Monday, April 30, 2018

Evidence and Axioms

I had a conversation recently about the evidence of God. In academia, and media, there seems to be an assumption that there’s no proof, and therefore no evidence, of God’s existence. I shared with my friend that, in my life, there’s a lot of experiential evidence. When I experience the spiritual presence of God, I often feel particular physical indicators. I was surprised, a few years ago, to learn that those physical sensations don’t happen to everyone. But they do happen to me, consistently under spiritual circumstances.

Also, there’s the way words come clearly into my mind, after prayer, when I’m paying attention. Sometimes long after a prayer, when a circumstance arises that seems to answer that prayer, I ask, “Was that…?” And the answer comes, “Yes.”

I can’t say that I can get the words I need on demand, at any moment, without some spiritual struggle. But I can say that my evidentiary experience that God is there is significant enough to convince me.

I described this evidence to my friend, who is also Christian but not of the same faith as me, and he said that was exactly how it was for him too. Also, he’d be reading scriptures (he has learned Hebrew to read in the original when possible), and his mind would open up and ideas and connections would come, seeming to just flow in, beyond anything he could think up himself. It wasn’t something he was imagining.

That happens to me too. They say, when you want to talk to God, pray; but when you want to hear from God, read the scriptures. The words on the page may or may not be your direct answer, but those words will seem to lead you to thoughts and connections that you needed as an answer.
For those of us who are religious, there’s so much evidence that it’s puzzling when people say there isn’t any.

There’s a new Prager U video about the evidence for God, as well as a number of older ones. But that’s not really what I’m looking at today. I’m interested in what religion is.

It's a principle of the Spherical Model that religion is necessary for civilization.

I’ve finally been reading J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. In it he talks about his grandmother’s personal brand of religion:
cover image from Amazon

The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan (p. 262).
There was a brief time in his life when he went to live with his biological father, who became strictly religious after leaving the family and starting anew. Vance didn’t quite ever feel at home there, but he did appreciate some things about that peaceful, structured, religious world (the footnote is included in his book):

Dad embodied a phenomenon social scientists have observed for decades: Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all.[i]
MIT economist Jonathan Gruber even found that the relationship was causal: It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church, it’s that church seems to promote good habits (p. 282).
There’s plenty of social science discussion in that book for another day. But there’s another somewhat unorthodox definition of religion I came across in a Jordan Peterson Q&A at Lafayette College. I’m including the question, to give a bit of context, and I highlighted the essential definition:

Q: I was watching a few of your interviews in preparation for this, and I heard you speak about religion quite a bit. And, if you look up what religion means in the Webster dictionary, you get something like, “a system of faith centered on a supernatural being or beings,” or something like that. But I’ve heard you use religion to describe something like punk rockers, for example, that that’s a religious experience. So my first question would be, how do you define what is considered religious? ….
JP: Religious is what you act out.
Q: What’s that?
JP: Religious is what you act out.
Q: Anything you act out?
JP: Everything you act out is predicated on your implicit axioms. The system of implicit axioms that you hold as primary is your religious belief system. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or not. That’s just surface noise.
Q: So it has nothing to do with divinity or—?
JP: No, I didn’t say that. No.
Q: It doesn’t necessarily have to do with those?
JP: No, it probably necessarily has to do with it too. But it doesn’t necessarily have to do with your voluntarily articulated statements about whether or not you believe in something like a transcendent deity. So, what you act out is much more what you are than what you say about yourself. And what the hell do you know about what you believe, anyways? You’re complicated, man.
Q: It’s a fair question.
JP: Well, seriously, people are complicated. You know, like, we’re not transparent to ourselves at all. That’s why we have to go to university and study psychology. It’s like, we’re not exactly black boxes, but we are the most complicated things there are. Right? And we can’t even program our VCR clocks. So, it’s like, how the hell can we propose to understand ourselves? And, you know, I’m existentially oriented, which is to say that I think that what you hold to be true is best determined as a consequence of an analysis of your actions, rather than as a consequence of an analysis of what you purport to believe.
Jordan Peterson at Lafayette College

Now, in order to act—  You can’t act without a hierarchy of values… because you can’t act unless you think that one thing is better than another. Because, why would you act, otherwise? So that means that you’re embedded within a hierarchy of values, whether you know it or not. Or maybe multiple fragmentary and competing hierarchies of value, which is all the worse for you, by the way, because it just makes you very confused.
That hierarchy of values has an axiomatic—  It’s based on axioms. And the probability that you understand them is very low, because generally people don’t understand their axioms. But that axiomatic system is essentially your religious system. And there’s no way out of that, as far as I can tell.
And you can say, “Well, it isn’t predicated on a conscious belief in a transcendent deity.” OK, have it your way. But, you know, most people in this room act out a Judeo-Christian ethic. And not only do they act it out, if they’re treated in a manner that’s not commensurate with that ethic, they get very, very annoyed.
For example, if I fail to treat you as if you’re an embodiment of a divine fragment, let’s say, that’s characterized by the ability to make free choice, and to determine your own destiny in some sense, or if I fail to treat you as if you’re a valued member—a valued, contributing member of the polity, as a sovereign individual, then you’ll find that very offensive and become angry. OK, then, that’s what you believe.
If I ask you if you believe any of that, well, that’s a whole different story. You might give me some radical leftist nonsense. But that doesn’t take away from the fundamentals of your actions.
I’ve said before that, while it’s possible for atheists to live moral lives, they’re not doing it in a vacuum; they’re doing it within a civilization that sets up certain values.

·         We believe that each human life is precious.
·         We believe that human life is more precious than non-human life.
·         We believe that human beings should be free to choose how to live their lives—how to earn a living, how to form and raise their family, how to live out their religious beliefs.
·         We believe that people can own property, and we need to respect that ownership.
·         We believe that people should tell the truth to one another.
·         We believe that people should keep their word—have integrity, not betray one another.
·         We believe it is good to voluntarily help one another, especially the less fortunate.
·         We believe that purposely harming another person is wrong, except in self-defense.
We have laws against stealing, against perjury and bearing false witness. We have laws against murder and assault. We argue about the rightness of capital punishment (which takes non-innocent life as a response to serious crime), and about abortion or euthanasia (which takes innocent life but involves issues related to choice).

We think we should be decent toward one another, and generally polite. It makes it easier for all of us to live in peace, which we prefer.

The Ten Commandments
at the Texas State Capitol
An atheist can tell you these things are right and good, and moral, and that’s why he does them. But all of them relate to the Ten Commandments. They are moral questions, very much in the religious sense.

If an atheist lives in a savage community, never being exposed to the moral codes of civilization, what are the odds he will invent for himself a civilized moral code? Is it possible that he's actually a believer—as his actions show—even though he is unwilling to say so, even to himself?

I’m interested in that Judeo-Christian ethic that Dr. Peterson talks about. Do you feel “annoyed”—or hurt, or betrayed—when someone lies to you? Do you like it when the person you’re in a committed relationship with has sex with other people? Do you think it’s fine for people to be violent against you? If not, maybe you actually prefer civilization. We agree on that. That makes me hopeful.

In this world, in which we are split and splintering, I’m looking for things we have in common. It just might be that the Judeo-Christian foundation of this country is worth preaching—and by that I mean explaining better, more clearly, including the evidence we experience. Also by our actions. And by telling the actual truth. It may require that we stand up and insist on truth, while we still have the freedom to speak it.

We’re not a country built on geography or tribal heritage. We’re built on the idea that all of us human beings are created equal, with inherent rights—that come from God, not government. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which includes property as well as all the other personal choices in our lives and families. And government’s limited role is solely for the protection of these rights.

You don’t get a country that doesn’t infringe on those rights unless you value these very religious ideas.

As I think about it, the very creation of this country is additional evidence that God exists.

[i] Linda Gorman, “Is Religion Good for You?” The National Bureau of Economic Research,

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