With Or Without A Doubt

Every so often I like to reflect on the strength of my convictions that Christianity is true.  Whether such an exercise has any substantial benefit, I don’t know.  But I like to know where I stand, and to what degree.  Recently when pondering this, my focus shifted to the source of the strength of my convictions.  In other words, why did my confidence weaken and strengthen, rather than by how much.

What I learned about myself is that my degree of conviction was directly related to my emotional state.  How sure I believed seemed to coincide with whether I felt God was there, rather than whether I thought God was there.  The more things would go awry, the more I felt God was not a reality.  When things picked up, it seemed that I was mistaken, He is there after all.

My point is that I have never had my faith shaken by an argument.  No one has refuted — in my opinion — arguments for the existence of God.  Or offered credible reasons for me to doubt whether theism were true.  The doubts have always been emotional in nature.  Emotions are fickle by nature.  Basing my worldview on my emotions would be a bit short-sighted to say the least.

I have learned over the years to be extra cautious of my feelings.  I try as best I can to not be guided by my feelings.  They have led me astray in many areas in the past.  Things I felt were true were not, and vice versa.  After a time, I began to think through certain situations I may have allowed myself to let my emotions take the lead on.

So to the Christians out there who may be feeling as though God isn’t there, don’t worry.  It happens.  Remember, the heart is desperately deceitful.  Sit back and remember the reasons Christianity is true, not why you feel Christianity is true.

Comments

  1. Good insight. “God” is an emotion, a feeling, a linkage of your inner thoughts and desires and thus his presence waxes and wanes as does your ethereal self. And yes, your “God-ideology” is a mental construct which can hold steady against any intellectual assault because rationalization skills can fend off all on-comers.

    The point: It seems to me that you are honestly and bravely noticing the difference between “God” and “God-ideology”. A good first step: for indeed, as you say, “the heart is desperately deceitful” but even more so, the mind.

    • Sabio

      If you thought the mind was as deceitful at the heart then how can you argue with me with any confidence? It seems if you really believed that you wouldn’t be telling me how wrong I am all the time.

  2. @John
    Thoughts and Heart are inseparable and both deceitful. But it is all we got, eh?

    • Sabio,

      You aren’t really going to try to talk me into believing thoughts and emotions are so tied together that they cannot be separated, are you. Many times there have been situations that I was emotionally entrenched in, but had to act and decide contrary to the way I wanted to because I knew that would be wrong. Also, parental tough love comes to mind.

  3. Great post! I agree wholeheartedly. Its difficult to separate emotions when it comes to faith. You can’t feel more than one emotion at a time. Its difficult to be depressed and have an optimistic outlook on things at the same time. I know a lot of people become closer to God in difficult times… but often it can go in the opposite direction too. We more often act on emotions instead of facts. Its hard to train oneself to think logically and rationally instead of thinking with emotions. I am terrible at that! But its something I am working on. :)

  4. Hmmmm, the connection between thoughts and emotions — didn’t think you’d find it controversial. When you feel you are escaping emotions with rationality at times, it is actually moving from a certain emotion to others. And all those are linked with thoughts. They always come as a package. The whole process of limbic-cerebral connections are unavoidable and complexly interwoven. Have you read much on cognitive science?

  5. Marshall Art says:

    Emotions are controllable. It is hard to be sad when one purposely thinks happy thoughts or postures one’s self in a happy manner. Thoughts come and go, seemingly on their own, though we can control how we think and how we perceive. We can rationalize and overcome an emotional state so as to proceed with logic and reason.

    But I don’t think this is what John is talking about here.

    Some people do not think of God when their lives are running smoothly, often taking credit for the good that occurs, where others will give praise to God and be thankful for blessings bestowed. At the same time, others will fall away when times are bad, while others turn to God during such times. The emotions of each of these situations are extremes and different people react differently during good times, when emotions are high in a positive direction, as well as acting differently when times are bad and emotions are high in a negative direction. It is in the middle where we think and see clearly and can reason about God’s existence. Emotion, be it extremely positive or negative, interferes with intelligence. In other words, when emotions rise, so does stupidity.

    We are always in some emotional state, the level of which is changing always. But as the emotional state moves to one extreme or the other, we are best served by withholding decisions until we are in a more emotionally neutral state, where clear thinking takes place. And it is here where we can best decide our position on our convictions.

    • Marshall

      Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I think people loosen up on what they consider to be evidences, so to speak, when they are in emotional ruts when it comes to God.

  6. Emotions should not be reduced to cognition’s nor viewed as mere by products of cognitive appraisal. Emotions are relatively independent of and PRIOR to cognition’s. Emotions are too quick for cognition-an immediate “hot” affective response may occur in a given situation, followed by a slower “cold” cognition that exists as something of a rationalization for what has already occurred emotionally. Preferences need no inferences. In other words, you feel before you think.

  7. This sounds like some double-speak. I’ve been around the country sitting with atheists and theists who invariably want to talk about what brought them to their beliefs. Almost invariably, I find the atheists tell a story of study of their parent’s religion followed by study of other religions leading eventually, by process of elimination and one might say natural selection, to the development of a secular humanist life stance.
    Often in those same sessions, I find theists, born again Christian clergy in most cases, telling a story of trauma – the death of a child or a loved one or a troubled young life with drug abuse – leading to their rejection of reason in favor of a faith-based embrace of fundamentalist Christian values.
    I would agree that “belief” is better termed a feeling, while “knowledge” is an assessment of evidence (sufficient or insufficient; best or second-best). I have certain feelings about the world, occasionally, which are sometimes in accordance with the evidence and sometimes not. I’m able to understand the difference.
    In this sense, your words betray your true bias. You talk about when your ‘convictions waiver’ because you have a focus primarily on protecting your preconceptions rather than finding truth. If you truly sought truth, your feelings wouldn’t be the point and your preconceptions would be irrelevant to the question. Protecting your current belief would be totally beside the point of what arguments are and are not valid.

    • Jason

      I’m not following. My point is feelings do not determine whether God exists. People who go from theist to atheist because they don’t “feel” like God is there is acting hastily and wrongly.

      Someone who goes from theist to atheist because they reason themselves there is at least more justified even thought they are wrong.

      Atheists who go from atheism to theism because of some emotional experience, in my opinion, end up in the right place for the wrong reason.

  8. Here is my post from a year ago: Inseperable Thought-Emotion. And here is an article discussing some of the same. If any of you are interested.

    I would agree that culturing emotions is very important. Of course it is clear that different emotional states will drastically change our behavior and decisions. But even negative emotions can be our friends.

    Soldier Example
    If you are a soldier relaxed on opium, the fear response would be blunted and you would be killed by an attacking enemy. In this case, “fear” reveals its obvious adaptive value for weighting behavioral options — likewise for anger and others.

    Christian Example
    Thirty years ago I traveled across Iran and Afghanistan with a fellow who felt God would take care of him — and due to his belief he I had to take him for emergent dental care and help him out of starvation and get him out of jail. Maybe I was God’s answer to his faith — but I wager he is died an early death due to his mistaken faith. On days when things were going horrible, he would occasionally doubt his faith. But I think those times, he emotions were caring for him much deeper than his god was.

    • Sabio

      I am really trying to figure out why you are failing to grasp what I’m getting at. Maybe you will answer a question for me, it is yes or no.

      Does how I feel about whether the God of the bible exists determine whether the God of the bible exists?

  9. @ John Barron,
    No more than your ‘thinking’ about it has done.

    • Then you don’t get it. And its because you equate thinking and feeling. I don’t say Gods existence isn’t determined by my feeling, but it is determined by my thinking.

      The differenciation I am making is thinking your way to a belief in God is due to reflecting on and assessing arguments and facts of history and reaching a conclusion. Basically forming your view based on information outside yourself. As opposed to forming your view based on information about yourself.

      I’m not sure if you’re being intentionally difficult, or if you really don’t understand the point I am making.

  10. John,

    I’m not sure if you’re being intentionally difficult, or if you really don’t understand the point I am making.

    I am not equating thinking and feeling. I am saying they are unavoidably linked in all cases. Did you read either of the links I supplied?

    BTW, the vast majority of believers[in all faiths] I know would never say that by “reflecting on and assessing arguments and facts of history and reaching a conclusion [they came to ther belief of the existence of their god].”

    Some Christians think God is mainly know through feeling and relationship, you want it by thinking. Both obviously have huge problems.

    Check out the links if you really want to understand or I may just have to reflect your own rhetoric back at you again.

    • Sabio,

      Thanks for reminding me just how much I’ve missed your condescension. But I am one believer who has never had a religious emotional experience. I was more or less argued into my religious convictions.

    • Also

      Your links do not address MY point. You have yet again tried to reframe my post to the content you would rather it is. This seems to be a habit of yours. Marshall restated my point in his own words, and I pointed that out. But for some reason you feel the need to try to make my argument something it isn’t, then get testy with me for not admitting that position.

      I really find it distasteful. Enough already.

  11. John,

    I merely quoted your condescention back at you. (“being intentionally difficult”)

    You may have been argued into it (by your boss) but I guarentee you that all types of limbic activity (emotions) were involved every step of the way as Functional MRIs and such have clearly demonstrated. Read the links, John.

    • My friend who later became a supervisor set me in a direction, he had relatively little to add by way of apologetics for Christianity.

      But unfortunately your links are irrelevant to my point, so me rereading them won’t do anything. Which only serves to evidence how you have here (and apparently in your mind) reformulated what it is I have written, and so you think they have anything to do with this.

  12. Then I must be deluded. For I was under the impression that you felt that the best Christianity is a purely rational Christianty which is not susceptible to the vagaries of emotions. But I responded by saying that your whole approach was wrong (though Plato and other ancient Westerner philosophers would have agreed with your artificial dichotomy of reason vs emotions). And since your approach was wrong, your conclusion (no matter how little I am invested in it) is also mistaken.

    But yes, I could be wrong — my mind (emotions-thoughts) deceive me too. But that is what we have.
    When I show your your own condescending reflection — it always irritates you. Rightly so.

    • As much as I do personally think a thoughtful intellectually held Christianity is preferable to one held with feeling and experience, that isn’t my point in this commentary.

      Perhaps I should illustrate it for you with a personal narrative.

      Speaking for myself, I believe philosophical arguments for the existence of God are valid and true, for example the cosmological arguments, the argument from fine tuning etc. I also believe the bible is a trustworthy account of God’s interaction with humanity. Now if for whatever reason I become distraught and feel “spiritually alone” that should not override what I already know to be true. My distraughtness and aloneness does not negate the arguments and it doesn’t render the bible unreliable. Therefore to reject my faith for the sake of new emotions is not wise. There is no reason to reject Christianity for this emotional reason — that some people do.

      There are people who will throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting God and becoming an unbeliever based on this down trodden experience.

      What you have done is contrast two different foundations for belief, which I have not done. You have welded together rational thought processes and the ability to assess information with feelings, for some reason.

      So if you still don’t get it. There’s nothing more I can say. 2 other commenters got it on the first try. You seem to belabor ideas I have not addressed as though you are actually discussing the post at hand.

  13. “Two other commenters got it” because they have the same assumptions you have. I am addressing those fundamental, non-religious, epistemological assumptions.

    Yes, I think all those philosophical arguments for your God are very weak or impotently equivocal at best and so, the cause of your being convinced by them is that they offered an emotional support to some very black-and-white thinking and feelings you have. I wager you have not explored or thought about them nearly as emotionally detached as you’d like to imagine yourself.

    You are right, playing up the emotions (pride, courage, fear and others to strengthen the belief in those weak philosophical arguments, may protect you from giving them up when the world is showing you that there is no god as you imagine. But they you have emotion-ideas fighting emotion-ideas.

    But maybe I am still not getting through to you. Maybe you still see this all as irrelevant. But I gave it a good try.

    • I see your comments on this post as irrelevant because you are still snidely and smugly insisting I am just too simple to understand that your version of my point doesn’t hold water, but that’s your problem, not mine.

      They got it because they didn’t impose their own version of what they think I should have been saying and then argue against that, they read my post for what it was.

  14. Well, again, we end disagreeing.

  15. Terrance H. says:

    John,

    You’ve probably heard this before, but one cannot prove a negative. I cannot prove to you that God does not exist, nor do I expect you to prove to me that He does. The issue boils down to evidence. I have seen no evidence for God’s existence, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t there. I don’t know. I just have a very difficult time believing there is a God when I see all the suffering the world has to offer. I realize my disbelief hinges on an agument you’ve heard countless times, and it is by far the most popular reason for atheism. But until someone can bridge that gap for me with a sound argument, I cannot reconcile a belief in God with the suffering I see.

    I think what really ruined it for me is hearing people with comparatively minor issues claim that God did this or that for them. I think to myself, “He helped you quit smoking, but didn’t bother to help the starving kid in Africa. Hmmm.” It’s absurd.

    • T

      You arent looking for evidence. Yours is an emotional rejection, not an intellectual rejection. There are plenty of arguments with plenty of evidences for the existence of God. Judging by the things you have said here (and elsewhere) you are running on feelings. An argument or “evidence” isnt going to solve that.

  16. John,

    I think you are a thoughtful person who is genuinely concerned with existential matters. Your interpretation of the very human question “why are we here in this world?” is that God put us here and it’s all a part of his/her plan. I sense that the this interpretation is largely based on feelings and emotion, probably at a level so far below consciousness that you don’t recognize its effect. This subliminal guidance to your belief system can lead you to see that which supports this view when you approach the world with what appears to you to be a purely rational viewpoint.

    I’m reading a wonderful book about cognitive science by Antonio Damasio, “Self Comes to Mind.” I’m not getting it all (it’s hard reading for me) but one point I’m starting to see is that our view of self is largely tied to primordial feelings, though we see our sense of self as purely rational. Belief or non-belief in God can have a lot to do with these primordial feelings. Just because you’re not aware that your belief is rooted in emotions doesn’t mean that you’re basing your views on reason. You believe because it’s the only way you can authentically be, and still be yourself. It appears that Sabio and I don’t believe, and probably for the same reason.

    • Max

      I am as suspect of the claim that all (or most) of what I consider to be rooted in rationality opinions, are really rooted in some subconscious emotion as you would be if I asserted that the only reason you aren’t a Christian is because you have some animosity with your father or lack there of, but just don’t know it.

      Do you see any liability in telling someone that they formed their beliefs by means of something they incorrigibly believe otherwise?

  17. @ Max,
    Very well said. I agree that Damasio (a neuroscientist) is very good reading — great research. I have seen his writings change the thinking of Atheists, Buddhists and Christians alike. Afterall, we all share the same “common sense” to construct our models of reality. Damasio offers us knowledge not available to ancient writers which overthrows some “common sense” about emotions, thoughts and decisions.

  18. @ Sabio,
    I’m surprised I haven’t run into him before (Damasio). I followed the link to your post on Inseparable Thought-Emotion and the first commenter referred to his “Descartes’ Error”. Also, in that post you highlight Daniel Goleman’s “Destructive Emotions.” I read his “Emotional Intelligence” about a year or so ago which launched me on a wonderful binge of reading about new discoveries in neuroscience and human psychology (along with a lot of the Buddhist crap I dearly love). I’ll have to put both of those books in my reading queue.

    I meant what I said about our host here. John’s willingness to provide a forum for a wide range of opinions sets him apart for a Christian blog. After all, we’re here aren’t we? My aesthetic sensibility gives him a lot of slack for a very tastefully designed blog as well. Your exchanges with him have been very interesting to observe. I suspect that his tendency to see you as condescending says more about him – and his unconscious biases – than it does of you. I wouldn’t put us past having our own such biases though.

  19. If I don’t know it, then I suppose my biases with regard to belief could have something to do with something to do with my father, or it could have something to do with anything else imaginable or unimaginable. I will try to remain open to such remote possibilities.

    In answer to your question, I don’t consider myself liable for suggesting possibilities than you may not have considered fully, as I would hold you to no ill account for suggesting the same of me. I will say that I am generally not inclined to incorrigible belief of any sort. Or perhaps it’s another unconscious bias of mine to always question? Perhaps I should consider a leap of blind faith, and at least test the hypothesis that this might lead me to a new unimagined wisdom? I’ll keep it in my mind. For now, though, I’ve got a few more books to read, and blog posts to peruse.

  20. Terrance H. says:

    John,

    I could curb my emotional reaction enough to consider the possibility of God if someone would for once present to me a logical, sound argument for God’s existence. The emotional, in my view, seems to come from all the believers. “I know God is watching over.” No, you don’t know that. You might feel that, or think you feel that, but you sure don’t “know it.” So we shouldn’t pretend as though a belief in God is pure logic, because it’s not and you know it. Emotion is present on both sides.

    If there are plenty of logical arguments for God’s existence, then present to me one. I’m sure you have a post on your blog somewhere. Let me read it. Tell me what keywords to search and I’ll find it myself.

  21. As one pastor said, feelings and emotions make a great caboose but a lousy engine. If your life is led by emotions you will have serious problems.

  22. Ah, one problem here might be the understanding of “What is an emotion” or the demonization of emotions.
    Lots of people have wrestled forming taxonomies of emotions.
    See Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions diagram, for example
    But no matter what the taxonomy, there are many.
    I think people here who are sympathetic to John’s post are thinking of the “negative” or “undesirable” emotions. But, as I said, every cognitive state is accompanied with emotional states — you are saying to take care to not let “negative” emotions accompany your decisions.
    My point: emotions accompany every decision. The Greek dichotomy of emotion vs. reason is false (best they could do at that time, but false).

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