Conversations about the divine tend to focus on the content of belief, the what, over the purpose and motivation for such understanding, the why. However, there is value in the investigation of the human need for faith in a deity, just as there are in the elements of that belief system. Among the problems I have encountered in the God vs. no-God debate is the argument over what we believe. The standard tactic seems to be pointing to someone’s belief as incorrect due to lack of historical documentation, insufficient empirical evidence, or the objection to an appeal to the supernatural. These arguments are valid on their own. However, their power to convince is questionable.
When confronted by a non-believer questioning my position on the reality of the world, it was entirely too simple to brush them off with ‘you just don’t understand.’ What, in hindsight, is now crystal clear is that I had no intellectual reason for maintaining my position. However, I was a master at making it seem as though I did. In your adventures with both believers and heretics, you have probably encountered someone like me. I was well-read and thoroughly versed in the research to support my ‘unsupportable assertions.’ Confirmation bias was the glue that held my need to believe together. When I first began to see that much of what I read in sacred texts seemed to be nonsense, it did not break the spell. It became quite simple to blame all the inconsistencies and apparent exaggerations on overzealous men trying to sell their particular brand of religion. Undaunted, the search for the common thread among the many different belief systems of the world began, with the intention of removing the human errors of translation, interpretation, and exaggeration. There had to be a common thread, and I was going to find it!
The more I dug into traditional sacred texts such as The Torah, The New Testament, Bhagavad Gita, Quran, and various Buddhist Sutras the more disillusioned my mind became. All the familiar ethical and moral tenets were simple core social values or cultural dictum. When we begin to examine where these systems arise it is not necessary to look beyond the human condition which we have on grand display if we merely consider our own lives and motivations.
When the spell finally broke for me, it was through deep, introspective (and quite painful) questioning of why I believed. Examining my individual beliefs, one at a time, considering the origin of and, more importantly, my need to hold onto them. In this way, I assert, it then may be possible for the believer to shift the emotional shackles of faith into a position where the need to hold those beliefs can be discarded.
In closing the next time you are debating with your favorite believer, consider asking them why they believe rather than what they believe. While you’re at it may I also recommend asking yourself the same?