Do christians believe for irrational reasons?

These days, christians may have to face the common accusation that their belief is based on blind, reasonless faith, and not on evidence, and that therefore they should logically give up belief. “There’s no more evidence for the christian God than for Santa or Thor”, they may be told.

This can be a major source of doubt for some believers. But is the accusation fair?

Reasons for belief

People decide to follow Jesus, and people who were brought up christian choose to continue in the faith, for a range of reasons. The different reasons constitute different types of evidence of the reality of God – for example:

  1. Through rationally examining the objective evidence – i.e. the various philosophical arguments for the existence of God and the historical evidence for Jesus. This is objective evidence and is available to everyone.
  2. Through finding that everything makes more sense from a christian viewpoint – they may find that following Jesus helps them turn their lives around, or they may observe that their parents’ lives as christians make sense. This evidence will be different for each person, but all can embark on a life with Jesus and find out for themselves if it makes sense.
  3. Through objective but personal experiences of God’s action – e.g. they may experience a miraculous healing or a vision that shows them God is active in their lives. These convincing experiences will only be given to some people, but they can become evidence to others who learn about them.
  4. Through some virtually incommunicable experience of God which assures them that God is establishing a relationship with them. For some, faith is instinctive, they just know they believe without necessarily being able to articulate why. Again such experience is not given to everyone, although christians believe that the Holy Spirit is active in giving faith to anyone who believes.
  5. Through never questioning what they were taught at home or church. This faith is based on trust that those who have taught them knew what they were talking about.

Are these reasons rational?

Sceptics will say that few, if any, of these reasons are based on evidence and logic. But this view is generally based on the assumption that repeatable observable scientific-type evidence is the only valid way to know something. But that is a very restrictive assumption, and following it universally would rule out much of what we know by personal experience, or learn from history or from experts in subjects we know little about. It is also an assumption that doesn’t pass its own test, because we cannot demonstrate that assumption by science. So it isn’t unreasonable to look wider than the sceptics do.

Different kinds of evidence

Each of these reasons for belief is based on evidence of different kinds.

  • The philosophical arguments (reason 1) are based on scientific facts and are very well developed (see Philosophical arguments for the existence of God). They were enough to lead eminent atheist philosopher Anthony Flew to change his mind about God, so they can be considered to be very respectable reasons to believe. Most christians would think the beginning and design of the universe to be among their reasons for believing in God, even if their thinking is less sophisticated than the philosophers’.
  • The historical evidence for Jesus (reason 1) is quite strong (see Jesus and the historians and Jesus – son of God). Even if a christian hasn’t studied this evidence, it is not unreasonable for them to accept the word of someone who has made a study of the evidence.
  • Personal experience (reasons 2-4) is a valid form of evidence and hence a valid basis of belief. Documented cases of miraculous healing are especially strong evidence (see Eleven healings). Authority (reason 5) is also valid (most of what we know we known on the basis of authority). It is true that both experience and authority can sometimes be mistaken, but so can science. In all three cases, continuity of evidence over time, and confirmation by others, give us increased confidence in our conclusions.

More than one reason

Few people believe for just one of these reasons. People who have some subjective experience of God (reason 4) will find their life continues to confirm this experience (reason 2). People who have never had a vision of God or experienced a clearcut case of God’s miraculous healing may nevertheless know, or have read about, someone else’s experience. And no-one can believe in Jesus for very long without having heard some of the gospel record of his life and teachings, which is also evidence.

Maturing in understanding

We all grow in our understanding as we mature. For example, I learnt very early not to play with electrical power outlets, but only learned much later when I studied Physics why this was dangerous, but that didn’t negate the truth of my childish understanding. In obedience to 1 Peter 3:15 (“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”), christians should be willing to improve their understanding of their beliefs and the reasons to believe, changing and adjusting where necessary as they go. Not questioning what we were taught at home or church may be acceptable for a child, but is probably not a sufficient basis for an adult.

Walking together

Christians are a community – like a body, different members have different abilities, gifts and experiences. The case for the truth of christianity stands on the foundation of our collective understanding. Together, the reasons outlined above form a very strong case – certainly strong enough for each of us to continue to believe without major doubt, and strong enough to form useful evidence to present to anyone who is interested (see Why believe?).

So …

There are many reason to believe, and together they add up to strong evidence. We don’t need to feel ashamed or insecure by the claims of sceptics. If they don’t find our reasons sufficient for them, we can politely agree to differ, and quietly pray for them, that God might speak to them even more clearly.

And there is much more evidence for God than there is for Santa!

Read the whole series

This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.

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6 thoughts on “Do christians believe for irrational reasons?

  1. Anyone who argues that Santa, Thor, and God are similar on a evidential level just hasn’t spent the time to think about these issues objectively. No one would come to such a conclusion if they did. It’s nothing more than a “witty” saying passed around to belittle the Christian faith.

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  2. RawChristianity writes:

    “Anyone who argues that Santa, Thor, and God are similar on a evidential level just hasn’t spent the time to think about these issues objectively. No one would come to such a conclusion if they did. It’s nothing more than a “witty” saying passed around to belittle the Christian faith.”

    - I disagree. Many people believed in Thor for a very long time (some still do), and this belief was so influential in the ancient Western world that the day of the week, Thursday, is named after him. Similarly, Wednesday is named after the Norse god Odin aka Woden; Saturday is named after the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday by various sun-worshipping people.

    All of the same types of coincidences – alleged signs, miracles, prophesies, etc – that have been attributed to Judeo-Christian prophets and gods have been attributed, in their time and place, to Anglo-Saxon/Norse/Roman/Greek gods & goddesses. The Christian myths are really not at all unique or special on the world stage; they just simply haven’t died out yet. Christianity is not the oldest religion (Hinduism gets that honor), nor the most in agreement with scientific evidence (arguably Buddhism, secular Judaism, or Unitarian Universalism), etc. And while I wouldn’t say we have excellent evidence for Santa, I’d say we have better evidence than we do for the Christian god: At least everyone can agree on what Santa looks like! You Christians can’t even agree on whether the Pope has authority or not, let alone on the correct interpretation of any particular point of what Jesus allegedly taught.

    - Dave, blogger at muSASHA.org

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  3. Hello Dave,

    Since I think UnkleE is enjoying a well-deserved southern hemisphere holiday, I’ll reply to your post here.

    First, RawChristianity wasn’t talking about Santa, Thor and God not having on a similar level of cultural influence, but that they do not share a similar level of evidence; RawChristianity thinks (and so do I) that the evidence for God is better. Influence is indepent from truth value.

    “The Christian myths are really not at all unique or special on the world stage; they just simply haven’t died out yet.”

    Clearly we disagree here as I think that there is something special about the Christian narratives: we have independent testimonies of some miracles that are quite early. Aside that, we also have a bit of a difference in genre. In the Christian “myths” there are few instances of God gallivanting around on Earth and intermingling with humans, while that’s more or less the point of Greek myths. There are certainly mythical elements in the Old Testament but much of it has been polished away.

    “Christianity is not the oldest religion (Hinduism gets that honor),”

    It’s true that Christianity is not the oldest religion (no Christian should contest that, since the New Testament is very clear about Christianity arising out of the teachings of a Jewish teacher), though I do not think it is quite right that Hinduism is the oldest. Modern Hinduism worships a very different pantheon than the Hinduism that led to the Rigveda – and can it be excluded that it predates other old, still existing religions that might be less well recorded? In any case, I do not see why the age of a religion matters. What should matter is whether it is true.

    “nor the most in agreement with scientific evidence (arguably Buddhism, secular Judaism, or Unitarian Universalism),”

    We can agree that a literalist Christian approach is in direct conflict with the scientific evidence, but how are other Christian approaches in some disagreement with?

    “And while I wouldn’t say we have excellent evidence for Santa, I’d say we have better evidence than we do for the Christian god: At least everyone can agree on what Santa looks like!”

    You might be surprised here! In some of the earliest traditions about Santa Claus, he’s the size of an elf instead of a bulky adult human male! And we do know that a sleigh pulled by reindeers is not capable of flying, so it is in direct contradiction with the scientific evidence of physics. ;)

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  4. Thanks IgnorantiaNescia, I just came back today, but I agree with everything you said. Means I can make a briefer response to Dave. : )

    “Many people believed in Thor for a very long time (some still do)”
    The question isn’t how many people believed (though christianity wins that competition hands down!) but what is the evidence today. People have constructed many arguments for the existence of the christian God, and while many disagree with those arguments, all recognise that they have some force. I don’t know any arguments for the existence of Thor, do you?

    “All of the same types of coincidences – alleged signs, miracles, prophesies, etc – that have been attributed to Judeo-Christian prophets and gods have been attributed, in their time and place, to Anglo-Saxon/Norse/Roman/Greek gods & goddesses.”
    But the question is the evidence for God vs the evidence for Thor. I’m not aware of anyone using these signs as evidence, certainly I haven’t.

    “And while I wouldn’t say we have excellent evidence for Santa, I’d say we have better evidence than we do for the Christian god:”
    Could you perhaps set out this evidence please? I’m betting the evidence for God is way, way better.

    Dave, thanks for visiting and commenting, but I think most of your comments don’t address the question of actual evidence. Best wishes.

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  5. Pingback: Arguments against Jesus « the Way?

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