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The Question of God

Why Believe?

Armand Nicholi: Lewis wrote in a letter about his transformation from being a militant atheist to the spiritual worldview that it was very intellectual, very gradual, and not simple. He first noticed that, throughout his life, from the time of his childhood that he periodically experienced a sense of intense longing — for someone or something, that he really didn't understand. He eventually came to realize that no human relationship could ever fulfill this longing, and he saw this as a signpost pointing with unmistakable clarity to the creator. Is there anything in your experience that parallels that? Do you think that his arguments are convincing?

Michael Shermer: No. I don't know, it seems like you have all the theistic arguments that are recognizing the signposts, and all the atheistic arguments to counter them providing natural explanations. It seems like it's really closely balanced. It's not obvious. It's like you have to take a leap of faith. And isn't that how it should be? Because if it was provable, and it was just obvious, then everybody would believe — or they should. But they don't.

Armand Nicholi: And what would be wrong with that?

Michael Shermer: Nothing, but it's not the way it is.

Armand Nicholi: Is there any reason why it might not be that way, that you can think of?

Michael Shermer: Unless God wanted you to make an emotional leap, and not just reason your way to believe.

Frederick Lee: I think for someone like me, a scientist, it's important that one do all the research, gather as much evidence as you can, approach it as a scientific question, evaluate the intellectual arguments. But then, as you said, it takes you all the way up, and what you find yourself standing at is a precipice, uh, extending infinitely down, with infinite implications. And whether you cross it or not, that is not an intellectual decision.

Winifred Gallagher: I think part of the problem is in opposing intellect and emotion. Even now in researchers who study intelligence, and different human capacities, the big hot new area is to look at the impact of the emotional on the intellectual, and to see how much those two processes go together.

Armand Nicholi: Well, now, are you implying that that leap across that chasm is based on emotion?

Winifred Gallagher: I mean, we all have a temperament. Some of us are more cerebral, some of us are more emotional. So there are going to be different ratios of what we bring to the party, but I think religion is both a matter of what we think, and a matter of what we feel.

Margaret Klenck: And what we've experienced, and what happens in community — I think we're going to fall into a real trap if we continue to assume that rationality is here, and everything else is below it, and that science and religion are incompatible, and that emotions are a lesser form. We become paupers, because we can't bring in so much else, we can't bring in so much of history, and emotional experience.

Doug Holladay: You know, Pascal wrote this great essay, "The Wager," where he talks about what we're all really getting at. We're all betting on something and we have incomplete information to place that bet. But in light of what we think is the most reasonable bet, we're putting something down on it. And it does strike me that that's as much certainty as we're going to get. You know, that everything is a bet, and the bet gets validated over time. And the payoff is maybe incremental. But you always have to compare it to other bets you've made.

Margaret Klenck: I've got to so disagree with that image. I think we're not betting on anything. I think this is about having meaning in our lives now, here, in relationship, in the present. It has nothing to do with the payoff at the end.

Doug Holladay: No, no, we're not talking about the afterlife. I think Pascal's argument is choosing your life, your worldview and your life path, that is a bet, that is a gamble. You are choosing a path.

Margaret Klenck: What are we gambling? What, what's to lose?

Doug Holladay: You're gambling your life. If I choose to follow and embrace a worldview, an atheistic worldview, I have put my money down.

Jeremy Fraiberg: I think Pascal said, I could either be a believer or a non-believer. If I'm indifferent between the two, I might as well be a believer, because if I'm not and it turns out that religion or a religious worldview is correct, I might suffer eternal damnation, and moreover, not benefit from eternal salvation.

Armand Nicholi: But how can you believe something that you don't think is true, I mean, certainly, an intelligent person can't embrace something that they don't think is true — that there's something about us that would object to that.

Jeremy Fraiberg: Well, the answer is, they probably do believe it's true.

Armand Nicholi: But how do they get there? See, that's why both Freud and Lewis was very interested in that one basic question. Is there an intelligence beyond the universe? And how do we answer that question? And how do we arrive at the answer of that question?

Michael Shermer: Well, in a way this is an empirical question, right? Either there is or there isn't.

Armand Nicholi: Exactly.

Michael Shermer: And either we can figure it out or we can't, and therefore, you just take the leap of faith or you don't.

Armand Nicholi: Yeah, now how can we figure it out?

Winifred Gallagher: I think something that was perhaps not as common in their day as is common now — this idea that we're acting as if belief and unbelief were two really radically black and white different things, and I think for most people, there's a very — it's a very fuzzy line, so that —

Margaret Klenck: It's always a struggle.

Winifred Gallagher: Rather than — I think there's some days I believe, and some days I don't believe so much, or maybe some days I don't believe at all.

Doug Holladay: Some hours.

Winifred Gallagher: It's a, it's a process. And I think for me the big developmental step in my spiritual life was that — in some way that I can't understand or explain that God is right here right now all the time, everywhere.

Armand Nicholi: How do you experience that?

Winifred Gallagher: I experience it through a glass darkly, I experience it in little bursts. I think my understanding of it is that it's, it's always true, and sometimes I can see it and sometimes I can't. Or sometimes I remember that it's true, and then everything is in Technicolor. And then most of the time it's not, and I have to go on faith until the next time I can perhaps see it again. I think of a divine reality, an ultimate reality, uh, would be my definition of God.

photos of conversation participants