Why I am Convinced God Exists: Introduction

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In the spring of 2013, I set out on an intellectual journey. I realized that I hadn’t ever really engaged with the question of God’s existence for myself. Oh, I had learned a few arguments about God’s existence, but I hadn’t wrestled with the question on my own terms, to see if it really is rational and reasonable for me to believe it.

I had to bring my own mind to bear on the problem for a couple of reasons. First, as a reasonably intelligent person and a trained social scientist, I believed that I possessed a mind capable of addressing the question. Second, as a Christian who takes the Bible text seriously, I had to be obedient to key principles contained in scripture. One was Jesus’ own words, paraphrasing the ancient Hebrew pillars of The Law:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NAS; see also Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30)

I knew that Jesus had added “all your mind” to the Hebrew text (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 13:3), so I reasoned that by saying love God with my mind he probably meant something like, “Apply the intellectual processes and capabilities of your mind for the purpose of loving God.” And while I had long been a student of The Book (that is, The Holy Bible), this wasn’t a topic on which I had focused. Another principal is embodied in the verse,

sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [an argument or explanation] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15)

The context for this instruction is the Christian’s likelihood of having to endure suffering and intimidation for the sake of the gospel. As a Christian, then, I had to have arguments and explanations at hand that would enable me to take a stand and defend my own beliefs. Moreover, I’m instructed to do this with gentleness and reverence. I don’t know about you, but I am least likely to be gentle when I feel the least confident in my own abilities and information; when I am simply regurgitating other people’s beliefs and opinions that I agree with, and I get a serious challenge, I tend to react out of frustration and with sarcasm. So I found that I had to get to a place intellectually where I personally owned the argument for myself, and could communicate it to others with a good attitude. Even if some discussion partners would resort to intimidation, my conscience had to be clear (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now, eighteen months later, I can confidently give an answer to the question of God’s existence that reflects my own careful thinking and evaluation of different perspectives. I’ve looked at Christian, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu (among others) answers to difficult questions, and used some basic logic and my professional training in research methods and causal logic. I make no grand claims to be a physicist, logician, molecular biologist, geologist, philosopher, or theologian. I’m just a reasonably intelligent guy thinking systematically about one of the most important questions with which humanity has to deal.

I acknowledge that the way I tend to approach the questions had to have been influenced by some of the apologetics to which I had already been exposed prior to this journey, and so I already know that there are critiques of every argument and line of reasoning that make sense to me, and I’m okay with that. But here’s the thing: No one person has sufficient knowledge and expertise about every field and subfield that are relevant to this conversation. We all have knowledge and explanatory gaps in which we defer to trusted experts, and I’m no different.

How much information is enough?

As a political science professor I study people’s voting decisions—that is, why they prefer one candidate over another and why they do (or do not) vote. While I might think people ought to gather complete and perfect information about candidates, policy differences and their impacts, I now know empirically that no one does this. People simply acquire enough information to make a choice: sometimes it is given to them, sometimes they happen upon it accidentally, and sometimes they intentionally seek it out.[1] Importantly, almost no citizen does independent original research about candidates and policies. Almost everyone relies upon experts and other trustworthy compilers of information from which they obtain their needed information. Some people acquire pure propaganda, others try to find relatively “objective” sources, while others rely on heuristics (information shortcuts) that enable them to make a quick judgment that has a good chance of being accurate.[2]

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Why Even Bother?

Finally, what did I actually hope to accomplish in this process? First, for myself, I wanted to think systematically about whether God exists, because that piece of information has consequences for many other areas of my life—especially how I treat other people. Second, I wanted to be able to evaluate whether a rational, thinking person can come to a reasonable, logical and coherent conclusion that conforms with reality as we know it. To put it another way, can an intelligent, thoughtful person come to an informed coherent conclusion about whether God exists and answer “Yes”?

If, after thinking intelligently and critically I could come to the conclusion that God exists (or least probably exists), then I no longer have to feel insecure or threatened by skeptics who say theists are stupid, ignorant, and irrational. (The list of highly intelligent people who believed in the God of Christianity is long and impressive, and includes Galileo, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and Francis Collins.) Finally, I wanted to be able to lay out a reasonable case for my conclusions that will hopefully make sense to someone who believes that God doesn’t exist or that is wondering if it’s even rational to do so.

In short, my goal is to describe my journey–what arguments and evidence make the most sense to me. I hope you’ll join me, and find my reasoning…well…reasonable. If you are a current believer in the God of the Bible, I hope you are challenged to undertake this exercise on your own. If you are a current non-believer in God, I hope you will at least find my conclusions reasonable, even if you don’t end up agreeing with me.

The Question I Should Have Been Able to Answer

In 2013 I had a Facebook conversation with an atheist in which I was challenged with a question that, as a long-time Christian, I should have been able to answer. But I couldn’t put together a quick response—that is, I was not prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in me. The simple question was, “What has convinced you that God exists?”

What is Faith?

It was hard to answer because I have always believed that God exists. Even in the years when I rejected the Christian faith, I knew in my heart that God existed. I rejected Christianity in that season of my life not out of rationality but simply out of a desire to live my life as if He didn’t. So I had some homework to do, because I knew enough that if I answered, “I just have always known,” or “by faith,” my answer would be unsatisfactory even to me because faith is not really about how we know things. Rather, faith is the result of experiences and information that give us confidence regarding things for which we don’t have experiences and information. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have faith in my wife’s marital fidelity, that she would not commit adultery. What does “have faith” mean? Does it mean that I just know in my heart that she will not commit adultery? How do I know she won’t? Well, I just know! Isn’t that goofy? I didn’t just meet her and decide she would be faithful to our marriage vows. No, I spent a lot of time getting to know her, watching her behavior, evaluating her character, and talking with her about what marriage means. I thus came to the conclusion that she would not commit adultery in future unknown situations because her character and behavior had given me credible information (from her past) that supported the conclusion.

I will be getting on an airplane to travel to New Orleans this January. I have faith that the plane will get me there. What does that mean? Do I just know that 200,000 pounds of metal will successfully levitate to 30,000 feet above the earth and descend safely a couple of hours later? On what basis would any reasonable person think such a thing? Here is how: I understand that there is a law of gravity and that with an aerodynamic design and a sufficient amount of forward motion, even a 200,000 hunk of metal can be held aloft in a controlled way. I don’t personally understand all of the physics of the thing, but I know that other people do and have designed airplanes to leverage those physical laws in order to make planes work reliably. Moreover, I know a lot of people who have flown on planes, and they testify that it works. Even better, I have personal experience flying; in fact I have flown the Chicago to New Orleans route a couple of times, and made it! Thus I have faith—that is, I trust that even though I don’t understand it all, the physics of flying has a successful track record and works reliably—that the plane I board in Chicago next January will successfully fly me to New Orleans, even though I haven’t taken the flight yet.

To return to the point, saying that I believe that God exists by faith doesn’t mean I just know He exists without or despite any corroborating reasons or evidence. Faith means, as it does in every other situation in which people use the word, a reliance on past evidence, arguments, testimony and experiences that leads me to a conclusion that I can leverage for future situations about which I don’t have information, until I gain better understanding or get to the future. (From a Christian perspective, this is what the meaning of faith is in Hebrews chapter 11.) I develop trust with regard to the unknown future based on the known past; if the known past gives me enough information to trust in the future, it also could give me confidence that explanations exist for things I don’t understand no matter when they occurred.

Obviously, this means that I disagree with the new atheist definition of faith as “belief without proof” or “pretending to know things I don’t know.”[3] I don’t know how planes work and I’m not a psychic, but I know they have worked pretty reliably in the past. I don’t know for sure that every plane will always fly safely, but, on balance, I have faith that in the future planes will generally work as designed. Thus, even though I don’t know a lot else about the future, my belief in future planes working is based on the past evidence, or proof, that planes can and do work.

How would I know?

With all that said, for my own curiosity’s sake I wanted to be really specific and thoughtful and carefully evaluate the evidence, arguments and experiences that lead me to conclude God exists. And, to be completely honest, I simply had never done any real mental work to really understand why I really believed that God really exists. I had even memorized and taught some basic apologetic arguments for God’s existence, but I had never really wrestled with the problem itself, for myself.

As a political scientist, before I collect or analyze data I have to think about the appropriate research methods that are appropriate for finding an answer to a question. For example, if I want to understand presidential decision making in foreign policy, I wouldn’t use a survey of the American public, I would interview the small number of people who have actually observed presidents working through foreign policy decisions.

Thus, regarding the question of God’s existence I had to ask: What evidence or arguments (or both) are even appropriate to address the question of whether God exists? This got me thinking about the standards of evidence that people normally use for making decisions, and that scientists normally use for drawing conclusions about whether a statement or hypothesis has support. The next part of my analysis thus briefly discusses these standards, much of which are familiar to most people.

Then I address different questions that seem to me to be central to the question of how I would know whether God exists. First, what are the possible answers to the question Does God Exist? Second, in what possible kind of reality could God exist? Is it likely that such a kind of reality does exist? Third, what about things I know exist—where did everything come from? Where did I (as a member of humanity) come from? This is the question of origins. Fourth, what about the problem of evil—why do I (along with most humans and cultures) have a nagging feeling—an intuition—that evil is real? And if evil is real, how do I know? And where did it come from? And why do humans have such an overwhelming sense that it matters?

My Conclusion: God Exists

Here is the basic outline of my conclusions. I will share my more detailed thinking on each point as we move forward. Let me say that these statements might sound a bit weird to my Christian friends; the statements might even sound like I’m hedging my bets. But this is how I’m getting to my conclusion without starting with the assumption that God exists.

  1. A force or being or entity that I will call “God” either exists or doesn’t exist, so there is only one true answer to the question.
  2. Logic and evidence lead me to conclude that an immaterial/ spiritual realm almost certainly exists apart from material reality. Additionally, the two realms probably interact with each other. Thus, there is almost certainly a realm in which an immaterial God could exist, and an immaterial God could interact with material reality.
  3. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that the material realm almost certainly had an originating point in time and a source external to itself. Additionally, there is no evidence that life could have originated from non-living matter alone. The force that produced material reality and life must be greater than material reality and the living beings within it. It must be powerful enough to bring every material thing into existence and to impart life into nonliving matter.
  4. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that Evil is real; therefore Good is real. The intuition of good and evil, and the concepts themselves must have a source. It’s quite plausible (though I’m not sure that it’s necessary) that the source exists outside the people or cultures that make nearly universal moral judgments about certain actions or events.

All told, I conclude that it is entirely plausible, if not highly probable, that God exists. In fact, because either God exists or doesn’t exist, the preponderance of the evidence points to God existing rather than not existing. Thus, based on the evidence and logic, I conclude that God exists. This doesn’t quite get me to the God of The Bible, but at least I conclude that God is a highly reasonable and intelligent being, external to the material world, powerful enough to create material reality and life itself, and imbue mankind with an inherent sense of good and evil.

In the next section I will lay out my underlying assumptions in pursuing answers to my questions, as well as addressing the question of the standards of proof for or against God’s existence.

Next: How Could I Know Whether God Exists? My Assumptions

————————

[1] See, for example, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 1957); Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Herbert Simon, “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice,” in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (Wiley, 1957).

[2] Party identification is such a heuristic. A Republican who knows only that one candidate is Republican and the other is a Democrat can make a pretty accurate prediction that on most issues, on balance, the Republican candidate will agree with her, and the Democrat will disagree with her. And she will be right.

[3] Boghossian, Peter. 2013. A Manual for Creating Atheists, chapter 2.