How Do We Come to Faith in God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

On this blog, we talk a lot about evidence for the Christian faith.  We talk a lot about using reason to defend Christian beliefs.  Philosopher Clifford Williams, however, points out that for many people the journey to faith is not purely intellectual.

Williams was recently interviewed about his 2011 book, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, where he presents arguments for belief in God that have more to do with human existential needs than classical evidential arguments.  When asked about his investigations into people’s journeys of faith, Williams said:

They show several things—first, that different people acquire faith in God in different ways, some more through reason and some more through satisfaction of needs; second, that it is difficult to disentangle reason and satisfaction of needs in the acquisition of faith; and, third, even so, both reason and the satisfaction of needs probably play a part in the process by which all, or at least most, people acquire faith.

The accounts also show, I think, that we cannot be precise about how reason and the satisfaction of needs should operate in the acquisition of faith. We cannot say that reason should come first and then the satisfaction of needs, or the other way around. The two are often so inextricably combined that the most that we can say is that the best way to secure faith, to establish it in the recesses of our personalities, is simply to employ them both.

When I interviewed people, I did not tell them about the distinction between acquiring faith through reason or through the satisfaction of needs. I simply asked, “What got you started on your faith journey?” and then, “What happened next?” Their answers, though, employed the distinction in various ways. I might add that because I guaranteed anonymity I got accounts that the persons might not otherwise have given, and in some cases, accounts that they had not revealed to anyone else.

I think Williams’s research is a good reminder to those of us who are heavily involved in Christian apologetics.  The road to faith involves the entire person, not just her emotions and needs, and not just her intellect.  I am a person who is much more comfortable in the world of the intellect and the world of ideas.  When it comes to emotions and needs, I often pretend that they don’t have anything to do with my faith in God. The truth is that they do.

Acknowledging emotions and needs which lead us to God in no way diminishes the evidential arguments for Gods existence.  Those arguments are supplemented by arguments from existential needs. In future posts, we will look more at Williams’s interview and try to see what additional insights we can glean.

  • No doubt both play a part, but there was no mention of the Holy Spirit which is essential and the real driver. Some people “believe” based on both reason and needs, but never really have a life changing faith. The disciples of Jesus were bumbling idiots until after the resurrection and they received the Spirit. In my own experience, I believed there was a God and I believed Jesus was a real person. I also didn’t want to go to hell. But I never really engaged the faith until I was born again. It was “evidence” that led me to that point, but what happened at the point can not be explained by reason or need. Rather, it was all by having “new eyes” that I don’t think can be explained by reason or need.

  • You are completely right about the Holy Spirit, Walt. I guess I always assume that my Christian readers know that and do not find it debatable, so I leave out mention of Him. Probably not a good idea on my part.

  • tildeb

    Why is faith in particular brand name gods tethered so strongly with geography if childhood indoctrination is not a central feature of how the vast majority of people come to faith in their parent’s god?

  • Because childhood indoctrination (by parents and culture) ARE a central feature of how the vast majority of people come to faith in their parent’s (society’s) god. Many youth are now being indoctrinated in the god of naturalism and humanism, the gods of materialsm and relativism, and so forth. It seems the god of socialism in America has been in development for some time now and has come to life.

    But that there are gods does not mean there is not a God who is beyond geography but chose to first reveal Himself in geography with the intention of expanding the boundaries to all the world.

  • tildeb

    indoctrinated in the god of naturalism and humanism, the gods of materialsm and relativism, and so forth.

    This is nice rhetorical trick but it’s empty of equivalent comparison value. Please, tell us about the god of naturalism, its/his/her nature, desire, wishes, aspirations, commandments, and so forth… where we can find its/his/her holy book, who speaks on its/his/her behalf, where worshipping takes place, etc.

    Come on, Walt, there is no equivalent ‘indoctrination’ in ‘naturalism’ or ‘humanism’ or ‘materialism’ or ‘relativism’ and you know it or you would offer up evidence of an equivalent geographical pattern. Again, though, reality just isn’t playing along with such an obvious faith-based belief. Reality is not faith’s friend.

  • tildeb, you are one of the spokespersons – very vocal about it and quite passionate to worship the gods of naturalism and humanism. Do you have children? If you do, I would expect you to indoctrinte them! I used to think science was our savior. It comes with being a member of the community. Yet, without a moral compass, it drifts about not kowing what it means to be saved. Is it more happiness? Is it more achievement? What is salvation for manking? Less illness and cancers? Or is it killing more babiies because we now see them as merely a mass of cells? This indeed is geographical. Such gods are worshipped where atheism prevails. There is just as much an effort to expand the boundaries of the naturalist/humanist religion as those of traditional religionists and spiritualists. Reality as you perceive it is not faith’s friend, but reality as defined by God definitely is. It is God who made it possible for us to ponder creation and to put two and two toegether. That was meant to help us see Him. Yet, some are so inward and self focussed, that they can’t see the forest for the trees. When you can’t see the God that is, you have to default to the one in your midst. Whatever that god is, it is the one that your worship. It might not have a temple, but it is the one that all your heart, would, mind, and strength go into. It is the one you serve – regarldess of whether it is any real power or not. Even false gods have a power to influence and to cause people to sacrifice to them.

    The world cannot be truly understood by dissecting it. A wholistic approach is required. It is difficult for science to do wholistic study. It is moving in that direction, but the whole is not the sum of the parts (I learned that when I worked as a systems engineer and found different analysis was required at the higher level than you could get by understanding the parts.)

    It is true that geography indluences one’s religious and non-religious practices, but that does not mean there isn’t something at the core that points to the ulitmate reality where some of the religions have further defined by their own imaginations in order to persuiade people to their direction, rather than to look to the true Spirit that all people have access to, if they will only bother to seek him. God is not geographical, just as utlimate reality is not.

  • Boz

    That looks like the mistake of believing what one prefers to be true.

    I think that preferences should be eliminated as much as possible, when looking for what is true.

  • tildeb

    Walt, you’re just making stuff up. I’m just a person who happens to find much more value in being honest about what I know and don’t know, curious to seek out and gather knowledge about a variety of things, and who recognizes that a reliable method that accurately reflects confidence in this method informs critical thinking and proper scepticism, all of which goes a very long way in helping me not fool myself with my biases and prejudices and beliefs. I am responsible as much for my opinions as I am my character and I accept the burden this place on me to live well and wisely.

    There is no church, no high priest, no nod to some kind of supernatural authority to stand in for me and my preferences. I follow no script or mandate from anything other than what I perceive to be good reasons based on compelling evidence. I am and always will be more concerned about real people in real life than I will about pleasing some hidden force of intention and agency that others assure me exists in some nether-plane of reality, an agency who supposedly offers me a purpose and meaning beyond what I produce in my interactions with the reality we share.

    I feel it is important to challenge answers to difficult questions that are not, in fact, answers arbitrated by reality but substitutions for them, especially when these faith-based beliefs are intended to afford some privilege to those who hold them. And I do this because I think privileging and respecting such faith-based beliefs as if they were answers that were true in reality is a common hazard that can be shown to be so only by looking at the effects produced in reality.

    Because faith-based beliefs are usually afforded respect as well as privilege, it is a difficult task to reveal these inherent problems and costs to those who respect and privilege them. Difficult, but not impossible. Most people, it turns out, really do want to respect what’s true, really do want to think that they have come to maturity in intellectual integrity and moral character, even if that undertaking comes with a personal cost.

    The fact that religious belief is correlated very strongly with not just geography but significant social ills means that what is being described as ‘true’ doesn’t matter nearly as much as being seen as believing in the local faith. And this is a clue…

  • tildeb,
    Read the comments guidelines, please. Telling other people that they are just making things up is not the way to start off a comment.

  • tildeb

    Bill, Walt stated that “you are one of the spokespersons – very vocal about it and quite passionate to worship the gods of naturalism and humanism.”

    This is not true. I am not passionate to worship anything, and I do not vocalize any such support. Walt’s description of me and my vocalizing is a falsehood. To counter this factually incorrect statement, all I said was that he was making this up. How is this not a very mild and polite correction? How is stating such a falsehood as if factual not as important in your mind to earn an administrative rebuke but the mild response is?

  • hey Bill,

    maybe that is the guidelines, but in her defense, her telling me I’m making stuff up is not much different from her perspective than me saying she doesn’t see with her eyes wide open, that she has been fooled by a particular perspective on particulars that limits vision, and that she worships an ideology based on a faith that the natural world is all there is and all that matters, and fails to see that she does. I know she is not making it up, but is only limited by obedience to her god. Because my view does not line up with hers, eventhough I understand where she is coming from, she doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, and thus I MUST be making it up. It is a logical conclusion from her limited perspective. No fault of hers – it is because of her “local” perspective biased to her god.

    One thing is for sure. I thought I knew it all that was worth knowing for as far as science had progressed when my worldview was entirely dictated by a scientific worldview. Yet, a woman challenged me to know the truth. Later i came to understand my view of the world was quite limited. All that i thought I knew about religion and Jesus had been shaped by the media and a certain set of scholars, those who are informing tildeb’s views, yet, when I discovered how much we can be convinced of a view when we project a preconceived picture on the data rather than letting the data construct the picture – my view changed. It wasn’t a matter of the local beliefs since my beliefs were corresponding to the local beliefs and now do not. It is impossible for any person to step back and see things as they are my mere human wisdom. Many religions and many anti-religionists use this limited insight. Only a supernatural insight can pull one out from their local view, even a humanist or naturalistic view, to see things as they are.

  • tildeb,

    Everyone worships something. If you don’t understand that, then it is clear you don’t even understand what worship is and what a god is and we’ve had a communication problem from the get go. I’m am quite certain you advocate your religion. Otherwise, what are you doing when you speak up for your beliefs? That your worldview is the correct one is a belief. You can’t prove it is the correct one. All you can do is show it is pragmatic – which, indeed, is your basic argument. I agree yours is pragmatic. But i also think there is more to reality than what is pragmatic from a human perspective.

  • I see now the context of your statement, but you would have been better served merely correcting Walt by saying you don’t worship anything instead of throwing out the more bombastic statement, “You are just making things up.” How you say something is as important as what you’re saying.

  • tildeb

    I’m am quite certain you advocate your religion.

    But it is very important to understand that confidence in beliefs arbitrated by reality independent of my wishes, biases, and prejudices is not the same thing, not the same kind of belief at all as the confidence in beliefs arbitrated by faith-based beliefs dependent on my wishes, biases, and prejudices.

    It’s important because we’re talking about two very different uses of the word ‘belief’, only one of which indicates the religious kind, the kind dependent on personal faith that it is so. This kind of belief, I do not advocate. Ever. About anything, including what you define as naturalism and humanism. Yet you say I do (and make additional claims that do not accurately describe me and what I believe at all) so I take great issue with your certainty on this matter because it is dependent entirely, wholly, and solely on your faith-based belief!

    After being pulled over by a police officer for what is presumably a traffic violation, are you ‘indoctrinating’ the officer when you reasonably ask what the violation might be? This is what you’re suggesting for people of no faith who raise children to exercise their curiosity about the world, to ask reasonable questions about the reality they inhabit. This is not indoctrination. This is teaching the skills necessary for critical and creative thinking, starting with how to ask the kind of question whose answer can then be tested against reality to see if it fits, to be ready to discard what doesn’t fit regardless of wishes, biases, preferences, and prejudices in favour of a better one that works. Such beliefs in the current answers are always provisional and subject to reality’s arbitration of them. You call this ‘pragmatism’ as if it is somewhat pejorative and small and narrow minded (I think the words were “inward and self focussed”) to this notion you assert called the ‘ultimate reality’, as if this were meant to be something that really does exist beyond what your imagination fuels it to be.

    Look, if some religious belief really was an honest attempt to find out what’s true, there would not be the geographical component of correlation. We simply do not find this correlation with anything else we consider ‘true’, meaning the making of claims about reality that exist independent of those making the claims. Beliefs of the religious kind are dependent on personally held faith-based beliefs being spread from one to another, so proximity matters a very great deal. Belief that is independent of the individual but tethered to reality’s arbitration of it leads to no correlation with geography because proximity doesn’t matter.

    You confuse my respect for what’s true with what is wise and believe that wisdom derives from and through faith. Although this may be true in some particulars for some individuals, I do not believe wisdom and morality and integrity and character and so on are contingent on holding some kind of faith-based beliefs. Whereas you are ready to cast non believers off from what you presume and wish and assume is the basis, the wharf, the dock of these important attributes, namely, holding a faith-based belief about the veracity of your god, I have yet to come across any compelling reasons to agree with you, for I interact with people of no faith who exhibit great wisdom, intellectual integrity, high moral values, and steadfast moral character second to none.

    When faith-based claims come into conflict with reality based claims, and because I respect what’s true over what is only believed to be true, I know that faith is a dead end inquiry in the sense that it stops at the source: the believer, whereas reality based inquiry is a robust inquiry that is known to reliably produce what works for everyone everywhere all the time. This achievement – this method of allowing reality to arbitrate claims made about it – is worthy of our deepest respect not because I hold some religious faith-based belief this is deservedly so but because it works… and it works for all us regardless of our contrary beliefs! If that doesn’t describe what a wholistic approach should be (and quite the opposite of your assertion that it is “inward and self focussed”) then I think you are very confused regardless of how certain you may feel yourself to be.

    That’s why I point it out.

  • “faith-based beliefs dependent on my wishes, biases, and prejudices.” Tildeb, you don’t hear much of what I’ve said if you think that about me. That is your opinion about people who have Christian faith, and it may be true of a lot of people of Christian faith, but my faith is not based on my wishes – quite the contrary. You have never really responded to what I say in that you persistently advocate a belief system that is quite different to what I have and even to what is taught in the Bible. It is entirely an opinion that has some truth to it when examing the world’s religions, but misses the boat of what true Christian faith is. I do not believe in blind faith. What I do understand is a faith that must trust the unseen when going forward, but can see clearly looking in the rear view mirror when one’s spiritual eyes are open.

    I don’t see the similarity of asking an officer of why one is pulled over and teaching one’s kids. Are you telling me that when you teach kids to ask questions (which I do), that if those questions lead to belief in the Christian faith? Wouldn’t try to talk them out of it as being unreasonable, like you do us?” If you are not indoctrinating them to some degree, like the need to work hard and so forth, you are doing them a diservice.

    “if some religious belief really was an honest attempt to find out what’s true, there would not be the geographical component of
    correlation.” That is your opinion about what should be. I do agree, but it seems that God chose a location that was the center of the world at one time, the cross-roads of civilization to make Himself known. Ultimately, there will not be a geographical boundary. All the world will know. There are stories from missionaries of people who were aware of the God they came to tell them about. In one way, religion is universal because it is based at its very root on something true. However, it is varied by geography when people took it into their own hands for their own local power and created gods to distinguish themselves from one another.

    Pragmatism is not a prejorative, but all that one has whose only standard is their own observation, which by nature is limited. The view might increase with a larger body of knowledge, but the problem is that each individual doesn’t not truly have access to all the knowledge to be able to correlate within their own epistemological system.

    “I interact with people of no faith who exhibit great wisdom, intellectual integrity, high moral values, and steadfast moral character second to none.” If mankind is created in the image of God, eventhough that image is tarnished, each person has some moral compass built-in. It sure doesn’t come from mere observation. How can it?

    “whereas reality based inquiry is a robust inquiry that is known to reliably produce what works for everyone everywhere all the time.” That is pragmatism. That is great, but how do you know that what seems to work is what is right? Or do you not care? Without thinking about it I would say it is not necesarry, but short-term things that seem to work can have long-term consequences that are unforseen. We cannot make truly right decisions without knowing the long-term consequences, and what works now, cannot be known for sure to work in the long run.

    So, in the end, you refuse to say you have a religion because you misunderstand what religous beliefs are. As long as you hold to the misconceptions, you will miss the bigger picture. This is a case in point that it is easy to latch on to a false view and project it onto the world and then see it as true. I’m sure you think that of me, but then you might just think I hold my views contrary to the world. Regardless, I test my views, I test my understanding of Scripture, I have found I had been told stuff that just is not correct from evangelical circles, but I still don’t doubt that the bigger picture is correct, not because I wish it to be, but because I am convinced of it, and it is individual limited human wisdom that keeps misstepping.

  • tildeb

    Walt, there isn’t enough space to respond to all you raise here. Suffice to say, the geography correlated with religious belief is not a characteristic of only christianity but all religions. Your explanation fails to address this reality.

    To comment on your continuing misrepresentation of the ‘belief’ of the religious kind you assert I have about my non belief, consider what you wrote here: “you persistently advocate a belief system that is quite different to what I have and even to what is taught in the Bible. ” Which of the thirty thousand-odd versions of christianity are you referring to, I wonder? You assert that my opinion “misses the boat of what true Christian faith is” (Can you not hear the accusation Not a True Scotsman! ringing in your ear with such a statement?) To be clear, my opinion is that your religious belief ‘system’ is a faith-based ‘system’, or do you disagree with that? Please, I am ready to be corrected!

    You claim “Ultimately, there will not be a geographical boundary. All the world will know,” wishing as you are prone to do, that the reason why the whole world isn’t filled true christians is because We haven’t heard the Good News! Well, Walt, sorry to disappoint but many of have, and we have seen it all over the place including in our rear view mirrors. The problem is that we find it all unconvincing because such a faith-based belief is no different in any qualitative way from delusion, meaning you have no way to test it to see if it is true arbitrated by reality. You take it on faith to be true. Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, that you do not require faith to believe as you do. I stand ready, willing, and able to be corrected.

    It is deeply frustrating to me to have you make mistaken claim after mistaken claim where you misrepresent parts of my argument with nonsense. For example, you write, Pragmatism is not a prejorative, but all that one has whose only
    standard is their own observation, which by nature is limited. The view
    might increase with a larger
    body of knowledge, but the problem is that
    each individual doesn’t not truly have access to all the knowledge to be
    able to correlate within their own epistemological system

    Do you have any idea of just how grossly inaccurate this entire paragraph is? You did describe pragmatism in pejorative terms. Faith-based beliefs are dependent on the believer, whereas pragmatism has to work for everyone everywhere all the time. You classify this as ‘dependent on the individual’, which is exactly backwards. Then you claim what works for everyone everywhere all the time is too NARROW a ‘view’ that requires more knowledge! Not satisfied with more knowledge, you then insist it requires access to ALL knowledge.

    Good grief.

    You then make an extraordinary claim: that you TEST your ‘views’. So let’s do that, shall we? Answer me this: what evidence would it take for you to establish that your ‘views’ are wrong?

  • Tildeb,

    “The geography correlated with religious belief is not a characteristic of only christianity but all religions.” I agree and I did address that.

    “To be clear, my opinion is that your religious belief ‘system’ is a faith-based ‘system’ (and that’s why I have a problem with claims based on faith – any kind of faith.) Do you disagree with my accuasation that your religious belief is based on faith? Please, I am ready to be corrected!” Yes, I disagree, especially if I take into account the way you use the word “faith” since you seem to think you don’t have any with regard to matters in your life. Of the billizion versions of Christianity, there are a portion of those that are no different than religion in general and are out of line with the historic faith. Yet, the bulk of the versions have a common core and differ on matters that are not clear and are not relevant to the truth of the core.

    “The whole world isn’t filled true christians with your understanding of what that describes is because We haven’t heard the Good News! Well, Walt, sorry to disappoint you but many of us have… and we have seen it all over the place including in our rear view mirrors.” That is clearly false. There are several thousand people groups in the world that still have not heard the gospel. Beyond that, there are billions that even if they have heard it, don’t understand it. But the idea that the whole world will know includes all who have even rejected the message. This is something I do have to take on faith looking into the future based on my experience of the past.

    “Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, that you do not require faith to believe as you do. I stand ready, willing, and able to be corrected.” Yep, you are incorrect. My faith is based on my experience and reasoning of the Scriptures which gives me assurance of things in the future. I have certainty of the things of the past so that I may have faith for the future. In your use of the word, faith means belief in something I can’t know is true. If I couldn’t know it is true, then I wouldn’t have a basis for faith. Faith isn’t belief, it is trusting. Sometimes faith and belief are interchanged, but if my belief is about something yet future, then that is faith. Belief produces faith and belief is based on reasoning and experience. Something does not have to be repeated in a lab to be reasonable. I don’t have to test that I am married. It is reasonable based on my experience and a certificate, pictures, etc., that I am married.

    “It is deeply frustrating to me to have you make mistaken claim after mistaken claim where you misrepresent parts of my argument with nonsense.” Ditto! I think it is a lack of communication. A lack of using words in the same way.

    “You did describe pragmatism in pejorative terms.” I think you take it that way. I describe it the way it is with no intention of being pejorative. But I do think YOU are the one that has it backwards. Pragmatism IS individualistic and even for a society is not necessarily the same for everyone at all time. It is impossible to be so since not all can be known from all time and all experiences to come up with a truly objective pragmatism. When one has a limited view, they can only know what they see. Go into another culture and you’ll quickly find that what works for them may not be what works for us.

    “Answer me this: what evidence would it take for you to establish that your ‘views’ are wrong?” Proof that Jesus never existed or that He didn’t rise from the dead. I can ask you the same thing. What would it take for you to realize your view of the world is too limited? I see you as unwilling to entertain the idea.

  • These videos helped me believe in GOD : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xtHE2YNsxc

  • sean

    I’m sorry to hear such flimsy evidence hold water with you. Your gullibility is regrettable. Also, it does not escape those of a keen eye that these videos that “helped you” happened to be made by you…