Sunday, March 09, 2008

"What would convince you?"

Christians often get frustrated with atheists. They complain that no argument is good enough, that we must be even more dogmatic in our unbelief than they are in their belief. You see this whine reflected in the swiftness with which believers, desperate to refute Dawkins and the "new atheists," began referring to them as "atheist fundamentalists." Nothing they can possibly say to persuade these closed-minded heathens will ever change their minds.

What believers don't see is that this has nothing to do with the presumed intellectual constipation of atheists, and everything to do with the lame quality of their arguments for faith. You must realize that to a lot of believers — not just the rank-and-file Jack and Jill Churchgoer, but even to apologists who write books and ought to know better, like Ray Comfort and Dinesh D'Souza — laughable nonsense like Pascal's Wager or Lewis's "lord, liar or lunatic" are excellent arguments. The simple fact is that, to an atheist who has spent years living his/her life rooted in reason, the feeble, emotionally comforting justifications that believers use to prop up their beliefs won't work.

So what can believers do to change our minds? Often I've been asked, "What would it take to convince you? What evidence would break through your intellectual front lines?" Maybe you've been asked this yourself.

My response is to tell the believer that they should be directing their question at themselves and not me. Here's what they should do.

Ask yourself, "Why do I believe in God?" Be brutally honest in your answer. Do you believe simply because you've been raised to believe and have never thought to question your upbringing? Or do you think you actually have sound intellectual reasons for your theism?

If you answer in the former, then you need to ask yourself if that is really good enough. Believers like to throw around terms like "intellectual honesty," so any believer who is willing to admit they hold on to their theism simply because they were raised Christian ought to ask themselves if it is truly intellectually honest not to question beliefs just because you were raised in them.

If you answer in the latter, then ask yourself this: If your reasons for belief are intellectually satisfying to you, and are in your opinion well supported by evidence, then are those reasons on their own strong enough to sway unbelievers? If you think of yourself as a smart person, and your reasons to believe were strong enough to sway you, shouldn't they be good enough for anyone else also?

If yes, then by all means, present them. And expect them to be scrutinized and evaluated. Don't be angry if they aren't just automatically accepted.

But if you don't think your reasons are strong enough to sway an atheist, then ask yourself, why did they sway you? Are they really especially good reasons? Or did you allow something else — your emotions, your desire for acceptance and fear of rejection by your neighbors and family — to overpower your reason? If other smart people aren't convinced by your reasons, should you have accepted those reasons as good enough for you, being that you're a smart person too?

So don't let atheists' insistence on arguing these things down to the bone frustrate you, and don't waste time asking us what would convince us, because that effectively amounts to your giving up. (And if you're doing that, what does it say about how supportable your beliefs are?) Instead, take a moment to really evaluate your reasons for being a believer, and be coldly, unforgivingly honest with yourself in that evaluation. It will be difficult, but it's worth doing. In my case, I must admit it was that process of self-evaluation that steered me towards my eventual atheism. But if such self-scrutiny only reassures you your reasons are sound, and that they are sound enough to trounce all of us "new atheists," then bring 'em on. And prepare to defend yourself in a hearty argument. Much as people might like to think of us as "atheist fundamentalists" as an excuse to avoid getting in such arguments with us, just remember, we aren't fundamentalists, we're rationalists who insist on strict fidelity to evidence and reason. If we can be proven wrong, we'll admit it when we are.


  1. Ebon Musings made an effort at describing what they would find convincing in their Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists.

  2. Right on Martin. A lot of times, Christians seem to forget the fact that a lot of us were Christians. We arrived at our atheism after a period of examination and critical analysis. Speaking for myself, I was a believing Catholic. It is not easy to give up a commitment to a belief system where you honestly believed that making the wrong choice could have dire consequences in the afterlife. Once I abandoned Catholicism, and religion in general, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and never had any regrets.

  3. That is a funny question: What would it take to convince you god exists?

    I would probably say something along the lines of, "The same thing it would take to convince you there is a mug on the table between us, if we were sitting together at a table."

    It's actually VERY easy to convince me a thing exists. I know this becuase I'm convinced all kinds of things exist. Walk up to me. Hand me a pencil. Say, "This pencil exists." I can promise anyone right now that I won't put up any argument whatsoever. Present your pencil. I believe you. No debate. Extremely simple. Extremely efficient.

    Existence is defined by manifestation. If it manifests, there is no question but that it exists. Some things manifest more easily than others, sure. But if it's not manifesting, there is no reason to be saying there is something there.

    Pointing to a tree and saying, "that is god manifesting," makes me wonder if you think god is a tree. I'm being somewhat facetious there; but in reality, how is that different than me showing you a rock and saying, "This is a manifestation of fairies, because I happen to know that only fairies can produce rocks."

    The rock shows rocks exist. We can certainly investigate how rocks come to be rocks. But unless fairies manifest, there's no reason to say rocks = fairies. And there's nothing _more_ convincing about saying trees = god/s.

    I don't dispute the rock. I don't dispute the tree. I don't dispute the pencil. But I will dispute you if you tell me that things that don't manifest can be said to exist. That requires redefining existence to include nonmanifesting items. And I've posted this before, but I'll post it again: If items that do not manifest can be said to exist, how do we differentiate them from items that do not exist? How can we tell the difference between something that won't manifest although it is and something that can't manifest because it's not?

  4. Ah, Tracie. But then they'd say, "Well, what about love, or justice, or equality? Can you hold those things in your hand? Then how do you know they exist?" I'm not saying it's a good reply, only that it's what a lot of them would say. That moron Theodore Beale, aka "Vox Day," is all about this. He thinks that because abstract concepts like justice are not "materialistic" in nature, then that alone invalidates the "materialism" of science while proving that a "non-material" realm must exist in which such concepts must be manifested, and that happens to be the realm where God lives. Seriously, that's how he thinks. It's an elaborate and overworked variant on the old, "science can't explain this, so..." God of the Gaps argument, but he and lots of believers take it seriously.

  5. >He thinks that because abstract concepts like justice are not "materialistic" in nature, then that alone invalidates the "materialism" of science while proving that a "non-material" realm must exist in which such concepts must be manifested, and that happens to be the realm where God lives.

    I heartily agree. That realm is called the human mind/imagination. "Abstract" concepts are also self-defined concepts. My conception of love is all the love I know. And someone's conception of god is all the god they know.

    God exists in that realm where "love" exists. But if a theist wants to claim god exists outside the human mind, apart from a human concept, conceived and maintained and defined by the human brain/imagination--he's got to compete with my coffee mug.

  6. I should clarify that I agree that realm exists--but it's not usually what people mean when they say god exists. Anyone who claims that all they mean when they say 'god exists' is that he exists as an idea, I can't argue. And I have to agree.

    I don't agree this "invalidates" materialism and the findings of natural science. But it is another definition of "existence" we sometimes agree to use: ideas exist in my imagination. Fairies live there, right along side god and space aliens. This argument for god's "existence" puts him squarely in the realm of Hobbits and Vulcans. And I think that's right where he belongs.

  7. If they're talking about the God of the Bible, it doesn't make any difference whether I believe in him or not. I consider him to be immoral and not worthy of respect or worship.

    Better link to Ignorance is blitz


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