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Jul 01 2009

Why people believe in god-3: What do religious people actually believe?

Apologists for ‘moderate’ religion always start by saying that they accept science, and begin with arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as virgin births or that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the same emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any religious fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne all start out arguing on a high intellectual plane, but they end up making almost the very same assertions of belief of the average churchgoer in the pew on any given Sunday.

So what do religious people actually believe? There are no simple answers. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12), Victor J. Stenger tries to pin down the philosophical foundations of people’s belief in god. But I am interested in more practical questions.

The vague “Do you believe in god” type questions that are usually asked of believers are useless because it is not clear what people believe even if they say yes. Is it the deist god Deigod or Gosh or the full-blooded, omnipotent, omniscient, miracle working Supergod or (as is most likely) some personally concocted hybrid?

So here are some questions that would help make the discussions more fruitful. I wish that the polling agencies would ask questions like these as this gives a much better picture of what people actually believe.

  1. Is god a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is god made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does god exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is god a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can god change the past?
  5. Does god know the future?
  6. Does god know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

My experience suggests that most religious people would answer the above questions as follows: 1: (b), 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: no, 5: yes, 6: yes, 7: yes, 8: yes

I also have bonus questions for those who call themselves Christians:

  1. Do you believe Jesus was totally human when he lived on the Earth, with a fully human body, with no powers or abilities not possessed by any other human?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus really died on the cross, with his body experiencing the same changes after death that any human body does?
  3. Do you believe that the same physical body then came back to life?
  4. If the answer to question #3 is ‘yes’, where is that physical body now?

I suspect that most Christians will answer: 1: yes, 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: heaven.

Of course, all these answers lead to all manner of severe contradictions, either because they are internally inconsistent or they violate basic scientific principles. For example, the idea that god took a fully human form in the shape of Jesus is central to Christian dogma. Otherwise what was the point of the whole exercise? But if Jesus is totally human, how could he perform his miracles? It is to evade this type of contradiction that religious language and concepts like ‘kenosis’ or the doctrine that Jesus is fully god and fully human are introduced, which make no consistent logical sense but can be interpreted in any way that the situation requires.

As for the second question, we know that our bodies undergo irreversible decay rapidly after death, which is why organ removal for donations must be done immediately. So if Jesus was totally human and his body decayed for three days, how did he recover the use of his organs when his body was resurrected?

There really is no way to escape these contradictions without resorting to saying that Jesus is at least on occasion Supergod.

More sophisticated religious believers know this is a problem and will try to avoid answering the questions I posed, likely retreating to an extreme form of religion-speak suggesting that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answers to such questions because god is so deeply mysterious that any attempt to understand his nature in any concrete way is doomed to failure. This non-answer enables them to avoid having to publicly acknowledge any contradictions while privately assigning any properties they want to god that gives them emotional satisfaction. Or they will give the answers I provided and wave away any contradictions by invoking the ‘mysterious ways clause’ that allows god to circumvent any contradictions in ways that we cannot know.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will take a stab at answering those questions so that we can get a grip on what exactly we are talking about.

POST SCRIPT: Hey, I never promised you a rose garden

God makes Jesus an offer that he thinks of refusing.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    ollie

    I’ll take a stab at this one; I am a cradle Catholic (who “evolved” into becoming an atheist):

    many educated “believers” see the Jesus story as some sort of a “myth” to live life by: “dying” means no longer living selfishly and “being reborn” means thinking about others and accepting that the individual doesn’t always know what is best (e. g., you might want to fly to Argentina to be with a pretty mistress, but “doing the right thing” means sticking with your family, etc.

    Once I took the belief.net quiz “What Kind of Christian Are You” and answered the questions honestly; I had a naturalistic explanation for every single Jesus miracle.

    I was scored as a “liberal Christian of the Hillary Clinton” variety. :-)

  2. 2
    JVW

    I’m not religious but I would like to make a suggestion. I believe that most religious people are religious in a purely social and/or practical manner. Based on my experience living here in an EXTREMELY religious and conservative area I just don’t see much evidence to suggest that people in general give this stuff much thought. Instead, they follow a standard life path that involves – at minimum – professing a belief in God and an acceptance of Jesus as their personal savior.

    However, when pressed to discuss the matter, I find that most people shun the topic and won’t engage or they get very angry about it. In short: I don’t think the vast majority of people have given these questions any thought at all. For them, religion is simply a part of normalized daily life, little more than a ritual.

  3. 3
    Brock

    Hm, together questions 8 and 4 (from the second set) are interesting. I mean, if religious people think that humans have a soul/spirit that lives on and goes to heaven/hell, why wouldn’t the same have happened to Jesus? If he was 100% human, why wouldn’t his body rot in the ground like everyone else’s? And what use would god have for the body anyway? Why not leave it as strong evidence for what what supposedly his greatest act since creation?

    So, once again, this god character sounds like a jerk, and “explaining” his actions requires deliberately removing convenient evidence after-the-fact.

    It’s not just fiction, but very poor fiction. As JVW says most people don’t even think about it — it’s ground into them as unquestionably true from an early age — and it takes more energy to think independently and question authority than it does to “go with the flow”.

  4. 4
    Ray Foulkes

    This topic of what Christians – or other religious believers in God really believe is one of my favourites!

    What DO they TRUELY believe? It is cheap and easy to SAY they believe in God and that Jesus was REALLY resurrected and went to Heaven but…

    If, like the bible says his body rose upwards into the sky … Hmmm it gets pretty cold up there and lacking in oxygen and where did he go when he got to outer space without a space suit?

    ANY sensible person cannot claim that Jesus was human and rose to heaven in this way – they always fudge the issue when I challenge them on this on – back tracking and saying that the Bible should not be taken literally… oh really?

    And this takes me to one of my favourite questions for the ones who claim to ‘truly believe’…

    Why do religious people mourn the death of a loved one so – if they truly believe they have gone to an eternal paradise?

    Whenever I have had the opportunity to pose this question to someone who claims that they believe in God, Heaven and the life ever after, they say that it is because they are going to miss them until they die too and join them. Really? Well if they are going to join them for ETERNITY which, in the words of Rowan Atkinson is “a heck of a long time” why all the tears if they are only going to be apart for a few short years?

    If a loved one emigrates to another continent and we loose touch for a few years we do not grieve in the same way.

    And how many self professed ‘believers’ would put the ultimate to the test and give up their own life for their beliefs?. History might be littered with a few such misguided examples but how many of TODAY’S so called believers would willingly die, resting assured that they will go to Heaven?

    I would say that the price to pay for saying you believe is very small, you have to pray a bit, maybe go to church which can be nice if you meet with friends, and get an endorphine rush from all the singing – a small price to pay – but what a payoff if you are right! eternal happiness in paradise! It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket – you pay a small price, you don’t REALLY believe you will win – but if you do – its the jackpot.

    But what if the lottery ticket was really really expensive, like it would bankrupt you if you didn’t win, then your lack of true faith in winning would kick in.

    So imagine this scenario…

    A ‘Christian’ who is facing a psychopath who is intent on killing the Christian…

    “Don’t kill me, God put me on this earth for a purpose, I have God’s work to do…”

    “Yes but I am human too, God made me too and he put ME on this earth for a purpose and He has spoken to me and told me to kill you!”

    What would the Christian really feel at this point?

    That he was really about to go to Heaven and meet God and all his dead loved ones that he or she mourned so much when they died? – or do they feel “no, please no I don’t want to die” because deep down they know what death is – the END of their life, not the beginning of eternal bliss.

    Sure, a tiny minority might truly believe and face their end with eager anticipation but the Vast majority? I think not. They DO NOT REALLY believe, it just suits them to say they do … just in case!

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