Tom Gilson

Do We Really Believe in God?

Series: Living Up To Our Beliefs

Do people really believe in God? That’s the question Bradley Monton asked in a blog entry today. He’s a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, an atheist, and yet somewhat sympathetic toward Intelligent Design. He begins today’s article,

I’ve recently read a couple different pieces arguing that belief in God is less common that it superficially appears — many people who profess belief in God don’t really believe.

The pieces he’s referring to are one by George Rey, who thinks “people who say they believe in God are deceiving themselves,” and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He quotes Dennett,

some people who consider themselves believers actually just believe in the concept of God. … They … think that their concept of God is so much better than the other concepts of God that they should devote themselves to spreading the Word. But they don’t believe in God in the strong sense. (p. 216)

Of course I’m excerpting from Mr. Monton’s excerpts; I’m counting on you reading his own article to get the full sense of how he represents these two writers. Ultimately he doesn’t agree with either of them.

It leads me to wonder just what they have in mind by “believe.” In the excellent book edited by Ravi Zacharias, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, Michael Ramsden writes (p. 138-139),

This conviction is often expressed most politely in the following form: “Michael, I’m so happy that you’re a Christian, and I wish I could believe what you believe, but I can’t.” In my experience, what most people mean by this is: “Michael, I am so happy that you are so happy. There seems to be a joy and completeness in your life that I find attractive. But the reason you are happy is because you are a Christian. In other words, you believe in things that are not true or real.” (Now, what do you call people who believe in things that are not there? The answer is, lunatics.) So what they are saying is, “Michael, you are actually insane. But the main thing is that you are happy and insane. And I am happy that you are happy. As a matter of fact, I’m so desperate to be happy, that I too would embrace insanity just to join you, but I can’t do it. I’ve thought about it, but I just can’t.”

Ramsden’s point here is that faith is not some kind of wishful thinking. To believe in Christ is actually to consider that the message of Christ is really true, that there really is a God, and that Jesus Christ really is his risen Son. It is, moreover (for those who are inclined to look deeply into these matters) to consider it true after having considered the matter from the perspective of evidences and reason in the face of multiple challenges.

It is, in one sense, to consider it the right answer to the question, what is ultimate reality? It is much, much more than this besides. Belief is not merely about considering something the right answer; it is about entering into a trust relationship with a living Person, and arranging one’s life accordingly. Nevertheless it is also not less than what one considers actually to be the right answer to that question.

So the question, “do people really believe in God?” resolves in part to, “do people really, having considered the question as carefully as their abilities permit them to, consider it true that God exists?” The answer of course is yes.

Following a brief discussion on that, Monton moves on to another form of the question that I find very intriguing, because it touches on belief beyond the “right answer” level:

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God, issues that I’ve thought about long before reading Rey and Dennett. For example, people who say they fully believe in God, and fully believe that saved people are going to heaven, are nevertheless really sad when a loved one dies. Why? These theists should believe that the loved one, assuming the loved one is saved too, is in a much better place than Earth. The theists should be happy that the loved one is in a better place — just as I would be happy if my loved one got to go on an amazing vacation.

He could have stopped after just that first clause. How can we Christians reconcile our behavior with our professed belief in God? Are we as loving, as just, as devoted to truth, as worshipful toward God, as humble as our beliefs call for us to be? Of course not. We’re all on a path, at different places and moving at different speeds, and often our behavior is at odds with our beliefs. You could hardly ask for a better short explanation of our problem and the solution than what’s in 1 John 1:8-10 through 1 John 2:1-2:*

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The truth is, we mess up. Our one hope is the loving grace of God through Jesus Christ.

But what about grieving for the departed? I don’t know how much experience Mr. Monton has with various grieving families. Those with more experience than I say they do see a difference between believers and non-believers, broadly speaking (certainly there are exceptions). The difference is not so much in the degree of sadness but in the degree of hope. My mother died two years ago. I still get a heart-stab thinking about it. It was hard to say good-bye, and it’s still hard. But it’s not a sadness of desperation, and in fact there is joy in it. I am very, very glad for Mom—even though I miss her.

In a few short years my son and daughter will (presumably) be going off to college. I’ll be very happy for them, very pleased and proud—and I’m quite sure I’ll blubber like an idiot, because I know I’ll miss them. That’s the kind of sadness true believers feel when other true believers go to be with the Lord. We’re sad because we miss them. Jesus himself wept when Lazarus died (John 11:28-37, including the shortest verse in the Bible).

So the question of Christian grieving is not so hard to answer after all. Had Monton just stopped after that one clause, “how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God,” he would have had his finger pointed at the really tough problem, the one that continually concerns me more than all the logical questions that have ever been thrown at me.

*I’ve split up that reference for the sake of link software that can’t understand it written out as one.

Series Navigation (Living Up To Our Beliefs):Monton Responds >>>

6 thoughts on “Do We Really Believe in God?

  1. Beautiful post, Tom. I have one issue though…for the life of me I can’t figure out the context of the final paragraph.

    So this question is not so hard to answer from a Christian perspective at all. Had he just stopped after that one clause, he would have had his finger pointed at the really tough one, the one that continually concerns me more than all the logical questions that have ever been thrown at me.

    Which question? Who is ‘he’ and what clause are you referring to? What is the ‘tough one’?

  2. The other (darker) side of this is that those of us that are Christians (philisophical theists) often act as if God deoesn’t exist or doesn’t care ie. we trust in our own ability to make decisions & to care for our families. In other words, we may not be philisophical atheists but for all intents and purposes, we are practical atheists.

  3. I much agree with you, Steve. I sometimes struggle with the part about trusting in my own abilities – or worse. We’re all sinners so this kind of thing is to be expected, but certainly not to be tolerated or to get comfortable with. I expect myself to say “I don’t care about doing what God wants” every once in a while (which I sometimes do), but I’m reminded not to tolerate that kind of behavior or get to the point where I’m comfortable thinking it.

    God gives grace to the humble. My job is to be humble.

  4. Steve, thanks for encouraging me even when you couldn’t figure out what I was saying! That was gracious of you. I’ve edited the paragraph, and I hope it makes sense now.

  5. Just piping up to second the response to the ‘why grieve over the departed?’ question. Likening death to a vacation in the Christian worldview is a gross oversimplification for the reasons stated and more. Imagine a loved one going on an exciting and pleasant space trip for 30 years. I doubt seeing that person off would be without sadness, even deep sadness, even if it were assured that after 30 years they would be back.

    One thing being implied here that I reject is the idea that, if a person ever experiences doubt or confusion, they aren’t really a theist. If a person accepts the possibility, even likelihood of God, but isn’t utterly certain, are they therefore not a theist? I think this question is actually one of the largest hidden issues confronting the modern church.

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