At first I had titled this post, “Why I Believe in God.” But as you’ll see, the reasons I will give, lead to the conclusion that I know there is a God. Now it’s true, it’s possible I could be wrong (as we’ll see), but by the same token, I might be mistaken when thinking I have a father. And yet, I don’t walk around saying, “Why I believe I have a father.” No, I know I have a father.
The motivation for this post comes from frequent commentator “Major Freedom,” who wrote last week: “This is why I dislike the Sunday posts. It turns an economics blog that satisfyingly demolishes economic ignoramuses, into an idiotic festering stinkpile of contradictions and crap logic.”
Now Major Freedom here touches on something–in his inimitable fashion–that plenty of other people have expressed over the months. These people just can’t understand why I am so logical and smart when it comes to views they agree with, and yet I am so illogical and stupid when I talk about spiritual matters.
I claim that this is a very bad hypothesis on their part. It’s much more consistent with all of the facts to say that I am making reasonable points in defense of theism. I might very well be wrong, but (I claim) it’s highly unlikely that my ability to parse an argument, or to recognize if evidence comes down in favor of one theory versus another, suddenly ceases to work every 7th day of the week.
Note that I am NOT saying, “If you think I am right about free markets, then you are inconsistent if you think I’m wrong about Jesus.” To repeat, I am NOT saying that. Rather, what I AM saying is that you should pause before saying that I’m spouting idiotic festering stinkpile of contradictions and crap logic. Sure, I could be wrong about Jesus, but I’m not that obviously wrong, where it only takes two seconds of thought to see the flaw in my worldview before the atheist can move on to other debates.
Now here’s why I say that this hypothesis offered by Major Freedom ill-fits the empirical evidence. First of all, it’s not merely that people (like Major Freedom) who like my political/economic views think that I come down on “the right side.” No, it’s more than that. With the possible exception of my focus on Paul Krugman, most people agree that when I talk economics, I at least really try to fairly present the various viewpoints in a dispute. I’m not too often accused (again, with the possible exception of my Krugman posts) of deliberately misrepresenting the views of the person I’m critiquing, when the person is a non-Austrian or a non-libertarian.
Second of all, I have nothing to gain (in a worldly sense) from holding my views, and certainly not from expressing them on a weekly basis here on the blog. In fact, this stuff actively hurts my career. Do you think it helps me get consulting contracts from hedge fund managers, if a quick Google search shows me talking about multiplying loaves and fishes?
It’s not like I’m ever going to run for office, and so need to be able to point to a church that I attended. It’s not that I need to be a good Christian to get in with the people I work with. (If I had gone back to Catholicism that would be a more plausible theory, but not evangelical Christianity.) I also didn’t convert from atheism because of a girl I wanted to marry; I was single when my conversion occurred.
Now some people over the months have said things like, “Bob maybe you need the comfort of knowing a magic man in the sky will take care of you after you die, but some of us have the courage to face the truth.” Oh really? Is that the kind of guy I strike you as? Someone who doesn’t search for the truth, but instead embraces a worldview based on convenience? Does my career really make sense if that’s how you diagnose my religious views?
Third of all, I used to be a devout atheist. I had read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods, and thought I could draw on their best arguments, but write a single book that made the case against Christianity more succinctly. You know what I did with free markets in my PIG to Capitalism? I was going to do the same for atheism. In college, I would actively try to get my closest Christian friends to abandon their superstitious beliefs that imprisoned them. I thought I was freeing them.
So, believe me when I say that I really understand the appeal of the atheist position. And yet, I abandoned it. That doesn’t mean I’m now right, and that atheism is therefore wrong, but it does mean that it’s very unlikely that I simply haven’t thought much about the issue. If I had been born to evangelical parents, and walked around my whole life thinking it “totally makes sense” that Jesus died for my sins, then you could plausibly say, “Bob is a smart guy, but he just takes his religious views for granted, and hasn’t subjected them to his usual withering analysis.” But you can’t really say that, if I used to be an atheist and then flipped.
Why It’s Not a Good Hypothesis to Suggest I Am Ignorant of the Laws of Physics
I apologize for the narcissism of this post, but I think it’s necessary. After all, I’m explaining why I personally came to believe in God, and I’m defending myself from the typical attacks offered by Major Freedom and others on a weekly basis here. So forgive me, but in this section I am going to brag a little bit.
When I was in 8th grade, my science teacher and I would (after class) talk about special relativity. At that point in my life, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, “A theoretical physicist.” My hero was Richard Feynman.
In high school I took the two AP Physics courses and knocked them out of the park. For example, if the question asked us to compute the velocity of a ball dropped from rest, after it had fallen 10 meters, other kids in the class would use F=ma and the value for g, in order to set up the force as a function of distance and then integrate the acceleration over the interval of height. But I would solve the question in a matter of moments, by looking at the change in potential energy (because of the change in height), and then plugging it into K = 0.5*m*v^2 since energy had to be conserved. My teacher was this cool Indian guy who was getting his PhD, and he was really disappointed when I told him I was going to study economics in college, not physics.
Even so, when I went to Hillsdale College they put me in PHY 505 (Electricity and Magnetism) just because I had so much of a physics background, and it satisfied some requirement for a liberal arts degree. The only other people in the class were all juniors or seniors who were physics majors, and I’m pretty sure I was the first freshman in the college’s history to take that class. Besides crushing the exams, during office hours the professor and I would talk about things like explaining the behavior of a siphon in terms of Newton’s laws acting on the individual water molecules. (So this was like the opposite of the approach I took to the falling ball in high school.) When my schedule was too busy and I dropped Quantum Electrodynamics (I think in my junior or senior year), that professor very reluctantly signed my Drop card because he had looked forward to having me in the class.
Last anecdote: When I was at NYU getting my degree in Economics, physicist Brian Greene–author of the popular The Elegant Universe–came to give a guest lecture (on string theory I think, but I can’t remember). During the lecture, he walked us through a thought experiment in which the sun suddenly vanished, and the earth at the same time started moving out into the solar system, tangent to its original orbital path. I emailed Greene and said that this actually was wrong, because it would take a little more than 8 minutes for the earth to get the information that the sun was no longer there, providing gravity. He agreed with my criticism. (I can’t remember if he intentionally made the simplifying inaccuracy, or if he hadn’t realized that subtlety during his talk. But, either way, he agreed that I had corrected something he’d said in his lecture.)
OK don’t worry, I’m done telling you how smart I am. What’s my point? I am NOT saying, “Because I got good grades on my high school physics tests, I have credibility when it comes to theological arguments.” No, what I AM saying is that you really have no business dismissing my worldview because I “obviously” am ignorant of the findings of modern science. I promise you, I have a pretty good feel for how the natural sciences work.
Why I Know There Is a God
Now that we’ve got that preamble out of the way, here are some of my experiences, which make me sure that a God exists. The following is not a story of my conversion. Instead, I am simply reporting things that have happened in my life, so that you have a better idea of why I find armchair arguments “disproving” God to be so inadequate.
==> The moment when it first dawned on me that God existed (it’s a long story that I don’t want to tell right here in this post), I felt intense contrition. After all, I had spent a lot of energy trying to get my good friends to drop their faith. I said out loud, “I’m soooo sorry….” Then, in my head, I heard another intelligence say, “I forgive you.”
==> Roderick Long one time had a blog post challenging the internal logic of Christianity. It was a very strong critique, and I had no idea how to answer it. But I prayed about it and the answer just popped into my head. (Unfortunately this article isn’t online anymore.)
==> One time I was walking around in Auburn thinking through various things at night. My train of thought led me to a particularly clever insight about something, and I felt a bit worried at how proud I was of myself, but I kind of looked up at the sky and said, “C’mon, that’s a pretty awesome idea,” or something like that. Immediately, my mind was suddenly filled with this proposition: “The moment we decide to be with God, we are saved, and could go to heaven and live in paradise. However, God asks us to remain on the earth a while longer, to try to save some of our brothers and sisters, because they won’t listen to Him.” Now this proposition had nothing whatsoever to do with what I had been thinking about previously; it wasn’t at all related to the “great idea” over which I had just been congratulating myself. At this point I have no idea what my “great insight” was, because it was vomit compared to the beautiful gift of a morsel of His knowledge that God gave to me, to remind me of my place.
==> When I was a professor at Hillsdale (now a Christian), I went and re-read a bunch of books on evolution that I had remembered loving when I was a student at Hillsdale (and an atheist). I couldn’t believe how obviously they were constructed on one non sequitur after another. It wasn’t that I could prove anything about the origin of life, but I’m saying that things that had seemed like knockdown arguments to me when I was an atheist, no longer seemed so convincing when I was now a Christian and open to the possibility that the standard Dawkins-esque story was wrong. (Note that I wasn’t committed to being a Biblical literalist at this point.) Anyway, I was all fired up, writing a bunch of articles on this stuff, defending at least weak versions of Intelligent Design theory. I was walking around a room in my house, thinking things through, and I was getting really worked up about Eugenie Scott and the other people I was taking on in my articles. At one point I got really aggressive in my daydreaming, I think basically saying something along the lines of, “Oh it’s so hilarious how sure these people are of their position. They can’t even see how they’re assuming their conclusions. Many I can’t wait to blow them up!” And at this point, something in my room fell over. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t something that should have fallen over on its own. So I took that to be a gentle reminder to chill out, that the point wasn’t to defeat opponents but to help people see the bigger picture.
==> Another time I was wrestling with a very serious moral dilemma. I was talking to a former pastor about it, and he was showing me different passages from Scripture about the issue. After talking to him, I prayed and asked God that if He wanted me to do something a certain way, I genuinely needed guidance. I then flipped open my Bible “randomly” and I promise you, the chapter I started reading literally started with the Pharisees coming and asking Jesus about exactly this issue. It freaked me out it was such a tailor-made message from God about how He wanted me to think about the issue. (I’m being vague since it’s personal.)
==> Those who have been long-time readers will remember that the reason I went to Haiti is that I thought God was telling me to, and my joke was that I’d rather travel in a plane than a whale. Now Steve Landsburg should appreciate this aspect of the story: Whether you think I’m crazy or sane, the best theory to explain my behavior is that I believed God was telling me to go. I am a germaphobe. When I am on a roadtrip and go into a restaurant, I take a little bottle of hand sanitizer in with me, because I’m worried that the menu will be dirty from the previous customer. Also, I am uncomfortable traveling to foreign countries; I was very relieved when the illustrious von Pepe was on the same flight as me to the Mises Supporters Summit in Vienna. So put those two together: I am a germaphobe and I was stressed out about flying to Austria. Do you think I relished the thought of doing manual labor in a makeshift volunteer camp in Haiti? Can you imagine anything else motivating me to do that, besides, “I’m on a mission from God”?
==> Finally, one time I was pacing around the downstairs of my house (here in Nashville). I was alone in the house. For some reason I had lately been thinking along the lines that natural scientists and theologians were explaining the same events, just using different approaches. For example, theologians would say, “When Jesus was born, a star appeared in the sky to lead the magi to the new King.” Yet astronomers would say, “Oh, that was just a supernova in galaxy XYZ. Nothing supernatural about that. Given the state of the physical universe, that had to happen. It would have been a miracle if a ‘bright star’ didn’t appear in the sky to the people at that time.” So anyway, I was pacing around my downstairs, in the room holding a couch, table, and my computer desk, thinking along these lines. Just as I had satisfied myself that nothing really “miraculous” occurs–because God wants the universe to be orderly for us to understand–I turned around and saw my son’s rocking horse from when he was a toddler, sitting on the floor right where I must have paced at least 10 tens in the previous half hour. It was normally something that would be in the corner of my son’s room upstairs, and yet here it was, “suddenly” resting right where I would clearly have tripped over it 10 different times in the previous 30 minutes. There was no way I could have just not seen it for that long; it was smack dab right in between the wall and the table, where I had been pacing. This too freaked me out, because I interpreted it to be the least frightening thing God could have done, that was frightening enough to shock me out of my silly “deduction” regarding His position vis-a-vis the physical world.
One (Probably Vain) Parting Request
In closing, I want to remind everyone why I spent so long establishing my background in physics, and my previous “devout atheism.” I know full well how I would explain away all the above, if some Christian had told me those things back when I was in college. I would have said the guy felt really guilty upon his conversion experience, and so he “had” to hear this fictitious God forgive him, so he could get on with his life. When he was walking around the house in Hillsdale, getting really worked up about refuting the atheist biologists, he stomped the floor really hard and knocked that thing over. His “inspired” thoughts about writings articles, or having ideas on why God makes us remain on a miserable planet, and even being able to flip open to a Bible passage that he had obviously read several times during his life–these episodes just show how powerful the human mind really is, even though we aren’t consciously aware of what we can do sometimes.
(It’s like the story when Richard Feynman just “randomly” pointed to a problem in the schematics that an engineer showed him–Feynman thought he was lucky, but I always thought it was that Feynman’s mind was incredibly powerful and subconsciously he saw the problem in the blueprints in a matter of seconds. There was another occasion when Feynman got “lucky” and turned somebody’s safe to the correct combination on the first try; again I think he actually had the power to do that, even though he didn’t think it was possible that his mind was that powerful.)
As far as the Haiti stuff, well this guy was under a lot of stress at the time from his job and the expenses of his son’s diagnosis of autism, and he actually needed to take a vacation that would completely remove him from that situation. But he would never in a million years be able to take a fun vacation with all of that responsibility waiting at home, and anyway at a regular destination he still would have had frequent internet access. But by going to Haiti for a week–where he could only check his email every other day, for a few minutes, and where he engaged in exhausting manual labor and had to stay focused to avoid getting diarrhea–he had no choice but to forget everything else and walk back from his looming nervous breakdown. How to justify all of this? His subconscious invented the notion that “God really wants me to do this.”
In conclusion, I hope the above anecdotes at least make atheist readers understand why I am so sure that God exists. Rather than attribute a weekly failure of my logic and reason, I would appreciate it if you’d give me the benefit of the doubt of having a series of unlikely coincidences. For an analogy, if some guy got stuck in an elevator at the airport, and then missed his flight that ended up crashing, and then he won the lotto that same day, and later that night he got a call from his church’s pastor saying he was retiring and urging this guy to go into ministry–you can understand why this guy might suddenly “find Jesus.” You would still think he was wrong, but you could cut him some slack and not accuse him of ignoring the “overwhelming evidence” that there wasn’t a God.