This from an English reader:
As you may recall, I'm a persistent reader of your blog - even when the 'topic of the day' goes right over my head.
On the minimalist version of Pascal's wager, you summarize: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."
I've mulled over this rational incentive to believe in God many and many a time. But belief doesn't come. If faith is a 'gift from God' or depends on the possession of a religious disposition, then for some unfathomable reason I've missed out. I guess there are many people like myself who are 'trying to believe' but don't and perhaps never will succeed. (And it's not from the want of pressure and sometimes disinterested tuition, when I was a lad, from my Jesuit teachers.)
I think the sorts of pragmatic considerations I adduced the other day in support of the rationality of religious belief will leave unmoved someone lacking the religious disposition. (I'll leave aside the question whether the religious disposition is a divine gift.) Without the disposition the issue cannot be a "live option" in William James' sense. You have to be antecedently inclined to take seriously the possibility that some form of religion is true. This has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge or upbringing. Not intelligence: there are both intelligent and unintelligent theists and atheists. Not knowledge: there is no empirical knowledge that rules out theism or rules in atheism. Not upbringing: some are raised atheists and becomes theists, and vice versa. What you need is a certain sort of spiritual depth that is present in, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but absent in, say, Daniel Dennett. If you are 'surface all the way down' religion won't get a grip on you.
In the reader's case religious belief seems to be a live option in the way in which it is not for most atheists. (For most atheists, and for all of the militant atheists, the truth of some religion is no more a live existential option than numerology or Marxism is for me.) But for the reader, apparently, the disposition is not enough. I wish I could help him.
Let me just state what, in my own case, are the additional factors, factors beyond the religious disposition, that move me to accept religious belief.
1. The Manifold Failures of Naturalism. There are four questions that need answering.
The first is why there is anything (or at least anything concrete and contingent) at all. This is an intelligible question but there is no good naturalist answer to it. The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently made a fool of himself over this question as I demonstrated in earlier posts. The second question is how life arose from inanimate matter. Life has to have arisen before natural selection can go to work upon random mutations. The third is how consciousness arose in some living organisms, and the fourth is how self-consciousness, conscience, reason and all related phenomena arose. There are many, many questions here, but it is widely accepted that naturalism has failed to give adequate answers to them. Naturalists give answers all right, but they are no good. For the gory details, see my Naturalism category.
Now of course nothing I said will convince any naturalist, but that's not my purpose. My purpose is to explain how one can reasonably take religion seriously. I could not take it seriously if naturalism were true. The refutation of naturalism therefore removes an obstacle to religious belief. If, on the other hand, you are convinced that naturalism is true, then you cannot, consistently with that conviction, accept theism -- whether or not you have a religious disposition.
It is also important to realize that if naturalism as we currently know it is false, it doesn't follow that some form of theism is true. It doesn't even follow that no form of naturalism is true. It could be that there is a version of naturalism, over the horizon, which will adequately answer the questions I mentioned. If I have understood the thrust of Thomas Nagel's latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012), that is what he is aiming at. He is trying to find a way between naturalism in its current onfiguration and theism. He wants to be able to see mind as somehow essential to the fabric of nature and not, as it must appear on evolutionary naturalism, as an accidental byproduct of purely physical processes.
It is also worth noting that not all of the critics of contemporary evolutionary naturalism are theists. If they were, then one might suspect that their criticisms were ideologically motivated. Not so. Nagel is both an atheist and an opponent of contemporary naturalism. Given that Nagel's 'middle path' is merely a gesture in the direction of a possible distination, as opposed to a concrete alternative, I think it is resonable to accept theism given the hopelessness of naturalism.
2. Mystical, Religious, and Paranormal Experiences and Intuitions
Suppose that someone (i) has the religious disposition and (ii) agrees that theism is superior to naturalism. That still might not do it. Abstract reasoning, even to intellectual types who flourish in its element, is no substitute for experiences. In fact, I doubt that anyone could really take religion seriously (in a way that would make a concrete difference in how one lives one's life) who lacked the sensus divinitatis, or the feeling that the deliverances of conscience emanate from a sphere beyond the human, or who never had a mystical glimpse or a religious experience, or who never lived through anything paranormal such as an out-of-body experience or an experience of pre-cognition.
This is not the place to try to explain the differences among mystical, religious, and paranormal experience and other senses, intuitions, intimations, visitations and vouchsafings that religious types speak of. But let me give a couple of examples of religious experiences, which I distinguish on the one hand from mystical experiences and on the other from paranormal experiences.
One day many years ago I was pacing around in an extremely agitated frame of mind over a matter that I won't go into. But suffice it to say that my mind and heart were filled with extremely negative thoughts and desires. Suddenly, without any forethought, I raised my arms to the ceiling and exclaimed, "Release me from this!" In an instant I was as calm as a Stoic sage, as quiescent as a Quietist. The roiling burden was lifted. I was at peace. I want to stress that that I had had no intention to pray. The whole episode transpired spontaneously. Now what happened? Phenomenologically, my unintended, spontaneous prayer was answered. Does that unforgettable experience prove that a Higher Power hears and grants some of our heart-felt requests? No, for the simple reason that no (outer) experience proves anything. My current visual experiences of this computer do not prove its existence. But the religious experience is evidence of something Transcendent and if you have had such experiences you may be inclined to think that they carry a lot more weight than abstract reasoning from questionable premises.
On another occasion, while deep in meditation, I had an experience of -- or an experience as of, to put the point with pedantic epistemological caution -- being the object of Someone's love. "I am being loved by some unknown person" was my thought during the experience. That's what it felt like. I was alone sitting in the dark on the black mat. It was an unmistakeable experience, but still only an experience. A brain fart you say? A random neuronal swerve? Could be, but then our ordinary mundane experience could be a brain fart too -- only more coherent and protracted.
There are those who simply dismiss experiences like these. That is a strange attitude, at once unempirical and dogmatically rationalistic. See Intimations of Elsewhere Ignored.
It's a bit of evidence that I add to the other bits of experiential evidence such as a deep sense of the superficiality of ordinary human relations, and of the relative unreality and unimportance of the impermanent world. Without experiences like these Plato, Augustine, Pascal, and Simone Weil could not have written what they wrote.
3. The Arguments for Theism
And then there are the dozens of arguments for theism which, taken together, make a strong cumulative case for theism's truth especially in tandem with the refutation of the atheistic arguments.
Now add it all together: the manifold inadequacies and outright absurdities of the naturalist/materialist/reductionist Weltanschauung, the wide variety of mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences, the deliverances of conscience, the testimony of beauty and order and purposivesness, and the rest of the intuitions, intimations and senses, the refutations of atheism and the arguments for theism -- add this all together, take it as a big cumulative case, and its just might take someone who has the religious disposition over the line into a living belief.
And THEN, and only then, comes the capstone that clinches it for someone like me: "So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits."