Author: Skip Reith
I believe! These two little words contain a lot of power. These two little words are also misused, misunderstood, abused, and often ridiculed. What do we mean when we say I believe? That is what I will explore today.
Belief is that understanding a person has when they analyze and process all of the facts and information they have on a particular subject. Belief can come from direct observation (I’ve been to New York so I believe it exists); or belief can come from indirect information – that is from an authority on the subject (I’ve never been to Tokyo, but I believe it exists because I have been told by maps and people who have been there that it exists).
One important note before I continue. When I use the term authority here, I am not talking about some governmental organization. I am talking about an expert on the subject whose knowledge, skill, and background gives them a special place in the hierarchy of understanding on the subject. An authoritative source is one step up from an expert. If the authoritative source is a person then that source not only is an expert, but that person also has a breadth and depth of knowledge around the main subject that allows them broad understanding on the subject. If the source is not a person, then the source is complete and detailed. For example, a professional astronomer with 30 years experience is an authority on astronomy. The complete body of written papers and books on astronomy is an authoritative source on the subject. In addition, an authority on the subject is one that other people agree and believe is an authority on the subject. Is possible to think a person is an authority on a subject when they are actually not an expert and may have little knowledge in the subject. (This technique is used all of the time by advertisers. They get a famous person to promote their product. Since people know the authority of the famous person’s specialty, they subconsciously assign authority to this other, advertised subject as well.)
Let’s look at belief in more detail. Belief and knowledge are similar, but not identical. Belief is your understanding of a situation, but you may not be able to prove that understanding to another. Knowledge is a direct understanding of something that you can easily prove. I know one plus one equals two and I can prove it in a number of ways, including demonstrating the summation with two pennies. I know New York exists (or at least it did) because I was there. I cannot prove its existence now because I am not there. I can show evidence of my trip (pictures and souvenirs) but until I go back I can’t definitively prove its existence. So, at the moment I believe that New York exists. My belief in the existence of Tokyo is indirect. My only proof is the maps and pictures I have seen of Tokyo. If someone does not accept the authority of my proofs then they will not believe in Tokyo.
Science is the attempt to quantify beliefs and turn them into provable knowledge while authenticating the proofs. The scientific method (described in my Observation – Applying the Scientific Method to Religion) is a disciplined approach to proving an understanding and turning belief into knowledge. For example, I could apply the scientific method and fly to Tokyo and prove to myself that it exists, turning my belief into knowledge.
The problem with science is that it can only prove physical things. It can prove the existence of matter and the existence of something called gravity, and so on. It can dig out the understanding of how things function and explain the interactions of various objects. Science also has beliefs, but to make it sound more important, scientists call those beliefs theories. The scientific method attempts to prove that the theories are correct and to expand the understanding and details of those theories.
Science cannot prove strictly personal items. It is not possible to weigh love, measure directly satisfaction, or count hate. It is not even possible to directly analyze pain. Scientists try to measure these strictly personal objects, but everything science does with these items is indirect. For example, a doctor may ask you your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10, but that is a subjective measure and not an objective measure. It is impossible for the doctor to measure directly your pain level. The doctor cannot get a scale out and weigh your pain. Even brain scans and EEG measurements do not measure pain they just measure physiological response to nerve stimulation. Your awareness of pain is greater and more personal than the physiological response.
Consider, for example, love. I know that I love my wife, son, step children, grandchild, dog, cats, and so on. I cannot prove that love, except by my actions and that is just indirect. No one could take out a ruler and measure my love. Science cannot apply the scientific method to my love in such a way that others could know definitively my love. Love is completely and utterly personal.
It is impossible for one person to know directly what another person feels. Even if we could hook two people’s brains together, they still could not know each other’s feelings because our emotions, our response to external stimulations, our core being is determined by every experience we have had up to that point. Since no two people follow the same path in life, no two people experience emotions the same way. This puts love in the belief column. Although I KNOW I love my family, I cannot prove it. So ultimately, I can only say I believe in my love.
Others may believe that I do, in fact, love my family. Others experience love themselves, and even though they do not have the same feelings towards my family as I do, they understand that those feelings exist. Sometimes people may not understand why that particular feeling exists (“how is possible that people actually loved Hitler”), but they understand that there is such feelings.
What about stuff that many people may not experience directly? What about, for example, spiritual experiences that many people may never encounter. If something like love cannot be quantized or measured and therefore are not subject to the scientific method, something like spiritual experiences are even further removed from science. If we cannot prove our love to another, when that other person also experiences love, how can we prove spirituality and religious belief to someone who has never undergone that experience? It is at this point that ridicule and disbelief occur.
If a person cannot understand directly a spiritual belief of another and has no indirect proof, then that person is faced with a problem. If the unbeliever (atheist) accepts that the other has had a spiritual experience, then that means the atheist is deficient in some manner. Unless the atheist wants to admit this deficiency (which is rare) they then have to take the second path – trying to prove the other person’s beliefs are false. Yet, spiritual experiences are not something you can measure. It is not possible for the atheist to get out a scale and say “see your belief does not measure up!” The attack on spiritual and religious knowledge must take different approaches.
One approach is the strawman approach. In this approach, the atheist constructs a strawman; that is, they liken the religious belief to some other, more tangible belief, and then attack the strawman. For example, someone could say that the belief in God is like the belief in Santa Claus. Since we all know Santa Claus does not exist, it is obvious that God does not exist. This argument fails on many dimensions.
Santa Claus is a belief children develop because they accepted their parents and adults as an authority on the subject. The adults lied to the children (we hide that fact by calling it a fantasy or a story, but it is still a lie). The children have no other source, so they accept the adult’s authority. They believe in the existence of Santa Claus on authority of the lying adults. Once the children grow old enough to perform an independent validation, they uncover the lie. Their belief changes because they have new facts and data.
An atheist saying that belief in God is like a belief in Santa Claus is actually saying that belief in God is like a belief in a lie that some authority told you. This may hold for children and extremely gullible people, but it does not hold for discerning, open minded adults who have directly experienced God. In addition, the believer has additional proof of God that the believer in Santa Claus does not have. There are corroborating historical documents that validate some of the religious writings. There is the fact that millions of people have died for their belief – something that has not happened over the belief in Santa Claus. More importantly, the belief in God is open to everyone, and everyone can run the religious experiment. That is, each person has the opportunity to follow the authoritative sources on God and see the results for themselves.
The other approach an atheist can try to discredit a religious belief is to claim that science has never proved God exists and they only believe in science. Before I get into what science can and cannot prove I have to address this belief in science. Science has brought a lot of knowledge and understanding to the world. Science has enabled a lot of engineering and technology that brings enhanced medicines, labor saving devices, and so on. (It also enhanced war, pollution, oppression, and other ills, but we don’t need to go there for our current discussion.) So, saying you believe in science seems reasonable. The problem is most people have no idea what they are talking about or what they believe in when they say they believe in science.
First off, almost everything we call science these days is actually engineering. Computers, cell phones, air planes, medicines, surgical procedures, cars, TVs, and on and on are all engineering feats. For the most part, the science on these things is done behind closed doors and people never see the actual science. Most people wouldn’t even know the scientific method if it hit them in the face. So, what people are really saying when they say they believe in science is that they believe in the technology they have and they believe the authoritative sources that they are exposed to who proclaim the greatness of science.
Let’s look at those authoritative sources. In most countries a major part of scientific research is funded by the government. Research gets published in journals, but most people have never even seen a scientific journal, let alone read one. Even though scientists publish, the publication is controlled by a review from scientific peers. The government controls what scientists investigate through funding, and therefore control what scientists understand and believe. I will point out that the government is controlled by politicians and bureaucrats not scientists or even people with a scientific background.
People’s exposure to science first comes about in school. The classes are taught by the teachers, who are managed by administrators, and the whole thing is controlled and regulated by the government. A lot or research and enhanced scientific advances come from universities. Universities get a major part of their funding either directly (through grants) or indirectly (through tuition) that is paid by the government. Other sources of scientific information and “discovery” comes from governmental agencies like NASA, national science foundation, food and drug administration, US department of agriculture, the atomic energy commission and its various follow on agencies, the department of defense, environmental protection agency, national weather service, US geological survey, and on and on.
Some people are exposed to science through things like public television. Public TV gets a majority of their funding from the government. If you perform a review of a lot of “scientific” articles on public media you will find that a lot comes from some governmental source (like NASA). Non-governmental entities, like the Discovery Channel may present “scientific documentaries” but these are often sensationalized stories. Interestingly enough, many of the critics of these documentaries are government funded agencies and government supported public media.
So, when a person says they believe in science, they are really saying that they believe in the government. The government is controlled and run by politicians, and we all know that politicians lie, cheat, twist the truth, hide information, and do whatever they can to remain in power. Since most people have no direct experience with science, then when an atheist says they believe in science what they are saying is that their belief is just like the belief in Santa Claus – it’s based on a lie.
As I have shown, science cannot prove or disprove love. Science cannot measure anything that is personal. Scientists cannot measure thoughts, feelings, ideas, responses, or any of thousands of deeply personal experiences. Yet, we all know these are real. Science cannot answer basic questions like why does the universe exist or what is the meaning of life? While modern science has discovered a huge amount about the physical reality, there is way more to our existence than just the physical.
Science (as people define science, which are the physical and social sciences) cannot, and never will, be able to scientifically prove personal, internal experiences of people. Science is limited. So, when an atheist says they only believe in science, they are also saying that they do not believe in emotions, thoughts, ideals, creativity, art, spirituality, honor, or God. That’s kind of a limited point of view.
When I say I believe in God, I am not saying that I believe that someone once told me God exists and I accept their authority on the subject. I say I believe because I have personal knowledge that I have tested using the scientific method. I have investigated life with and without God. I have researched God, the authoritative writings, and talked with people who I feel are experts on the subject (both for and against). I have weighed all of the evidence and data and I have found that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of believing that God exists.
I cannot prove God’s existence. I cannot pull out a photograph of God or take out my telescope and show you God. However, I have looked deep inside myself and have found God there, waiting for me. I cannot force you to believe. I can only say that if you run the experiment – that is, if you follow the teachings of an authoritative source on religion and God, then you too may experience God in a way similar to (but not exactly the same as) my experience.
I hope you do. I hope that you run the experiment and prove to yourself the existence of God. However, if you instead try to hide behind science and use science as a shield, you will find that the shield is very small indeed and not much protection against larger truths.