Why I Became an Atheist 05 – Bad reasons for belief (Part II)
NOTE: This post is part of a series in which I am blogging my way through John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.
Yesterday, I began evaluating John Loftus’ list of bad reasons for belief. Today, I want to continue that evaluation. Here’s his list again. Belief…
- from the need to be grateful to someone
- from the need for a God
- from weak intellectual foundations
- from the need to be committed
- in hopes of personal growth
- because of unruly emotions
- because of the fear of doubting
- believing from not being inquisitive enough
- believing from giving up too soon
So, let’s continue from #5…
5. Belief in hopes of personal growth
Again, I have to say that you can’t FORCE yourself to believe, and these secondary benefits of religion, are not bad reasons to investigate or participate in religion, but I’m not sure that such participation or identification is true belief – I mean, ask many Catholics if they believe that Jesus died for our sins and you’ll be surprised to find that many don’t really believe that they are sinful!
Of course, personal growth takes place inside and outside of religious frameworks, and to believe that it only happens within a religious framework may be why some people become comfortable with a religious world view. This is certainly no reason to avoid being skeptical, as if losing religion means losing the opportunity for personal development.
6. Belief because of unruly emotions
This is a strange way to put this, and again, I wish John had explained a little more so I didn’t have to put words in his mouth. But let me take some educated guesses here.
Some people make emotional commitments to God, for instance, after a brush with death. One of the most famous was the Reformer Martin Luther, who became a monk after being sorely frightened in a lightning storm.
The event which radically changed the course of Luther’s life took place near Stotterheim on July 2, 1505. The happy go lucky law student was altered into a humble monk searching for God’s grace. Luther had recently completed a Master’s degree and started his law studies at the University of Erfurt. He was on his way back to Erfurt after having visited his parents when he was caught in a terrible thunder storm a few hours outside of Erfurt. Lightning struck near him and he was thrown to the ground by the air pressure it created. At this moment he called to Saint Anne: “I will become a monk!”
More about this tomorrow when I go through my own list of bad reasons for belief.
But perhaps, by “unruly emotions” he means people who make rash decisions based on being easily swayed by emotional appeals. Certainly, many preachers know how to “play a crowd.” Pentecostal preachers are famous for their mesmerizing cant, and their penchant for whipping the audience into a frenzy of emotion. While enthusiasm for their subject matter is certainly warranted, passing intellectually and logically poor messages past people’s intellects through the use of emotional tactics is often what goes on in churches, and is really an ethical misdemeanor.
7. Belief because of fear of doubting
I would agree with Loftus that fear is a bad motivator for belief, or for failing to evaluate faith claims made by anyone.
Some churches teach that God does not like anyone to question or doubt Him (or the preacher, conveniently!). People believe, or feign belief, out of fear being rejected or reprimanded by God. The specter of eternal hell also lies as a fear behind entertaining doubt – not that God would punish doubt, but that doubt might lead to unbelief, which of course, would lead to hell.
However, there is a proper and beneficial role for fear to play in faith. That role is to wake us from apathy of real danger or consequences.
When we explain to our children the consequences of, for example, drunk driving, we are warning them of real danger. We are not trying to stop their fun or manipulate them into obedience.
If hell is real, then alerting people to the possible consequences of their actions is a worthy endeavor. However, this does not mean that people must BELIEVE because of such warnings, but rather, they should INVESTIGATE the claims with seriousness and openness.
This use of fear is alluded to in the following passage:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10a, NKJV)
Notice the word ‘beginning.’ Fear of real consequences is useful in alerting us – an initial motivator, but not the ongoing motivator. The ongoing motivator would be the desire to act wisely, not the constant fear of consequences.
8. Believing from not being inquisitive enough
Unfortunately, this could be said from either an atheist or religious perspective – not questioning what you are given, or believing the first pursuasive argument you’ve heard is, of course, foolish.
But I suspect that hidden in this statement is a slight against religionists in general – that is, unlike atheists, they are just not intelligent enough to be intellectually inquisitive. And, I have to admit, sadly, that is often the case. However, it is also the case that many of our greatest scientists and intellectuals in history were ardent people of faith (not just cultural religionists), and throughout history, there are very strong intellectual traditions in Christianity and among believers in every conceivable intellectual discipline.
This touches on the supposed antipathy between faith and reason, which upon any kind of serious investigation, can be shown to be largely fabricated, and only a reality among real extremists. Even Martin Luther’s infamous quote ‘Reason is the Devil’s whore’ does not mean that faith is opposed to reason – he was actually saying that reason apart from faith will lead you to wrong conclusions about God, man, and reality.
But I agree with Loftus here again – failing to be intellectually inquisitive may be a part of why some people never venture from faith – or agnosticism as well. For some interesting discussion on faith and reason, see
9. Believing from giving up to soon
Again, I am unsure exactly what Loftus means by this, so let me guess. This probably means that many people default to a “God in the gaps” explanation for the places where science has not yet provided answers. Don’t know why it thunders? God did it. Don’t know how the universe began? God did it. Can’t figure out why you can’t sleep? God is keeping you awake.
If this is Loftus’ meaning, I mostly agree. However, where I think this argument fails is when we discuss design in nature. In fact, the assumption of design in nature has in many ways fostered the hope that science could unravel the design and understand it.
Even more, our greatest discoveries are still often found by figuring out how ‘nature’ has solved problems or created novel biological machines and mechanisms.
Should I believe in God or attribute to God the things I can’t understand? As a general rule, NO, that’s usually just superstition. However, when looking at the grandness of the cosmos and the design thereof, such a claim is not as outlandish, and certainly, the existence of a super-intelligence should be considered as a rational explanation in light of the impossibility of random chance producing such marvels.
In most of these points, I am in agreement with Loftus – there are bad reasons to believe, or to lack skepticism. However, I think that one huge disconnect here is that, while a few of these might actually be good reasons to consider the existence of God or theism, the real motive for belief is something that he never touches on – that of believing the message because your intuition and conscience confirm them as true.
I find that atheism is often really poor at addressing these subjective functions of the human soul/spirit, and is generally dismissive and unhelpful in even trying to understand them, let alone harness them as part of our epistemic toolkit.
While intellectual facts can preclude belief or open the door to it, they can’t really create it. Belief is actually a subjective matter of the heart, not just a mental assent based on facts. Sure, facts can buttress faith, but they just don’t create it. As I wrote in Are you a Christian because of your experiences, or because of logic?
To some extent, I think that practially and doctrinally speaking, coming to faith is by definition an experience of intuition and conscience first, and mind later….Faith is always a leap beyond reason. While intellectual arguments may keep you FROM faith, in the end, pro-faith logic can only take you to the DOOR of faith. It is still a leap of trust beyond the reach of pure reason.
Tomorrow, I will go through my own list of bad reasons to believe.