Why do you do what you do? Apart from the autonomic stuff such as breathing, and the instinctive stuff such as chasing cute girls, that is.
As far as I can tell, there are only three categorical reasons for any consciously chosen action:
Virtually everyone understands the first two of those categories. Moreover, when you ask someone why he did or is doing something, if he replies with a desire or a fear, you’ll believe him pretty much automatically. You might differ with him over the desire or the fear, but you’ll understand its motivating power.
Beliefs are a different matter altogether. Any belief, outside the realm of mathematics, can be disputed. No matter what Smith has to say about his belief in X, Jones can always come up with an alternative theory – and if Jones stands to gain from persuading Smith out of his belief, that’s likely what he’ll do.
So: What do you believe, Gentle Reader? Do you believe it on the basis of evidence and accumulated confirmations? If so, then how much counter-evidence would be required to cause you to abandon that belief? Or do you believe it because it answers an inner need? If so, then what severity of adverse consequences would cause you to forsake that belief for “practical” purposes?
Yes, there’s a point to this.
According to Daniel Pipes, there’s been a flood of religious conversions of which we should take note:
[More] Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ over the last thirty years—and specifically over the last seven to ten years—than at any other time in human history,” wrote Joel Rosenberg in 2008, and the pace has intensified since then. Uwe Siemon-Netto confirmed in 2016 that “a global phenomenon is underway: Muslims are converting to various Christian denominations in droves in every part of the world.” Indeed, Christian missionaries have even coined a name and an abbreviation for them: Muslim-background believers, or MBBs.
Please read it all. Pipes is a careful scholar; when he reports some event or trend, you can bet the rent on it. I’ve cited the article for an overriding reason which Pipes mentions early on in his piece:
Historically, nearly all conversions involved Christians becoming Muslim, not the reverse. Islam has for 1,400 years been the “Hotel California” of religions (“You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave”), as it prohibits adherents from either declaring themselves atheists or members of another faith, which from the Islamic point of view amount to the same thing. This attitude goes back to the religion’s origins (a Hadith quotes Muhammad, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him”) and the sense that leaving Islam is akin to joining the enemy and, thus, equals betrayal. Additionally, to live as a proper Muslim has a powerful social aspect, participating in the maintenance of communal solidarity.
Death is a serious consequence for any decision. The prospect, if sufficiently likely, would deter most of us from doing whatever we’d been contemplating. Yet millions of Muslims are moving away from that barbaric, toxic belief system and toward Christianity. They’re taking a risk most of us will never have to face.
Some such “conversions” are insincere: motivated by something other than a sincere change of faith, as Pipes notes. But others are apparently quite real. Despite the costs and hazards, Muslims are abandoning Islam and accepting Christ. How would our professional militant atheists and God-mockers seek to explain that away?
Take your time, militant atheists; I’ll wait.
A long, long time ago, back at the old Palace of Reason, I wrote:
In this world, God coerces no one. He has laid down the laws of Nature; that is all. Those laws may be denied or decried, but they cannot be broken. One aspect of those laws is that, for any given miracle — that is, for any given observed phenomenon that’s so far from the ordinary course of things that one explanation offered for it is the hand of God — there will always be at least one other plausible explanation, such that disbelief will remain possible. I believe that this is a part of the Divine Non-Coercion package, designed to allow men’s minds to be free even on the most fundamental of all subjects.
Why does God want men’s minds to be so free? A good question. It might be part of the test. It might be part of what it means to be men. And it might be that we’ll all know soon enough. My own theory is that this is how God speaks directly to some men, such as Paul of Tarsus, while leaving others capable of reaching their own conclusions.
Revelation is always private. Private events, as opposed to public events that may be witnessed by many persons simultaneously, have no evidentiary value for those who have not experienced them. Private events give rise only to private knowledge and private convictions. If a man has had such an experience, it may help him to persuade others, but even here there are stronger factors than the revelation itself: his known character, the degree of his eloquence, and his strength of will in staying true to the substance of the revelation and refraining from adulterating it with opinions of his own.
To be a Christian agnostic is to say: Revelation is wonderful, if you’ve had one. It’s stunning, thrilling, enlarging beyond any other experience of the mind. But it has no weight as evidence in any argument with others. Your revelation was meant for you alone, or all the rest of us would have had it too.
The Christian agnostic position is an insistence on personal humility: self-doubt, not doubt of God. How can we doubt what He has said to all of us together, the objectively verifiable laws that govern our universe and dictate how we may use what we find in it? But how can we not politely reserve judgment in the face of a Gnostic’s claim to have personal knowledge of His will? To do otherwise would be to elevate the convictions of a mere human above the actual mechanics of the cosmos, the continuously unfolding panoply of Creation itself.
“The word ‘conscience’ means ‘knowing with.’ But knowing with whom? As we can’t read one another’s consciences, or transmit into them, it can only be God. Conscience is the channel God uses to help us make our judgment calls—which does not mean that if you and I make a particular one differently, then one of us is ‘wrong.’ You can never know what another person’s conscience has told him…or whether he’s really paid attention to it as he should.”
“‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” Larry said.
“Exactly,” Ray said. He pointed upward. “Do what you can with yourself, and leave the rest to Him.”
Revelation and conscience are two sides of one coin. All of us have that coin buried within us. But there’s no telling how or when God will prompt any individual to pull it out of his mental purse and contemplate either side of it.
The Muslim-to-Christian conversions Pipes mentions that strike me most powerfully are the ones triggered by dreams. We have been told, repeatedly and often in an elevated tone of voice, that dreams are not to be taken seriously – that they reflect internal processes of random association and cleansing, rather than a conveyance of information from some external source. But those are the opinions of men with their own, often unexpressed, desires. They are both unprovable and undisprovable.
The MBBs, as Pipes labels them, take their dreams quite seriously.
A really long time ago, a similar vision moved a group of shepherds, persons of little wealth or status, to leave their flocks and go to a stable in a small Judean town:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
Those shepherds could have turned to one another and said, “Hallucination, right? Yeah, gotta be.” Or however that might be phrased in First Century Aramaic. They did not. In finding exactly what the angels had proclaimed, they believed, and spread the news, glorifying and praising God.
Why? Judea in the First Century was a curious sort of place: a province of the Roman Empire that was also a quasi-theocracy. The Sanhedrin took it ill if anyone were to depart publicly from official doctrine. They often had such persons stoned to death. So those shepherds were taking a considerable risk…just as are those MBBs of today…just as Mary of Nazareth did when she said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to thy word.”
Big whys, eh? There are none bigger.
Have a Merry Christmas. Rejoice, for He is among us!