Why Believe?

Faith and Rationality

When one asks whether it is more rational or less rational to believe in the existence of a supreme being capable of creating the world in which we live and of giving cause to all that can be observed, it becomes possible to understand, with a bit of scrutiny, the ideology underpinning both science and faith. And by ideology here is not meant the rabid kind of clan loyalty that underpins wars of all kinds, but rather a reasonable commitment to beliefs that cannot be proved, and which often underpin what we call a worldview.

Those who believe there is no God or can be no God must accept that the universe and all of its untouched galaxies as well as the Earth we know, is a lucky accident. We are told that all the laws of physics are like a set of dials, and that, were one of these dials to be adjusted by the slightest degree, the entire enterprise of the universe would collapse and not be possible. And so the universe stands on the head of a needle, as it were, existing on the fine balance of a set of laws that governs the basic structure of all matter. And facing this reality, the atheist will say: and it is a stroke of luck that things became arranged this way, by which he means that he does not feel warranted to believe in a supreme being which gives cause to all things.

On the other hand, those who believe in a supreme being who has given cause to all things will say that the universe and all of its galaxies are the effect of a supreme being, or a manifestation of its very being, and of its uncaused existence. He will say that it is more rational to believe in such a cause, even if this cause cannot be touched, and even if its nature remains a mystery to man. But his commitment to there being a reason for all things, and a cause to the universe, will not suffer the mystery; rather, it will transcend it. He will feel warranted in believing in a supreme being even though he cannot prove it, or touch it, because his commitment to the idea that there must be a cause to the universe is greater than his need to understand it.

So there is a choice to be made in having faith, or in not having faith, in God. And it is a choice of priority of values. On the one hand, the non-believer will choose to believe that there can be no ultimate reason or cause to the universe, because of his discomfort with the prospect of having to believe in a thing he cannot touch or feel or explain. On the other hand, the one who has faith will choose to believe that there must be a reason, even if it means believing in a mystery. And so each of these people’s view of what it means to be rational will vary according to where they stand on these two positions.

The person who does not believe will say that it is irrational to believe in something that cannot be proved, and that it is in turn rational to hold a view of the world which does not include unexplainable phenomena. Conversely, the person who believes will say that it is irrational to believe that things which are observed can exist without an ultimate cause, and that it is therefore rational to hold a view of the world in which there is a supreme being who cannot be observed, but whose consequences or manifestations include the workings of the world and the world itself.

Now, what kind of beliefs underpin a person’s view that there can be no supreme being because it cannot be seen or touched? The view that there can be no supreme being because it cannot be seen or touched is underpinned by the view that the measure of reality is man, and more specifically, his five senses. It is a view that places man at the centre of the universe, at the top of the chain of being, supplanting God. Why place a god at the top, the argument goes, if we can explain the mechanics of the world without reference to Him? This is the heart of the revolution of belief that took place during the 17th century in the Western World.

But this view is put to the lie when one considers Pascal’s thought that when a finger is burned by a flame, it ceases to feel the fire because of the damage done to it.[1] The suggestion is that we are not justified in thinking that reality is bounded by our ability to perceive it. The same conclusion can be drawn when we consider that some sound frequencies are audible to bats, but aren’t to the human ear. Therefore, we are not justified in thinking that because we cannot hear a certain frequency, it mustn’t exist.[2] Similarly, from the fact that some feel they are unable to experience God directly with their five senses, it does not necessarily follow that He does not exist.

Conversely, the faithful do not believe that man is the measure of all things, and the measure of whether God exists. And with this belief, the faithful hold a wholly different view of reality, placing a creator at the centre of it, and placing themselves beneath Him. I am a believer because I feel Him in my life on the basis of my five sensed and in my heart; on my perception of signs and wonders in my life which I reasonably attribute to Him; on the basis of my faith; and on the basis that He provides a more satisfactory explanatory framework through which I can understand the world, and a more satisfactory ethics to guide my actions within it. Therefore, I put myself second to God and submit myself to His will, as best I understand it with the tools I have at my disposal, including revelation and the insights and traditions of the Catholic Church. In short, I place myself in a secondary position to something greater than myself, which I believe exists and which I believe is the cause of the world I know.

In conclusion, the choice to believe or not to believe, to hold a scientific worldview which denies the possibility of God, or to hold a scientific worldview which accepts the existence of God, is one that is made on the basis of specific ideological positions about what it means to be rational. And this choice is made on the basis of our experience of the world and how best we feel we can make sense of it all.

But I believe that the trademark of the truth is that it conduces towards life, flourishing, happiness and well-being. If you say to me, citing moral principles, “live this way”, and it inhibits me and others from the highest self-fulfilment, then, though I have no other facts to falsify your claim, yet the very fact that your suggestion is harmful to my own and others’ happiness and well-being is a point against its truthfulness. Therefore, the truthfulness of a position can be gauged by whether and to what degree it promotes life, self-actualisation, and well-being of all. And it has been shown that faithful people on the whole live longer lives, report being happier, experience less stress, and are better able to manage traumatic experiences.

As Christ said, “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18). Therefore, it is by His fruits that we know Him. It is our happiness and our self-actualisation to the highest degree, for all of us, and on every possible dimension of our being: the physical, the emotional, the spiritual and the psychological.

Don’t you believe? Why not?

[1] I believe it was Pascal who first penned this thought, but I am unable to locate it.

[2] Nagel, Thomas (1974). “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. The Philosophical Review. 83 (4): 435–450.

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