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Thinking about Sincerity January 7, 2020

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

When theists try to convert unbelievers, they often try to reinforce how sincere they are about what they believe.  And they often seem surprised that their sincerity isn’t taken as a sign that their assertions should be accepted.

So this is a thought experiment to illustrate the weakness of “sincerity”.

For the purposes of this experiment, let’s assume that a god actually exists, and that it’s the christian biblegod, or something very similar.

Imagine that standing in front of you are five people.  And each one of those people says “God talks to me”.  Are they right?  They each sound completely sincere about this, and in fact each one assures you that they really really know this to be true.

(I’ve provided you with lovely stickman artwork, showing off my amazing skill at Powerpoint.  You’re welcome.)

But here’s who you’re actually seeing:

Person #1:  This person is the real deal.  They are hearing a voice in their head, and it’s actually god.  He actually talks to them, he really does have a message he wants them to deliver to you, and they are completely justified in their sincerity.

Person # 2:  Since we are assuming the christian god exists, that also means that Satan exists as well.  This person is really hearing a voice in their head that claims to be god, but isn’t.  It’s Satan lying to them, and claiming to be god.  But they are still justified in their sincerity that they are hearing a divine voice, because they are.  They have a message for you which sounds convincing because Satan wants it to sound convincing, but you shouldn’t listen to it.

Person # 3:  Neither god nor Satan is talking to this person. Instead, they have a tiny brain abnormality in their temporal lobe, that every so often makes them mistake their own inner thoughts for an external voice.  Otherwise, their brain function is completely normal, and they function in their daily life in just the same way as any other believer.  They are completely sincere in their belief that they hear the voice of god, but they are also completely wrong about this.  Their message to you comes from their own thoughts about god.

Person # 4:  Is also not hearing any voice from god, but really really wants to be a person that god talks to.  They want it so badly that they interpret everyday occurrences as signs from god.  They will proclaim that god has spoken to them through a bible verse they happened to read that resonated with them, or through a random coincidence that they think is an answered prayer, or through a thought they had that struck them as really profound.  This person has used confirmation bias to convince themselves that they have a “personal relationship” with god, even though they really don’t.  But they are totally sincere when they tell you that they do. Their message to you is something that they think sounds so deep that it must have come from god.

Person # 5:  This person is deceiving you, and knows it.  They are pretending that god talks to them, for their own reasons. Maybe they don’t believe, but have been socially pressured into trying to fit in – going through the motions and saying what they are supposed to say because it’s what’s expected of them.  Or maybe they are a full-on con artist, and their income depends on persuading people that god talks to them.  This person sounds just as sincere as all the others, but knows that it’s not real.  Their “message from god” is carefully selected to be as convincing as possible, to get you to believe them.

So, here’s our five people again, this time showing you who they really are:

But when you meet them, the order is scrambled, and you can’t know who is who.  Remember, when you meet them you get deeply sincere assurances from each of them that “God really talks to me, and has a message for you.”  They all have convincing-sounding “messages from god”, they all quote from the bible, they all can speak to you in fluent christianese.  But our situation is this:

So theists, how would you go about figuring out which person is which? The fervent assurances of sincerity from each of these people don’t help us figure it out.  Is there some reliable method to tell for sure which of these people god really talks to?  I sure don’t know of any.

(And if you claim that god talks to you, then one of these people IS you.  You should know if you’re the liar, but how could you tell which of the other four people you are?)


1. makagutu - January 7, 2020

It gets muddied because they all claim to be hearing god speak and sometimes say very different things about what god wants. I don’t see how we could ever tell who was right among them

Liked by 6 people

2. literarylad - January 7, 2020

Absolutely spot-on! As a rationalist, I’d discount the first two possibilities though. That leaves the other three. Four should be reasonably easy to identify, as a liar wouldn’t waste their time with signs, but go straight for the full ‘god talks to me’ pitch. So it’s only those who claim to have cavorted with a deity we have trouble with – are they lying, or experiencing brain abnormality?

Liked by 3 people

Ubi Dubium - January 7, 2020

True, I don’t think the first two possibilities actually exist. But theists do, and this is a thought experiment aimed at them. I think a liar might talk about signs, if they thought it would make their lie more convincing. And our “wishful thinker” might not actually talk about signs, unless pressed to explain why they believe.

Liked by 2 people

3. Quixie - January 7, 2020

Ubi! I almost squealed when I saw you had written a post! And it’s a good one too. I’m so shocked ::said sarcastically::.

I tried thinking of other examples than your five and I couldn’t. I think your argument for sincerity not equaling reality is solid and I would be interested to hear theists’ perspectives.

(Btw: yes, I am impressed with your stick figures. I think it’s a great visual to get your message across.)

Liked by 1 person

Ubi Dubium - January 7, 2020

Thanks! My kids are really good at Illustrator and Photoshop, and I don’t have a clue how to use them. But I can use the drawing tools on Powerpoint, and usually that’s good enough for what I need. If anyone can think of a sixth figure to include in this lineup, I’d love to add them, but I haven’t been able to think of one either.

Liked by 2 people

4. thespartanatheist - January 7, 2020

Powerpoint is the bomb! Great post, and excellent thought experiment.

Liked by 2 people

5. clubschadenfreude - January 7, 2020

sincerity is ever so important. Ask Linus.

there isn’t anyway for anyone to know which is which, since this god does have a track record of asking for parents to kill their kids.

Liked by 2 people

6. Steve Ruis - January 7, 2020

I suggest you shoot them all. The one with the actual connection to their god will be resurrected. QED

Liked by 4 people

makagutu - January 7, 2020

Steve this sounds like going all nuclear on them

Liked by 1 person

7. Herald Newman - January 7, 2020

God is supposed to be all powerful, and all knowing, If that’s actually true, then whatever special message that God has shouldn’t need to come through any intermediaries. Any important message can be given to everyone, in a clear and consistent fashion, without needing to rely on some human interpretation of their private, and subjective, experiences.

When we look at the world, what we see is exactly what we would expect if every single person was #3-5. The day that everyone gets the same memo is the day we have something that is at least consistent with being person #1.

Liked by 4 people

8. Nan - January 7, 2020

GREAT post! And I love-love-love your stick figures. ❤

Interestingly, there was someone commenting on Ben’s blog today that pretty much fits both 3 and 4. But then, IMO, the qualities identified with them are pretty common among the masses.

Liked by 3 people

9. Ben - January 7, 2020

Excellent. Very interested in seeing responses from believers.

Liked by 3 people

10. Paul - January 7, 2020

Fascinating thought experiment. I think most evangelists are #5, and they laugh all the way to the bank.

Liked by 3 people

11. jim- - January 7, 2020

This is incredibly good Ubi. I was the one that really wished god would talk to me. I was trained to believe he would if I was sincere. 🦗 crickets….

Liked by 3 people

12. Bill - January 8, 2020

I recall a Neil Carter video (bring an atheist to church day, or some such). The first thing Neil does is try to explain to or convince them that (paraphrasing) ‘we really, really, really, really, honestly do not believe in your god.’ Do they actually think that we in fact do believe and we are #5s (lying)? Oh, the irony of it all.

Liked by 2 people

13. Lander7 - January 9, 2020

You Stated — “So this is a thought experiment to illustrate the weakness of “sincerity”.”

My Response — Sincerity is neither weak or strong it is only an action of an individual. I think you mean the “ability” to prove sincerity is weak (just a guess).

Also, the act of being sincere doesn’t indicate good or bad. You could be a really sincere killer or rapist Oo

You Asked — “So theists, how would you go about figuring out which person is which?”

My Answer — There is no reason to figure out who is who. If god talked to any of them why would I need to know as a christian? The conversation was with them not me. For that matter, why would I need to know they talked to anyone? I’m interested in my conversations with other individuals but I don’t see the value in conversations not directed to me. Just saying.

This was also covered in Exodus with Moses who had the same thought you are having now. The solution there was that god would prove he was god not a third party saying he was (like moses).

Sincerity is a good characteristic and can build stronger relationships but there is no way to confirm what a person is thinking or what their agenda is. The bible states that openly.

With that said, I can add a few more to your post and make it even better:

A person could really hear god talk to them and still lie to us about the conversation Oo

A person could really hear god talk to them and deliver the message but still not believe god or the message Oo That happened in the bible

Just a thought

Liked by 1 person

Ubi Dubium - January 10, 2020

My point is that the sincerity of a belief is not a good way to measure whether that belief is true. When a theist is trying to convert a non-believer, they often include assertions about how sincere their belief is, but that’s not a reason to believe them.

I think it does matter whether someone is actually talking to god, if it affects how that person is interacting with other people. For instance, if your Pastor came to you and told you that he had a personal message for you from god, and that god wanted you to quit your job, leave your family, and become a missionary in Rwanda, knowing whether his message was really from a god becomes seriously important. The perceived sincerity of his belief that this message is from god doesn’t help you figure out if that’s something god actually wants you to do. You need some other way to evaluate this.

And any of our five people above could be lying as well. But how could we tell? What method can we use to sort out the one who is the real deal, if there is one?

Liked by 4 people

Lander7 - January 10, 2020

You Stated — “My point is that the sincerity of a belief is not a good way to measure whether that belief is true.”

My Response — There is no such thing, “sincerity” is at best an illusion of thought, like “time”. But like you said it’s an experiment so let’s test it.

Your goal is to attack me and my belief so that you can spread hate, isn’t that right?

I would like to hear your sincere answer. Oo

Keep in mind that I really don’t believe you are attacking me and if you were I wouldn’t care but it’s a thought experiment.

You Stated — “For instance, if your Pastor came to you and told you that he had a personal message for you from god…”

My Response — This has already happened to me a number of times with different messages. I dismissed them all. I have the bible so I don’t need them.

We already know that certain people are weak to charismatic people. We generally refer to some people as sheep and others wolves. It’s part of the human condition. It’s why people are Democrats and Republicans, they just can’t help themselves.

It’s not a magic trick that me (a theist) and you (possibly an atheist) are immune to most of it…. we just happen to be thinkers.

I have an idea for an experiment: We need a way to find out how a handful of rich people can control the world.

Liked by 1 person

14. Ubi Dubium - January 13, 2020

“Your goal is to attack me and my belief so that you can spread hate, isn’t that right?”

Since I prefer to be charitable, I’m going to assume that was a joke, and not a direct insult. My goal is to get people to think about not only what they believe, but also and more importantly, why they believe it.

Let me echo back your response so I can make sure I’ve got your answer straight: Your method for figuring out who is actually hearing from god is to see how what they say matches up with the bible. Is this correct?

Let me add on to the thought experiment based on that response.

One of the people in that group of five in front of you is Andrea Yates. She tells you that god told her to sacrifice her children, so she did. She has biblical precedent to quote for you, including the examples of Abraham (whom god stopped), Jephtha (whom god allowed to go through with the sacrifice) and god himself in the NT. How do you go about determining whether this person is actually hearing from god?

And also, suppose this thought experiment was a group of people saying they all heard the voice of Allah, and the person trying to figure out which is which said that they relied on the Qu’ran as their method. Do you think that they are justified in their reliance on their method?

“I have an idea for an experiment: We need a way to find out how a handful of rich people can control the world.”

Agreed 100%. I wish I knew how to fix that problem.

Liked by 3 people

Arkenaten - February 14, 2020

Wonderful response , Ubi.
I notice Lander did not try to wriggle out of this one with one of his famous word salads but prudently decided to stay away.

Liked by 3 people

15. Astrid - February 24, 2020

Interesting thouht experiement. I do happen to believe in God (mostly progressive Christian) and I’m probably #4. However, I don’t tend to try to convince others that God speaks to me. I full out admit that I use religion/spirituality for my own healing and have no business convincing others of what I see as the truth.

Liked by 2 people

16. Matt Brooker - March 9, 2020

I can’t help thinking that if god existed, he’d approach us and tell us which preacher to follow, instead of what we see, preachers approaching us and telling us which god to follow

Liked by 3 people

Ubi Dubium - March 9, 2020

Agreed. That’s why I have a personal passcode. If god wants a specific preacher to convert me, all he has to do is tell the preacher to start with my passcode and that preacher will have my full attention. Instead I get preacher after preacher with the same tired old blather, and lots of excuses for why they didn’t start off with my code.

Liked by 1 person

17. Yogg - April 21, 2020

Still active?

Liked by 1 person


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