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Can you forcibly deconvert believers with the power of science?

2012/03/13

This is a response to my little brother’s article, “Atheists: Where Do You Plan on Going With This? How Far Are You Willing to Take It?” This is James, the same brother I argued with about promiscuity on Facebook a while back. (Part 1, Part 2) I should give a bit of background first here: My brother was raised Pentecostal, but now identifies as a deist. He believes in a creator God, but not one who answers prayer or does any Christian things. In this piece, he makes a variant on the old noble lie argument and questions whether it is a good idea to try to destroy religion. I’ll address it here because plenty of people have made similar arguments. I recommend reading it all, but here’s an excerpt:

Atheist is defined as one who does not believe in the existence of any sort of deity or divine being. Many people who call themselves Atheists mistakenly do so when they actually just don’t like god because they think god leaves them high and dry or back-stabs them with ill fortune, but that’s getting off point. Many true Atheists will try to prove that god doesn’t exist to people who believe otherwise. (disclaimer, this is of course built upon the hypothetical situation in which such a thing were possible)

There are many many religiously based organizations. Proving the lack of existence of their deity would nullify their existence in some cases, which would, in turn, damage the economy to some degree (no matter how miniscule). There are also people who feel inspired by the ideal of a god, such as politicians, musicians and athletes; it’s what inspires them to do their work. Without a god to inspire them, their performance may suffer, or worse: they cold drop out of their respective careers entirely, with would be a great loss in many cases.

Also, many people are sort of unstable in sensitive topics such as religion. If you proved the lack of existence of a deity, they may just commit suicide figuring there’s no point in living, or not dieing as case may be. And if you were able to prove without any slight shadow of a doubt that god doesn’t exist, then I figure one of two things would happen. Either they would see the light and be forced to find something new to believe in, or they would adamantly keep to their original position and think you are of the devil or something for trying to prove there is no god, and then they would reject logic and science because it will undoubtedly be what you used to prove as such, which would only worsen the very problem you’re trying to fix. That may sound a but far-fetched, but it’s true, there are some Christians who believe science is evil because it diminishes the role of god in their opinion.

There are several problems with this argument. There’s nothing wrong with thought experiments, but they need to make logical sense, even if they have no connection to reality. For instance, takes the following two questions based on hypothetical scenarios: If a pill existed that would bestow permanent happiness on anyone who took it, regardless of circumstances, would it be ethical to force people to take it? If two plus two equaled three, would three still be a prime number? Both are not anything we’ll have to answer in the real world. The former poses an interesting question about whether promotion of happiness and prevention of suffering is really a good ethical principle. The latter is just nonsense. Disproving God is more like the latter. Outside of math and other purely logical systems, you can’t prove anything. A God that could be proven or disproven would only be an idea, not something that exists in the real world. No one can disprove God. They can show that claims about God are logically inconsistent, but that only means that at least one of the contradictory claims is false, not that God doesn’t exist. They can also demonstrate that there are sensible non-theistic explanation for aspects of the world that are attributed to God. However, even if one could somehow show that everything attributed to God was definitely actually caused by something else, that wouldn’t disprove God’s existence. This doubly true when you take the historically fluid nature of God ideas into account. For instance, a few hundred years ago, Christians thought God caused the weather. Now, Christians mostly think natural forces cause the weather, but that God may tinker with it in subtle ways. Beliefs just shift when challenged effectively. They don’t go away. Is there any evidence anyone has actually given up on life when someone shoved evidence upon them and forced them out of belief?

There’s also a subtext here that religious people believe for rational reasons. I can see why he might think that. I went to the same church he did growing up and they were very big on the idea of evidence. It was probably the most common sermon topic. Scientific discoveries were constantly touted as proving stuff from the Bible. There was a Sunday School class based on a Hugh Ross lecture series. Alleged miracles and the witness of the holy spirit were touted as proof that God works on Earth. The pastor even gave a sermon titled “There is more evidence that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead than that Napoleon Bonaparte ever lived.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, to put it mildly.

I recommend reading Libby Anne’s take on the matter here. Like her, I never had “faith” in the sense of believing without evidence and I’m fairly certain the same is true of my brother. I think most evangelicals don’t even conceive of faith in that way. The common metaphor I heard was that you have faith your parents love you because you’ve seen how they act. Faith was supposed to be a connection from physical evidence to ideas about the intangible. Libby Anne, James and I all have something in common, though: We are no longer Christians. It doesn’t follow that the people who are still Christians just haven’t seen the counter-evidence yet. This is doubtless true of some of them, particularly the young, but most Christians don’t base their beliefs on some rational assessment of the evidence.

I can see why he’s confused, though. Few Christians, at least in conservative denominations, will admit they believe against evidence. As Libby Anne says, there’s a reason that books like The Case for Christ are big sellers. However, the appeal of these books isn’t that they build a logical proof for god and convert unbelievers.Christians buy them to reassure themselves that they aren’t being irrational. They are willing to overlook leaps of logic and iffy premises so long as things feel logical. For instance, the sermon I mentioned above was mainly premised on the idea that if the gospels contradicted public knowledge about Jesus, someone would have called them out about it. If you claimed the tomb was empty when it wasn’t, people would call you a liar. He also ruled out the possibility of the apostles bribing the guards and taking the body. The problem is this assumes that the gospels would have been circulated in Jerusalem while people remembered the events of Jesus’s trial and that any objections would have been preserved. Even if we assume that Jesus was a much bigger deal than all those other crucifixions, this assumes facts not in evidence.

Most logical arguments are similar. For instance, at camp when I was told that we know God is real because we can see the miracles he performed. This was in the context of faith healing. I knew that Hindus also believe in miraculous healing and have plenty of examples. What makes their accounts any less reliable? Someone in the believing mindset wouldn’t think of that. If they had doubts, they might think particular miracles didn’t seem all that miraculous, but figure some had to be legit. The stories of things missionaries did in the third world were always way more impressive than anything we saw in service and clergy would never exaggerate to make a point, right? Similarly we were told that in Job 38:16, God asks “Have you entered the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in search of the depths?” Scientists initially thoughts this was nonsense. There aren’t any springs in the sea. Then, they discovered hydrothermal vents and realized the Bible was right all along. In my mind I asked what scientists had said that, thought springs was a little ambiguous and wondered whether hydrothermal vents were really a recent discovery. A believing mindset would accept that this was good evidence and not feel any need to check. To use a classic example that’s caused a lot of harm, in church sex-ed, we were told there are natural pores in latex several times the size of HIV, so it would pass right through and that this had been reported in an industry publication. A believer would have thought this was awful and taken their word for it that this is an accurate representation of the article and figured it was being covered up to because no one wanted to admit we couldn’t do anything about HIV so they could protect their jobs and casual sex. I wondered why they were using a claim that condoms shouldn’t be effective as opposed to evidence they weren’t effective. Assuming the thing about pores was true, it didn’t necessarily follow that condoms were an ineffective barrier. Do the pores go all the way through? Latex balloons are water-tight and water molecules had to be way smaller than a virus. Realizing that a lot of church leaders either didn’t know what they were talking about or were consciously lying was probably the second biggest factor in my deconversion.

So while many believers may think their views are based on evidence, in practice this is due to confirmation bias. When they see evidence contrary to their beliefs, they rationalize it. They have a bunch of “evidence” they can call on and figure their pastor has more, but it isn’t isn’t based on critical thinking. They accept some facts and reject others based on what they would like to be true, not what is best supported and evaluate reasoning by how well it reaches their preferred conclusion. Plenty of people out there, like my dad, will reject bad reasoning. For instance, he rejects young Earth creationism as a misguided attempt to fit a narrative that isn’t even in the Bible. However, this is because he has Hugh Ross day-age creationism to fall back on. It fits his desired outcome just as well and makes more sense. You can actually push this quite a bit farther, depending on which attributes of God you feel you need to believe in. In short, anti-apologetics will only deconvert people who want to be deconverted on some level. You can’t use logic to make people believe things they don’t want to.

There’s also the usual big lie problem: It’s snobbery. On what basis can we determine that we can handle the truth, but other people can’t, so they need to be protected? I think most faitheists actually understand that this isn’t a real issue or they would keep quiet about their own non-belief for fear of accidentally exposing the weak-minded. James argues against prayer at every opportunity (article here), despite the fact that many people have a big emotional investment in prayer.

To answer his final question, I don’t even require proof to believe in God. If someone were to come up with a conception of God that was the best explanation for real world facts, I would believe it. This is what I base all my other beliefs in, so why not?

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