Skeptical Inquirer


“If only atheists were the skeptics they think they are.”

This article presents an interesting challenge to nonbelievers and believers alike, I think. Based on some of the published thoughts of the great mathematician and thinker, Blaise Pascal, Edward Tingley makes an interesting point about skeptics who claim to be interested in the truth about God. The real seeker for truth will follow the path wherever it leads. Tingley says that most skeptics abandon the search when the material evidence runs out, but base their conclusions of the unknowability or nonexistence of God on just the same lack of evidence that they claim believers base their faith upon. They “prefer their own commitments over reason.”

That belief in God is not irrational (contrary to reason), and shouldn’t be so, is a fairly easy position to defend and one that is conceded by many thoughtful nonbelievers. The real issue is that logical argument based on empirical evidence (that which can be perceived by the five physical senses according to the methods of the physical sciences) does not compel belief. Unbelief is also a rational position and a simpler one since it supposedly doesn’t rely on conjecture, but limits itself to the more tangible possibilities of natural science. But the question true skeptics should be asking is, “What reason do I have to subordinate the possibility of God’s existence to the powers of my senses?” If the search for God reasonably leads beyond material evidence into the ways known only by the heart, committed seekers are bound to follow. But rather than facing the facts, many atheists and agnostics unwittingly and irrationally limiting their choices to those that suit them:

We are told we should face the facts. Well here they are: The only world in which strictly empirical evidence is the road that we should take in our views about God is a world in which God either shows himself by such evidence or simply does not exist. Those are the options that the agnostic and the atheist like, and it is because they like them that they never pay any attention to the further fact that accompanies these: God might await us down another road. There are three options, not two.

In a world in which God both exists and hides, relying upon conclusive evidence is the way to be wrong about God. Reason delivers three options, but the agnostic and the atheist are not listening to reason; they hear only the options they like, and simply pick the one that suits them.

… It is not true at all that he cannot believe without evidence; he has already done so, having arrived at his commitment to evidence without evidence. Evidence is not his only vehicle of locomotion, and he should admit it. He should notice what his heart is already doing for him, when he lets it.

The whole article is well worth reading and thinking over. I really haven’t done it justice here. But I said at the beginning that this article presents a challenge for believers as well as unbelievers and I want to say something about that. This isn’t something explicitly stated in the article, but I think it’s true because many believers have a tendency to limit their understanding of God by confining it to beliefs with which they are most comfortable. Many Christians, especially those who like to indulge the unbelievers in debates over the evidence, fall into the trap of confining their commitment to God to rational beliefs. They too prefer to spend most of their time below the tree line, content with a relationship with God that fits well with their own understanding and desires rather than follow the ways of the heart up toward the summit, “onto the icy slopes out past the limit of concrete evidence” where our footing is less sure and the risks to our comfort are greater in pursuit of the reward of intimacy with God. There is no passion to know God, only to know truths about Him. We need to follow our hearts where our heads can’t take us.

All this is no excuse for irrational religion. Our rational faculties are a gift from God, meant to be used well. They serve to guide the heart, but they have limits that the heart is able to surpass. If we choose to follow God only within those limits, are we really much better off than the unbelievers? Pascal had a brilliant mind and was also a passionate believer. We can learn as much from him as the skeptics can.

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4 Responses to Skeptical Inquirer

  1. David Henne says:

    As you say, Paul, the article challenges both non-believers and believers. For non-believers, I hadn’t thought before of the third option–of creating and hiding. For believers, it is easy to rely only on rational views of God and be unwilling to be vulnerable to something outside the rational “box” that God may want to do in me or through me.

  2. Lizz says:

    “What reason do I have to subordinate the possibility of God’s existence to the powers of my senses?”

    That is an interesting question. It leads me to then ask, how else should I determine the existence of God, if not by my senses and by being reasonable? What are my options? It sounds like the article says to ‘Follow my Heart’. What does that mean exactly? How does one do that correctly or incorrectly for that matter?

    Does that mean listen to my thoughts, my feelings, to what I ‘feel’ God might be telling me? How can I tell if my thoughts and feelings are correct, and really come from God? I can’t really.

    To believe because you ‘feel’ like it. How is that Truth? It can’t be, because ‘following your heart’ leads people to different Gods and completely different beliefs. So, is one person right and another wrong? How can you tell? If my heart tells me God wants me to sell everything and leave my husband and children, is that God, how can I tell? Could you argue with me, and tell me I’m making a mistake? No, because according to you my heart trumps reason. So in this case, I’m in the right and no one can tell me different.. especially the skeptics.

    I have a real problem with this. Anything goes. ANY belief is correct, as long as you truly feel it is.

  3. Paul Dubuc says:


    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I think to follow one’s heart means more than just listening to feelings and thoughts. I think it goes deeper than that, on the level with convictions tried by experience. Neither does it mean that the heart trumps reason. The point is that reason has inherent limits (so does the heart, of course). It can only take us so far where knowing God is concerned. As I see it, it’s not a choice between head and heart; we need both. Each can take us places that the other can’t. Pascal certainly wasn’t an irrational believer. One of my favorite quotes from him is, “We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit.” Following one’s heart is not an excuse for behaving irrationally. Neither is rationality an excuse for not following your heart. They may seem to pull us in different directions sometimes, but truth may be in the synthesis they produce. This sort of tension governs any relationship we have with another person, why should it be less true of our relationship to God?

    I suppose it’s true that feelings can lead people to very different beliefs but, aside from the point about not abandoning reason, it’s also true that reason leads people to very different beliefs. There’s no “safe ground” here in reason alone. That’s the point of the article. Some atheists and skeptics pretend there is because that’s what they are most comfortable with. Head and heart are not really as separate as we like to think, and the way people arrive at very different beliefs has more to do with just the leading of head or heart as if all the possible choices are equally available to the application of either faculty. Social context plays a big part. Everyone has to begin somewhere and we are all constrained by our own choices. Reason can tell you that all religious beliefs can’t be true. It can’t tell you that none are true.

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