I had dinner with my wife at the home of a married couple we're friends with tonight. I relate a ton with the husband. We met by fluke at a retreat in the early stages of my doubt. Having never met him before, I ended up finding out that he was a doubter, too! It was actually pretty amazing. We talked for quite some time afterward and I related with him quite a bit, especially since no one had yet even come close to identifying with my doubts and difficulties. Mostly I'd felt like others thought something was wrong with me or that I was somehow broken. We did have a somewhat different approach; he believes despite his doubts, while because of my doubts, I do not believe. We're both studying a reasonable amount in this area and are not certain.
Anyway, after dinner we got into a healthy discussion of our current pros/cons for belief/non-belief (it's been about 4 months since we last caught up). We went back and forth quite a bit about all kinds of topics like the fall, morality, the origins of life, whether the gospels are reliable/accurate, what belief really is (if it's chosen or involuntary), whether god could do any better at revealing himself, and so on. We covered quite a bit of ground over about 1-1.5hrs of discussion.
As perhaps is not surprising, neither of us were really convinced by each other's arguments. They went, approximately, like this:
- Him: how does atheism/naturalism explain x?
--- Me: I don't know, but it doesn't need to explain it at the moment, nor does not knowing establish god's existence via lack of explanation
- Me: I find x highly problematic or improbable (insert fall, resurrection, immaterial mind/soul, etc.)
--- Him: you don't have to believe x literally; (or) what about near death experiences?; (or) the resurrection is the most attested event in history and solidly backed by the gospels as evidence; (or) how do you explain the desire to be better than ourselves, our moral compass, appreciation for beauty/art?, etc.
I'm sure you all are aware of how these conversations go...
Getting to the meat... I've been undergoing my quest for god for about 8 months now and I find this conversation extremely typical; typical of what happens if you read two smart apologists on opposing sides of an issue, typical of debates, typical of blog comments... just typical all around. Both sides present what they find convincing themselves, and each opposing side says, "No thanks. I've considered that. Have you noticed the flaw with it here? Or have you read so-and-so's rebuttal? Now that's taken care of, consider my apologetic here..." and both sides continue on like this.
I'm no better and I think my friend would agree that we both are reasonably intelligent and yet neither of us found the other very convincing. In fact, we both probably walked away thinking our own arguments were stronger.
What really happened, though? What really happened, if I'm honest with myself, is that we just regurgitated arguments that have already existed in some form for hundreds of years if not longer. We simply presented what we've run arcross in our research as groundbreaking and convincing to ourselves, failing to really see that 1) it's already been thought/discussed, 2) it's probably already been seen by the other in some form, and 3) millions have held their beliefs in spite of (or because of) said argument/evidence.
Both sides can't be right, which brings me to the motivator to figure out who's wrong: pain, suffering, and overall muck.
I've literally found it awful on all kinds of levels that after living a life fully for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, I would suddenly encounter convincing evidence that it might have all been a lie. I never saw it coming. I didn't ask for it. I wasn't living in sin as to deserve something like this. I went down to FL to visit my parents, prayed my rosary during plane takeoffs, and even had my mini Bible with me for prayer on the plane... yet I came back from FL an extremely doubt-plagued quasi-Christian. For whatever reason, my "dogmatic shell" was cracked and I was able to question for the first time... ever. I think this occurrence is significant and don't actually think that most believers are even able to consider that their beliefs might be wrong. I don't fault them for that, either. I am not convinced it's a conscious choice. With the "shell" intact, the idea that Christianity could be false does not even enter the realm of possibilities. Atheists could very well be in the same boat if they have no justification for their stance. I do consider anyone who has "switched sides" to be less suspect. Maybe that's unjustified, but, for example, anyone who tells me that they believe(d) in Christianity and can demonstrate familiarity with philosophical, scientific, and historical objections as well as their responses has my immediate recognition as being above average.
In any case, eight months later I'm pretty much where I was shortly after FL, though quite a bit more knowledgeable. Currently I simply don't find the case for Christianity strong in light of the inconsistencies/improbabilities I see. I find that my choices are between:
- Non-belief/atheism/agnosticism in which I simply have to bite the bullet and admit that I don't know a lot of shit (e.g. origins of life, consciousness, and morality)
- Christianity in which I have to believe many things that I currently find extremely unlikely along with things that think I'll never be able to defend conclusively. Thus I'll be forced to say, "That's just what I believe" or "It's just a mystery" or whatever else along these lines.
Given this... how would you proceed? I think I can only side with non-belief at the present moment. But there's obviously many who believe because they think there's a slew of rational evidence supporting their position and very little supporting non-belief (naturalism, atheism, whatever).
We're obviously in some type of stalemate. No one seems to be winning. Where is this going? What will be the resolution? No one is really coming up with any new arguments, but probably just regurgitating what they've read elsewhere and think is strong (myself included), and yet each side finds them falling on deaf ears.
In other words, both sides think they're right and both sides think they have the majority of evidence and argument on their side. What in the world are we going to do about this?
I've tried debates, blogs, books, thinking, praying, journaling, and so on. I have found all routes frustrating. Smart people abound, blogs abound, debates are short and both sides can sound very convincing though mutually exclusive, prayer has not worked but apparently there's good reasons for that, and so on. Since all mediums seem to be a huge assortment of ping-pong matches in which evidence and arguments are slammed back and forth with big paddles... what is the path forward to agreement? Someone is wrong and we need to find out who ASAP.
What are suggestions for how to actually go about this? Sponsor a week-long conference where all the big-heads get together and lay everything out on the table? A ridiculously cited, direct statement/rebuttal blog posting with the top 10 intellectuals on either side of the debate? A 5 year long mini-series where each of the various criteria for belief/non-belief are evaluated step-by-step? Heck, a 5 year long mini-series just on one topic like whether argument X succeeds?
If nothing else, I at least think taking a deep breath and admitting, "This is an extremely murky water I'm swimming in; those seeing different things than me might not be intentionally X ( X = hackneyed theist/atheist)," might at least make this journey more enjoyable even if it contributes nothing to productivity or fruitfulness. I simply want to be aligned with reality. I'd like to actually make progress, not spin my wheels in name-calling. I'd like to make this about simply finding out what's real. I don't care who's deluded, an idiot, stubborn, hard-of-heart, or whatever else...
Our focus should be on what describes the world most accurately, not on psycho-analyses of our opponents, predicting their level of education, or any other garden-variety internet attacks. Let's drop the baggage in hopes that we can reach a verdict faster.
I'm curious to hear from those who read this:
- Am I silly? Will we ever reach a solid conclusion about this or should I let it go?
- What are your top suggestions for systematically establishing who is right and who is wrong?
- What progress are we really making if it's evident that nothing really seems convincing except for the "home team's" own evidence/arguments?
- What even forms belief? Is belief formed and then retroactively supported by evidence or does evidence allow or lead one to believe?