Answers to “A Question for Atheists” August 14, 2016Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
Tags: christianity, Cognitive Biases, critical thinking, evidence, pass-phrase, Questions, religion
Godless Cranium linked to a post at flyinguineapig, with two longish questions for atheists. Flyinguineapig appears to be a strongly christian blogger, but these questions aren’t really the typical “gotcha” questions that I would expect to see on a blog of that sort, so I’ll go ahead and tackle them. Rather than try to answer in the comments at either of those blogs, I’ll post my answers here, and link back to them. Also, I prefer to write my own answers before I read through everybody else’s answers.
My first question is more general. I see this among atheists and my agnostic friends. People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence because of the lack of some kind of proof. It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for. Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective. I would love to get a few different perspectives, so my question is, what would prove to you that God exists?
Let me start with this part of the question: “People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence…” Most atheists I know don’t actually do this, so the question is starting out with rather of a strawman assumption.
The difficult part of this assumption is – how do you define a god? It’s a really nebulous term. I know what the christians mean when they talk about their god, but the question here is “any deity”. What characteristics would a being need to have in order for us to consider it a god? Let’s look at a few examples:
In the original Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” the Enterprise encounters an alien who claims to be the Greek god Apollo. Using the “ancient aliens” trope, he claims that the Olympian pantheon was a group of space travellers who settled on Earth in the Bronze Age. He had the power to change the weather and hurl lightning from his hands, to change sizes, to vanish and reappear, and to stop a starship in space. But he was not all-knowing or all-powerful. If we met such a being, would we call it a god?
Or how about this example from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: Anoia, the goddess of things that get stuck in drawers. From the Discworld Wiki:
When someone rattles a drawer and cries “How can it close on the damned thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?”, even though the person might be genuinely irritated or even exasperated, it is as praise unto Anoia. Faithful Anoians (worshippers of Anoia) purposefully rattle their drawers and complain every day. Anoia also finds objects that roll under other objects and things stuck in sofa cushions, and is considering handling stuck zippers. She eats corkscrews.
She’s clearly supernatural and has a lot of power, but only over one narrow area of interest. If she existed, would you call her a god? (You’d better if you ever wanted to use your ladle again!)
There’s many many possible candidates for godhood that we could dream up. How about an all-powerful all-knowing god who exists only on Tuesdays? How about the god of the “evil god” hypothesis, all-powerful, all-knowing, and malevolent. How about a cosmic unicorn who farts universes? And of course, all the gods from all the religions that humans have ever believed in. There’s a cargo cult on Vanuatu that considers Prince Philip of England a divine being, and I’m pretty sure that he exists. I once listened to a Unitarian minister who said that god was just their name for love. (To which my response is that we already have a word for love, it’s “love”. Why do we need to add another word, or personify something that’s an abstract concept?) Before we could talk about denying the possibility of “any god” we’d need a very careful definition of what qualifies.
But the person asking this question believes in the christian god, who I’ll identify as “biblegod”. A being who created the universe, that is all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent. One that became the personal wargod of a small tribe in the Bronze-age middle east, sent a son to be tortured to death in the Roman era, and now communicates to us by means of feelings in our hearts and an anthology of books which require translation, and for which none of the original copies exist. One that has “mysterious ways”, and hides very effectively. That’s the god they are trying to talk us into believing in, so I’ll just discuss that one for now.
(I’ve said a lot of this stuff before in prior posts, so if you are a long-time reader I apologize for the repetition. )
It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for.
You shouldn’t have to know. It shouldn’t be your job to figure it out. If your god exists, and knows everything, then your god already knows what kind of proof would convince an unbeliever. If your god wants you to be the messenger to convert a specific unbeliever, your god should be able to tell you exactly what that unbeliever needs to hear or see to be convinced. You should be asking your god that question, not us. If you don’t get a useful answer back, then you need to consider the implications of that for yourself.
Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective.
That is a legitimate concern. I also am concerned with the problem that what has convinced people to join one specific religion or another is usually very subjective. And I am also aware of the problem that human brains are really bad at interpreting information and coming to correct conclusions. As an example, if you are an evangelical christian, then your sect represents about 4% of the world population. Which means that, if you have the correct answer about god, then 96% of the people who have honestly tried to figure out the truth about god using the information available to them have come to the wrong conclusions. If I were biblegod, I’d find this really embarrassing.
So when I’m looking for evidence, I’m wanting it to be as objective as possible. I would mistrust anything that was just a “feeling in my heart” because humans are so prone to confirmation bias. I mistrust personal anecdotes that can’t be verified. I want evidence that has a reality check available. Evidence that is also observed by other people, and that survives all attempts to disprove it. And something that isn’t just a low-probability event, because those happen just on their own sometimes. If your evidence is something completely inconsistent with the operation of the universe as we know it, something impossible, that would be really strong. For instance, if the stars rearranged themselves to spell a different bible verse each night. Or if the tree in my front yard started growing KJV bibles instead of crabapples. Or if every Southern Baptist were raptured, that would be really convincing.
Or, if you claim that your god doesn’t do big flashy stuff like that (any more), and only talks to people’s hearts (because “mysterious ways”), then I have something easy that could get my personal attention and get me to listen to you seriously. Tell me my passcode. It’s a sentence in plain English that I have never told anyone or written down, but I’ve thought it lots of times. It’s not a sentence that you might guess in normal conversation, and it’s very personal to me. If your god knows everything, then he knows what it is. If he wants to you reach me with your “good news” then he can tell you what it is. So ask your god what to say to me, and if you start a comment with that sentence, you will have my undivided attention.
My second question is a little more personal, but less complicated. I’ve noticed that when atheists write posts or comments, here and in other places, they most frequently attack Christianity in particular. I assume this is partly because Christianity is one of the most prominent religions, if not the most prominent religion in the U.S. and in the West overall. My question here is, do you have an actual problem with Christianity specifically, or do you argue against it the most simply because of its prominence?
My answer to this one is also less complicated. I have a problem will all religions, at least all religions that require believing things on “faith”, or that give people a religious excuse to be assholes to other people. But I was raised as a christian, the part of the world I live in is predominantly christian, and evangelical christians are the ones who have too much influence on my government and are pushing for more. If I’m going to be pushing back against religious overreach in my local area, it’s christians that I’ll be pushing against. And if I’m able to provide help to someone transitioning out of religion, I’d be able to be the most helpful for ex-christians, because that’s my background too. So that’s mostly who my posts are aiming at.