What would make you believe?


From Atheist Meme Base.

There is a pretty common thing amongst atheists and Christians to ask the other side “what would it take to change your mind?” I’m not sure why this is the case. Perhaps both sides have been arguing for so long that there’s just nothing new under the sun and people are out of ideas on how to convert each other. Maybe it just seems like the other side is intractable and that asking them what would change their mind is a more direct way of figuring out what to say next. Maybe it’s just a desperate way to keep the debate going.

We must be clear that there are two different issues here: what would it take for an atheist to become a theist, and what would it take for an atheist to become a Christian.

My answer to the first question is: nothing. There is no possible evidence or motivation that could make me become a theist.

Let me take one of the “miracles” commonly cited as possible evidence of the existence of God: the stars aligning in a way that spells out something coherent, like “Jesus is Lord.” What would we make of such an event?

It seems to me that there are much more reasonable explanations than to believe that the event was engineered by God:

* Perhaps I am hallucinating.
* Perhaps my vision was tampered with in some way.
* Perhaps I am the victim of some elaborate prank.
* Perhaps the light coming to the Earth was tampered with by aliens.
* Perhaps I am a brain in a vat.
* Perhaps I am part of an elaborate dream.

Some of these explanations are obviously absurdly improbable, but they are still more probable than God’s existence. Unlike the God hypothesis, each of these explanations can be understood in an empirical way, and none of them rely on things we cannot define even in theory.

The basic issue here is that supernaturalist hypotheses are fundamentally untestable. To have evidence of the existence of God means to have evidence of supernatural intervention on our reality, and that’s logically impossible.

Why do many atheists say otherwise? I am not sure, but I think one issue is that atheists generally do not want to be portrayed as close-minded. To tell a Christian than nothing could change your mind may mean surrendering the “reasonableness” of open-ended “I just don’t see any reason to believe” atheism. But the only end result is that Christianity will be portrayed as more “reasonable”; it will not make Christians like atheists because their irrational hatred of atheists is based on their childhood indoctrination, not simply on false premises that can be corrected by appearing “reasonable.”

No doubt some atheists seriously believe that they could be convinced of the existence of God on such a basis. But then I’d say they were not very serious atheists, if it was so easy for them to believe all the God stories based on one event, however incredible…

Now on the second question, what it would take for me to become a Christian. It may seem like this is a non-issue, given what I’ve just said: since Christianity is based on the God concept, and I’ve rejected the possibility of the God concept, there must therefore be nothing that could ever make me into a Christian.

Still, I think that this general reasoning is incorrect, that in a sense it may be easier for one to become a Christian than to believe in God. Right now there is a significant proportion of Christians (in the UK 46%, in the US somewhere around 13%) who do not believe in a personal god. That’s food for thought, but most importantly it shows that identifying as a Christian does not necessarily mean believing in God, because religion is as much as matter of cultural identification as it is a matter of belief, an important point which the atheist movement largely ignores.

It’s another thing entirely to ask whether these people are really Christian. After all, one is a Christian, supposedly, by believing Jesus was the son of God, which would imply belief in God. But one does not necessarily have to agree with the fundamental premises of a religion to be a follower of said religion. There are some Buddhists, especially in the West, who do not believe in the soul but who meditate and follow the Five Precepts: are they Buddhists? I don’t see why not.

It’s not really relevant to the question anyway. What would it take for me to identify as a Christian? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s impossible, but I can’t imagine any plausible scenario that starts with myself as I am today and ends with me being a Christian. The ethics of Christianity, the narratives of Christianity, the sensibilities of Christianity, the politics of Christianity, the psycho-sexual fabric of Christianity, are all so profoundly aberrated and disgusting that it would require quite a drastic change in my personality (major brain damage, perhaps) to get me to even begin to accept it. I already have two religions anyway, and I don’t really need a third one.

I suppose a Christian could reply that I have never found myself in a situation where my atheism could have been tested. I wouldn’t say that’s true, however: I have had many strange experiences in my life that I certainly cannot explain. But unlike religionists, I do not have the reflex action that goes from “I can’t explain this” to “God did it” in 3.4 seconds. I am perfectly fine with (gasp!) not knowing something that’s obscured by the passage of time and the subjectivity of perception. Praise “Bob” and pass the ammo…

But here’s something further to think about: Christians may not be entirely honest when they ask the question. William Lane Craig, the most acclaimed living Christian theologian, has publicly said that if he went back in time and observed Jesus’ tomb, and never saw Jesus come back to life, he would still be a Christian. You can read about it here.

If William Lane Craig himself could not be convinced by such a direct, observable and fatal piece of evidence, then what could exactly?

2 thoughts on “What would make you believe?

  1. Independent Radical January 13, 2015 at 00:11 Reply

    I think the question is motivated by the basic scientific principle of falsifiability. Proposing ideas that are “proven” by all possible outcomes and can never be disproven by anything is considered contrary to the principles of science. I see it as a form of cheating, but since Christians are the ones who have put forward a concept that is ill-defined and absurd, I cannot really fault you for saying you could not be convinced of it.

    If I saw the stars rearrange themselves to spell out “Jesus is Lord” in multiple languages so that it did not seem as though the message was just aimed at me as an English speaker, I probably would be convinced. That does not mean, I would be right. Aliens manipulating stars is a more probable explanation, but I think if it were to really happen, I would be so shocked that I would end up believing the god explanation, but I have never been in that scenario and thus cannot know.

    I could never be a Christian though, because being a Christian means not only believing in the existance of a god, but being an eager servant of a such a being. I don’t do submission, especially if the being demanding it is a genocidal, sadistic misogynist.

    I could not be culturally Christian either, because my family is not Western or Christian. I am a little annoyed by people who say they are Christian because their parents were Christian and they live in the West and celebrate Christmas and what not. The atheist movement where I live is actually aware of this phenomenon because they put signs during the 2011 census telling people not to label themselves as religious just because their parents were.

    Nobody calls themself a communist because their family is from the Soviet Union and they have memories of celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. People understand that you are only a communist if you believe in communism, but people are happy to use overly broad definitions of words that refer to religious groups (e.g. “Christian” and “Muslim”). I think this helps to maintain the positive image of religion, by implying that religion is morally and politically neutral and that criticising religion is a form of racism.

    But whatever definition you go with, I am not a Christian and will never be.

  2. Brian L March 6, 2015 at 18:03 Reply

    Even if God appeared before me, and I wasn’t delusional (we’re always the last to know, as someone aptly put it), I do not agree with ‘his’ vision, and would never worship or follow ‘him’ or ‘his’ rules, no more than I’d follow any other totalitarian leader.

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