A “Personal Relationship” with Jesus

I’d like to go back to the most excellent example of terrible writing, 7 Things That Prove God Is Real, to focus on the last two points that the author (J. Lee Grady) makes. I want to focus on them as they appear to be pretty common within the arguments for [insert religion here], and they’re not only terrible, but run contrary to how we typically reason about things.

They basically come down to having a “personal relationship” with Jesus (and/or a god), and I’d like to discuss why this, in itself, does not warrant the claim that the god (or Jesus, here and now) is real.

First, let me be clear that I’m not discussing the historicity of Jesus in this article. I’ll probably discuss that later, but it’s not on the table here. If you feel like arguing in favour of the historical accounts of Jesus, I’d ask you to hold off in this thread, because it’s entirely irrelevant to this topic.

Psychological states are real things. Feelings are real, thoughts are real, “caring about x” is a real thing. A lot of these feelings are generated by real objects. The affection I feel for my friends is a real thing, and it was and is generated by my interaction with those real people. However, if people were to ask me to demonstrate that my friends are real, the last thing I’d do (i.e. I’d never do it) would be to refer to the affection I feel and say “I feel affection for my friends, and therefore they are real”. Not only would this be unconvincing, but it fails to be evidence in favour of the existence of my friends. Good evidence would be pointing to something in the world that other people can view, such as (in this particular case) the website of the most excellent Ian Cromwell, where videos of him and his music could be seen, thereby providing actual evidence for his existence. [And, yes, a plug for my buddy]

The reason that my psychological states fail to be evidence for the existence of my friends is that I can also have psychological states about things that are not real: when reading a novel or watching a movie, I have feelings about the characters. When watching Divergent, for example, I certainly had positive feelings for Tris and the other characters. They, however, do not exist.

I can also have psychological states about real people, and I can form false beliefs about how they feel about me. If, say, I were to have strong feelings of affection for someone I know, I could (mistakenly) start to read reciprocation into their actions when we spend time together. Moreover, when thinking about the future, if I were to take this mistaken belief for granted, I could (and would plausibly) be stuck in a self-reinforcing loop which would deepen my feelings for that person, and deepen my erroneous belief about them: in thinking that ‘Jane’ likes me but is too shy to let me know, I could end up speculating about the future I’d like to share with her, imagining her continuing to reciprocate my feelings, and leading me to commit more strongly to the (mistaken) belief that ‘Jane’ likes me. The longer that this goes on, the more pain I will experience when it’s pointed out to my that my beliefs are incorrect. I’d surely be angry with anyone who dismisses my feelings, and (if I’m far gone enough) I could end up making accusation of jealousy on the part of a well-meaning friend. Because, of course, they’re only jealous at the relationship that ‘Jane’ and I (don’t) have.

None of this would make me “crazy”,  “stupid”, or “irrational”: this is simply how our brains work. Cycles of belief formation, the good old amygdala triggering sweet, sweet chemical rewards each time we mull over these memories: of course I’m going to end up believing things that aren’t true. Such is life.

And this brings me to the statements that we’ll often hear from the religious (I don’t interact with non-Christian believers much, so I’m going to limit my comments to Christians from here on), that Jesus is real, because they have a relationship with him. Grady makes the astonishing claim in the linked article that “He is the living, breathing, touchable Son of God”, and I have no idea how one would even begin to justify that claim, unless it’s entirely metaphor. I have no doubt that Grady believes that he has a relationship with Jesus, and that he has a positive disposition towards Jesus (and the Christian god), but… Who is this Jesus that Grady has this disposition towards? How old is he? What’s Jesus’s favourite food? Where did Grady first physically meet Jesus?

The point of all this is that the “Jesus” that Grady has a belief about is entirely a mental construction, and entirely invented from reading books and articles about a being that has never physically been in the presence of Grady. I think an excellent illustration of my point is found in the move The Associate: throughout the movie, the character Robert Cutty is spoken about by Laurel Ayres (Whoopi Goldberg), such that all the other characters form beliefs about and dispositions towards the non-existent person. If you asked any of them if Cutty was real, they’d all affirm that he was, but none of them would be able to provide any evidence in favour of the existence of Cutty. Yet their feelings are real, even though Cutty is not. Many people in the movie make decisions based on the existence of Cutty (and would not have made them if they knew he was not real), but none of that makes him real. (And let’s not over-extend the analogy by pointing out that by hiring Ayres, they’re doing better off, so that their ‘false beliefs led to good outcomes’: that just happens to be the case in this movie, that doesn’t make it a good rule for life)

While I can certainly understand the position that people like Grady take when they state “When I am asked to defend my faith, I don’t start an intellectual argument” (because all the intellectual arguments fail), claiming that you have a ‘relationship’ with god/Jesus is not a defence: it’s just nonsense.

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2 responses to “A “Personal Relationship” with Jesus”

  1. How would you know that a personal relationship with Jesus is “nonsense” if you don’t have one?

  2. Because in order to have a relationship with a person, they have to exist.

    “Having a personal relationship with Jesus” makes precisely the same amount of sense as “having a personal relationship with Harry Potter”. You don’t need to have had a personal relationship with Harry Potter to draw a judgement about me claiming to have one.

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