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.

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.

Adam and Eve Wouldn’t Have Lasted Two Seconds Outside the Garden

Picture this: You’re Adam or Eve. You just fucked up big time. Your life of ease in the Garden of Eden, days spent naming animals and watering plants, is now over. You’ve been kicked out forever, left to survive with nothing to your name but the clothes on your backs. How will you survive without the Creator who once walked with you?

God cursed Adam to “cultivate the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23), as was his job in the garden (Genesis 2:15). But where did Adam learn how to farm in the first place, and why? He didn’t pick it up by trial and error, because error in farming means your crops die, and death was not yet a possibility.  Then again, if your crops can’t die, their cultivation becomes a formality. Why would God have the man he created go through the unnecessary motions of farming plants that don’t need farming — unless he already knew the man would need these skills to survive in the future.

And how good of a farmer could Adam have possibly been, coming from a paradigm where nothing could possibly die? Even the best farmers survive only at the whims of burning sun and fickle rain. It would only take one failed harvest for Adam to realize, “Oh, it’s not going to be so easy now, is it?” Adam also wouldn’t be in the habit of storing food for the lean times, either. We have no indication that the garden had seasons, and definitely no droughts or pestilence, so where would Adam get the concept of food shortages in order to be prepared for them?

Let’s say the worst happens. Adam’s first post-fall crop fails miserably, and now he and Eve are facing a long winter without enough food. They could return to foraging, scraping by on seeds and plants. However, thanks to the fall, some of those plants are poisonous now! The Boy Scouts won’t exist for another 6000 years, so they have no clue which plants will sustain them and which will make them vomit until they die.

And let’s not forget that other winter threat: disease. Bacteria and viruses that were once benign are now seeking hosts to infect, and Adam and Eve don’t have years of immunity built up to help them fight illness. Who needs an immune system in a world free of disease? God must have cooked it up on a whim before sending them on their way. In fact, he must have carefully tuned their immune system — they must die eventually, of course, just not immediately. How thoughtful!

Oh, and the winter pinch is not just affecting Adam and Eve. The world has predators now, carnivores who need a new food source since their bodies no longer digest fruit and plants. Why not start with the fleshy pink hairless apes shivering vulnerable in the cold? It would have only taken a single starving saber-tooth tiger to snuff out the only two human beings in existence.

I suppose the Christian answer to all these questions is “magic”: God magicked illness away, magicked predators away, magicked in enough sun and rain (but not too much!) and so on. However, this just turns God into a clingy helicopter parent, no longer walking with them but still orchestrating their lives behind the scenes. It’s as if he realized his discipline went too far but couldn’t bring himself to take it back — after all, what kind of lesson would that teach his impressionable children? As always, the Genesis story only makes sense as one of many creation myths mankind has invented, not as a literal description of historical events.

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the “minimal facts” approach to Christian apologetics and briefly touched on three events surrounding the resurrection that apologists claim are beyond criticism. As it turns out, the cases for the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus are not as airtight as apologists would have you believe. There are still a couple more “facts” worth addressing, and as you can imagine, they’re quite problematic as well.

4. Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

From the historian’s perspective, we don’t have independent sources for many of Jesus’ purported post-resurrection appearances. The Emmaus road experience is only found in Luke. The Sea of Tiberias appearance is only reported by John. An appearance to “five hundred brethren at one time” is only mentioned by Paul, as he quotes an early church creed while writing to the Corinthians.

The creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 is often cited as evidence that Christians believed from a very early date that Jesus had appeared to others after his resurrection. However, the fact that Christians believed something had happened is not necessarily related to what actually did happen. This will come up again.

Apologists will claim that this creed arose far to early for legends to develop surrounding the resurrection. Nonsense! How long did it take for nutcases to start claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, or Tupac was still alive? And that’s with the wealth of information available in an Internet-connected society! How quickly will legends spring up when all your information comes from the rumor mill buzzing around town?

Might these supposed appearances have a naturalistic explanation? We do know that grief-induced hallucinations are surprisingly common, and we also know that stories tend to grow in the telling. Maybe one or two of the disciples had such an experience and told the others. Over time, the experiences of a few disciples evolved into the experience of all the disciples, seeing Jesus at the same time. This is certainly a more plausible explanation than the dead coming back to life.

5. The disciples came to truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

How one responds to this “fact” depends on how it is phrased. I don’t know of any scholar who disputes that the disciples and earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead — but far fewer would conclude that Jesus actually did.

It should be pretty obvious that belief has no inherent relation to the truth of a proposition. People believe in the power of Jesus, astrology, crystals, homeopathy, CrossFit, Santa Claus and all kinds of incorrect ideas.

Moreover, people sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Apologists often object that no one would allow themselves to be martyred for proclaiming what they know is a lie. Agreed, but who said the disciples were lying? They may well have been sincere in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead — sincerely wrong.

So we see that, as usual, Christians have trouble getting their facts straight, but even if we were to grant apologists all of their claims, the minimal facts approach still suffers from a fatal flaw.

Think of it like a magic show, with the classic trick of the magician sawing their lovely assistant in half. Unless you’re a stage magician yourself, you might not have access to all the ins and outs of how magicians perform their tricks. All you have are a handful of facts that you and the rest of the audience have all observed.

  • The assistant is a whole person before lying down in the box.
  • The magician saws through her.
  • The assistant appears to be split in half.

If you can’t figure out the trick, do you immediately assume that the magician has real magic powers? Or do you pick from a list of unconfirmed but entirely mundane explanations? Perhaps the saw is fake. Maybe there’s a secret compartment, or a mirror. The supernatural is probably dead last on your list, right below secret alien technology.

The minimal facts should be treated the same way. We simply don’t have access to all of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath, and, barring some monumental archaeological find, we probably never will. Somehow, when communicating to humanity the most important story in history, God has left us to play connect the dots without all the dots. The information available to us is simply not enough to get the full picture of these three days in Judea two millennia ago, and certainly not enough to determine that a crucifixion victim rose from the dead.

 

Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 1

The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”

At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!

It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.

Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.

1. Jesus was crucified.

This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!

2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).

So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).

It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?

Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)

3. The tomb was found empty.

Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.

Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”

Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?

For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.

No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.

But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.