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?

Thanks

42 thoughts on “What It Would Take”

  1. Hi Noel,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I could get behind a god like that too, and I completely understand why you believe in it. For all I know, a god like that may exist. Do you still consider yourself a Christian, or more of a deist?

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  2. Nate, your question made me ponder more on what I would consider myself. I don’t usually like to put labels on anything or anyone. I have though, considered myself a Reflective Christian, reflective because I have started to welcome doubts and questioning as ways to grow more spiritually, without forcing myself to accept doctrines that are unreasonable and contradictory (a loving God sending people to Hell). I also include “Christian” in my description because my beliefs were founded on this religion, and continue to strongly believe in what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven. He may also have been the “son” of God, or manifestation of God, but I don’t think anymore He could have been the only manifestation of God here on earth. Am I a Deist? Good question, the more I research on this definition, the more I can identify more with this view of God. I will continue to reflect on this. Thank you for the food for thought. Peace.

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  3. Thanks for the reply, Noel. I totally identify with your position, and I’m really glad you’ve stopped by. Good luck as you continue your journey!

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  4. I have to agree with you Noel. I think Yeshua died for ALL men. AND THEN… some men came in and started putting qualifiers on what he did so you had to agree with them if you wanted to make it. Thankfully God doesn’t care about their qualifiers..@Noel

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  5. @Nate I don’t know brother. I think if you found yourself on a rock standing next to Moses and he lifted his arms and you felt a great wind blow until the Red Sea, or the Reed sea, whichever is easiest for you to buy, I don’t care. Regardless. You’re there, he lifts his arms and the wind blows and the “pick one” parts. Right then you would say, “There is a God!” Then. just after crossing you’d think “There may be a God.” But not too many days later, once the “people” had a chance to spout all of their stupid detritus at you, you would probably think, “Sure the wind parted the sea AND – THAT – IS – UNUSUAL but it happens. You know?” And very quickly you would settle back into your comfortable atheism.

    Still, you know yourself better than I do. How far off the mark am I here?

    God BLESS!

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  6. Hi haydendlinder! Thanks for your comments.

    You make a good point. I think my reaction would depend on the quality of the miracle. When I was a kid, I thought of this as two actual walls of water. I imagined being able to walk between them, perhaps even seeing fish swimming around within, like two giant aquariums. Then, once the Israelites were safely across and the Egyptians came into the middle of the sea, Moses dropped his arms, and the two sides came crashing together in a magnificent cacophony of water and foam.

    However, I’ve also read the different theories about this event — perhaps it happened at a time when the sea was low, maybe a powerful wind gave it the appearance of “separating the waters,” etc.

    If I witnessed an event like the latter, I could see myself rationalizing the experience pretty easily. However, if I saw something like the former, I really do think that would be plenty of evidence for me. I don’t think it’s something I would doubt later.

    I don’t guess I’ll ever know for sure, unless I experience an actual miracle (not holding my breath 😉 ), but this is my best guess on how I’d react. Thanks again for the great question. It’s not one I had really thought about — I’m glad you changed that!

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  7. @Nate

    I respect you as a scholar of Christianity and that you left it only because you found things in it that were not reasonable. You preferred reason over blindfaith.

    May I ask you some question/s?

    You left Christianity because it was faulty as you say; then what positive merits did you see in Atheism that you joined it?

    I am not doing it to revert you to your previous position or convert you to my belief. That is your own choice.

    Please

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  8. Hi paarsurrey!

    Thanks for the question. I don’t feel like I really “joined” atheism. Instead, I view atheism as a default position. In fact, I think we’re all born atheists, since infants (and even young children) aren’t old enough to understand the spiritual concepts that would be necessary to hold a true belief in a god. Other people have often compared atheism to “non-stamp-collecting.” In other words, most people in the world don’t collect stamps, but it wouldn’t make sense to really identify us by that. It’s really just the default position.

    That said, there are definitely important aspects to life that we typically derive from religion, morality being the most important. And if I don’t believe in a god, how can I be moral? What does atheism provide as a basis?

    Actually, I don’t think atheism does provide a basis for morality, since it only informs one’s stance on the existence of god(s). Instead, I get my basis for morality through humanism. The idea is that all people have value and are worthy of respect. You’ve shown great courtesy in your comments, for instance. And it’s not because we share religious beliefs, but because you obviously believe you should show respect to your fellow man. I feel the same way. Part of it is that I don’t want others to harm me or treat me unfairly, so I try to treat others in the same way. Related to that, if I went through life stealing, raping, killing, etc, I wouldn’t live very long. Society would reject me. But beyond that, I actually enjoy being “nice.” Treating other people morally makes me feel good, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It seems to me that most people naturally want to do good things for others and be a valued member of society.

    When my wife and I first began realizing that our long held Christian beliefs may not be true, we worried about what that would mean for the rest of our outlook on life. How could we justify being moral without God? It’s a natural question to ask, but we found that it really wasn’t that difficult of an issue when it came down to it. We had lots of good reasons to live morally that had nothing to do with whether or not God was real.

    Please let me know if there’s a part of your question that I didn’t address, or if you have other questions you’d like to discuss. Thanks again for your comment.

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  9. @ Nate :March 9, 2014 at 11:41 am

    “That said, there are definitely important aspects to life that we typically derive from religion, morality being the most important. And if I don’t believe in a god, how can I be moral? What does atheism provide as a basis?
    Actually, I don’t think atheism does provide a basis for morality, since it only informs one’s stance on the existence of god(s). Instead, I get my basis for morality through humanism. The idea is that all people have value and are worthy of respect. You’ve shown great courtesy in your comments, for instance. And it’s not because we share religious beliefs, but because you obviously believe you should show respect to your fellow man. I feel the same way.” Unquote

    Thanks for your response.

    I agree that morality could be a positive factor for changing one’s ideology, as it is an important aspect of human life for peaceful co-existence.

    So for the sake of morality for one you had opted to accept Humanism (not Atheism as you have yourself stated above, if I have correctly understood it).

    Can you please enumerate the principles of morality and their wisdom that Humanism (not Atheism) provides with reference to a Humanist’s source of consensus so that we could make a comparison v Quran which is the first and the foremost source of consensus of Muslims?

    Also please mention that the same morals which you have found out now in Humanism in fact were non-existent in Christians- your previous ideology, and that the Humanists have excelled them with a very big margin in codifying them theoretically as well as and practically.

    Thanks and regards

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  10. Hi paarsurrey,

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I left Christianity over morality. I left Christianity because I no longer found it believable. There are a number of inaccurate prophecies, contradictory passages, bad science, bad history, etc in the Bible. When I added to that some of the doctrinal problems, like the idea of an eternal Hell, I just didn’t find it believable anymore.

    After I lost my faith in Christianity, I worried that I wouldn’t have good reasons to be moral anymore, but I quickly realized that wasn’t true. That’s when I realized that humanism was a great basis for morality — but again, let me stress that this didn’t really have anything to do with why I stopped being a Christian.

    Anyway, you asked about some of the differences between the two ways of thinking. In Christianity, and most other religions, morality is derived from a supreme law giver. God says what’s moral and what’s not. But this brings up some important questions: if God commands something that would normally be evil, like killing specific people, then killing those people would suddenly become morally good. This means morality is fluid — there is no real moral standard. It could change as soon as God changes his mind about something.

    Humanism, on the other hand, gives reasons for why things are moral or immoral. It’s not set by decree; instead, it’s based on human well being. Vaccinating people against disease is a moral act, for instance. Even though the vaccination may be painful, the good that comes from it is far more vital than the momentary unpleasantness. A pinch, on the other hand, while similar to the level of pain that’s experienced by a vaccination, is immoral because it serves no greater purpose.

    The distinction between humanist morality and religious morality is that different things become the focus. Homosexuality, for instance, is considered immoral by most religions, but not by humanists, because there’s no human suffering inherent in homosexuality. Just like any relationship, as long as it’s between consenting adults, the humanist doesn’t care what their sexual preferences are. Who are they hurting? On the other hand, adultery would still be viewed as wrong by most humanists, because it does hurt people.

    I hope that helps explain my position a bit better. Morality is a huge subject, and there’s much more that could be said, but since this is just a blog comment, I’ll try to leave it at this. Definitely let me know if you have other questions or would like to dig into any of these points further.

    Thanks

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  11. @ Nate :March 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    I got the impression from your post (of March 9, 2014 at 11:41 am ) that morality was the issue that you changed from Christianity to Humanism/Atheism. Now you have clarified that it was not the prime issue. I, therefore, leave it here (though later we may discuss it also).

    Then we come to my question formulated again with a little variation; what positive merits did you see in Atheism/Humanism that you left Jesus religion for it?

    I understand you found faults in Pauline Christianity:

    “I left Christianity because I no longer found it believable. There are a number of inaccurate prophecies, contradictory passages, bad science, bad history, etc in the Bible. When I added to that some of the doctrinal problems, like the idea of an eternal Hell, I just didn’t find it believable anymore.”

    First of all these are not the core or prime teachings of Jesus or Moses or the prophets; these are the secondary points which could be explained away.

    But demerits of Christianity, negativeness of Christianity, does not make positive merits of Humanism/Atheism automatically.

    We want to know the positive merits of Humanism/Atheism for which you left Christianity.

    I like your matter of fact style of writing; no complain with it.

    Thanks and regards

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  12. Hi paarsurrey,

    First of all these are not the core or prime teachings of Jesus or Moses or the prophets; these are the secondary points which could be explained away.

    I disagree with your assertion here. Prophecy, for example, is vital for substantiating the claims about Moses, Jesus, etc. If those prophecies fail, there’s no real reason to believe the other claims. In John 3:12, Jesus says this:

    If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

    He’s absolutely right. If someone comes to you and claims to speak to ghosts, that’s a wild claim that is almost impossible to test. If they also tell you that they’re the President of the United States, then as long as they’re not Barack Obama, you can discount both claims. The fact that they’re lying about a verifiable claim means they’re almost certainly lying about their untestable claim, especially since it’s so unlikely in the first place.

    When it comes to the Bible, we don’t know who wrote most of it, or when. They claim things that are very unlikely, like miracles and being able to speak for God. When they give us some claims that we can test, like Ezekiel’s prophecy that Tyre would be destroyed and never rebuilt, we need to examine them to see if the prophecies pan out. In that particular case, Ezekiel’s prophecy failed. So why should believe any of his stories or prophecies that can’t be tested?

    So these problems in the Bible are anything but minor, and they can’t be explained away. They are important clues that show us that Christianity is a false religion.

    As to your questions about atheism and humanism, I’m not sure that I understand what you’re looking for. I didn’t convert to atheism, I just stopped believing in Christianity. Once my belief in God was taken away, atheism was all that was left. It simply means that I don’t believe in a god. There are no other tenets or beliefs that go along with that, so it’s not really something that a person can convert to. There really aren’t any positive elements to atheism — it’s just a word that describes what I’m not. I’m not a theist; therefore, I’m an atheist. In other words, I’m an atheist in the same way that I’m a non-stamp-collector. Does that make sense?

    Humanism is really just the concept that all people have value. People can be humanists and also be religious — most people are. The US constitution is based on the principle of humanism when it says “all [people] are created equal.” That’s humanism’s basic tenet.

    Is there something in particular about humanism or atheism that you’d like to know?

    Thanks

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