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Paul Obrien Gentle Atheism5

Considering these arguments, assessments, and refutations, do they really play a crucial role in the acceptance or rejection of the belief in God?

I do not think they do. One of the things I hope you take away from these arguments is a feeling that somehow they are all missing the point. Doesn’t it seem true? Many of them are very interesting, but do we really believe what we do based upon them? I have trouble imagining some kind of perfectly neutral individual who is intellectually pressed by this issue and objectively weighs these arguments for and against the existence of God. It just doesn’t seem to happen that way.

Arguing about God in metaphysical terms as we have been in the previous sections is not terribly fruitful nor very honest. These arguments might make us feel better about whichever belief we already hold, in which case they serve to confirm; but if they fail to work, nothing in our belief really changes. At worst, one might feel embarrassed for having supported them in the first place, which might hurt one’s pride, but certainly not one’s basic position. But turning to metaphysics is still a natural and noble philosophical move because it is an attempt to take this concept of God and look to reality to see if it fits compatibly. Unfortunately, God is too special and unique a metaphysical concept for that, so problematic for some logicians that some of them have gone so far as to call the word “God” a term denoting nonsense. We are trying to pursue lines of inquiry, but this line of metaphysical argumentation is a cul-de-sac.

So if metaphysics is of limited value, where can one turn? Many places. But I don’t want to speak about the role of God as a historical convention; nor as if he were a mythological invention; nor as a purely clinical psychological phenomenon; nor as a social custom, or a religious norm within a culture, or as a scientific notion. Any one or combination of these may very well be true and insightful. But I am not qualified to speak on the behalf of any of these points, and I want to get beyond those academic theories anyway. The theories I have just listed are ones we have all heard about, but they are just like the metaphysical proofs. They are pursuing a line of inquiry –a lead, if you will– on this case about God. These detectives are wielding theories about the origins of God, the factor God plays historically, the manner in which God affects humans psychologically, and so on. Metaphysics has been the traditional academic philosopher’s lead.

These leads are interesting, and they are worthy of great attention because they address specific puzzles related to the belief in God. But I’m inviting you to try to make yourself a new detective, stepping into the case for the first time. Are any of these academic, theoretical leads getting to the heart of the mystery of God? I am one detective that says that they do not; they are certainly trying very hard, but they’re dancing on what I consider to be the outskirts of the true essence of what is going on. God and Godlessness is a human issue; we must look directly to ourselves and other humans, at this point and at no other, to find out why we should or should not believe in God.

I do not discourage these alternative theoretical lines of inquiry at all. They provoke significant questions and they are doing their part to make this issue come to light. But now I want to invite you to get to what I believe is the heart of this matter, the real reason why God is believed in or not; not real because it necessarily objectively and physically exists, but real because it’s real to us. Let’s take another, harder look at what we’ve covered and see what parts of it melted away and which parts remained.

There is something strange you should notice about the arguments for the existence of God; that the people who first formulated them (and almost everyone you will come across who uses these arguments) believed in God independently of the arguments they give. Most people already believed in God and are arguing about it after their minds were already made up. Most theists don’t seem to need these arguments to justify their belief to themselves. They seem, rather, to be using them to defend themselves from the questions and challenges of disbelievers. This tells us many important things: that the proofs may act to fend off opposition, but that they do not actually convert other people or expose personal testimonies of belief. Also, the only power of conversion they do have lies not in of themselves, but as support for other reasons for believing in God. Finally, the answer they offer was given before the question was asked about the existence of God.

Religion is not completely logical by any means. Ideally, we would all face the question, “does God exist?” by gathering our wits and all available evidence and answering afterwards. But most of us usually start off with answers about God or Godlessness before this question is even asked. Some people have used this fact to try to show that God and even religion in general is irrational. It’s true that religion is not a science. It’s also true that the scrutiny we apply to academic theories is not the same scrutiny we apply to common religion, at least by most of us on a daily basis in our regular lives.

But I want you to please divert your attention from the university debate and departmental conversation. Direct it rather toward the common person praying and the common person going about his or her life on a personal, individual basis with or without God. These arguments that we’ve covered don’t really inspire us, do they? At best they touch upon other ideas that might be potentially inspiring, but in and of themselves, they serve poorly to convince us of their conclusion, even in aggregate.

So why do we believe in God? We want the human truth, not academic rhetoric. I ask this question of those who can hold their thoughts as independently as possible and who are still strong enough to force this mystery to light. And now I am going to try to provide for you some possible answers as best as I can.

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