Melinda Selmys is always writing such great stuff. This time she wrote, "The existence of God can’t actually be proven or disproven on the weight of the evidence that is available to us." Which had me nodding -- that was basically the conclusion I've come to, but I'm very surprised that a Catholic would agree with it. After all, Vatican I did declare otherwise, and anyway -- it puts you in kind of a bind, doesn't it? How are you supposed to know what to do? Melinda agrees:
"What we’re left with is fundamentally a choice between two equally rational and equally unprovable belief systems. This is why the debate routinely goes nowhere: because the very nature of the question is that such that it’s impossible to finally resolve or settle it one way or the other. . . . The problem is that we can’t make this decision lightly. Literally everything depends on it. How we live. How we understand morality. How we perceive ourselves and our role in the universe. How we seek to fulfil our fundamental thirst for meaning and purpose. How we relate to others. How, and whether, we avoid making a date with a bathtub and a razor."
My inescapable conclusion is that, if God particularly wanted to be known by us, there's no way he'd leave us in that sort of bind. Melinda has somehow come to the opposite conclusion, based, I think, on some spiritual experiences that she had.
But she does point out that many people do have some kind of "felt experience of God," and that is sufficient argument for them at least to believe in it. But she also claims that many atheists have the same experience but don't believe. I wonder if this is true, and if so, how.
I've certainly heard of the idea that we have some interior "God sense" which allows us to be sure God exists. I know Alvin Platinga and John Henry Newman both wrote about it -- though their work is too lengthy for me to get through right now, I've read summaries. And certainly I know people who claim they have some interior certainty which requires no proof. I just have never heard any answer to the questions that I have on the topic: first, how does a person know whether to trust an interior feeling about something; and second, how is a person supposed to believe if they don't have such a feeling?
I used to feel pretty sure that God existed. Not that I had any rational proof, I just had always been taught that he did, and saw no reason to doubt it. And when other people talked about doubt, I shrugged -- I had never spent any time worrying about the question. The image of God that I had was overwhelmingly positive -- he was kind, merciful, loved everyone, generous. I was not afraid of God. I mean, he understood I was trying to do the right thing, and for the moments that I didn't -- well, he knew I was a kid. My mom spent a lot of time praying for people to go to heaven, but I wasn't fussed about it. I figured everyone God wanted in heaven would go there, and if anybody did go to hell, it would be people so unrepentantly bad that there wasn't any point in praying for them. God, to me, was a perfect combination of my mom's loving gentleness and my dad's power -- someone who could be counted on to be understanding with me, and also kick the butt of anything scary and bad.
Regnum Christi left this image mostly intact, but I did get some of other people's attitudes rolled in: like my director's way of making you feel small, and another woman's way of being generally disappointed in you. I thought God was probably awfully disappointed in me, because I was so bad all the time. But there was a lot of stress put on how much God loved me -- how he loved me before I was born, died for me, stayed awake all night watching me sleep, and really truly would rearrange the fabric of reality to give me my favorite breakfast in order to reassure me that he loved me. It would have been hard to doubt the existence of someone I spent that many hours a day talking to.
But there came a time, as an adult, when I was confronted with other people's inner vision of God. It seems obvious to me that if you know someone, you can predict their future behavior pretty well. You can say that this would be out of character, but that would definitely be something they'd do. And it was odd to me that so many people -- all Catholics! -- had such utterly different predictions of what God would do. I was sure he would never send someone to hell for not being baptized, but other people thought he might. I knew he would not approve of, say, the Crusades or the Inquisition, but some people said he would. And I realized that when you argue one interior reality against another, you have no grounds for argument. You need to find some sort of external evidence. And, of course, once you take my inner idea of God and compare it to the idea of God you get from the bible, on the one hand, or from the created world, on the other, you end up with three very different ideas -- so different as to be incompatible with one another.
My point in telling you all this is to point out that Catholicism is not really down with the idea of religion coming from an interior intuition. If you feel that God is one way, and the Church says he's something else, you have to ignore how you feel and go with what the Church says. But you can't very well do that if your only reason for belief in the first place is an interior intuition. Just as some people can't disbelieve in God, I can't make myself believe in the version of God that it seems the Catholic Church is describing. [Edit: My point is to say that intuition is either a reliable source of knowledge or not. If it's unreliable, it can't be used to prove God exists, if it's reliable, it should be allowed to judge revelation as well, which the Church does not accept. A Catholic may find that his intuition conflicts with revelation, and therefore he must acknowledge that intuition is not an infallible source of information -- it was in error at least once.]
So it seems we should take our interior intuitions and subject them to some sort of rational inquiry. Turning to the philosophical grounding of "basic belief" that I've read up on, let me give some examples. The writers I've read explain a "basic belief" as something you're sure of, but don't know how you're sure. For instance, you spot a face in the crowd and you think, "That's my friend Joe." Or you hear a rustling in the woods and catch a glimpse of motion and say, "There's a deer in there." Or you hear someone singing and you immediately intuit what words they are saying -- you grasp their meaning without performing a conscious analysis.
My issue with this is that one's intuitions may sometimes be wrong. For instance, you think you spot Joe but when you get closer, it's a stranger. Or you were taking aim at the "deer" when you spot some blaze orange and realize it's a fellow hunter. Or you look up the song lyrics and find you were dead wrong about what they were saying. My brother and I were awful at this when we were kids -- when we thought we heard certain words in a song, we were just incorrigible about it. Isn't it true that when you interpret a lyric one way, it always sounds like that to you?
There was one song I remember arguing about ("Angry Young Man," by Styx) where I thought the line was "you're killing yourself" but my brother heard "you're kidding yourself." We argued for some time. But there was no basis for argument, since it was an intuitive belief. We listened to the same few seconds over and over again, and all we could say was, "See? SEE? It totally says what I thought it did, how can you not hear that?" That's kind of how a lot of debates on religion go. I thought God was like X, someone else thought he was like Y, a third person felt there was no God, we have nothing to go on because we all had a strong intuition about it.
So when we want to reach greater certainty about our intuitive "basic" beliefs, we have to use a rational methodology to work it out. The first step is identifying the sense-information we're working from. You are usually able to do this just by slowing down and thinking about it: "It's the rustle in the woods that makes me think of a deer. That man's nose is just like Joe's. I hear a consonant sound in the middle of this word that sounds like an L." A more complicated, expert intuition might be something like a doctor saying, "These are the exact symptoms I always see when someone has cancer." Already we have a little problem -- intuition is trained by past experience. You can recognize Joe's nose, an L sound, or a cancer patient because you've experienced these things a lot of times. With God, there may be no initial sense-knowledge you can go on -- just a feeling of certainty. Or perhaps there are many small disparate things that feel like proof -- like me getting my favorite breakfast just after a really great prayer session, a friend I'd prayed for getting better, the existence of my favorite holly tree, and a hundred other small things that seemed to map into a pattern of God caring about me. (And just as someone's suggestion about a song lyric makes you hear it, I also had my religious education to prompt me to draw that conclusion from those facts. Otherwise I might not have, I suppose.) And like Joe's nose or the sound of an L, it is possible for those things to exist without the pattern that I intuited about them being real. My ability to grasp a pattern and assume an answer isn't evidence -- the original facts I started with are the evidence.
The next step is to attempt to gather more information across different modalities. I heard the rustle in the woods, so I look toward it and try to see what's out there. I think I see Joe, so I say "Joe, is that you?" I go online and look up the lyrics to "Angry Young Man." (They back up my brother, in case you're interested.) I notice a pattern of symptoms that look like cancer, so I order some tests. Where God is concerned, I can examine evidence for God and information about what God is supposed to be like in order to see whether the particular idea of God that I hold has any evidence for actually existing. At this point I will have more to go on, which should either reinforce my original intuition or contradict it.
The third step is to compare notes with others. I can ask if other people see a deer, if they recognize Joe, or what words they hear when they listen to the song. If their experience agrees with mine, I have a lot more certainty about my intuition. If not, I have to consider the possibility that I misheard or leapt to conclusions. In the case of religion, the ideas people have about God are so wildly different that I had to accept that my own vision of God was highly unlikely to be accurate. Not only do Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and atheists feel just as sure about their own intuitions as I did about mine, but fellow Catholics didn't even come up with roughly similar answers. And they were able to support their view with doctrine and scripture, whereas all I had was an interior feeling. I was forced to conclude that I didn't know God, not really, despite all those hours of prayer. After all, I knew perfectly well that God never spoke to me outright -- I just had a feeling that he would like or do certain things. That's no better than anyone else's feeling that says the opposite -- both are insufficient to conclude anything; we need facts.
Now, when an intuition is disproven, it may or may not disappear. I now hear the word "kidding" instead of "killing" in that Styx song, but I still see faces in outlets even though I know outlets are not people. There's a guy at church who gives me one double-take after another because he looks so much like my brother. I know my brother would not be at my church. And if I study the guy's face, I recognize that some details aren't the same. But with the tail of my eye, I still think I see him. So perhaps it's just that simple, when atheists have some feeling of a divine presence despite not believing. I know that in my case, I don't. Once I realized that special breakfasts happen pretty much at random, that there are biological explanations for trees, that the infinite forgivingness of my version of God looked a lot more like my mother than the God of the Church or the Bible, I stopped seeing God anywhere. There were fewer and fewer things out there that looked like God, and then there were none. I can't force that intuition back, because it was based on facts and the facts have been shown either to be mistaken or to have other explanations.
And at that point the whole idea of "basic" belief has nothing to offer me. I don't have that kind of belief. And that leaves me back with my objection to Melinda -- why would we be left in that sort of a bind? Why would some of us have very clear intuitions that there is one God, and some feel just as strongly that there are many, and some have no belief that there is any? What does that say about God, that he would leave that situation as it is, when he's just as capable of zapping us all with belief as he is of providing any more tangible proof -- like leaving the burning bush burning all these years, so that anyone who wanted could go look at it, or keeping the Red Sea parted, or leaving the pillar of flame standing in the middle of St. Peter's Square?
One answer I've been offered is that all people really do have this belief, and atheists are just either self-deceiving or outright lying. All I can say to that is, I know I'm not lying, and if I were self-deceiving so well that I don't know that I know, that's not practically any different from not knowing. I still don't know the right thing to choose. We all have scads of vague ideas floating around our heads, things we half-believe, like thinking that the earth stands still and the sun rises. We know that isn't what happens, but we find ourselves thinking of the world that way. But how would we know which of these vague ideas ought to be trusted and which are not? I can't go along with that one.
The only remaining conclusion I had was that perhaps God does not care as much about belief as he does about some other value -- right action, perhaps, or just our existence. This seems to be what Melinda thinks. I just can't believe this and be an orthodox Catholic, because the Church is pretty clear that God does want to be known. And that leaves us back with the same old question -- why so hidden? Why make it so hard for anyone to know for sure?