“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.
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?