by Jay Johansen | Oct 30, 2011
When people discuss religion, they often say things such as, "I like to believe that ...". For example, "I like to believe that everyone will go to Heaven." Similarly, people will reject a religious doctrine with words like, "I can't believe in a God who would order people to be killed." You often hear advice to the effect of, "You should choose a religion that appeals to you. Find a religion that satisfies you and makes you feel good."
I find such comments and advice baffling. What God did in the past, what his criteria are for sending people to Heaven or Hell, or for that matter whether God even exists, are not matters of opinion, subject to your feelings. Whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla is a matter of opinion. I may prefer one and you the other. But God either exists or he does not exist. Whether you want him to exist or wish that he existed is irrelevant to the factual question.
People do not normally apply this sort of thinking to other subjects. You don't normally hear people say, "I like to believe that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius," or, "It makes me feel good to believe that cell phone signals can travel through walls." Rather, we believe these things because we have seen them demonstrated and are convinced that they are true. Of course we believe many things without having seen them for ourselves. But still, people don't say, "I refuse to believe that Uranium-235 is radioactive because then it might hurt people and I don't like that idea." Rather, they believe it is true because their school textbook said that scientists had proven this by experiment, and they trust that the author is knowledgeable and has no reason to lie about it. People don't normally suppose that whether or not they like a fact has anything to do with whether that fact is true.
To take it to an extreme, you rarely hear someone say, "I'd like to believe that I can fly", and then go up to a roof top and jump off. But when people do say and do such things, we call them "insane".
So why, when it comes to questions of religion, do people suddenly suppose that what they would like to believe has anything to do with what is true?
People sometimes say that religion is different because unlike, say, science, it is impossible to prove a religious belief true or false. But we can still study the evidence for and against. For example, we can study historical evidence that supports or contradicts events described in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, or whatever. To the extent that it is impossible to ultimately prove it one way or the other ... so what? Suppose someone is accused of committing a murder. Sometimes the evidence is inconclusive: There are no eyewitnesses, the circumstantial evidence is meager, etc. Regardless, the suspect either committed the crime or he did not. Maybe no one but the suspect himself -- and the real killer, if the suspect is innocent -- will ever know for sure. That doesn't change the fact that there is an ultimate truth, whether we can know it or not.
Some people say that they find the God of the Old Testament cruel and capricious, and that they just can't believe in a God who would condemn people to Hell or order that people be killed. It is rational to investigate whether the events described in the Bible really happened: That is a question of history. It is reasonable to debate whether his actions as described are justice or cruelty: That is a matter of opinion. But it is not rational or reasonable to believe or disbelieve on the basis of our opinions about the justice or lack thereof.
If you find the thought of spending eternity in Hell frightening, you may rationally seek to find out what God demands that you do to escape this fate. You may rationally sink into despair at the thought that this incredibly powerful being seeks to harm you and you are powerless to defend yourself. But it is irrational to suppose that you can wish God out of existence.
© 2011 by Jay Johansen