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The Table Video

Richard Swinburne& Steve L. Porter

Swinburne: On Doubt and Faith

Emeritus Nolloth
 Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of 
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
September 13, 2012

Visiting Scholar Richard Swinburne discusses doubt, faith, and probability with CCT Associate Director Steve Porter.


Have there have been times, in your own life of faith, where you’ve had doubts about the truthfulness of Christianity? And also, if so or if not, what do you recommend people who are struggling with the truth of Christianity? Maybe they’re doubting their faith. What ought they to do with that?

Well, I believe these arguments are only probabilistic, that is to say, that they can show, that, probably there is a God and probably, he became incarnate in Christ. I don’t think there’s established certainty. So, inevitably, one has doubts. Am I right? Maybe it’s the other way. But, in life, one has to go on probabilities. If you send a rocket to the moon, it’s probable, the theories true, it’s probable you’ve done your right calculations and so on. But, maybe, you haven’t. Maybe the rocket will crash.

Everything we do, depends on, probabilities. So, religion’s not peculiar in that way. And so, yes, sometimes, I have doubts. I don’t know if they’re deep or serious doubts, but, certainly, I have doubts. And in fact, I look for them. That is to say, as a professional, I look for mistakes in my argument. I don’t expect other people, necessarily, to do that. But, certainly, if I see a problem, I, sort of, note it down for further thinking subsequently.

But, your question, the second part of your question, concerned, I suppose people aren’t overwhelmed by these arguments or what they do. Well, I think there’s rather a difference which isn’t always appreciated by religious believers, between believing that something is the case and believing in something. There’s a difference between believing that there is a God and believing in God. Believing that there is a God is just believing a certain state of affairs to be the case. Some person, who had no wish to be religious, might believe there is a God and do nothing about it. And it’s the same sort of belief, as believing that the universe is ten billion years old. But, religion is not a matter of just sort of that belief or necessarily of that sort of belief. It’s a matter of believing in. Now, what’s the difference?

Well, believing in means trusting, relying on God and so, you can rely on something, even if, which is something you do, something that directs your actions. Something, you rely on something, if you assume it’s true and let yourself be guided by it. And you can rely on the Christian religion, if you decide to let your life be guided by it and by what it teaches you and that is not unreasonable described as relying on God.

Now, why would that be a sensible thing to do, even if, you didn’t believe that there is a God? Well, it would be a foolish thing to do, if you’re pretty certain there wasn’t a God. But, if you’re doubtful, if you’re in the middle, you might reflect that, well, if the Christian religion is true, then the most worthwhile way to live, is the Christian way. But, if it’s false then there isn’t any greatly worthwhile way to live. So, if you want to make the best of your life, it’s worth taking a risk. And, that applies more generally. We often have to trust in things, that we have some doubt about, whether they will be the case.

And, sometimes, when we think, probably, they are not the case. It does take a different sort of example. Suppose you’re trapped in an enemy country, in time of war, you want to get out of the country, the only way to get out of the country is to approach some citizen of the country and ask them to help you. But, of course, for any citizen of the country, it’s probable they won’t help you. Nevertheless, it’s sensible to approach the least, the one who looks the least hostile and say will you help me? You can only achieve your goal, if you trust that person.

And, you can only achieve the goal, if you’re in that rather doubtful situation of living the most worthwhile life, if, by a certain argument, you being, it does seem to you that this is a particularly, or would be a particularly worthwhile life to live, if there is a God. As many theists would admit, that, if there is a God, this is a very worthwhile life to live. Even better, than any life I could live in a way. It’s worth taking a chance. If it really matters to you that your life should be a good life.

And when you say it’d be a very worthwhile life to live, I take it you’re not just thinking of the possibility of eternal life but there’s something worthwhile about living life now, with the belief in God.

Oh, yes, yes. I was thinking, both about now and about thereafter. A life of worshiping a creator, being grateful for existence and expressing that gratitude in helping other people to be aware of their dependence on God and to be aware of and helping them in all sorts of material and mental ways. Making them the sort of person that God would think it worthwhile keeping alive for eternity and making yourself, the sort of person that would be worthwhile keeping for eternity is an enormously worthwhile thing to do.