Use Your Words

At the time of this writing, billions of people worldwide are huddled indoors, hoping and praying they will be lucky enough to avoid the encroaching coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, the death toll has surpassed 10 World Trade Centers. As an atheist, I’d expect this overwhelming display of natural evil would lead believers to question the absence of their loving, powerful God who could banish the virus with a thought, but during this time I’ve encountered many Christians who believe the exact opposite. They think God will ultimately use this virus to draw people closer to him, to make them realize how much they rely on him after all.

What kind of loving, all-powerful God uses suffering as a way to get through to people? This is a being who ostensibly has every means of communication at his disposal –  including telepathy and visions – and from all these he chooses the method of pain.

Take myself as an example. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve prayed. I’ve spent years engaging with believers and considering arguments for God’s existence. I have already demonstrated, in my transition from belief to non-belief, a willingness to change my position based on reasoned evidence. There are a variety of suffering-free ways God could reveal himself to me. Knowing all this, why would God then decide to persuade me not by logic or answered prayer, but through a horrific disease?

Would God break us down just to build us back up again? As atheists point out ad nauseum, this is characteristic of abusive relationships. I understand that people will latch onto whatever reassurance they can get in a time of great upheaval, but I hope that, once we return to whatever “normal” turns out to be, these people will have the luxury of stepping back to consider if God has earned their trust.

How to Convince an Atheist That God Exists

Listen up, Kanye: if you want to turn atheists into believers, I’m here to let you know what it’s going to take. I’ve spent years on both sides of the debate, and while I don’t see myself reconverting anytime soon, I would never say that it’s impossible to convince me there’s a God. If you’d asked me ten years ago if I’d ever call myself an atheist, I’d have said “Heck no!” Clearly, I’m no prophet.

Let’s be honest right from the start: there may only be so much Kanye or any human being can do. If I could be impressed by someone’s profound personal testimony, I’d be baptized dozens of times. If there was a valid and sound logical argument for God’s existence, it would have been presented by now. Apologists think they’ve already done so; atheists like myself think they’re full of it. The fact that this conflict has been ongoing for millennia with no novel arguments forthcoming should make believers question if their logic is really as rock-solid as they think it is.

If apologists can’t do it, then the ball is firmly in God’s court. Being all-powerful, he must have tons of tricks up his proverbial sleeve. His reticence to use them could be the subject of another post, but let’s say he wanted to pull one out for the sake of my eternal soul. Already we have a problem: I would be a bad skeptic if I were made a believer by a single act. Realistically, if I were to experience the kind of mind-boggling, unprecedented gesture that could only be performed by God, my first reaction would be to question the reliability of my own faculties, immediately creating doubt where God intended conviction.

In theory, one could be skeptical about pretty much anything. Go down that rabbit hole too far, and you’ll wind up a solipsist with a headache. Perhaps it would be more charitable to ask not what would convince me outright, but what would make me stop and reconsider. An act of god might not persuade me to join Team Deity, but it could at least give me pause — more than God has done for me so far. I can definitely think of a few things that would force me to take a step back and reevaluate my position:

  1. A clear, authenticated, specific prophesy. I’m talking a document from thousands of years ago, confirmed by expert historians that lists a date, time, and location that a particular event will occur. None of this four horses, seven seals nonsense. This should be well within God’s power, and it would eliminate the objection that a prophecy is too vague.
  2. A personal vision/appearance common to all people. What if, on everyone’s eighteenth birthday, God pops into their noggin and introduces himself? “Hey, this is God… yes, I’m real. Just letting you know I’m looking out for you. By the way, have you thought about getting your cosmetology license? I bet you’d be really good at it — just sayin'” Since everyone has their own unique but similar vision, we can compare notes and rule out the possibility of a random hallucination.
  3. A message written on the moon in the native language of every reader. Not a big deal, right? The moon is visible the world over, which would make it the perfect divine billboard. I’m sure the most skepticky skeptics would bring up the possibility of alien technology, quoting Arthur C. Clarke all the way, but the rest of us would have a lot to think about.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. God could have methods at his disposal that are beyond my understanding. I mean, using Kanye West as a spokesperson seems like an odd choice to my limited human mind — but then again, having him show up at my door to rap the gospel might be just the kind of miracle I’ve been waiting for.

Would You Rather Be Happy or Right?

Some time ago at the Atheist Christian Book Club, I had a conversation with a new Christian attendee. I don’t think she had much experience talking to atheists, but she pulled out an old canard like a seasoned pro:

I just don’t know how atheists live without the love of Christ. I think I would just be depressed all the time!

This line of thinking reveals how some theists have entirely different end goals than most atheists. It’s similar to the whole “atheism would lead to amoral anarchy” trope: the effects of holding a position have nothing to do with the validity of a position. In other words, we have to deal with reality as it is, even if we don’t like the results.

According to polls, religious people tend to be happier than the non-religious. Of course! Belief in a supernatural father figure and a blissful afterlife can buoy one through many a rough sea. But what happens when these ideas are challenged? Do believers face them and risk losing their happiness and security? Or is it more important to follow truth where it leads, even if one’s religious foundation is discovered to be incorrect?

“Right” is absolute: you and I share a reality, and there’s only one way to be right about it. “Happy” is relative: what brings you happiness may not have the same effect on me. Religion does not make everyone happy; communities of ex-believers are rife with examples. What if you’re a gay Christian or Muslim, being told that your very nature is an abomination? What if you’re a woman, forever told to submit, keep quiet, know your place? I’m sure antebellum slaves were overjoyed when their masters brought out the Bible to support their subjugation. Many people find happiness impossible under a theistic paradigm.

Atheists regularly employ the term “delusional” when it comes to religious folks. Personally, I try to avoid it; I’ve spoken with quite a few believers who put a lot of thought into their faith and have a logical, if flawed, basis for it. However, there are also a large number of believers for whom the comfort of their faith is so paramount that the factual foundation of it remains unexplored. While it’s important not to overuse the term, choosing to be happy over being right is the very definition of delusion.

Consider the #wakeupolive saga that at the time of this post has only recently concluded. I feel awful for the Heiligenthals, even more than mere sympathy for grieving parents who have lost a beloved child. Their confidence in God’s power of resurrection has hamstrung them from dealing with reality on its own terms. Even when God fails to expend one iota of his mighty power on their behalf, they remain steadfast. In their community, this is a virtue! The family may have their doubts in private, but it’s telling that they feel it necessary to maintain a positive public image. In the end, they know what their parishioners want to hear, and it’s not the harsh reality of life.

The Problem of Suffering: Why and When to Use It

Suffering is an inevitability of the human experience. We spend so much of our finite lives trying to minimize it or postpone it, but we can never truly escape it. That’s why the problem of suffering remains a potent issue for the religious after thousands of years — it’s a universal question that lacks a universal answer.

Many atheist hobbyists deal constantly with apologetics, logical arguments, fallacies, and high-minded philosophical nonsense. As a result, we forget that most believers don’t care about any of that! The old lady on the frontmost pew doesn’t know what tu quoque is — she probably thinks it’s a new Tex-Mex dish. Her reasons for belief may not be swayed by a logical syllogism, because she doesn’t know what that is.

But she knows pain. She knows heartache. She’s been sick. She’s seen people die – perhaps before their time, perhaps after a long, sad decline. She’s seen hurricanes in the news from Andrew to Katrina to Harvey. If she’s from Texas like me, she’s seen dozens of small towns flattened by tornadoes. And she’ll deny it to your face, but she’s had doubts about God’s goodness through it all. Even if she doesn’t dwell on it, there’s a part of her at least a little aware that what she’s read doesn’t match up with what she’s lived.

We pride ourselves as atheists for our logic and supreme rationality, and we tend to laugh among ourselves at the blind faith of many believers, guided by raw emotion. But these people still vote. They still work to influence public policy and affect the lives of others, and so it behooves us as non-believers to engage with them on matters of faith.

When having these discussions, it’s important to tailor your arguments to your interlocutor. An argument that you find compelling may not always be compelling to someone else, even if your argument is 100% correct. As we know from the steady supply of charismatic televangelists over the years, there’s a difference between being right and being able to convince people you’re right.

This is why the problem of suffering remains a problem for the faithful. A person’s beliefs may be informed by their hearts more than their heads. As Westerners in a first-world country, we have the luxury of being isolated from the difficulties faced by the less fortunate on the other side of the world. It can be jarring for even the most intellectual apologist to come face-to-face with a deformed child, supposedly hand-crafted by God in their mother’s womb.

That’s why theodicies exist — the best attempts of believers to reconcile a good and loving God with the evil and suffering in the world. Their answers are not designed to convince you and me. They’re meant to be just convincing enough for apologists and the rest of the flock who will grasp at something, anything, that seems to reinforce their existing assumptions of God’s goodness. A thoughtful atheist can easily poke holes in these paper-thin rationalizations.

I do want to add one caveat: as atheists, we don’t want to be tragedy vultures. Believers are trained to prey on people in their moments of weakness. I was a Christian in the suburbs of New York City when 9/11 happened, and it sickens me to remember how my fellow believers thought it was wonderful that so many people flocked to churches in the wake of that tragedy. Aren’t we supposed to be better than them? Atheists face enough unfounded distrust and disdain in society without going up to mourners at a funeral and scoffing, “Where’s your God now?” I would suggest that these times are better used instead to show how, contrary to their preconceived notions, atheists can be caring and compassionate human beings without a God telling them to be.

Maybe Things Just Aren’t Perfect

I formulated my recent post on morality in part to counter the Christian objection that, without a perfect moral standard, non-theistic morality is flawed and therefore worthless. Since then, I’ve observed a similar theme with the arguments of believers on a variety of topics. The claims include:

  • Christians have God as a dependable source of truth, while atheists depend on fallible human cognition which evolved for survival, not truth.
  • Christians can always rely on God in times of trouble, while atheists have no one to rely on except their own error-prone selves.
  • Creationism is a comprehensive explanation for the diversity of life on earth, while evolution is missing transitional fossils and the ultimate origin of life.

Setting aside the problems with these specific arguments, note that they are all designed to pit the perfect against the imperfect. The idea is to present atheism as lacking and incomplete when compared with the Christian God. And of course it will! It’s incredibly easy to set up an impossible standard, lambaste your opponent for not living up to the standard, and claim victory.

Believers employ arguments like this because it allows them to gloss over the most important step. You have to demonstrate that your all-powerful, all-knowing god actually exists. Arguing in this way is the apologetic equivalent of saying, “Your girlfriend isn’t as hot as my girlfriend (she’s in Canada — no, you can’t see a picture).”

There’s another reason why Christians find such arguments persuasive (and think that you would be persuaded also). From beginning to end, the Bible has a running theme of “perfection or nothing”. In the Old Testament, the slightest blemish made a lamb unworthy for sacrifice. In the New Testament, the slightest sin makes a soul unworthy of heaven and deserving of an eternity of hellfire.

Imperfect but existent humanity is superior to a perfect but non-existent god just by virtue of being real. I touched on this fact in my morality post. Like morality, we can wish we had a perfect, 100% reliable source of truth and bemoan our easily-fooled human brains. However, these brains may in reality be all we have to work with. A non-existent god can’t be a source of morality, truth, or anything useful. It can only be a source of deception.

God is NOT Love (According to the Bible)

I’m pretty sure it’s now official church doctrine that every wedding must quote from 1 Corinthians 13. Nowhere else in the Bible to we get such a convenient checklist of what Christian love is supposed to look like. By the transitive property, this chapter should theoretically be a description of God himself, because God is love. And yet, anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in Sunday school will notice that God regularly fails to exhibit the characteristics Paul attributes to a loving being.

Love is patient …and God is impetuous. He forbids Moses from entering the Promised Land after decades of obedience because he struck a rock instead of talking to it. He sends bears to maul those who poke fun at his prophets. Jesus himself cannot bear the audacity of a fig tree that fails to produce fruit out of season.

Love is kind …and God destroys the life of his most faithful servant to win a bet. Is it kind to flood the whole earth and command genocide? Plus, you know, hell.

Love does not envy …and God is jealous, unable to bear even a hint of dissent. The first three commandments, prioritized even over murder, are about worshiping God alone and using his name correctly. Actually, much of the Old Testament is a record of God’s incessant attempts to stamp out his competition. Note also that the only unpardonable sin is not serial murder, cannibalism, or child rape, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Love does not boast and is not proud …and God spends whole chapters expounding on his own greatness and even made the heavens just to show off. In Exodus, he hardens the Pharaoh’s heart and inflicts plagues, pestilence, and death on Egypt so that his “name may be proclaimed in all the earth.

Love is not self-seeking …and yet, according to apologists, God allows people to be doomed to hell because he didn’t want to create “robots” forced to love him. In other words, God is willing to doom most of humanity to eternal torment just so a handful will love him properly. How self-seeking is that?

Love is not easily angered …and yet he kills people for peeking into the Ark of the Covenant, looking back at their former home, and not impregnating their sister-in-law, for a few examples.

Love keeps no record of wrongs …and God absolutely does, which is the whole reason Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary in the first place.

A better expression of love, as exemplified by the God of the Bible, would be something like this:

Love is testy, love is cruel. It is envious, conceited, and vain. It is self-centered, quick to anger, and never forgets an offense. Love does evil and declares it good. It protects its own and damns all others. Love constantly fails.