This is a post by Keith Parker, who is a contributor. Enjoy!
Staring into the star-filled sky at night, it is difficult not to question how all of the celestial bodies, including ours filled with life, came to be. Some opt to believe in an entirely chance occurrence, others look to the divine, and still others attempt to fuse the two. When someone asks a person if they believe in God, they are asking a more complicated question than they realize, often because they themselves have a firm belief one way or another. There are many variables to be considered within a person’s religious views: there are different forms of belief, what one might call the difference between true belief and internal belief, and there are also different degrees of belief, such as the difference between a deistic believer and a spiritualist. These factors can make a simple sentence into a very complicated matter.
True belief is when something makes sense to the believer; it’s true because there is plenty of evidence to believe it. In science, everything we know, no matter how much evidence has supported it, is based in belief. Gravity has not been proven to exist, yet every time we get out of bed we test the hypothesis, and our results agree with the theory. One may say that children have true belief in Santa Claus: they wait anxiously each year for the holiday season to come, generally start behaving in a way more conducive to receiving presents around the end of November, and run out into the room with the Christmas tree early in the morning to validate that yes, once again, Santa Claus showed up. Many claim to have witnessed evidence of God, much like a child witnessing Santa on Christmas morning. But eventually there is a moment of truth – whether by parental intervention or personal realization – that someone has been pretending to be old Saint Nick; there is typically no such intervention of anyone admitting to impersonating God or gravity.
Of course, whether the evidence actually supports true belief in God is a controversial subject. Plenty of people have posted articles, blogs or even published books on the subject trying to show beyond a reasonable doubt that their hypothesis was correct; that their belief or disbelief in God is ultimately irrefutable. This is not because so many people are pretending to be true believers where they are not – although there are certainly many members of both sides of the divine debate who do just that – it is because the data collected can, in fact, be interpreted in different ways. With this in mind, there are various levels of intelligence that go into determining one’s true belief; put bluntly, there are smart and stupid true-believing atheists, and smart and stupid true-believing followers of religion. There may be a right and wrong answer to this debate, but just because some people don’t have educated means of deciding what to believe does not make the determinations of others any less valid.
Internal belief is best described as the Bible defined faith: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” However, this is not always something hoped for, and may not be so different from a phobia, brought on by early childhood influences. In psychology, “A phobia may result when a formerly neutral stimulus (such as a white rat) becomes associated with a fear-producing stimulus (such as a loud noise). Through this association, the neutral stimulus becomes a feared stimulus…” (Davis, Palladino, and Christopherson, 2013). As an individual may have acquired a fearful respect of the divine early in life, similarly to how a person develops a phobia. Acrophobics, for example, have an intense fear that if they are standing on a ledge overlooking a long drop, they will have an uncontrollable impulse to jump to their death, despite all the rational mind’s reason to believe that this will not happen.
Similar to this are those who have a true belief in the inexistence of God, and may even have a working understanding of the laws of nature that seem to make God’s necessity obsolete. Yet, there is always a troublesome feeling that something is wrong with this. Maybe God is real, and He just created a fantastic universe with very competent laws; maybe I should be observing all the divine laws in religion, and, most importantly, maybe I’ll go to hell when I die if I don’t. This phenomenon is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”: an unsettling feeling that results from a conflict between two thoughts, or between a thought and an action, going on in the brain at the same time, which can only be resolved by changing one of them to agree with the other. The problem with this is that there is no absolute way to resolve this dissonance.
Then on the other side, there are religious observers who truly believe that the evidence supports the existence of God: the world was created, man was created, and the whole universe was put here for our benefit. Yet, these people cannot shake the feeling that they are grasping for arguments, that there is nothing really out there but rocks, laws of nature and pure luck. Or, they may find that their particular religious document is not a good reflection of the reality that is observable, and cannot truly put their faith in it, try though they may.
Another variable to consider in the question “Do you believe in God?” is what we might call the degree of belief. Generally, the person asking the question refers to God in a deistic sense, even though the use of the word has expanded quite a bit, if it was ever truly limited to meaning a deity in the first place. Of course, to complicate things more, there is more than the simple existence or inexistence of God to be considered, but to which god the question refers, and exactly how to determine where the line is separating one god from another.
Such gods include those of the Christian faith, Islam, the multiple gods in Hinduism, or any of a large number of other deistic religions. Most prominently, aside from names, what separates one of these gods from another is the deity’s commandments to His people. Consider this: two people sit side by side every Sunday, listening to the same sermons, reading the same Bible, yet one believes that a victim of sexual assault that becomes pregnant should have an abortion, and the other believes that abortion is murder and equivalent to playing God. These two people have separate religious beliefs, each representing their version of God, and at least one of them is wrong. In a monotheistic view, if one God permits having an abortion, and one God condemns it, then they are two different Gods, and the respective beliefs in them are two different religions, however similar they may be. Even then, there are denominations within faiths that claim that one sect is not a true group of believers. One that comes to mind is the Baptists, who commonly believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not true Christians, and therefore not eligible to enter heaven. Even within the same church, there are discrepancies in beliefs, and what some consider minor differences in opinion, others see as pivotal points that separate sinner from saint.
Then there are the spiritualists: those who don’t believe in God but believe in god. Any people who fall in the category of believing in god, but not believing that god is a separate being could be considered spiritualists. Many do not consider this when asking a person if they believe in God. Spiritualists may believe in magic – a source of energy that can be used for personal power, not coming from a deity but coming from the universe itself. One may believe that god is a collective consciousness, greater than the sum of all its parts. On a most basic level, god may be simply considered a philosophy: basic notions of right and wrong that do not come from a divine source, but contribute to leading a good life.
So, the straightforward question about whether or not a person believes in God may not be so simple after all. Any combination of the variables mentioned here could impact a person’s beliefs, and there may be more variables that have not been mentioned. There are many other religions and philosophies followed around the world, and – who knows? – maybe even on other worlds. So when taking consideration for what a person’s individual definition of the word “belief” or the word “god” might be, a better question to ask could be, “What are your beliefs about God?” The answer just might surprise you.
Davis, Stephen F., Palladino, Joseph J., Christopherson, Kimberly M. Psychology: Custom Edition for the University of Maine. (2013): Page 490. Print.