How to start believing in God
I wrote this for a thread on the Straight Dope Message Boards entitled How to make an Atheist believe, where user Mottpot, who is an atheist, asked how he might begin believing in God. I edited it slightly from that post (by adding a paragraph I'd meant to include originally, but forgot).
An interesting question, Mottpot. The priest at my parish is fond of saying, "act as if you have faith, and faith will be granted to you." Not instantly, but over a period of time. It's entirely true. If you really desire a belief in God, act as if you already have one; pray to God (this needn't be formal, but can be a simple mental "letter" to God, of the "it's me, Margaret" variety), go to Mass (or temple, or services, or whatever). There will always be periods of doubt---Mother Theresa, who is on the fast track to sainthood, wrote that she had doubts for almost her whole life---but this does not negate the basic belief, and it does not make you "worse" at whatever religion you're shooting for.
(TIA disclaimer: I'm Catholic, so a lot of my examples are going to reference that church. This is not meant to imply that examples don't exist in other churches....)
This all sort of begs the question of *why* you might want to believe. Most of the atheists in this thread seem to assume that if you don't already believe, there's no reason to start now; while most of the Christians find the "why" to be self-evident. Neither answer is especially helpful, I know. :)
I submit to you that there is no "evidence" that I could ever possibly give to an atheist that would prove to him that God existed, just like there is no evidence that can prove that God does not exist. One of the basic tenets of science is that if there *is* anything that we can't explain right now, well, we'll figure out how it works eventually. So it shouldn't be surprising that one can look at evidence, decide that everything can be explained scientifically, and conclude that there needn't necessarily be a God.
So we need to back it up a bit. In fact, Mottpot, the more important question is not "how/why should I believe in God?", but "why should I *want to* believe in God?". This question is often answered with the parable of Pascal's Wager---if there is no God, it is no real trouble to believe in one, but if there isn't, we have a lot to lose by disbelieving in Him. But advantages exist even on a more tangible level, too. When I put on my rationalist scientist hat, I can try to objectively look at my religious life and see that it has objective benefits.
First, there's the community. On the small scale, I have an automatic community of people with whom I have something in common, usually big enough to have subgroups with whom I have even more in common. For instance, I love to sing, so I joined the Catholic Choir here, and sing every week; there's one of those at any parish I might move to, just waiting for me to join. On a larger scale, I know that I am part of a worldwide community. Wherever I go, I know that I can find a Church, go to Mass, and be welcomed there; and furthermore that (though it may be in a different language) that celebration is just the same as I'd get here. This is really powerful, and not to be underestimated.
Second, belief in the existence of God and a larger plan is comforting at odd times. Anytime my brain wanders into a "what if the car/train/plane crashes" thought, it is immediately followed with, "well, I've lived life the best I can and God will take care of me"---a serenity that I just couldn't have if I believed in no God and no afterlife. Anytime life throws me a curveball, even if it's just "my god, I have so much work it will never all get done", I avert my own panic by trusting in The Plan. Maybe I'm not meant to finish it all; I'll do what I can and the rest is up to God. I can imagine having this sort of serenity even without a belief in God, but it's certainly easier this way.
Another part of most religions is some level of ritual and common prayer. If you can get past the creepiness of having a whole huge congregation reciting the same thing all at once, you'll find it's very alluring. I think maybe we modern folks find that sort of group chanting to be creepy *because* it's so alluring. But it's done in relative moderation. Some weeks, I just can't bring myself to "get into" the Mass, not concentrating on the readings, not actively praying, but I still find it rewarding on the level of a familiar ritual performed with the rest of the congregation. Protestants don't do rosaries, I think, but those are downright meditative (and in fact share many properties with various east Asian forms of prayer bead meditation). In any case, there is a part of our psyche that really likes these sorts of repeated rituals, and while there's nothing technically requiring them to be religious in nature, nearly all of them are. (The Unitarian Universalists probably come closest to having a religion-like ritual that isn't tightly tied to a theism.)
A related reason is that religion provides you with a framework to focus your energy. When I'm having my worst bouts of procrastination, if I sit down and pray for help concentrating on the work that needs to get done, I find myself much more able to actually get work done. People from other religious traditions will characterise this differently---as me focusing my psychic energy, finding my centre, whatever. It's something that I personally was never really able to do in my days as a lapsed Catholic, hence it's a tangible way in which religion has helped me.
The last reason I'll bring up is that membership in a church is often a good way to force yourself to think about moral issues, by bringing them up in homilies/sermons, bible reading groups, or for that matter just conversations in religious settings. Some churches dictate a stance on various moral issues and it is expected that followers will agree, but others are a bit more inclusive. In particular, I know the Catholic Church has official stances on pretty much every moral issue, but one is allowed to disagree with them and remain Catholic---part of the doctrine of "examination of conscience" which I won't delve into here. I'm sure there are many other such denominations out there.
The important thing to note is that while some people have sudden conversion experiences (e.g. being "born again"), others have a much more gradual introduction. Fundamentalists usually express the notion as "opening your heart to Jesus", implying that this is an on/off switch sort of thing, and as soon as you flick the switch, your whole outlook will suddenly change. Certainly this is true for some, but for others, opening their heart takes time: don't say "I did, and nothing happened". Go easy. :) Act as if you have faith, and it will (eventually, perhaps gradually) be granted to you.
Returning to a slightly more intellectual level, if you are interested in learning more about a religion before joining it, many churches have some sort of class you can take or sit in on. You'll want to shop around a bit to find one that doesn't make you uncomfortable. Some of them focus on "faith sharing", which may or may not be the right thing but can really weird you out if you're not ready for it. But they aren't all like that. Some are more of an exploration of what the church believes and why (which *probably* is more what you're looking for). Within the Catholic church, these classes are part of the RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults); if you discuss your situation with the priest beforehand he will almost certainly let you go to the class without necessarily committing to getting baptised and confirmed at the end (though that is officially what the program is for). I am quite certain that similar programs exist within other churches, but I'm not as well-versed in how they work. :)
Feel free to link to this essay, but do so at its original link: http://www.blahedo.org/essays/howgod.html. Feel free to quote this essay in whole or in part, but please attribute it to me and (if on the web) link to the original.
Don Blaheta / firstname.lastname@example.org
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