Friday, July 04, 2008

What will it take?

Christians often ask atheists the above question. What kind of evidence would it take to convince us of God's existence? I'd like to turn the question back to them. What would it take to convince them that maybe God is just a product of their imaginations and wishful thinking?

Allow me to preface this with an unambiguous statement. People dying is never funny (well, okay — except for Pauly Shore), and posts like this are not meant as a "ha ha!" to believers in any way. But there's a disconnect here that I'd really like explained to me.

Short version: Busload of evangelical Christians is swept off a bridge in San Salvador by a swollen river, at least 30 die. Was God looking out for those people? Did he sit back and let them die for a reason? How do believers square this kind of thing with the Problem of Evil? Really, I'd like to know how Christians process an event like this in such a way as to continue to permit themselves their beliefs in a loving heavenly father. Do these kinds of events — tragically affecting those whom you'd think God would be most inclined to protect — ever bring Christians a moment's pause? Or is that all it is: a pause, before the rationalizations kick in? Or is there a convincing argument to be made in defense of God here? Doesn't it seem like these kinds of situations would present God with exactly the opportunity for miraculous intervention that would silence the atheists of the world immediately with direct empirical evidence of his loving grace?


  1. i think it goes something like: "who are we to understand the mind of god?"

  2. And this would be from the same people who claim to understand the mind of God very thoroughly through their advocacy of intelligent design, I presume. :-)

  3. Where I thought you might go, but didn't, was ask why they thank God when they survive something such as that as if they're better than the rest.

    Of all the rationalizations, though, I think this one may be the most interesting. It's pretty much irrevocable.

  4. Well, the whole "selective miracle" thing is certainly interesting as a behavioral phenomenon (a plane crashes, killing everyone but a single child — IT'S A MIRACLE!), but I'm more interested in how Christians reconcile the occurrence of these tragedies in the first place. This wasn't a bus full of Islamist America-hating terrorists on their way to the madrassa to learn suicide bombing, or wicked atheists going to a Dawkins book signing, or gay men trekking to a Pride-Fest. They were Christian evangelicals, normal everyday folks, no doubt on a perfectly innocent church outing of some kind, who were pointlessly killed en masse by a natural disaster. Some were probably children. God, being omniscient, knew the weather conditions and knew what was going to happen on that bridge, and he didn't save them. Why?

  5. I've never understood the Christian propensity to re-define an event to make their God look good. If the bus full of people had been saved, then they're offer it up as evidence of god's protection and claim it a miracle. If the bus full of people are left to drown (one of the worst ways to go), then they'll reframe it to be an example of how God gives people trials and does everything for a reason. I don't think most of them ever realize that God may not have had anything to do with it one way or the other. I don't think they get that there's an alternative that god doesn't exist. And, when they do take that moment's pause to consider how unjust or cruel these deaths were, they end up rationalizing it away as a work of the devil or weird blame game.

  6. I would actually like to turn the question even further and ask them how they can believe with so little evidence. I demand quite a lot, so why don't they demand the same?

  7. I was one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and believed that God will one day resurrect the dead to live forever in perfect health on a paradise earth--the same conditions Adam & Eve enjoyed before The Fall. Any death or suffering in the present is mathematically inconsequential compared with the joy of that future. When disaster affects Jehovah's Witnesses, some survivors do attribute their survival to God's hand, while others (recognizing that deaths occurred) feel that they only luckily escaped one of Satan's attacks. I was one of the latter, but suspect the former believed their lives were spared for the great purpose of introducing a yet-unknown specific person into the cult who might respond better to their personality than any other. As I'm sure you're aware, preaching is a very important part of Jehovah's Witnesses' worship. JW beliefs are bigger than your typical bag-of-nuts Christianity, but other Christians probably conjure similar excuses for God's lazy attitude toward their deceased friends.

    Jehovah's Witnesses are very evasive about who God will spare, and about the great mystery of how so many resurrected will fit on planet earth (quite comfortably, most insist, once the oceans are lifted and become a magical vapor canopy). They constantly remind one another that the post-Armageddon paradise will "set right" all that Adam upset in eating a piece of fruit; who are we to make God's judgment of who will or won't receive resurrection? Perhaps--and this little gem gets around a lot inside the cult--Hitler had some chemical imbalances and will be right as rain if given the chance in paradise. We just don't know. This of course makes the belief system very attractive to vulnerable mourners who're unconvinced their deceased loved one would meet the dress code for heaven. That said, Jehovah's Witnesses still insist that many "won't make it" to that paradise, hence the urgency of their saving message. Objections that if Hitler can be reformed, so can anyone, are met with the response: "But maybe not. Who are we to make God's judgment?"

    A lot of this is very specific for Jehovah's Witnesses, but I suspect other religions offer comparable beliefs to comfort the bereaved, the survivor, and the martyr alike. Sorry to be so long winded, but excuses for untimely death depend on a long chain of other beliefs, which are most irrational only at their very core. Ultimately, as the amiable atheist said, God's mind == mystery, but the delusion is rather more intricate than that. Really, this is why it's so hard to pick apart belief systems and it's so hard to keep fundamentalists focused on one specific point in argument: their beliefs are so tangled and interdependent it's often impossible to remove one without affecting all the others. Focussing on specific points such is precisely how I came through the cult and ultimately arrived at atheism.

    (Probably a much fuller explanation than you were after. Sorry again for being so long winded.)

  8. I think the short answer would be "they'd have to be willing to admit that they could be wrong about the god hypothesis."

    The believers I've interacted with have the answer to the god hypothesis stuck on "yes," and are unwilling to admit even the possibility of error.

    They've accepted as axiomatic something that other people (including myself) have not.

    That's why it's so hard to talk to them.

  9. Oh, I got a better one here.

    In summary, last year there was an earthquake in Peru and 60 people in a church died but it was still considered a miracle because the Jesus statue was undamaged. I would have been more impressed if the 60 people survived and the Jesus statue was destroyed.

  10. I've never understood the Christian propensity to re-define an event to make their God look good.

    Because they claim that everything that happens is God's will, so no matter what the outcome, they have to believe that there was some grander meaning to it all.

  11. The strangest type of this thing you are taliking about occurs when theist parents have a child that develops some terrible disease, say like some form of childhood cancer and the parent pray to the God they believe in (who is all powerful, loving, etc., etc., etc.) to cure their sick child!!! Who do these parents think allowed their child to have this cancer in the first place????

    I have seen members of my own family (who do not know that I am a skeptic on their theistic beliefs) who have developed serious health problems and pray to God to heal them! And of course during good times they always gave thanks to God for His many blessings! How bizzare!!!

    Indeed, What will it take to get these people to start thinking critically about these and other facts of life of this world that just don't support all the strange things they believe but just does not match up with reality???????

  12. As a former christian I can say that, for me, the rationalizations always started right away. Everything was viewed in the context of God's Plan. The example you gave would quickly be rationalized as God's Will and I was repeatedly admonished not to question his will.

    Obviously, I do not feel any reluctance today. While I find it plausible that a great super intelligent all powerful being could have a plan that required certain deaths at certain times and other suffering I also believe that such a being would be worthy of my hatred and my undying rebellion.

  13. nathaniel: I would actually like to turn the question even further and ask them how they can believe with so little evidence. I demand quite a lot, so why don't they demand the same?

    Ironic in that those very people always demand mountains of evidence for evolution (which exists, they just ignore, disdain, or fail to comprehend it when it's shown to them), but when it comes to God and Jesus and all the supernatural claims surrounding them...meh, the Bible says it and that's good enough. Double standard much?

  14. This isn't exactly on topic, but I often get, "We don't need to worry about _______, because..." The Rapture, Jesus' Second Coming, etc. Whenever I hear this, I come back with, "But don't you know? AIDS is the Rapture."

    That doesn't serve any serious purpose in debate, but they don't know what to say to it, so it shuts them up.

  15. If all the stars in the sky were suddenly rearranged to say "REPENT SINNERS!" then I might be swayed to join a church. Short of that, no way.


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