What Would Make You Believe?(Three Questions for Atheists)
Believe it or not, not every blog I frequent is a skeptical one. In fact, if you have been paying attention to this blog over the last month or so, this fact seems redundant given my three posts on Universalism. One of the blogs I frequent is Truth In Religion and Politics, authored by John Barron Jr.-and his most recent post asks three questions of his atheist readers.
The post, entitled Three Questions For Atheists, is a call for atheists to give him some answers as to what might make us believe in a God and more specifically the Christian God. He has assured me in the post that he is not accepting pithy remarks from Christians about what they think would convince an atheist and in this spirit of good faith, I offered my own answers. I suggest that you read the original post, but I will pose and answer the three questions here, followed by a brief commentary regarding his response to my answers in his comment section. My answers here are worded a bit differently, with parts added for clarity and some references to other commenters removed.
Three Questions For Atheists
1.What would it take, or what would have to happen for you to abandon your position of atheism and come to a theistic view; not just an agnostic possibility of God, but an actual belief that a Deity does exist?
It would take evidence. I think that for me empirical evidence would be the best possible way to believe in anything, but I’m willing to concede that that it is neither necessary nor expected. Although empirical evidence would be ideal, I don’t think in this particular case it is always reasonable. I also have to admit that there are many things that I believe on some level of evidence that is shy of empirical. In fact most things I believe meet this criteria in some sense.
I have not, for example, seen the molecules in the atmosphere that scatter blue light and make the sky appear blue, but I safely assert that this is precisely why the sky is blue. I do this because the scientific basis for that fact makes other useful predictions that I can test against reality.
So my ability to accept any form of theism would be dependent on that belief meeting some basic criteria.
To appeal to the twitter crowd I’ve boiled it down to ‘The 4 C’s’:
a) The belief cannot contradict any facts that I am aware of-and I guess, philosophically, that I’m not aware of as well.(It is Consistent)
b) the belief should have some sense of necessity. (It has Context)
c) the belief must offer some predictive advantage over alternate hypotheses (It is Convenient)
d) It appeals to facts instead of unknowns (It is Credible)
If an epistemology can meet these criteria, then it is worth holding, regardless of empirical (in the scientific sense) verification.
So if it could be shown to me that theism met those criteria, I would have to admit that it was the most plausible epistemology.
2.What would it take for you to believe Christianity is true?
For Christianity Proper to be true, it would have to meet the same criteria I outlined above.
Given those criteria, I must assume that any other faith would be eliminated by the mere act of a Christian heuristic confirming those criteria, though I could be mistaken on that. That question depends on how large a scope we allow to be defined as “Christianity”
3.Why would your answers to the above be sufficient to convince you theism is true, and that Christianity was true?
These criteria would be sufficient to convince me of any strongly held belief, and is the minimum basic standard I hold for every belief that I consider a gnostic one.
The 4 C’s
a) It is Consistent- Any idea worth holding should not contradict reality. For example, evolution- based on a wealth of evidence- is a reality. There are no serious criticisms that can stand contrary to the fact of evolution. Given this, any belief I hold cannot contradict evolution, and if it did, it would have to be coupled with a very complete factual refutation of evolution as I understand it. This does not discount deism, or even certain kinds of Christianity, but it certainly discounts some forms of theism. I would also discount a religion or God who insisted that gravity was an illusion, for instance. No epistemology is worth holding if it happens to contradict other observable and/or verifiable phenomena.
b) It has Context- I am a big believer in the necessity of an idea. Again, any epistemology worth holding should be based on that belief being both necessary and parsimonious. I don’t, for example, believe that there is a flying teapot just out of view of any human observation that controls all gravity in our universe. I don’t believe this because it is not necessary, as gravity has an explanation, and extremely convoluted. This particular point stands as a firm refutation of Presuppositional morality, which although is grounded in explaining the fact of morality, is neither necessary nor parsimonious in how it attempts to give an explanation. I imagine that Context is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for any form of theism.
c)It is Convenient- If any belief claims to have or by necessity must have some testable or predictive quality, then that belief should by rights be the most reasonable and useful means to make predictions about the world we live in. Again, I don’t necessarily consider this a knock against deism or some forms of Christianity, because there are many versions of both that make no claims of predictive ability. That something is not predictive doesn’t make it by necessity wrong, but it certainly diminishes the probability that it is true; in the case of some forms of theism that are by necessity of their claims predictive and are incapable of making meaningful predictions- well that pretty clearly makes them in some sense false.
d) It is Credible- There is an adage that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I will caution that it is not proof of absence, but it is very much evidence of it. When something is postulated as a conjecture, as a possibility that rests-not on facts- but as an explanation of some necessary but unknown process that explains an observation then that idea stands incomplete. Why must I postulate a higher power if some event, like meeting an old friend, needs to be considered? Things like the feeling of cosmic coincidence are based more on the unknown probabilities that any meaningful event might occur rather than the fact that a meaningful event did occur. I require of any reasonable epistemology that it be based on some kind of hard facts as opposed as a simplistic explanation of something that is unknown. Credibility is the other point that I think theism has difficulty overcoming.
How Were My Answers Received?
I am looking for more specificity as to what it would take. If you could provide an example of an event or something which you would find compelling. Of course we all to one degree or another require a coherence or degree of logical soundness. I’m trying not to restrict the answers, but I also don’t want vague references to epistimological criteria, if you know what I mean.
Also the answer to #2 should be different than the answer to #1, they are two different questions. For example if it would require a vision of a grey-haired giant saying “I am God and I exist”, that same event doesn’t necessarily lead to Christianity. So specifically what would lead you to theism, generally? And what would lead you to Christianity specifically?
And I would like some fleshing out in regards to #3. For example, say again if it was a grey-haired giant who appeared, why would that event convince you?
I know it probably sounds like I’m nitpicking and trying to steer your answers, I’m just really looking to get as specific as possible.
I would answer these criticisms thus: If I were more specific then I would not be honest. These criteria are the specific things that would make me believe any claim made by any person under any circumstances. To make one specific example would be to ignore the infinite amount of other examples that would lead me to the exact same conclusion. I honestly believe that faced with any idea that suited my four criteria, I would consider it a gnostic belief.
The purpose, to me, of making more specific examples is to point them out as impossible or unreasonable- and this is precisely my point. Any claim that doesn’t fall into my four criteria is, to me, unreasonable. Since philosophically I don’t believe that theism can reasonably meet all four of these postulates, I reasonably deduce that there is no God-and if there is one- that He is both unnecessary and so different from any reasonable definition of “a God” as to make the word without meaning. That is precisely why I am an atheist. If I gave you an example of a very specific thing that would make me believe, then it will likely seem unreasonable. Because I believe theism is unreasonable. I’ll try nonetheless…..
Let us assume that I was out for a stroll with 4 of my closest atheist friends. Let’s call them Dan, Jeremy, Jason, and Sidney. We come across an empty field, when suddenly the field spontaneously sets ablaze with the words “I am Your God”. Jason turns to me and says “The farmer who owns this field has one of those annoying religious signs on his property facing the highway, he obviously is trying to fool us into thinking that this is a Sign…” We all agree and keep walking. Then the field, as suddenly as it caught fire, suddenly goes out. “Amazing!”, says Jeremy, “but I work around chemicals every day that are flammable but burn quickly and do not damage the surface they were lit on…” I find this a little unnerving, as plants are pretty flammable, but it is still a more reasonable explanation then imagining that God did it. Again, we keep walking forward, when suddenly an ominous figure with robes and a beard rises before all our eyes in front of us on the path. “I am Jesus, God manifest on Earth, and I implore you to follow me” says the spirit. Sydney turns and says “I blogged about that new holographic technology last week, and I’ll tell you that I could recreate this exact phenomenon.” Now I am beginning to get disconcerted. It seems unreasonable to assume that a farmer would go to all this trouble to convert a few atheists, and these explanations, though somewhat believable on their own, seem to be straining my credulity. Finally, each one of us hears a very specific message from the spirit of Jesus, mine says “George, remember that time that you saw that shadow by the window in your room that looked like a person? That was me. I was watching over you that night”. Jason turns to me and says “Did you hear that? Not only did the spirit know my name, but He knew that I wet my bed when I was seven! How could anyone know that?”, Dan says, “Though I heard it too, and the message was specifically to me, I am aware of many instances of group delusions, and considering the primer that we all had, it is not unreasonable to think our minds are getting the best of us.” See, at this point, I am a firm believer in Christ.
Why? I have many avenues of evidence, believing any other possibility would break at least one of my four rules. I have never seen a spirit before, so nothing in proposition (a) is contradicted; I necessarily need a parsimonious explanation, so it meets criteria (b); the belief that Christ is real predicts more of these events than any other belief, so it has met (c); and my belief is grounded more on the facts of the events than on probabilistic unknowns, thus I have met criteria (d). Does this sound completely impossible? Absolutely.
Would this event make me deny evolution? No. So I would be an OE theistic evolutionist. Would I believe presuppositional apologetics? Nope. I would believe in Christ, that He lived and died for our sins, and that is about it.
Is there an easier way for me to believe in God? Definitely. Is there a more reasonable way for me to come to Christ? Sure. But any trip from point Atheism to point Belief will entail every one of my four points. I could ruminate for hours about what the simplest way would be. It could even be a very personal experience, like having some event happen that could best be explained by a God or Jesus. I don’t need independent verification, but it certainly makes the evidence more valuable.
What if I had witnessed a miracle? Of course I would believe, though my threshold for a miracle is a lot higher then it is for a theist. If my mother had cancer, and emerged from treatment cancer-free, I don’t necessarily consider that miraculous. Many theists do, because they are looking for miracles-not statistics.
What about John’s point in his comments regarding the difference in evidence between question 1 and question 2? Should there really be a difference in the evidence. Well, yes. Oh, and no. Yes the evidence will be different for the two proposed questions but it should by rights be of equal value. If I accept weak evidence for theism but discount similar evidence for Christianity then I am a hypocrite. Any burden I hold one claim to I must hold all claims to- if they are to be of equal value. So no John, the same degree of evidence that I would accept for one I would accept for the other and there is no contradiction there.
I also think I fleshed out the answer to question #3 with my comments above, but just to reiterate- my burden of proof will always be the same. The circumstances will vary, but the process is always the same. Those criteria I listed Consistency-Context-Convenience-Credibility are always necessary to me. Do I hold some opinions without those criteria? Yep. Do I claim them to be facts or truths or unshakable? Nope.
You asked me for my opinion and I’m giving it. God is unreasonable, and any specific event I give you that would make me change my mind would by nature be unreasonable. If I could come up with a reasonable proof than I would be saying God is reasonable.