on which those concepts are based are the constructs of highly developed monkeys. Why strive for anything noble, virtuous, or heroic, if our character dies with us? To me, embracing meaninglessness places us on the road to collective anarchy and personal insanity.
Third, I choose to believe because I can choose to believe. To borrow from The Elephant Man, I am not an animal. I am capable of love, which leads me to self-sacrifice. I possess imagination, which permits me to see things not as they are, but as they might be. I can embrace hope, which allows me to imagine that tomorrow will be better than today. I laugh, I weep, I worry, and I choose. I can weigh my options and decide upon a course of action, even though the direction I choose may be self-destructive or foolish. I can be overwhelmed by visible beauty and moved by music. And I have something inside me that yearns for the existence of God, that reaches out for protection, comfort and wisdom. I know that I have a soul because there is so much that speaks to it.
Fourth, I choose to believe because I have found joy in believing. To me, faith is a tested hypothesis. When I have embraced doubt over belief, I have experienced less joy. Fear, anxiety and depression were waiting for me on the other side of that door. Faith, on the other hand, has given me a richer life: I love more deeply, I care more sincerely, and I hold up better under the weight of a difficult world. If a belief in God increases my joy and improves the quality of my life, then choosing to believe is the most rational decision I can make. I make no claim to be able to answer every question about God. But I know what has worked for me.
Fifth, I choose to believe because I have found power in believing. Continuing down the path of admitted subjectivity, as I get older and interact with a larger number of people under a variety of circumstances, I have found that people of faith are people of power. In my experience, people of faith (note that I do not say “religious people,” as the terms are not always synonymous) carry with them a nearly tangible strength of character that I believe comes from experiencing the world more deeply. I believe it has something to do with having discovered that life has meaning, and it is the result of striving to emulate a higher ideal. Perhaps what I am trying to express is as simple as this: The people who have had the greatest impact for good in my life have been believers, and I have made the choice that I want to be like them.
Finally, I choose to believe because of the reality of inexplicable events. Actually, that puts it too mildly. I choose to believe because I have seen miracles. Whether it be a small prompting that leads a person to do something of immense benefit to someone else, an inexplicable recovery from illness, or a moment of divine preservation, I have had too many experiences for which faith provides more answers than reason. Some of them have made profound impacts upon my life. Others have saved it. All of them have provided an echoing testimony of God’s existence.
I understand the objection that these reasons for choosing to believe in God are not measurable, predictable, objective standards, and as a result they come nowhere near meeting a scientific standard. But I have experienced what I have experienced, and I have felt what I have felt. To deny those things would, for me, be more delusional than to believe.