I've written this in sections, so you can just read the bit(s) you're interested in, if any.
How I came to believe in God.
What I believe.
Why I believe it.
How I Got To Where I Am
My mother, an Anglican priest, brought me up to go to church every Sunday. It was pretty much taken for granted that I believed in God. I took it for granted myself, all the way through CofE primary school, and didn't really question it until I was half way through my second year of secondary school. I took a lot of flak for being Christian in my first year and a half at St Elphin's, so obstinacy was a big part of my unquestioning faith during that time.
When I finally rejected blind faith, I became a total atheist. For several years I was convinced there was no God. I went on feeling like that until I suddenly (and rather shamefacedly) realised that in declaring that there was definitely no way God could possibly exist, I was still blindly believing something which couldn't be proved.
From that point, I considered myself an atheist. I had a lot of interesting conversations with my friend Annie (who was and is a believer) during 6th Form, where we went over and generally discarded the various proofs that people have been proposed for the existence of God. I was also learning a lot more science and mathematics, and a lot more about the history of science (which is mostly the story of the many and varied ways in which clever people have proved each other wrong). During this time, whether or not I believed in God changed almost daily.
I can't really pin down the moment when I regained my faith. It was only really when this whole debate flared up that I realised I now definitely consider myself a Christian, but I have, I think, been believing in God more than not for a while now.
Where I Am
I believe in God. By 'God', I mean some kind of higher existence who is, or appears to be, loving, omnipresent, omnipotent, compassionate and generally benevolent. I also believe that God only interferes in our affairs when He deems it necessary, and that when He does so we generally can't tell.
I don't have any strong beliefs about the past; I think that Jesus probably existed, and I find the God of the new testament far more believable than the old, but I keep an open mind on whether any of the events detailed in the bible actually happened. This is how I feel about most of history and, when it comes to it, my own past; the bits I really believe may have happened are the parts which are verified by lots of people. As such, the only historical events portrayed in the bible which I think definitely happened are the great flood (flood myths abound and there's geological evidence to suggest that the Black Sea may be the remains of some catastrophic flooding), and the lives of historical figures which appear in other sources (including Jesus).
As regards life after death, I don't believe in hell and never really have; as someone once said, if God is all that loving and merciful then hell ought to end up empty anyway. Nor do I believe in heaven as an opposite number for hell, a kind of eternal church fete where the righteous can spend all of time organising flower rotas and singing hymns. I'm undecided on whether there is any kind of life after death, but if there is one I think it's probably nothing like life as we know it; and punishment for sins commited during our time on Earth is probably more in the form of feeling guilty about it for ever and never being able to make amends. Conscience can be a bastard. Reward for being good is probably the satisfaction of a life well lived, and knowing that you made the world a better place. I'd like to think that, if there is nothing after death, you can still have that satisfaction before you die anyway. That's certainly what I'm aiming for.
This is going to be the hardest bit of this marathon post to write and edit, so please bear with me if I don't seem to be making any sense. Alternatively, get bored and go away. It's your life.
On perception, relativism and the nature of truth
Impressive sounding title, I thought.
In some ways, it's a misleading simplification for me to say that I believe in God. But it would also be untrue if I stated that I don't believe in God. Believing in God is part of how I look at the world, but it isn't relevant to all situations. In the same way, I believe in the standard model of particle phsyics, and the heliocentric view of the solar system, but sometimes I ignore them. Confused? Me too.
At this point, I shall digress a little to talk about relativism. Some of you reading undoubtedly know more about this than I do, in which case you can either skip to the next mention of God, or read the next bit in detail and tell me where I've gone wrong. Up to you.
I don't believe that there is such a thing as an absolute truth. I think that what may be true for one person or in one situation may not be for the next guy along or the next time the situation comes up. Most people would agree with me, I think, that some 'truths' are contentious; however, my personal philosophy is that there are no absolute truths. I was talking about this to my mother recently, and she used an example which I like so much that I'm going to pinch it (all trivial and unnecessary detail is my own).
Suppose we have a physicist sitting in a little office somewhere, plotting a course for a probe which is going to orbit the sun. To this person, it is true that the Earth orbits the sun; without this truth he can't do his calculations, he won't get paid, he won't be able to afford the snazzy BMW he has his eye on, his partner will leave him for an accountant and he'll die sad and alone in a few years time. On the other side of the wall from the physicist, there's a field, and in the field is a goat (our physicist is also a bit of a hippy, and has two goats and a windmill. It's probably his attempts to make goats' cheese in the kitchen sink that have led to his partner looking elsewhere). The goat, which isn't a very advanced thinker, observes the sun coming up, crossing the sky, and going down, and knows that the sun goes round the earth. To the goat, this is the truth. And from the point of view of the patch of ground on which the goat stands, the sun does go round the earth. It's just a different perception of the available evidence.
To drag myself back to the vicinity of what I was talking about before, I consider 'God Exists' to be just another way of looking at the world. If I'm doing maths, then I use my personal model of the world in which numbers go on forever and it doesn't matter whether there is any real world equivalent for what I'm doing (imaginary numbers, anyone? Or, at a more fundamental level, minus x minus = plus). When doing particle physics, I 'believe' in the existence of massless and intangible particles called neutrinos which are everywhere, all the time, but practically unobservable. At these times, I don't specifically believe in God because it's irrelevant. When do I use my 'God Exists' mask, I hear you cry? Well.
This is really the crux of my argument, the bit that made it worth writing this. If I wasn't so fond of the sound of my own typing, I might've dispensed with all the other stuff. Bad luck.
Without wishing to say 'this is what atheists think' (which would be stupid), it seems to me that there is often an attitude of 'what difference does it make?' amongst people who are undecided and/or don't believe in God. After all, if you can't prove whether God exists or not, then it doesn't make a difference either way.
This is not how I feel about it. I say feel, because my view on this is not based on rational thought but on a mix of emotional response and gut feeling. I do believe that there is more to be learnt about the world than can be observed, measured or deduced through scientific methods, and this is the area where that philosophy affects my feelings most strongly.
At all sorts of times, I've felt tiny prompts when faced with a decision, or unexpected and sometimes ludicrous-seeming flashes of inspiration. Being quite a spontaneous person anyway, I've generally gone with them, and they've led me in some unexpected directions. Sometimes, I've tried to ignore them and really suffered afterwards. I'm not going to regale you with a long list, but I will give one example. I've probably told the story before, but it's such a good example I'm going to use it anyway.
Back in school, I once woke in the middle of the night to hear the fire alarm going off. This was hardly an uncommon situation; we had fire drills in the middle of the night quite often. I put on my dressing gown and left my rooom, heading in the direction of the car park where we were supposed to gather on such occasions. As I got to the door at the end of the hall, however, something prompted me to stop and count my fellow pupils as they left. Now, there was no reason why I should have done this; I had no reason to believe that I was the first person out, or that this wasn't just another fire drill, and even if it hadn't been there was a dedicated fire captain and it wasn't me. For reasons which were fuzzy at the time and are even less clear now, I did stop. I counted the girls going past, and when one was missing I knew it was my afore-mentioned friend Annie and went straight to her door. When I knocked, there was no answer so I opened her door. Only then did I realise that something was wrong. Her stuffed bear had fallen onto the scented candle which she often used to help her sleep, and the room was full of plastic fumes from its flame-resistant plastic insides.
In all the disorganisation outside (the house staff turned up ages after we were all out, having got fully dressed and brought their pet dogs out with them), I think it would have been long enough before Annie's absence was noted and investigated that she wouldn't be around today if I hadn't listened to that little voice.
I feel these inexplicable promptings fairly often. And because I believe in God, I choose to listen to them. Sometimes, the outcome is as clear cut as that. Others, it makes no difference to my life that I can see, but I believe that it will at some point, or that it will make a difference to someone somewhere.
Call that little voice what you like. I choose to call it God.