Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, Respect, Truth

What It Would Take

“What would it take for you to believe in God again?” This is what Ryan asked me recently. It’s a really good question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. I’ve also read the thoughts of some other atheists on this subject; one that I think makes a particularly good argument is found here. I also like the format he uses, and I’ve decided to lay mine out similarly.

First of all, like most atheists, I don’t claim that gods absolutely don’t exist. That would require a level of knowledge that we’ll never have. I just don’t believe in any of the gods of the “revealed” religions. So whether it’s Marduk, Zeus, Thor, Jehovah, or Allah, I don’t believe in any of them. I think the existence of a god is unlikely, but still possible. If a god exists, then I think it’s probably the kind of god deists believe in, a being who created everything but doesn’t interact with us on a personal level. I don’t think this being would be wholly good or wholly evil. Instead, I think it would have both characteristics, just like we do. Why do I think that? Because that’s what we see in nature.

But currently, I don’t believe in such a god. In my life, I’ve only experienced things that have a natural explanation, so it’s hard for me to conclude that all of nature originated in the supernatural. I just don’t believe the evidence suggests it. What would cause me to change my mind?

Things I would find convincing:
Direct Communication — If God began to speak to all of us directly, I would find that convincing. However, it would have to be done in a way that would eliminate the possibility of fraud or hallucination.

Miracles — I think witnessing the miraculous would be very convincing. If I could witness an amputee regrow their limbs right before my eyes, I would be convinced. But watching a televangelist heal someone of back pain is not convincing to me at all.

Prophecy — Specific, detailed, and accurate prophecy would convince me. For instance, if the Bible had prophesied about the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, and it gave great detail as to when it would happen, where it would strike, and how powerful it would be, then I would find that convincing. However, if it merely prophesied that a tsunami would one day strike Asia, that’s not convincing at all. Or if it prophesied an event that someone could later cause to happen in an effort to prove the prophecy true, that would be much less impressive. Or if it recorded the prophecy and the fulfillment in a way that made it impossible to determine if the prophecy was actually written before the event occurred, then I would not be convinced.

The Power of Prayer — If prayer could actually “move mountains,” or if it almost always healed the sick, etc, then I would find that to be very convincing evidence.

Things that would make a compelling case:
A Perfect and Truly Inerrant Text — If we had a religious text that offered profound information, clearly spoke of scientific principles that would have been difficult or impossible to know at the time, gave prophecies that would have been impossible to fake or misunderstand, did not contradict itself in even the slightest way, was verified consistently by history, and gave instructions that were humane and helpful, then I would find that to be compelling evidence that the religion might be true. Of course, we would also need a clear line of evidence showing us when the texts were written, we would still need access to the originals, and we would need some kind of verification telling us which parts were legitimate. This could be achieved through miraculous means, perhaps. Regardless, we would need solid information on who wrote it, how it was written, and how it was transmitted through the ages.

A High Standard of Morality — If the teachings of this religion displayed a high and consistent level of morality throughout the ages, I would find that to be compelling evidence. For instance, I would expect it to teach that killing is wrong period, not just when it’s members of your tribe. I would expect it to teach that all people are equal, regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, beliefs, etc. I would expect it to teach that slavery and child abuse are wrong. And I would expect it to teach these things, regardless of what the people around them believed at the time.

Blessed Followers — If the followers of the religion were typically in better health, lived better lives, displayed more generosity and kindness, had fewer natural disasters, etc, I would see that as decent evidence that their religion might be true.

Things I would not find convincing:
Personal Testimony — Maybe you “just know” something, but that’s not evidence. I only have my experiences to go on, so unless you can provide really good evidence to help support your experience, I won’t find it convincing.

Hearsay or Anecdote — There might be a really good story about how someone knew someone whose life was completely changed by a particular religion, but I don’t count that as evidence. Incidentally, I also place Paul’s “500 witnesses” in this category. Who were these witnesses? What did they see? When did they see it? What were the circumstances surrounding this event(s)? It’s just anecdotal evidence.

An Imperfect Text — This may go without saying, since I kind of addressed it in the previous section. But I’m often told that I’m being too strict with the Bible — that we don’t place the same degree of scrutiny on works by Tacitus, Seutonius, or Plato. But this is a silly claim. As far as I know, Tacitus, Seutonius, and Plato never claimed to speak for god. And if they did, none of us believes them. However, the Bible does claim that (in some passages), and plenty of people believe the claim. That should force us to scrutinize it more carefully than we do other works. I’m also told that the Bible was written to fit within its own time and shouldn’t be held to the same standards of accuracy that we have today. But I also find this excuse bizarre. I agree that the Bible is a product of its time — that’s one of the reasons I don’t think it was inspired. I would expect an inspired work to be transcendent in nature, and I wouldn’t be convinced by anything less.

In closing…
I appreciate Ryan’s question, and I’m sorry it took me so long to post a reply. There may be some things I’ve left out of my answer, but I hope it’s clear enough to suffice. It’s possible that some may think this list is too severe — that I’m setting the bar too high. But I honestly disagree with that.

When I was a Christian, I thought that I possessed much of this evidence. I believed the Bible was completely true and inerrant. I didn’t believe its morality was consistent throughout, but I felt that I had decent reasons for why that was the case. And I believed it contained actual prophecies and miracles. Of course, I later found out that wasn’t true. But my point is that the things that would cause me to believe now are very similar to the things that caused me to believe as a Christian. So I don’t think the list I’ve laid out is overly strict.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about this. I’m especially interested to hear from Ryan or other Christians. Am I being reasonable? Is there something out there that meets these standards?


42 thoughts on “What It Would Take”

  1. I do not believe you are being unreasonable at all. You listed all the things that it would take for me to believe again.


  2. While I can empathize with your need (Thomas wasn’t the only one who needed to get his hands dirty to have faith; I do to) for more concrete evidence for God, I think you may be s.o.l., because God works through people, and people aren’t perfect.

    What God seems to desire most from us is faith (trust) in Him, and this requires a withholding of information on His part. I think this is why He allows all of the imperfections of religion and religious texts. If we had perfection in these things, we would need no faith, and we would not need to exhibit any grace or mercy to others in these areas.

    But, there is this: people are capable of astonishing acts of love, and this is of God. This often occurs in really freaky ways (read: miracles far more beautiful than the utilitarian healing or limb-regrowing), and if you’ve experienced something like along these lines, you can’t really explain it or define it, but you know it is of God.

    You just…know it.


  3. I read this post on my phone when I was in the car with my husband. He was really impressed with how well thought out it was (and of course I was too). Excellent job Nate!


  4. I’ll answer this question from the other side of the coin.
    What would it take for me as a believer walk away from faith? It would take someone finding the body of Jesus. If that happened I would turn away and never look back.


  5. @bburleson

    It is highly unlikely we would ever find Jesus body even if there was no resurrection. And if a body was found, how could we possibly test that it was Jesus of Nazareth? Isn’t it true that during Jesus ministry there were many people named Jesus? I’m fairly sure there are tombs that still can be visited that that are a testament to this.

    I believe in Jesus, but I think that (and it already has been claimed) if the body of Jesus was found, Christians would merely dismiss this find as being “someone else”.

    plus it seems to me very likely that is such a tomb would be empty anyway since even in the desert bodies do break down completely.


  6. For me as a believer, it would take the missing link to be found.

    For me, if evolution is true (not merely adaptation, but evolution) then my faith would seem severely misguided

    If the “missing link” could be peer reviewed and tested beyond reasonable doubt, then I would be forced to reassess faith.


  7. Here’s some of my some thoughts regarding suffering. Is the question of why we suffer grounds to deny God?

    Outside of my lived experience, families are torn apart every day, people die from disease, and natural disasters occur (the Bible even accounts of them) this has been going on since I was born, and long before.
    Although I would probably be tempted to turn away from God if this happened to someone I knew directly, it would not be reasonable to deny God on these grounds.

    I have come to faith with this going on all around me, but yet not all of this has directly affected me as it has affected and touched others. It would be unreasonable of me to deny God if I was to be directly be touched by suffering, since I believed in Him, even though other families, other nations and other people were touched by such suffering.
    I hope to God that I or others are never am affronted with such things; however, death still remains and If we live long enough we will all one day have to bury loved ones.

    I am not more important or valuable than any other human being. So why should I be surprised if calamity strikes me or someone I know. Why should I deny God, or be surprised if suffering directly impacts on me?
    That being said I think when suffering touches someone, all reasoning and logic can be put on hold, everything can stop. So I can understand how people could deny God in such circumstances, after all, I don’t know how I would respond.


  8. Thanks Nate for your thoughtful response.

    thankyou for taking the time, you have provided alot to reflect on.

    I’ll write a response this week


  9. @bburleson
    Considering there’s no evidence for God to begin with, that’s like me saying “The only thing that would make me stop believing in a giant teapot that orbits the earth is if one falls from the sky and they find it smashed up in a garden.”

    Don’t you agree?


  10. Larry, There is plenty of evidence for God if one wants to find it. I’m not saying you can “prove” it. But there is plenty of compelling evidence.

    William, no I don’t. What I am saying is the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. If it was proven conclusively false then there would be no reason for there to be a Christ faith.


  11. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Ryan (portal001),
    Thanks for your feedback. I felt the same way you do about the problem of evil for a long time. As I’ve gotten older, it seems to bother me more. I may post about it soon…

    As far as the missing link goes, I’d recommend looking into that a bit more, if you’re interested. Most scientists feel like we already have several missing links — or at least their close cousins. Since evolution teaches that these changes happen very gradually, it’s a misconception to think that there would be one transitional fossil; in fact, there would be many. Even the Wikipedia article on human evolution is a decent place to start, if you’re interested in knowing why scientists think we have very good evidence for evolution.



  12. @bburleson

    I think for those of us who don’t believe, it’s hard to understand why thinking the resurrection is true would be the default position. It’s such an extraordinary claim, it seems that the default position would naturally be skepticism. So whereas we need proof to believe it, you would need proof to disbelieve it. I think that’s what Larry and William were saying.



  13. Nathan,

    I thought Ryan asked you a very good question. Your answer makes several things very plain, but also leads to some other questions.

    One thing that you seem to have taken great pains to be careful to make clear is your denial of any existing evidence for the Bible or for God. You are not willing to accept anything that might produce faith in God on your part. Basically, you seem to be saying that if God would take away the need for faith by performing some miracle in person on or someone you know, in your presence, you would believe in Him. Well, there would be no “faith” in that. So, in effect, you are saying you would have faith if there was no need for faith. How interesting!

    You say you would find a “high standard of morality” a compelling piece of evidence. Whose “morality” is the standard? Yours? Are you taking on the mantle of “God” and setting standards for all the world? Or, are you simply trying to hold God “hostage” by in effect saying “I’ll believe in God if He follows my rules and requirements”? Who put you in charge? What right do you have to place your own private ideas of morality on anyone else? If there is no God, then everyone is free to set their own standards of morality, and should not be forced to accept anyone else’s.

    Do you use the same standards of evaluation and acceptance for God and the Bible as you do other things? If not, why not? If so, how can you believe in “science”? How can you accept the Big Bang theory or the theory of evolution as truth or even likely? Did you see or experience the Big Bang? Have you seen evolution take place? Why are you so willing to accept these things on faith, but not the idea of God? I’ve told you stories about your great-grandfather. He was a real character. I heard these stories directly from him, and have had many confirmed by another source. Do you believe he even existed? How do you know? Should your children accept stories about him as true? Or, will you teach them that since you didn’t see the events take place, nor were you told them by the direct participants, that they simply aren’t true? I know that you will say you can have faith in science because it doesn’t claim to be inspired. Okay, so what you are saying is that it makes more sense to place faith in a discipline that has been shown to be wrong in the past and that makes no claims of inspiration or inerrancythan it does to place faith in something that has remained consistant for centuries and has evidence to support it’s claims of inspiration. I’m sorry, but why does uncertainty and error appeal more to your faith than consistancy and claims of inerrancy? Obviously, if you refuse to accept the idea of God, then the Bible cannot be true. I admit that arguments can be made and evidence presented that could cause one to doubt the Bible, but there is no smoking gun. Error cannot be proved beyond all doubt. However, science and scholars have often been proved wrong, and will be proven wrong again as more discoveries are made over time, yet this is where you place your faith. This just doesn’t make sense to me. I fail to see the logic in it.

    I know you enjy the intellectual exercise of debating these things. It is a shame you don’t recognize the strong evidences for God and the Bible, but would rather place your faith in yourself and uncertain scholarship. Desides, if there is a God (and through faith I know there is), what would you expect His reaction to be toward someone who would make demands of Him beyond what He determined should be made? In other words, you place yourself above God, deciding what is Godly behavior, making sure everything meets YOUR criteria, instead of the other way around. Seems to me to be an awfully arrogant viewpoint.

    I know this is not going to change your mind. I just want you to think carefully about the end result of your views.




  14. @bburleson
    First off, which god do you claim to have evidence for? Allah? Vishnu? Thor? The Judeo-Christian God?

    Secondly, there’s no scientific or historical evidence for God. Anecdotal evidence is practically useless. So could you show me the evidence please?


  15. Hi Dad,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Basically, you seem to be saying that if God would take away the need for faith by performing some miracle in person on or someone you know, in your presence, you would believe in Him. Well, there would be no “faith” in that. So, in effect, you are saying you would have faith if there was no need for faith. How interesting!

    So you believe Moses, Abraham, Noah, Gideon, Paul, Peter, David, Solomon, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, etc had no faith? Hebrews 11 would disagree with you…

    I’ve mentioned before that science is often wrong. That’s the point of science. When a previously held position is proven wrong, it’s rejected or revised in favor of a better explanation.

    Religion, on the other hand, teaches that the ultimate truth is already known and can’t change. So when parts of it are shown to be incorrect, the believer is forced to hang on anyway and come up with rationalizations for how it could still be true. You believe that the rationalizations for Christianity are plausible. Of course, Muslims believe the rationalizations for Islam are plausible too. Every religion plays this game — I have no doubt that some scientists do it too when they have pet theories. But I don’t find those rationalizations to be plausible. I do think that there are proven errors in the Bible, even if you disagree.

    But in the end, the stuff about science is beside the point. I didn’t stop believing Christianity because of evolution or any other scientific teaching. I stopped believing because I became aware of the problems in the Bible.

    Besides, if there is a God (and through faith I know there is), what would you expect His reaction to be toward someone who would make demands of Him beyond what He determined should be made? In other words, you place yourself above God, deciding what is Godly behavior, making sure everything meets YOUR criteria, instead of the other way around. Seems to me to be an awfully arrogant viewpoint.

    You only feel this way because you don’t see a difference between God and the Bible. I’ve never placed myself above God — it really makes me sad that you see it that way. I finally began asking myself if the Bible was really from God or not. Even though you believe in inspiration, you still agree that men wrote the Bible. I didn’t question God — I questioned those men and found them wanting.


  16. I just read a book called “Calculating God.” It’s a good read that offers a decent proof of God…only in a fictional universe. It takes the fine tuning argument theists currently use, but in a world where it has been verified that physical laws and constants could be different, but aren’t. They have also determined that there can’t be a multiverse. If science ever determines something similar, I would start believing in God.


  17. @portal001
    I’ll definitely be interested to hear what you think of that book. I was surprised by some of the information in there — especially about the experiment with silver foxes in Russia. You’ll see what I mean when you read that part. I don’t know why that experiment made such an impact on me, but it did.

    That sounds interesting — I may check the book out some time. When I was a Christian, I heard the fine-tuning argument quite a bit. I now see that it’s just a clever use of statistics. If we calculate the probability of everything it took to get this specific reality, then the odds are staggering. But they’re just as staggering when you calculate the probability for any specific person. What are the odds that I would exist instead of all the other possible people that could be here at this moment in time? When looking at it that way, you can make anything’s existence so unlikely that it appears to be impossible.

    It’s just like when people wonder how we could have wound up on the one planet in our solar system that supports life unless it was designed that way. But what other planet could it have happened on? If we’re here to wonder about it, then it only makes sense that we would have to be on a planet that supports our existence. To borrow from Julia Sweeney, it’s like being in awe of how our hands were designed to fit our gloves so perfectly. That’s looking at it backwards. Just like we designed gloves to fit our hands, life on this planet evolved to fit this planet — not the other way around.

    Thanks for the comment!


  18. The fine tuning argument isn’t a good argument only if we live in a multiverse, which quantum theory shows is probable. If there is only one universe, then your analogies to individuals and planets don’t hold true because the anthropic principle has many people and worlds to take into account.


  19. I tend to agree with that, but we’ll probably never know for sure. And it’s also hard to imagine what other possible life forms might have been able to exist under different circumstances. But I’ll readily admit, this is an area in which I’m no expert.


  20. Nate, “what would it take for me to believe in God again?” This is a very interesting question. I still believe in God, but not in the way I used to when I attended Pentecostal and Catholic church. I believe God is greater than the God portrait by most Christians (sending people to hell if they don’t accept Jesus). To accept this God would require me to simply stop caring about truth, genuine love, and spiritual growth. To believe again in a God that excludes anyone who does not explicitly accept Jesus as their savior, would require me to be narrow minded, superficial, religious, and selfish. I rather continue to believe in a God that is greater than what our human minds can fabricate based on our human agendas and ideas.


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