Sunday, April 5, 2009

Believing in Belief

I have interacted with many evangelical Christians over Internet blogs and forums. One common claim I have heard is that I was never really a Christian.

If you have read my story on this blog, you'll recall that I was raised as a Christian and deconverted because I decided that the evidence for its validity was severely lacking.

But was I an actual Christian? At first, this question annoyed me greatly. I believed that this claim was nonsensical and absurd at best, and that it was a stinging personal insult and rebuke at its worst.

However, I have now realized that the answer to this question is not entirely black and white. Of course, that conclusion alone should not surprise me. Few things in our existence are entirely black and white.

What shocked me is the realization that I may not have been an actual Christian before I deconverted.

I am trying to remember what exactly it was that I believed in during this time. Did I believe in a higher power? Did I believe in the Bible? Did I believe in the community of my church congregation? Did I believe in the power of faith or belief itself?

Why do these questions matter? These questions are critically important because they attempt to define what Christianity is, and in doing so attempt to determine what exactly it means to be a Christian (or to be a religious person of any persuasion) in today's environment.

I did believe in a higher power. I prayed to my God before meal times and before I fell asleep at night and while I was in church services. Did I believe in the Bible? Yes and no. I had not read all of it. I believed that some of its claims were figurative and that some were literal. I don't think this made me any less of a Christian. I viewed the creation story in Genesis as figurative while acknowledging the reality of evolution, though I fully embraced its claims about Jesus and his supposed sacrifice for humanity. I believed in the eternal existence of heaven and hell, though I had no idea who would end up in each place (I had not made up my mind about universalism or other approaches, but I knew that the Bible said that Jesus was the only way, and I could never get past that reality).

However, as much as I believed in the technicalities of Christian dogma, I also believed strongly in its pragmatic aspects. I believed in the power of faith. I had faith in my government and my society and my family and my friends -- and in God. I also believed in the power of the community in my church. I knew that they were basically good people. I saw my church as a positive influence in my life and as a positive influence in my community.

A nagging question pervades my thoughts: did I really believe in Christianity or did I believe in being Christian? Did I have a belief or did I believe in having a belief? Was I part of a belief community or was I a believer? I don't know the answer.

I don't know if I really was a Christian before I deconverted.

However, if I was not really a Christian, than most of the people in America who proclaim Christianity as their religion probably are not Christians, either. Of course, this assumes that there is an objective definition of what a Christian is, which is probably not accurate.

The major question is this: what do you believe in?

Do you believe in belief? Do you believe in community? Do you believe in faith? Do you believe in charity? Do you believe in good works?

Do you believe in Christianity because it provides an outlet for your other beliefs which you already have, or do you believe in it because you are a sincere follower, you've thought about it at length, and you really do believe that its claims are accurate?

It appears that many people in the world practice Christianity not because they have extensively researched the issues and determined that it is better than all the other religions and spiritual traditions in the world, but because it provides a framework for their other beliefs about themselves and the world which they have adopted from society and family and tradition.

And of course, the same thing is more than likely true for Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and practically every other religious tradition on the planet.

I am tired of asking and answering "what" questions about religion. Now I am much more fascinated with the "why" questions. Why do people believe? Why do individuals believe a certain way?

Was I ever a Christian? Maybe not. Is anyone ever a Christian? Maybe not. Have you ever been a Christian? Maybe not.

Do you believe in a book? Do you believe in a revelation? Do you believe in belief?

Religions often try to be none of these things and all of these things at the same time, for everyone. The whole process of examining religion just confirms my opinion that the religions of our world are human-originated social constructs and not divine manifestations.


Anonymous said...

Religion is created by man -- God is probably laughing at us for we have so messed it up. It is a choice to believe in God -- the alternative provides no reason to get up on the morning. It is mankind who has decided different paths to see God, not God. Choose wisely, young Skywalker.

Teleprompter said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response. However, I still have a lot of questions for you.

How do we know there is a god out there? Especially if religions are not accurate?

Also, how valuable is that to us?

And what kind of god would this be?

Deistic? Interventionary?

Why would that give me extra reasons to get up in the morning? Certainly a non-interventionist god would give me little extra motivation.

What do you think? And also, what is your reasoning?

Ketan said...

Hi! I read your blog and could relate with the dilemmas I'd faced being a theist. I'm an atheist, that's just unofficially so. With regard to your "deconverting", though it might surprise you, in my country there's no provision to have "no religion" in documentary terms. If you don't convert to some other religion officially, you're considered to be the same religion you were born with. So, I do have a religion--the one I was born in.

But, that's not the reason I'm replying. In your this post you'd a query about what prompts people to follow a religion they were born with. I've covered that question in my post "Communalism" in "Ketan's blog". In my country, "religous groupism" is loosely called Communalism, and the way I've used the term has nothing to do with economics.

If you find time, please let me know if it answers your query in any way. I of course am open to the idea that you yourself must have some answers to the very same question you'd raised, and would be happy to know your take on the issue. English is not my native language, and you might find my writing labored. TC.

Anonymous said...

I am the person who wrote you before and you responded with questions. While I was born into a multi-religion, multi-cultural and multi-racial family, I was fortunate to never in any way doubt the existence of God. Not sure if God or He or She. But I saw God living in various people my entire life and never doubted His or Her being there. Evidence for me is demonstrated in people, in nature, in goodness. How does that first rose of summer bloom so beautifully?

The issue of religions being accurate is an easy one for me because I do not believe that God created religion. God created the world and gave us free choice. While He or She knows what is going to happen, he does not often intervene. I believe that He or She can, but I am not sure why or why not. I don’t think we as humans have the capacity to understand the why of God – I also don’t have the mental capacity to understand multivariate calculus but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

We – mankind – came up with all these stupid pathways to reach Him or Her. And it has been those pathways that have caused most of mankind’s troubles. If you look at most religions, there are many good (by any standard) similarities that bind us together as humans. For me personally taking Jesus Christ as my personal saviour and knowing how He sacrified for me is what gets me up in the morning. That is how it is valuable to me. Hebrews says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The existence of my faith doesn’t take away from my belief in science – these things can co-exist. For me it is like the wind – I cannot see it yet I know it is there. Be blessed with today and be open to the wonder of faith.

Ketan said...

Hi anonymous! I somehow liked your post. I can see traces of how of I used to see the world before I turned atheist.

Re: beauty of rose, I'd just give you an idea of how I look at such phenomena. I'm not vouching for its biologic accuracy, but evolution of rose that blooms beautifully could be somewhat similar:

Rose blooms, and various animals find it attractive. Rose benefits by getting pollinated. The animal (insect) gets attracted and gets its nectar. Humans have also retained attraction for flowers like rose as fruits are more likely to be found where flowers would be. Traits like attraction to bright colors get transmitted from not just generation to generation, but also species to species. I believe some time in the past, there must have been roses of different colors, but because they did not attract insects and mammals, they did not get pollinated, and hence were gradually removed from the gene pool. Likewise, there must have been animals that did not get attracted to colorful flowers and fruits, and hence they were less likely to survive. That's the reason we find fewer people who don't like beautiful flowers as compared to those who do find them beautiful. Also, you could see that there are much fewer people who are color blind as compared to those who can see colors for simple reason that those who couldn't see colors were at disadvantage as they must have found it difficult to make out prey as well as predatory animals camouflaged with tall grass. But they survived in lower fractions because of cooperative nature of human society. Also, because of higher intelligence, they must have somehow overcome those difficulties.

When you say that God just created the Universe, and later on stopped interfering with its affairs (which qualifies you as a deist), and that we can't really understand the ways of God--look at it carefully--that's YOUR PERSONALIZED religion. And, there's nothing wrong with having one's personalized religion. Rather, it's a good thing, you're taking advantage of one and only thing that separates humans from other animals--having a well developed brain.

When you point to good things that are common to all religions, you're making the same mistake I used to make merely 4-5 years back. One of confusing morality with religion. I was not a very ritualistic person, but a firm theist. But, as I was forced to conclude for too many things that "God only knows why he did the things the way he did"...

Ketan said...

I started getting this question that does God really exist the way I thought him to exist? I saw all the suffering around, and I couldn't convince myself that God was all powerful as well as loving being at the same time. It's not that I'd not come across this simplistic explansation that I can't comprehend the reasons for the way the God chose to behave. I did consider that, but I was also confronted with another possibility. And then I indulged in a misadventurous mental experiment. I decided to imagine for 5 min as if there were on God. And guess what, I didn't feel miserable at all, something that I was afraid I'd feel! I was shocked to realize that I'd been burdening my psyche with a forced delusion. I only was creating God in my mind, fantasizing about him, talking to him and also pretending to get responses. All this was a huge burden on my "system". But still, I'd continued to believe in God as I thought the Universe was too complex to NOT have an intelligent creator. And that without God there'd be no purpose to the existence of this Universe. But again I realized that we humans are prejudiced to think that if something EXISTS, it has to be CREATED. When I recognized this prejudice and the alternate possiblity that things (including the Universe) could come into existence on their own without a deliberate purpose, for me the hypothesis of God became redundant.

Coming to the purpose of life, yes, I concede that it was very gloomy when confronted with the fact that our emotions, memories, beliefs--all are merely chemical activities in the brain. That was the most difficult thing to accept for me in life. But that didn't entail I retrace my philosophical steps. For me, though it was difficult, honest introspection, clear conscience and truth were more important than feeling good about (purpose of) my life. But I got an answer for that problem, too. I was living life as I was enjoying doing so (in fact, still do!). If I enjoyed a particular song there was no reason that I stop enjoying it the moment I realize that there is no purpose to life or God. I've always had a strong sense of what's wrong and right (morality+conscience), so noone could make out that I'd changed in some profound way when I'd turned atheist. And, that's the purpose of enjoy it...for it's enjoyable, rather life is addictive. Isn't that beautiful? Purpose of life enshrined in life itself--the enjoyment of its beauty...

Ketan said...

I'm sure, you must have played some outdoor game some time in your life. You must have enjoyed playing it, too. Did you ever ask yourself why you played the game, what was the purpose? The answer was very simple. There was no purpose. You played the game only because you enjoyed it. This, according to me is hedonism. I find joy in learning new things, how they work. How computers work, how certain diseases develop, how the stock market works, how human mind works, how governments work, how fluorescent bulb works. For every one more "how" I'm able to answer, I derive pleasure. That's my hedonism. That's what's guided my life. I'm not implying that there's anything intrinsically superior about having an inquisitive mind, nor that I don't enjoy anything else in life. Likewise, if you're a painter, you'd rejoice in every new stroke of your brush. If you're a poet, you'll rejoice in every new play of words. If you're a musician, you'll rejoice in every new tune you encounter or compose. If you're a businessperson, you'll rejoice in every new reform you're able to bring in to make your business model more efficient and to make more profits. If you're an administrator, you'll rejoice in seeing your policies work. The best part? You could be any and all of these, and the pleasure would be yours to take!

As I near the end of this reply, realize that most of the responses about existence or nonexistence of God almost turn hostile, and we miss the bigger picture--the intrinsic beauty of life. I enjoyed writing this almost a miniblog. Hope, you too enjoy reading it. Take care.

Teleprompter said...


I loved reading your responses, and I am definitely very impressed.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Ketan said...

Thanks, teleprompter for the compliment! Did you by any chance read my entry called "Communalism" that I'd referred to in my first reply? I believe, you'd find it interesting. TC.

Teleprompter said...


Yes, I read it just now. I did find it fascinating -- I believe that much of religious development can be explained through this group-collective model, especially when we think about the tribal societies of those times when religions first originated.

Ketan said...

Thanks for reading the post and the response!

Teleprompter said...


It's not a problem. I enjoy your writing and your ideas.

I have also had a few of those thoughts before, but I had not fully articulated them.

Ketan said...

Oh! I entirely forgot to mention, I too enjoyed reading your blogs immensely. I'm supposed to be an extremely busy person, but responding to various posts is very time consuming, especially when I'm using a "touch-insensitive"(!), i.e., a simple candy bar phone to make all these replies using gprs (don't have regular access to a PC :( ). Hoping to be more focused at my urgent pursuassions. So, bye for the timebeing, and keep up your writing. I'd be reading your blog from time to time. TC.

Anonymous said...

Ketan, did you see this article from David Brooks yesterday?
Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but ... what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

Teleprompter said...


Yes, I did see that David Brooks article, and David Brooks is phenomenally wrong.

Watch this blog for a response sometime today.

I will demonstrate that David Brooks does not know what he is talking about.

Ketan said...

Dear anonymous, I'll have to tell you that I'm not into hardcore philosophy, logic or theology. So, I don't who David Brooks is. But, after reading your entire blog I really couldn't make out what you were implying. My interpretation--even the coldest application of coldest logic involves certain emotional propensity to draw conclusions, right? Let's think of it as a flaw in human thinking. But, isn't it one of the beauties of human thought process to recognize one's prejudiceds and try to rectify them? If a diabetic likes sweet food, and simply goes by the "feeling" of liking it, he'll certainly end up doing himself a lot of harm.

You've overlooked one distinction between the types of functions that the human brain performs. The example you have of finding new kind of food disgusting and liking a landscape are heavily SENSORY-SUBJECTIVE functions. Agreed, it's not just your tongue tasting and eyes seeing, but also about brain forming a judgement of it, hence you "just know it". But, if you think of functions of human brain as a spectrum, on it, at the end exactly opposite of the sensory-subjective functions is one of OBJECTIVE-RATIONAL functions. If you go to the grocery store and have to calculate the price of 7 copies of a book costing 22 dollars, you'll have to actually calculate, you canNOT "just know" the answer, and moreover, there won't be a margin for liking/disliking or prefering/avoiding the outcome of your brain's process. I'm not saying all the situations we encounter or conclusions we draw are of such objective nature, but, we do have methods to make our conclusions verifiable. One of the ways science achieves this is by its own application--what we call "technology". Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking of utility of technology, but how it verifies all the premises/axioms that our rational knowledge stands on. Think of it, each time you administer a vaccine to someone, and it works (occasions are too numerous to be counted), it is verifying everything we'd "assumed" about the nature of microbial pathogens, the Germ theory, the nature of our immune system, the nature of proteins that interact and the chemistry of adjuvants and preservatives used, the nature of amino acids that constitute that protein, the nature of atoms that make up that amino acids, the nature of quarks, elementary particles, electromagnetic interactions, and so forth...