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Ask An Atheist: Could you ever be convinced of the existence of God?

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Q. Do you believe that there is really any kind of argument at all that you would allow emotionally down in your gut or in your thinking to affect you? Or, is your mind pretty much made up already that there is no sufficient evidence or ever will be? Is that your own comfort zone … that there is no God?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133A. If the questioner is asking that I let emotions short circuit reasoning, that is a slippery slope that many a religious zealot has invoked over the years on the road to becoming a nuisance. But if the questioner assumes that somewhere lurking in my emotional life there is some “Oh my, there must be God” feeling ready to burst forth if only I put handcuffs on that evidential reasoning stuff I pay attention to, I must plead not guilty ‒ no such basement for me.

The questioner appears also to be assuming that I am a “no possible evidence could persuade me” atheist, and there too I must beg to differ. When talking about “God” (and which god does one have in mind or is only one parochial candidate allowed to play here?) in groups I often look up at the ceiling and call out, “Are you hearing this?” and strenuously invite the deity in question to join the discussion. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were not shocked to learn that no burning shrubberies or Charlton Heston-ish voices have occurred on those occasions, which is just the point. These purported supernatural entities don’t appear to do personal appearances anymore, even though it would be amazingly easy for to do so for them. So we have to posit that the proposed entity deems not to do so (from petulance or philosophical stubbornness, who can say ‒ again, because the entities don’t give interviews any more).

There were very effective scenes in the old cable series “Saving Grace” where the angel, Earl, swept up the main character to a pinnacle for a chat. Were that to happen to me at our meetings, were I spent a good half of an hour talking with the supernatural agent to melt my stone cold heart, and upon being returned to my group discover that my aghast atheist friends had seen me disappear and that a time had elapsed matching that experienced in my divine conference before I reappeared ‒ poof ‒ what genuine empiricist wouldn’t be impressed with that? It’s personal experience corroborated by external observation. Immodestly perhaps, I am neither an idiot nor a blockhead, and I for one would be very impressed.

But that isn’t what we get, is it? Arguments for the existence of God (and again, which one?) turn on reading very old press coverage (emanating from assorted “prophets”) or trying to deduce the being’s existence from the back door, from the facts of the natural world (as though flagella have designer labels attached) or by drawing on the heartfelt personal experiences of current people (but not those equally sincere convictions coming from other people’s religions), but missing the sort of slam-dunk corroborating evidence I outlined above.

Even genuinely miraculous healings would do it for me, such as war veterans who have lost limbs having them restored after prayer. But that is not known to happen either. As some droll author observed of Lourdes in the 19th century: “So many crutches, but no wooden legs.”  There is even a trope at one atheist website that invites believers to pray for the healing of amputees in exactly this way. It would not only be swell evidence for the god in question, but would be even grander for the person who lost their limbs: a no-lose situation, I would think. And while we’re about it, toss in Alzheimer’s disease victims, as insidious an affliction as one can imagine, ravaging the loved ones more than its victim (and thus rather a blot on any master designer that let that one slip through the sieve). I would happily like to have an opportunity to step out of the “comfort zone” that the questioner feels I (but evidently not themselves) supposedly occupy to congratulate a deity for wading in on that one.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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20 comments

  1. Jim demands physical “proof” in order to accept the existence of a god. God (a least the One of the Biblical record) requires faith in order to be recognized. Thus it has been throughout human history between skeptics and God. Thus it shall ever be. If God gave us physical proof, no faith would be necessary.

  2. I was asked, after all, what sort of arguments could convince me of the existence of a god(s). If Mark is going to argue that thinking in that way is intrinsically unneccessary then that will save as all a lot of trouble: one either has faith or one does not. And all those stacks of Natural Theology, Intelligent Design, and “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” books that populate the religion section of book stores can be safely reallocated as doorstops.

    One may notice also that I did not put faith in quotes as Mark did “proof”–as though to minimize it as something too paltry to consider. Is Mark suggesting that if the personal chat with God that I described did happen to me (including the external corroboration of my absense) I shouldn’t take this as an opportunity for conversion?

    “If God gave us physical proof, no faith would be necessary.” Why would that be a problem? Would a God that contacted people more often be any less worthy of worship? Was the God of Abraham breaking his own rules here when miracles were done in the Old and New Testament? Or is faith something one resorts to when the external evidence is so threadbare that you have no other recourse?

    I may as well turn the issue on its head: is there any possible argument that could persuade the religious believer that their belief in their particular deity was mistaken?

  3. Here is the harder issue for me even if your deity, whatever flavor of (I presume) Christianity you might adhere to, actually exists. I have read the King James version of the bible. Were I to be introduced in no uncertain terms to the deity that was responsible for the episodes in that book I would roundly reject him (or her) as utterly immoral, violent, misogynistic, egomaniacal and capricious in his commands. My question to you is why on earth do you worship this entity? Why?.

  4. By way of full disclosure Jim Hudlow is a good friend of mine. The question is a legitimate one, though technically independent of what leads one to believe that a given god exists. Are all deities deserving of worship automatically provided they exist, or does an innate moral sense exist that can override that should the god condone immoral practices? Is it justified refusing to worship a divine bully even at the expense of punishment?

    If Quetzalcoatl existed, would a believer be justified in not worshiping it because of that “ripping people’s hearts out” issue offending human decency? And had a “reformed Quetzalcoatlism” developed that abandoned the practice due to the moral and political evolution of their society, would such liberal Quetzalcoatlism be legitimately seen by skeptical nonbelievers as just disingenuous rationalization, trying to knock off the rough edges to render it more palatble to advanced sensibilities? And isn’t that exactly what has happened in the lore of the God of Abraham, as local genocides, slavery, and heretic & witch huntings gave way under developing Enlightenment societies?

  5. This is a great thread if one reads it carefully.

    Jim has previously acknowledged himself as a devout AGNOSTIC and a PRACTICAL atheist. This mantle lends relevant information to this thread’s question. Is it possible for an individual to have a “heartfelt experience” instilling awareness of relationship to an all-encompassing God (minus man’s theological quibbles) that does not short-circuit rational, empirical deliberation? Jim’s responses do NOT negate such a possibility. His arguments attack theological superiorities. Jim is careful not to attack the silent foundation of a humble faith. There is a difference. The true answer to this thread’s question is found in the the space between the two for which Jim always leaves room. Jim’s world offers him no reason to pursue an argument favoring God’s existence. Jim has never said, however, that lack of evidence is evidence to the contrary. Jim says it needs be the responsibility of believers to offer him evidence contrary to his position. I say it’s the responsibility of believers to DEMONSTRATE evidence via the silent ACTIONS of their faith(s).

    (Jim is more of a believer than most might credit him to be.)

  6. Don’t presume too much there Riff. As for “demonstrating evidence via the silent action of their faiths” what if lots of contradictory faiths show equivalent levels of people living their faith successfully? Evidence of a supernatural entity can’t be simply a pagent where the most number of devout wins. The evidence I alluded to that would impress me all involve something that is supposedly distinctive of the gods involved: and application of transcendent supernatural power, not the degree to which the person’s behavior follows the expectations. Nor were these instances of other people presenting evidence to me. It involved events happening to me (or to others in the case of miraculous restoration of lost limbs) that would be impossible apart from the application of that supernatural force.

  7. Interesting. There is a difference between arguing the existence of “God” and arguing the rationality of the supernatural notion. I don’t believe ANYthing is “supernatural” and yet I don’t have any quandary KNOWING “God” exists. Am I contradicting myself? My experience is that there is a “field” that demonstrates ALL the major qualities of what has otherwise been referred to throughout history as “God.” My experience is also that faith only truly WORKS when the actions governed by faith align with the highest of moral, ethical and (yes) humanistic values.The contradictions between faiths are irrelevant if they succeed in this way. This is the evidence to which I allude to via people focusing on PRACTICING their faiths rather than trying to come up with a convincing argument for a proclaimed atheist to consider the possibility of the existence of “God.” If you find this experience without a relationship to “God,” good for you. Does it truly concern you, however, when others depend upon their relationship to God for this same experience? IS lack of evidence, evidence to the contrary? You are asking people for parlor tricks to back up their choice and/or experience. This exercise is a mirror of arguing theological differences which I find generally nonproductive and most often highly hypocritical. Actions speak louder than words and proof is in the pudding. The validity of one’s convictions is in the actions, experience and results of choices based on said convictions. My personal relationship to God has served me repeatedly and dependably for decades. For me, this is evidence. For you, maybe not. To me, however, arguing God’s nonexistence OR existence has never seemed a rational exercise. Perhaps you merely contest irrationality? Could you not simply have said it is more rational/comfortable for you to place your faith in science rather than in a “God” to which you have no relationship? Hmm.

  8. Again, the question pertained what evidence would persuade ME that a god existed. That many billions of people believe in their own myriad ways in an assortment of deities is a fact of reality, and how they go about that is up to them. So long as they don’t make a nuisance (like trying to kill little girls who might want to get an education) I have no problem with that. I laud Riff for holding that “faith only truly WORKS when the actions governed by faith align with the highest of moral, ethical and (yes) humanistic values,” though that begs some other questions. Who says gods can’t be petulent or vengeful? Cultures actually tend to redefine their gods over time to turn them into laudable characters worthy of worship. Look at the God of Abraham, going from “kill all the Amalekites” in the book of Samuel to “turn the other cheek” New Testament.

    Anyway, I think this thread has pretty much run its course. Some of the topics touched on probably deserve their own questions, so I hope readers will fire away on those.

  9. For clarity, am I correct then to say your response to the original question was: “Personal experience corroborated by external observation” OF A SUPERNATURAL OCCURRENCE is the evidence you would require to be persuaded of the existence of a SUPERNATURAL ENTITY? (Thank you.)

  10. You do seem a bit hung up on the supernatural and its role here. The God of Abraham is supposed to be an entity unconstrained by natural limits (indeed the natural universe being a manifestation of his intention, sustained by his fiat activity). Assorted supernatural contraventions of natural processes are recounted in the Bible, and for me that element is of relevance in figuring out what evidence would impress me.

    Now “supernatural” things like poltergeists or vampires, if they existed, could by some ways of thinking be deemed “natural” after all, but I think that is a side issue from the topic at hand, which was what standards I have (not what other people might have for them) regarding my own acceptance of any god(s) being real. Anyway, as noted before, I think this topic has pretty well been tapped out. Looking forward to fresh questions.

  11. I think Jim did a great job answering this question.

    There are a few things I’d like to add:

    Being an atheist for me is not about comfort zones or even about there not being a god.

    Being an atheist is a consequence of deciding to apply evidence-based reasoning to questions about the existence of God. When you do this, any honest application of this practice will lead you to agnostic atheism.

    The idea of the sacred is generally viewed as a religious belief, but I think that it kind of applies here.

    I hold the truth to be sacred. I don’t know where the universe comes from, how consciousness emerges (although I’ve got some pretty sophisticated ideas about that one) or what happens to that consciousness after I die.

    This is the truth.

    It is a deep and profound truth, and it is one that seems to escape many theists.

    “I DON’T KNOW” is the truth

    Does this make sense? The fact that my knowledge has limits is a sacred truth to me. My uncertainty and doubt are sacred components of my system of belief.

    You build your worldview on your sacred text. I build mine on the bedrock foundation of uncertainty. I KNOW, that I am uncertain. This is one of the great breakthroughs of human knowledge. Uncertainty is the test of knowledge. Uncertainty can even be measured.

    When you claim to know that your sacred text is the work of the creator of the universe, you are claiming knowledge that no human can have. You are committing sacrilege. You are pretending that your belief is knowledge.

    Try to imagine living in a world where what you hold sacred is not only violated by 90% of the people in your world, but that they get special privilege, status, wealth and rank for their sacrilege. Try to imagine that their sacrilege leads them to oppress the advancement of knowledge, to wage war, to take wealth from the poor and give it to the rich, and you can begin to understand why some of us atheists can be a bit peevish.

    The fact that you believe in God, the fact that you believe that you KNOW God exists, the fact that you feel the presence of God in your life. These things say NOTHING about the existence of God. The do, however, say something about YOU. They are, after all, YOUR experience.

    Maybe your experience accurately represents reality. Maybe it does not. I am not in a position to know. What I AM in a position to know is that I have many strategies that I can use to understand the world around me. One of those is believing what authorities tell me. Belief in authority usually works pretty well, and I’ve been using it since I could crawl. But I have learned over and over again that that strategy also gives my power over to the authority that I choose to trust. So if I make a decision of consequence based solely on the word of an authority, I have abdicated my responsibility to understand the consequence of my actions.

    This strikes me as an ethically dangerous practice.

    And this is the thing about God, isn’t it? He’s not just some guy who made stuff. He’s a divine authority figure. He’s the sock puppet that demagogues use to whip the faithful into a frenzy to gain political power. He’s the rationalization that the strong have for oppressing the weak, and that the weak have for accepting the oppression of the strong. He’s the person that MANY theist believes OWNS them, as if it’s ever ok to own a person.

    Trusting authority is a moral skill, but it’s only one of many. Believing authority is an educational skill, but it is only the beginning of knowledge, not the end of it. Theist claim the God is the alpha and the omega. As if authority is all you need to get by in the world.

    When an authority tells you a thing is true, all you know is that an authority said it. It doesn’t matter who that authority is. When you argue for the existence of God, you are arguing for the existence of the authority upon which you base your worldview and your sense of self. That’s a hell of a lot of power to hand over to someone else.

    I offer this (rant) because I want to make clear that in addition to Jim’s excellent epistemological reasons for refraining from belief in God, there are deep moral reasons for doing so as well.

    So would an argument convince me of the existence of God? No, probably not. Anyone who makes such an argument makes it from their own flawed human understanding and their own (usually unstated) agenda. Could evidence convince me of God’s existence? Maybe. It depends on the evidence. But even if I did see a regrown limb, this would only be evidence of something I don’t understand. God is not the default answer to “I DON’T KNOW,” no matter how much theists would like to insist the contrary.

    And that’s the truth.

  12. Jim wants to end this thread. I apologize if this content belongs elsewhere, however, I will not be the one to start new questions to ferret out the points that have been raised here. My observations to this question and answer deal with the tacit implications of words otherwise not explicitly expressed. Jim is implying that because the word God is predominantly presumed to imply SUPERNATURAL connotation, his answer should be viewed through such an explicit lens. I disagree. If he had so clarified his response, I would end here. Similarly, when Paul makes the statement regarding “evidence based” reasoning, his intention is to explicitly refer to EXTERNAL evidence by definition. Paul’s statements negate EXPERIENCIAL evidence by CHOICE, not by some universal truth. I respect the faith of Paul’s CHOICE not to trust INTERNAL experiential evidence (especially if he is aware of none) regarding conclusions to the broader questions of our existence. However, I DO NOT concur with any such implication on his part that such an injunction must apply to me or anyone else. Paul confuses “I DON’T KNOW because I don’t have the EXTERNAL evidence to back up my knowing” with truth. There are MANY, MANY, MANY things that humans KNOW without external evidence to back them up. This IS true. One such example is that I KNOW that I LOVE (no external evidence). I experience (true or not) Jim’s original response to the question and Paul’s (self-acknowledged) comments BOTH to be excessive RANTS. It is my perception that we sometimes over react in defense when no defense was necessary. I KNOW, for myself, that I am not participating in this thread to attack either of you. I am drawn to understand the whys and hows of people falling into endless traps of misunderstanding in relating around their CHOSEN belief structures. That’s all. Thanks.

  13. Riff, I think that I speak for both Jim and I when I say that we are talking about the COLLOQUIAL definition of God. That is: a personal, magical, supernatural being who has an intelligence and who takes action to intercede in the universe and/or in the creation of the universe.

    The fact that we have subjective experiences that we know without evidence is NOT what we are talking about here. What you are doing is re-defining God. This “move the goalposts” strategy is common enough, and I don’t have a lot of beef with it, but if you are going to apply some sort of personal idiosyncratic definition of God, then please say so up front so that we don’t just get into some sort of silly semantic debate.

    The fact that we have subjective experience at all is an amazing thing in my book, and a deep mystery besides. The fact that people have subjective experiences of the divine is hardly controversial and is frankly not the subject of what either Jim or I are talking about. We are at a level in our technology in which the neurological correlates of our subjective experience of love can be known. The same can be said of our subjective experience of the divine. If this is what you mean by “God” then only a fool would suggest that such an experience doesn’t exist.

    But there is a difference. Our experience of love IS love. The experience is the thing we are describing with the word “love.” The experience of the divine is sometimes what we are describing when we talk about God, but sometimes we use the word to describe something OTHER than our subjective experience. The colloquial definition of God that Jim and I are using is the “objective” deity, not the subjective experience of the divine. I think that most of us would agree that this is what was implied in the original question.

    Human beings have an amazing ability to imagine the world. This has HUGE survival value: We can imagine the consequences of our actions without having to suffer those consequences, and we can choose accordingly. We can use that imagination to form models of the world and to predict outcomes of events that we cannot even see directly. But this capacity is piggybacked on the sensory apparatus of our brains. In other words, we use many of the same parts of our brains to imagine the world that we use to perceive the world. As a result it is VERY EASY for us to confuse our imaginations about the world with the world itself.

    Riff, I think that this is what you are doing here. I don’t mean this as a criticism. We all make this mistake routinely. I simply want to point it out. Is your experience of God a sense perception or a story that you are telling yourself about yourself and your affective responses to those stories? It takes practice to answer this sort of question, but I would encourage you to try.

  14. Total side-note here:

    Riff you said: “I respect the faith of Paul’s CHOICE not to trust INTERNAL experiential evidence (especially if he is aware of none) regarding conclusions to the broader questions of our existence.”

    What do you mean by “fiath of Paul’s choice?” I’ve never heard the word fait used in that context before.

    Just curious.

  15. I think Paul hits the nail on the head on some of the conceptual differences that divide the arguments here when he reminds us that however intense a personal belief may be, that is not the same thing as whether the thing being believed is true. Religious beliefs are actually only a subset of that. My belief that the Moon is a big object a quarter of a million miles away and not a small bright slice of cheese hanging on a celestial tarp is not exactly the same thing as the evidence that it is one thing or another. Once I start paying attention to such external evidence though, my belief one way or another moves into a new category of evidence-based belief.

    Since this is a thread that will not die, let’s address a very specific issue apropos this: are all beliefs true? If not, do you contend that it is possible to determine objectively that some beliefs are not true, and if so, how is this done? In conversation with Riff he knows of my NOMA-D divide where some issues are decidable and others not. I contend that belief in a decidable proposition can be settled via scientific evidence-based reasoning, whereas belief in an undecidible proposition can only be decided by philosophical decision, and hence remains intrinscially a belief.

    Now the “argument for God” issue straddles the divide in confusing ways. If the God is taken to possess the ability and occasional inclination to interact in the observable decidable realm of our physical experience, then it is a perfectly legitimate line of scientific decidable reasoning to apply those skills to the matter. In my own case (proded by the original question remember) I laid out things that would impress ME in ways that as a rational skeptic I could not reasonably ignore.

  16. I agree. This is fun!

  17. Jim, I believe the clarification sought by my original comment was to deduce to what degree you have or have not “thought about things you do not think about” in relation to the encompassing “God” CONCEPT. If I’d been equipped with your words for such a notion, perhaps my communication would have been more succinct. As the resident atheist on FAVS, which (as I commented upon in our conversation) I view as a particularly UNIQUE and essential opportunity in this arena of dialogue, I am curious to what degree you have pondered and investigated the notion and origination of the global God conceptualization versus simply positing viewpoints in opposition to face value pop culture idiomatic superficial platitudes on an innately diverse subject. I do not agree that I am the one committing foul play in this thread and I sincerely DO NOT desire anyone else peeking in upon this discussion to come to my defense. (I require none.) Toward the end of our discussion at the mixer you mentioned you are an “absolutist.” This tweaked my curiosity a bit more. (You can expect a new and separate question regarding this idea.) As far as epistemology goes, it’s blah in my book. If the endeavor is sacred ground for you (or anyone else) I sincerely respect that choice. Again, I could have opened my comments with such a clarification of interest, yet to the casual reader “epistemology” is rarely pronounced, much less a vernacular member. My own personal journey has brought me to the conclusion that life is simply not so complicated less we choose make it so. My own fought for conclusion in life is that I value knowledge (understanding) of other folks’ perceptions and reasoning behind said perception(s) much more than I value any quote-unquote absolute knowledge. Knowledge for me is simply degrees of certainty based sliding-scale preponderance of empirical evidence whereas belief leans more toward conviction independent of evidence. In my younger years I was adamant to proclaim I BELIEVE in nothing! While the essence is yet true, I have reconsidered that such a claim is bogus in the spectrum of human understanding, linguistic communication and CERTAINTY. I have concluded the reality of God may only be verified according to individual EXPERIENCIAL evidence. This is where my certainty presides on the topic. Arguing for or against God by saying my experiential methodology is valid and yours subjective? (Waste of precious brain cells.) “Now the ‘argument for God’ issue straddles the divide in confusing ways. If the God is taken to possess the ability and occasional inclination to interact in the observable decidable realm of our physical experience, then it is a perfectly legitimate line of scientific decidable reasoning to apply those skills to the matter.” WOW! That is an AWESOME statement! Thanks for your patience in responding!

    Paul, total side-note here: Whether devout adherent or adamant rebel, we each have to CHOOSE our own schematic as to how we engage and interpret whatever reality is. Thanks for participating.

  18. Good Evening Gentleman and Ladies,
    I am a 20 year old Ukrainian-American with many questions and doubts about the world around me. I stumbled upon this thread in search of something that may comfort me as I seek out ideas that conform to my own personal experiences/beliefs. Over the past year or so I have been struggling to hold on to faith in Yahweh, as my christian beliefs have been slammed repeatedly. Although, I do not believe that any Argument a man can bring forth will convince me of God’s existence, I truly do believe that the right questions can be asked in order to give me some inner peace. I would like all to reply, Christians and atheists alike. As for my current understanding, I am in much agreement with Paul, I too feel as though the best conclusion I can draw is that I simply do not understand why anything exists. I believe that faith in God does allow for amazing hope though. Please, help me as I struggle through this time in my life.

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