Jim Wallace was discussing the possibility of eternal life with an atheist, and I thought some of her response were very helpful to understand why some people are atheists.
Jim asks whether it is worth her time to investigate the God question.
“No, I don’t think it’s worth my investigation. I also don’t think I should spend my time investigating UFO’s, zombies, or Big Foot. I hate things that require lots of time and thought where you are virtually guaranteed not to accomplish anything or get a definitive answer.“
Jim asks her why she is coming to conclusions before examining the evidence.
“Well,” she said, “you are assuming people meet god; that’s a pretty big leap too. Who do you know who has met him? And I think most believers do so blindly; I don’t believe most of those people do any scholarly inquiry and draw conclusions based on evidence. They believe what they raised on, like me, or what they want to believe.“
That’s the genetic fallacy, discredit a belief because of the origin of that belief, instead of whether the belief is true or false.
Jim then writes this:
“The fact that people believe what they were raised to believe,” I countered, “does not amount to a real argument. It’s a variant of the genetic fallacy. You’re trying to prove why believers might be wrong – they just were raised that way – without first proving that they are wrong. So, if I told you that I believed the earth was flat, and I was raised that way, you wouldn’t just shrug your shoulders and say I’m entitled to that belief. You would show me evidence that the earth is round and expect me to use reason to conform my view to the evidence. If I told you that you were entitled to that belief but you just believed it because you were raised by some round earthers and you never saw the whole earth so you couldn’t really know, then… you’d start to see how I feel.”
“One last analogy. Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know those things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that its really bad for you. You respond, ‘see, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe. Plus, other things can kill me too, so why should I worry about cigarettes? Or, maybe you say that even if I am right, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who won’t be hurt by it.
Do you see that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”
And here is her response:
“Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad/wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the ‘answer’ to many of these things is unknowable. At one time it would have been totally unacceptable to all of society for a mother to work and put a child in daycare 10 hours a day. Now, 10 hours of daycare is the norm. I get that most people think that daycare schedule is fine, but I don’t. I make up my own mind by doing what feels right. Have you ever considered that the answer doesn’t matter? Maybe the search is the whole point and maybe I am done already and you’re just slow.
I don’t think you can prove God like you can prove that the world is round. To prove the world was really round and have everyone believe, we needed real-time pictures from space. Bring me a picture of god and we’ll talk.”
Jim then replies to her.
So what do we get from this? Well, here are the five reasons she gave. 1) she knows in advance, before investigating, that there is no definitive answer to the question of whether God exists, 2) people believe what they are raised to believe and want to believe, including her, so your beliefs aren’t under the control of evidence anyway, 3) facts change all the time so it’s pointless to try reasoning about what is true on the basis of what the facts are today – so I don’t really care what anyone in authority says since they all change their minds the next day anyway, 4) I don’t think anyone can construct an argument for God’s existence based on evidence, 5) the burden of proof is on others to show me the evidence for God, I don’t have to look into myself, my job is to do what feels right to me, and I don’t conduct any inquiries into the evidence that might override what feels right to me.
How can you know in advance of inquiry that there is no definitive answer? You can only assume that there is no definitive answer, since you admit that you haven’t looked into it yourself. And this person seems to have made the decision without evidence that there is no definite answer, and that looking into it is not worth her time and effort. What I am trying to emphasize is that those are decisions. And you can be held responsible for making decisions. Notice how she is able to get around the authority of someone who talks about the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, just by saying that expert opinions change all the time, so no expert has to be listened to, (unless it feels right to her). In fact, she is not even aware of these arguments, but she has already pre-judged them as less authoritative than her feelings.
So often, we Christians get caught in the trap of judging atheists based on whether they do good deeds, by which we mean, they make other people feel good – they are nice. We neglect to ask whether they are being good to God – by puzzling about his existence and character, and by regularly dialoging with believers to see if they might not be mistaken. Heaven is for people who desire God, and who spend time studying the evidence so that they can make an informed decision about his existence and character. Heaven is not for people who are content doing what feels right to them without any desire to know what God thinks about it, because they just don’t think his existence and character is important at all. To me this is just another way of saying, I want to do what feels good and learning that there is another person there might override my right to do what feels good, so I don’t want to know whether there is another person there.
When you see atheists like Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens get that deer in the headlights look the first time they hear William Lane Craig’s arguments in a debate, and his citing of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support his premises, it becomes immediately clear that these people are not atheists because they know God doesn’t exist, but because they don’t want God to exist. And avoiding the arguments for Christian theism is an important part of keeping God, and his moral demands on us, at a safe distance.
What does the Bible say? Look at the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I think that the first part of loving God if you are not sure he is there is to have an open mind about his existence and character, and a willingness to re-prioritize your life in case he is there and has a personality different from yours. People have a rational obligation to conduct an inquiry without pre-judging what the outcome will be. If God exists and Jesus rose from the dead, then people ought to care what Jesus thought about things.
I think that non-Christians understand what Christianity would require of them if it were true – radical abandonment to God’s calling on their lives. And they turn away from investigating the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus precisely in order to keep their freedom to do what they feel is right, without having to care about conforming their will to an objective state of affairs where there is another person there that they have to care about. Whatever guilty feelings they have for doing this can be dealt with by adopting a new moral standard, maybe involving recycling, vegetarianism, animal rights activism and yoga. Whatever it takes to make the people around them call them “good”, so that they feel good. Do what feels right, don’t worry about what is true – that’s too much work and we don’t want to find out anything that’s going to take away our ability to do what feels right – to us.