The root of unbelief

The Incredulity of Saint ThomasI’m going to break from the normal recipe here and discuss something I’ve encountered recently which has left me feeling a bit disappointed. It is not uncommon to find Christian commentary where a lack of belief in God is said to be rooted in some underlying emotional response, usually either disdain for the moral implications of Christianity or a stubborn insistence on wanting to be in control of one’s life (aka pride). The same is often said of unbelief’s more palatable cousin, doubt. I know this is nothing new and I have seen it many times before but these recent encounters compelled me to comment.

The most recent exposure came in listening to the Unbelievable podcast where Christian philosopher Jeff Cook argued that unbelief (and belief, for that matter) is a product of desire. The direction of the podcast often wandered and I never felt like the point was adequately explained so when I went to look for a better explanation I found that his thesis looked to be at least in part inspired by a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is” (Pensees 12).

A couple additional recent encounters came from reading Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith. In chapter 8 he quotes Lynn Anderson as saying “I personally think all unbelief ultimately has some other underlying reason. Sometimes a person may honestly believe their problem is intellectual, but actually they haven’t sufficiently gotten in touch with themselves to explore other possibilities”. Strobel then introduces the next chapter, the conclusion, with a quote from Ravi Zacharias, “A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God”.

I also had a vague recollection of related statements in some of William Lane Craig’s podcasts or debates, so I went looking and found a Reasonable Faith Q&A article littered with similar sentiments.

In the Case for Christ, Strobel himself also repeatedly infers that this was the primary roadblock for him. On multiple occasions he openly admitted that he did not want to believe Christianity primarily because he did not want to give up his immoral lifestyle. These statements stood out to me because they felt hollow. So let me explain.

What about me?

I’m not opposed to the idea of God. I generally agree with most of the moral principles encouraged by the Christian church. I would prefer that there be an afterlife. I see great value in living a “Christian life” – giving, serving, loving, forgiving, communing, hoping. I’m not a control freak, maybe even a bit of a pacifist. I’m currently inclined to believe in a form of determinism, which one could argue is perhaps more humbling than a Christian view of libertarian free will and surrender to God.

I think I could probably go on for a while, but I hope you get the point. In my introductory post I said that I started this journey because “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to accept ignorance as my position on so many matters”. The only emotional component there is the discomfort I feel when I deliberately look past evidence that challenges my beliefs. I am not motivated by a desire to be free from the shackles of a god who imposes himself on my life. I have never viewed Christianity that way and could probably give you a good theological argument to back it up. Psychoanalyze all you want, but I feel like I’m being as honest as I possibly can. The only desire that I am motivated by is the desire for truth.

Mr. Cook is correct to say that much of the “new athiest” propaganda contains emotional appeals to the undesirable aspects of religion and the god of the old testament but, in my experience, that is not a fair representation of people’s primary reasons for unbelief. Even if we take the undesirables into account, I would argue that the weight of those claims lies not in the emotional response but in the fact that they are contradictory to the more broadly accepted character of God; and contradiction is evidence that something is amiss.

It’s probably true that those who claim that unbelief is grounded in an emotional desire would concede that it does not apply to everybody. I can appreciate that, but here’s the thing: I don’t think that I am the exception. For those who imply that most unbelievers have emotional reasons for their unbelief, where is the evidence to back that up? When I peruse the seemingly infinite forums and discussions where the God debate rages on, it appears to me that unbelievers typically explain their position as arising from an intellectual argument. Why not take that at face value? Certainly there are unbelievers for whom their worldview is primarily driven by emotion, but I’m deeply skeptical that they are even close to the majority.

Turning the Tables

I think that this claim is often made in Christian circles because it offers an explanation for why somebody does not accept what is so readily apparent to the believer. In essence, the claimant is saying “The evidence for God is overwhelming – you must have some ulterior motive for not believing.” The implication here is that the unbeliever is deliberately turning a blind eye to the evidence because they don’t like where it leads. I would like to suggest, however, that perhaps this is exactly what the claimant is doing.

Could it be that the Christians who makes this claim are, at the core, primarily interested in reassuring themselves that they’re right? Could it be that they are seeking to reaffirm their position by asserting that the evidence is so strong that nobody could rationally reject it? Could it be that the possibility of a poorly evinced faith is so uncomfortable that it stirs them to claim that it is the opposing view, not they themselves, who are emotionally driven? Could it be that the claimant is simply unwilling to admit that they are doing the very thing that they accuse the unbeliever of – believing more on the strength of emotion than on the strength of the evidence?

Of course, all the same questions could be asked of the unbeliever but that just serves to point out the futility of the claim. I am on this journey because I do not see that the evidence for Christianity is overwhelming. I did not arrive at this point by following some gut reaction – I have given substantial consideration to countless arguments and data and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. So, yes, it bothers me when somebody implies that there’s something subversive behind it all. If that’s what you think is going on then I would like to suggest that you take a moment to go look in the mirror.

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