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In my prior question, Is there scriptural support for the "skeptic's prayer" as a legitimate plea that God might be open to answering?, several responses concurred that this form of prayer is valid and supported by scripture. Yet, a compelling objection caught my attention: the contention that we should refrain from advising skeptics to pray for signs, revelations, experiences, or 'aha' moments to foster belief. According to this objection, skeptics already possess all the necessary elements for belief, and thus they should simply opt to believe without the need for praying for anything else. In essence, it posits that belief is a decision of the will that can be made instantly, without the necessity of praying for additional guidance or experiences. Consequently, after having heard the preaching of the gospel, a skeptic should encounter no impediment in simply choosing to believe.

The purported capacity of individuals to instantly adopt any belief purely through an arbitrary act of the will is termed direct doxastic voluntarism in philosophy, a viewpoint that encounters substantial philosophical objections and is similarly disputed even within Christianity. Nevertheless, I've observed that certain Christians assume its validity. Notably, individuals have cited specific Biblical passages to substantiate their adherence to direct doxastic voluntarism. The following are some examples:

Mark 1:15

and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 5:36

But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Acts 19:4

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

Luke 8:50

But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.”

John 10:37-38

37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

John 14:1

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.

Does the Bible genuinely endorse direct doxastic voluntarism, and if it does, does this undercut the validity of the "skeptic's prayer"?

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  • Would you link to this "compelling objection" that we should "refrain from advising skeptics to pray for" those good things? It doesn't sound right to me in Christian practice, especially in evangelicalism. I regularly hear in sermons that Jesus is waiting to enter our hearts and the prayer IS our invitation, even though they should NOT demand a specific miracle / sign / revelation / tangible experience (thus trusting God Himself to choose the form of grace / evidence He will bestow on the person). Praying for "light of faith" (resulting in the "aha" moment) is always advisable. Jan 15 at 22:24
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    @GratefulDisciple Probably of interest, I think I just found a potential answer to my own question here (I recommend reading the video's description for an informative summary of the content)
    – Mark
    Jan 15 at 23:15
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    That's a great find, the whole playlist encompassing all the talks / lectures from the entire 2014 conference: The Nature and Value of Faith is interesting, responsible, and compatible with mainstream Christianity! Looks like it covers multiple positions (or at least angles), even including a speaker refuting Eleonore Stump & Aquinas thesis (which perks my ear up). Jan 16 at 1:09
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    I found the paper for the afore-mentioned talk at PhilArchive and slowly working through it. I think this paper is relevant for your intellectual assent Q. The paper basically refutes that "objectual faith" is identical with "propositional belief" while identifying other forms of faith he calls "allegiant faith" and "affective / global faith" while not denying that Stump, Aquinas, myself, and other Christians also include other cognitive components such as increased peace and diminished anxiety and also require faith's deep connection with love. Jan 16 at 13:27
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    I found this IEP article providing exploratory conceptual analysis of "faith" which is very useful for the types of questions you have about associating the Christian meaning of "faith" to will, to reason, and to various types of actions. Jan 18 at 7:08

1 Answer 1

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What other prayers are unnecessary??

Philippians 4:6 records

in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

Even if belief is a decision, how is one to conclude which belief is most likely to be true, in order to decide to choose that belief? Claiming to believe something arbitrarily, without any reason to suspect it is true, is not an admirable foundation to build upon.

Whatever source one chooses to appeal to for evidence that X belief is true, we can just ask, recursively, why one should trust that source? If an omniscient, trustworthy source commands "if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally" (see James 1:5), this is a source which is epistemologically superior to all other sources, and it is a source that can break the recursive loop. (Yes, as James proceeds to tell us, asking with faith & sincerity does matter)

If prayer is the medium of communication for asking God for help, guidance, wisdom, etc. then refusal to pray as part of a search for truth would be declining God's help on one of the matters where His help is most essential.

In the scriptural canon of my faith there is a passage that is very applicable here:

For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray." (2 Nephi 32:8)

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Choosing to Believe

Acknowledging that one can choose to believe does not entail that one can choose to believe literally anything.

One might choose to believe:

  • that this evidence is stronger than that evidence
  • that this argument is more compelling than that argument
  • that this path leads to my intended destination and that path doesn't
  • that this claim is consistent with everything else I know about the universe and that claim isn't

People make these kinds of direct decisions to believe all the time. This can be done indirectly as well, such as by choosing to give time, study, and attention to a particular viewpoint, with the possible outcome that said viewpoint becomes more compelling1.

In another post I made the case that all belief is based on evidence (to include experiential evidence) -- a portion of which I'll share here.

Sometimes people looking for a fight will say “there’s no evidence for God” or something similarly provocative. When carefully investigated, the claim is found to be a word game. This statement is achieved by defining evidence to mean something different from its customary use. For example, one might define evidence as “absolute, unimpeachable, empirical proof.” The trouble with this definition is that it would mean we have no evidence for anything. No human discovery of science, philosophy, or theology meets that burden of proof.

On the other hand, if we define evidence in a way that accords with the ordinary use of the word, something like “an observation that lends credibility to a hypothesis”, now we have a definition that matches actual human experience and behavior.

Humans believe things because they have discovered or been given reasons (i.e. evidence) to do so. Whether or not those reasons are strong is beside the point I’m making here—the point is there are reasons.

So on the basis of the available evidence I may a) choose to believe something different from what another person chooses to believe when presented with the same kinds of evidence, but none of this means I can b) rationally choose to believe I'm a Pokemon (a claim for which I have shockingly little evidence)2.

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Does the skeptic already possess all the necessary elements for belief?

Maybe for some basic beliefs. But even granting that the natural world provides reason to believe in a Supreme Being, it is unclear why we would expect a teleological argument (such as is found in Romans 1:18-24) to tell us in detail the intentions of that Supreme Being, or what the Supreme Being expects of us.

Even among those who acknowledge the existence of an intelligent Creator, there is nothing close to consensus about the specific plan or commands of that Creator. This leads me to the conclusion that details such as plan or commands are known because the Creator chooses to reveal them, not because these details were unmistakably apparent from the natural world.

The movements of the heavens may help us discern the existence of God, but using them to try to discover the intentions of God would be astrology, not theology.

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Biblical references

If the natural world is inadequate to reveal everything we ought to know about God, does the skeptic who reads the Bible already possess all the necessary elements for belief?

I'm unconvinced that we can answer this one in the affirmative either:

  • People who read the Bible regularly come to different conclusions
  • It doesn't track with lived, human experience. The prevalence of Christians testifying that they have received a witness from the Holy Spirit (even the great philosopher William Lane Craig uses this as a foundational argument for his beliefs), suggests that something more has happened than just reading the words. Reading the words may invite the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit who ratifies & illuminates the message. It is the Holy Spirit who will "guide you into all truth" (see John 16:13).

Several Biblical passages were cited in the OP to argue that belief is a choice. But it is worth noting that in each of the passages cited, the audience has already been given reasons (evidence, if you will) that support the belief they are being asked to choose. This is especially true in John 14 -- the audience here had mountains of evidence!

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Conclusion

James did not write "if any of you lack signs, let him ask of God", but "if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God". I do not argue for sign-seeking, but it is consistent with my understanding of the scriptures, and my own experience, that God does invite us to seek wisdom and knowledge from Him. This is a trait found in any loving parent.

I'm happy to grant that we can choose to believe within certain parameters, but not that we can choose to believe literally anything.

The universe around us can teach us some basic principles about the Creator, but if we want the details, we're better off learning them from God, not from Jupiter3.


Notes

0 - I'm not sure I qualify as an "advocate" for the skeptic's prayer, but I do acknowledge that God's promises to answer sincere prayer apply to skeptics

1 - This reality is easy to see in politics. If one chooses to obtain one's knowledge of current events exclusively from sources with a common viewpoint, one will start to believe that the world really is the way those sources describe it...even if those sources happen to omit current events reported elsewhere.

2 - If that's a strawman of direct doxastic voluntarism I'm happy to be corrected, but direct doxastic voluntarism appears to go well beyond just claiming people can choose to believe or disbelieve based on the evidence available to them.

3 - The Romans already tried that; after it didn't work they converted to Christianity =)

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  • New question. I'm honestly interested in your thoughts.
    – Mark
    Jan 30 at 23:36
  • And yet another question.
    – Mark
    Jan 31 at 15:28
  • @Mark thanks, I'll take a look Feb 1 at 17:56
  • Thank you. Here is yet another one.
    – Mark
    Feb 1 at 18:13

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