What evidence would convert an atheist?
A while back, I read a topic on a private board…the topic question was: Question about Religion/Atheism.
…I ignored the fact that the alternative to atheism isn’t religion, and the alternative to religion isn’t atheism, but I wasn’t prepared for what the topic would come with next:
As a religious person, would you stop believing in God if there was irrefutable proof that he didn’t exist
As an atheist, would you start believing in God if there was irrefutable evidence that he did.
I feel like for the most part atheists would begin believing
but the same wouldn’t be true for religious people.
I was a bit dumbstruck at the presumption of this argument, and a bit dumbstruck at a lot of things here…and as a result, in the end, I clicked out of the topic and didn’t think much about it.
As it was linked, I read Steve Zara’s and P.Z. Myers’ answers first, and oh, how ashamed I was to be even loosely associated with these figures!
If you hadn’t figured out, I am not really on-board with Zara’s and Myers’ answers, at least, at face value. They take the position that there is no possibility of evidence to convince them that God exists.
…all of my (admittedly minimal) work is frustrated! My message is simple: atheists are people who simply do not believe gods exist. We are not convinced or persuaded or compelled to believe God exists. That doesn’t mean we believe God is “impossible,” but simply that we are not convinced that he/she/it/they is/are actual.
But nope; for PZ and Steve, things are different.
Reading into Myers’ and Zara’s arguments further, I can tease out a slightly more palatable reasoning…they write that there is no possible evidence that could convince them God exists because God has been pre-defined as something that defies such evidence. As Zara writes:
God isn’t like a mythical beast. God isn’t a dragon, a unicorn, a hippogriff. Such a beast could potentially be seen, examined, and proclaimed real. Its mythical status lost, the biologists could get to work. They would be surprised, but would have something to deal with. They would have evidence: scales, wings and flames do indeed mean dragon. That’s clear enough.
God isn’t an alien. Arthur C Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What he did not say is that such technology actually is magic. What Clarke said has great power, as it implies that we are almost certainly unable to recognise magic, as we have no understanding of the limits of technology. And now we start to see the problem: with such ignorance, what evidence could there be that we are seeing the supernatural and not the unknown natural?
I guess I didn’t get the memo…because for me, the question here becomes, “What’s to stop God from being the unknown natural? If the “supernatural” represents a maximal (or in some way superlative) class of nature that we do not understand, then would that deprive God of Godness?”
These kinds of concerns run throughout my reading of Myers’ and Zara’s arguments…they seem content to dismiss particular constructions of God because they do not fit against their bias of what a god should be (e.g., if Christians would not accept, say, that God could be material or an advanced natural being, then any thing that portends to be a god but is material or natural cannot be god — I think Greta Christina address this well at AlterNet when she points out that Myers is “focusing too much on existing religions, gods that people currently believe in, and on whether any of those could ever provide any evidence that would persuade him”)…and then wave away other constructions as incoherent or unintelligible (e.g., what does “ground of being” even mean? I probably haven’t thought about it much, so I’ll say it’s meaningless.) As a result, every construction becomes not just unbelievable but also theoretically untenable…and voila, there becomes no possibility for evidence that could show God’s existence.
…Fortunately, Why Evolution is True author Jerry Coyne came back with something that lowered my blood pressure back to somewhat reasonable levels.
First, though, I find it curious that an atheist would assert, a priori, thatnothing could make him believe in a god. While some atheists may assert simply that there is no god, most of us claim that we see no evidence for a god, and that’s why we don’t believe. But to make a statement like that presumes that there could be some evidence that would make you accept God’s existence.
I have a few quibbles with his later using Dawkins’ “atheism scale”…but mostly because I believe it assumes too much about people’s comforts with assigning probability. (If one admits one doesn’t know God doesn’t or does exist…how then does one go and say, “But I’m pretty sure I know that God probably doesn’t exist?”) Additionally, I feel most people — including Coyne — assume too much about what would or wouldn’t convince them. (E.g., what is “some evidence.”)
As for me, I can’t stake out what objective event would convince. I can state, more vaguely, I could be converted with personally persuasive evidence. What does that look like? I would assume a god would know. I just know of too many instances where an event that took place, or a new fact learned, or a new idea played with ended up tipping one person over while serving as utterly uncompelling to another person. And I would certainly assume that a theoretical god who knew my heart could tug at the relevant heartstrings.