I often hear believers (including my beloved wife) say that they “just know” that God exists. This seemingly innate awareness of God’s existence is often used as grounds to override and dismiss any and all evidence to the contrary.
And admittedly, this sense that God exists can be a difficult feeling to shake, especially for those (like myself) who are experiencing serious doubt for the first time.
If it is true that God is communicating a message of his existence to us, can we prove it? And if he’s not, can we disprove it?
“Deep down, everyone knows that God exists!”
Believers sometimes claim that, deep down, everyone knows that God exists (see Romans 1:18-32). The most frequently cited evidence for this is that many diverse cultures have independently come to believe in some form of god, gods, or spirits.
While this is true, these disparate cultures came to drastically different conclusions about what “god” was: very often there were plural gods, sometimes they were ancestral spirits, sometimes they had physical bodies (male and female), sometimes they were animals or natural objects (like idols, planets, oceans, trees, mountains, volcanoes, the sun, etc.), and some cultures had no gods at all (such as some Eastern philosophies — which should make us wonder why God didn’t prompt them into thinking theisticly).
While these gods were all very different, what they did have in common were the humans who’d invented them — humans who were all sharing a similar experience.
Surely our ancestors must’ve wondered where the first humans came from — and they all must’ve logically deduced that the first humans couldn’t have given birth to themselves. Something else must’ve created them; ergo, god(s).
They also must’ve wondered what happened to people when they died, or why nature behaved the way it did; ergo, invisible spirits.
(Similarly, many cultures also invented monster stories, but we don’t use this commonality to try and support the claim that monsters exist.)
If God did impart knowledge of Himself to these cultures, it’s curious that he didn’t also universally impart basic details about Himself — information that could not be logically deduced (such as his name, his 10 commandments, or that he was three gods in one).
Can we objectively test a feeling?
There may actually be objective ways that we can prove God is revealing hidden truths to us.
For example, we could place a Bible inside a box, alongside 99 other boxes filled with something more sinister… like copies of the Satanic Bible… or The God Delusion… or Harry Potter… or gay porn… or whatever else God detests. If believers can consistently demonstrate that they “just know” which box contains the “Word of God,” then we might have evidence that spiritual insights exist, and they can provide us with reliable information. (Assuming no trickery was involved.)
But these experiments would surely fail, and believers would retreat to the claim that God refuses to be tested. (If you can pull this off, The Amazing Randi is still willing to pay $1,000,000 for a controlled demonstration.)
What else might God reveal to us?
People also have very strong feelings about their particular religion. They “just know” that God exists, and they “just know” that their religion is true.
I once asked a young Mormon missionary, “How do you know the Book of Mormon is true?” He answered, with a contagious zeal, “I just know, that I know, that I know! I prayed about it and felt God’s peace — a peace that Satan cannot imitate — and I knew that God was telling me that the Book of Mormon was true!”
But can I trust his feelings? Watch these three short testimonials about how people feel about reading the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Quran:
All three of these people “just know” that their religious text is correct, because of how it makes them feel and how it has changed their lives for the better.
But if these religions are mutually exclusive (i.e. you’re not allowed to be all three), then what some of these people “just know” must be “just wrong.”
At least two of these men (and possibly all three) are being mislead by their feelings. This tells me that I can’t trust my own feelings when it comes to religious matters, because it can be logically demonstrated that feelings suck at determining real truth.
Are you certain you’re certain?
And there are other, more philosophical, problems with having certainty about God’s existence.
According to Hebrews 11:6, it is impossible to please God without faith. If we are absolutely convinced, can we still please God? Is our free will destroyed once we obtain this high level of certainty?
Also, is it possible to “just know” something and then un-know it? There are former Christians, pastors, preachers, priests, etc. who also once “just knew” that God existed, yet these convictions didn’t prevent them from later concluding otherwise.
“If God isn’t giving me this message, then why do I feel so strongly that he exists?”
These feelings may exist and persist for a number of reasons:
1) Natural selection may favor the religious brain
Geneticist Dean Hamer postulates that a more religious disposition can be be triggered by a single God gene, which seems, to me, like a bit of an oversimplification. However, there may be something to his idea that spiritually minded individuals are favored by natural selection (an idea first postulated by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man).
Inheritable traits that foster empathy, compassion, cooperation, optimism, and an ability to learn, may have helped us to survive, but they may have also made us more susceptible to adopting any religious dogmas that happened to be a part of our culture. This ability and willingness to embrace communal and cultural thinking (religious or otherwise) may have helped to ensure our survival.
“The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.”
~ Edward O. Wilson
2) Cultural indoctrination
If we are raised from childhood to believe that something called “God” exists, that perception becomes our reality.
If our entire worldview is wrapped around the idea of God, it can be a difficult idea to erase. Years of indoctrination, repetition, Sunday school classes, sermons, Christian schools, emotional songs, the perception of answered prayers, religious experiences, and even casual conversations about God (like this one), can all serve to reinforce the idea that God exists.
Eventually, we come to “just know” God exists because our brains are hardwired to believe it. And because this idea cannot be easily disproved (which shouldn’t be mistaken for actual evidence), the idea is not readily dispelled.
These literal wrinkles in our brain are not easily overwritten, and won’t be, unless we willfully and actively seek out alternative explanations. However, doing so goes against our instinct to conform to cultural beliefs, and so we may feel uncomfortable about rebelling against our culture, and possibly against God himself.
We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.
~ Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, 2012
On a loosely related note, our cultures teach us many things that we just take for granted. For example, we all “just know” that words like “shit” and “fuck” are “bad” words. But what makes these words any worse than words like “poop” or “sex”? Nothing really, they’re only bad because someone in our history decided they were, and eventually everyone came to accept it. But the opposite could’ve just as easily been true; “shit” and “fuck” could’ve become the socially acceptable terms, while words like “poop” or “sex” may have become curse words. When we are raised to believe certain things, we can feel strongly that we “just know” they are true, but this has more to do with how our brains were programmed than what may actually be true.
3) When it comes to God, we may be thinking intuitively, not analytically
New research suggests that people who rely more heavily on intuitive kinds of thinking are more prone to draw religious conclusions than those who rely on analytic thinking. The Huffington Post reports:
Psychologists often carve thinking into two broad categories: intuitive thinking, which is fast and effortless (instantly knowing whether someone is angry or sad from the look on her face, for example); and analytic thinking, which is slower and more deliberate (and used for solving math problems and other tricky tasks). Both kinds of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses, and they often seem to interfere with one another. “Recently there’s been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes,” says Will Gervais, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada and a co-author of the new study, published today in Science.
One example comes from a study by neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene and colleagues at Harvard University, published last September in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. They asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online to answer three questions with appealingly intuitive answers that turn out to be wrong. For example, “A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Although $0.10 comes easily to mind (it’s the intuitive answer), it takes some analytical thought to come up with the correct answer of $0.05. People who chose more intuitive answers on these questions were more likely to report stronger religious beliefs, even when the researchers controlled for IQ, education, political leanings, and other factors.
In short, nature readies the brain to learn from and conform to social norms; our cultures then define what these norms are, and our brains embrace these ideals, especially when they can protect us and are not easily disproved. We come to intuitively “know” that God exists because that is what our brain has been programmed to believe.
While it should be possible to prove the existence of special knowledge based on feelings alone, such claims have never met the burden of proof. What has been demonstrated is that our feelings and intuitions are wholly unreliable when it comes to revealing hidden truths.
Feelings and intuitions are not reliable evidence when it comes to determining truth, if they were, we wouldn’t need science, or juries — we would “just know” the truth! The inherent danger in assuming you “just know” anything is that it hinders you from learning more about the situation, and it deprives you of the opportunity to develop a more informed opinion.
Instead of saying, “I know God exists,” it’s probably more accurate to say, “I strongly believe that God exists,” or “I have faith that God exists.” But as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”