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What would it take for you to believe in God?

October 5, 2011

This is a question I think people ask atheists/agnostics/whomever a lot. The answers are usually interesting, in the sense that some people seem to be very aware of what it would take to get them believing in something. And some people’s answers are interesting in the different sense that they say flat out that nothing could get them to believe.

My answer is simple, deceptively insightful, but also far tougher to work out. It would take something I found personally convincing for me to believe in God.

This answer is simple in that it seems tautological (my beliefs are in things about which I’m personally convinced.)

My answer is (at least to me) deceptively insightful in that (I think) it says something quite different about how I view beliefs in general. I think a lot of atheist types want to assert that they are “objective” or “critical thinking” kinds of people. So of course, they would only believe if there were objective, hard data for the proposition.

But I don’t look at beliefs like that. I recognize that 1) I can be personally convinced by non-objective data, and 2) I can fail to be convinced by objective data. Whatever mechanisms in my brain make it think, “Hey, that seems to be true…” doesn’t seem to operate according to strict scientific procedures…even though I would like to think it would.

And…I tend to think that whether people admit it or not, 1 and 2 apply to them as well, to some extent.

I think good examples of point 1 are the facts that people can be “deceived.” At the very least, then, they do not have a mechanism to see “past” appearances…so if something is truly (objectively) false or deceptive, people can still perceive (which is subjective) that it is true, correct, or whatever. This is the foundation of magic tricks and optical illusions at the most benign.

I think, however, that 1 goes further. Appearances and perceptions ties into more things, subjectively speaking. So, I think that our psychological tendencies to certain fallacies in reasoning and thought highlight the fact that we can (and do) subjectively perceive things very differently than how things objectively are.

We try to mitigate point 1 by accounting for and countering our various biases. We try to validate and verify optical tricks…try to “solve” magic tricks. We try to use independently repeatable, reliable methodologies. But at any given time, we can’t be sure than any particular belief we have has successfully passed muster.

As for point 2, I think of weak points in my school subjects. I’m not all that great at math, for example. So, if we look at math as something that is “objectively” true and has objective proofs for it (and I’m assuming no one will challenge me on that by asserting, for example, that math is constructed), then I’ll simply point out that showing someone a proof does not mean they will “get it” and accept certain mathematical facts.

In fact, there are counter-intuitive mathematical truths, where the truth seems so bizarre that people are highly resistant to accept the true answer as true. See the Monty Hall problem or the debacle over whether .999… repeating = 1. These are cases where people can be shown and explained several objective proofs, but awareness of objective proofs doesn’t equate to acceptance. The actual acceptance is something internal and subjective to the person.

As a result of points 1 and 2, I recognize that my beliefs are more a statement about me than about the outside world…they are a statement about my internal perceptions about the way the world works…and not necessarily about how the world works. I would love to think that my internal perceptions match external reality, but I know that in many cases, they do not.

This kinda leads into the point that my answer is tougher to work out. In the same way I can’t pinpoint what makes me understand some things and not others, what leads me to accept some kinds of “evidences” and not others, I really can’t predict what would be decisive in causing me to believe in God. I would like to think that clear objective evidence would do it, but that’s the problem: what is “clear objective evidence”? It’s actually something subjectively perceived. Objective evidence is just there. Clarity is in how you process it.

…that being said, I think I could name categorical things that would convince me to believe in God, if only because those too are tautological. For example, if I were struck with irresistible grace, then I would believe, because, well…I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I imagine that an Alma-the-Younger or Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus or some kind of similar mystical experience would accomplish the trick.

Unfortunately, the Mormon system really downplays these kinds of stories, or tries to explain them differently. After all, it has a free will system, so it doesn’t make sense for God either to harden someone’s heart or to cause them to believe. People have got to be able to choose for it to work well.

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4 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I simply point out that whether you intellectually assent to the notion that God exists or not, is ultimately a rather trivial matter and not the point of religion in the first place.

    I believe that Dick Cheney exists too.

    But that doesn’t mean I worship him, or even really like him very much.

    I would point out that whether or not you intellectually acknowledge that God exists is actually a very minor and trivial concern of biblical religion – if it’s a concern at all.

    In short – no one in heaven really cares if you’ve got the intellectual assent part down. Even Satan managed that much.

  2. Seth,

    The funny thing is that people always assume that if you have the intellectual assent down, then everything else falls into place. And this fits into a lot of ex-Mormon stories I hear. Something of a, “I never liked the church’s rules/commandments/etc., but since I believed God to be real and the church to be true, I followed them anyway.”

    • Seth R. permalink

      Exactly, it’s the basic assumption of religious fundamentalism.

      A mindset that a LOT of atheists and ex-Mormons actually fall squarely into.

    • For me it was more like some of the church’s teachings went against my natural inclinations (I mean towards things like equality, individuality, and freedom), and I mentally and emotionally twisted and contorted myself to try to conform myself to those teachings. So the pit of real despair that opened up in my mind when I realized that the way of life I’d devoted myself to for more than 20 years had no basis in reality was rather quickly filled by a joyous sense of freedom to be myself.

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