Sarada is currently waiting rather a long time for a book called ‘How To Argue With An Atheist’. It’s unclear whether this book is part of a series along with ‘How To Argue With A Racist’. If it is, I would expect it to be along partly the same lines as that book, which presents evidence in a logical fashion to dismantle the concept of a biological basis to ethnicity. All of that is very interesting of course, but unfortunately probably more interesting to someone who is anti-racist and therefore already persuaded. As I said in the post covering that work, it was disappointing because it didn’t address the actual problem it purported to. People don’t believe things for logical reasons, and as the book itself admitted when it quoted Swift, you can’t argue a person out of a position not arrived at rationally by using reason (he put it a lot better than I did of course). People very often believe things they want to believe, and the reasons they want to believe them tend to be things like, it helps them identify with other people and feel they’re part of a community, or they want to feel a sense of certainty, or perhaps that they haven’t wasted their lives persisting in folly which has had quite a big impact on how their lives have gone. On the other hand, many atheists do seem to believe they have arrived at their beliefs via rational means and who am I to contradict them? Except that I’m not clear if most of the things we hold dear are rational whether or not they’re true, and therefore it would be odd if atheists, being people, were atheist as a result of logical thought any more than we theists believe in God for logical reasons. Frequently, we probably believe in God because we’re surrounded by other people who also believe in God, or we may feel a lack of control over our lives and therefore find prayer helpful because it gives us hope. Incidentally, that feeling of powerlessness is accurate, whether we’re theist or not.
It’s entirely possible that I am a brain in a vat being fed hallucinatory impressions of a version of a Universe which doesn’t exist. It’s equally feasible that I am the only conscious being and that “everyone” else is a mindless zombie. It’s also possible that life is a dream or that the world was created last Thursday with fake memories in everyone’s heads to make it seem like it’s older. On the whole, someone who believed any of these things and acted upon them, or more likely didn’t act because they’d consider action pointless in such circumstances, would be sectionable, and it would probably be a good idea for them to be sectioned as they’d probably put themselves in danger by giving up eating and drinking or trying to fly off the top of a high building. Hence on the whole we do accept a whole load of suppositions about reality based on faith. We believe, for instance, that the world has existed since long before we were born, that we are examples of conscious beings among others in a physical world, and that we’re awake and perceiving things fairly accurately. In particular, we tend to assume that our nearest and dearest are not mere automata. It would in fact be quite rude to act on a belief that another person was a mere thing with no faults and feelings, and it would also be considered manipulative and coercive to try to persuade someone that someone else was, as the current terminology has it, a “Non-Player Character” – the lights are on but nobody is home. The Numbskulls have left the building, as it were. For us theists, God can be as real to us as our closest friends and significant others. To be fair, most atheists are just that. Atheism is nothing other than the belief that no supreme supernatural person exists. Believing that does not imply that one act on that belief or that one wishes to disabuse others of their opposing belief. Nonetheless there are also anti-theistic atheists, who do, with considerable reason, believe that theistic religious faith is positively harmful to society. But to be as patronising as possible to theists, it could be cruel to disabuse a child’s belief in her imaginary friend, and the possession of that belief may fulfil some kind of function for her. Perhaps she’s an only child with few real friends. Likewise, if you believe I too have an imaginary friend as an adult, how do you know that that “person” doesn’t serve some function in my psyche? I have seen people lay into recently bereaved theists who also believe in an afterlife (the two do not necessarily go together and one can also believe in an afterlife without believing in God of course) to tell them there’s no God and their mother’s corpse is worm food because she ceased to exist when she died, in a brutal, callous fashion. This kind of approach is not helpful, unlikely to persuade anyone and seems to be more about a rigid principle of asserting that God does not exist for the sake of the person who is uttering it than anything positive. This is not a made-up example incidentally. I’ve seen it happen more than once. But of course such people are not representative of most atheists, or even most anti-theist atheists, even proselytising ones.
This last example can be turned round as “how not to argue with a theist”. Don’t argue with a theist when they are at their highest emotional need for their belief, and don’t argue to make yourself feel better or superior. Likewise, for a theist, don’t argue with an atheist when they are in a similar state. Don’t argue, for example, with a gay atheist who has just been harangued by a manic street preacher about their homosexuality, and don’t take that tone with them either. If you’ve been through a lifetime of homophobia and have been told that if you express love who you are automatically inclined to, God will inflict eternal infinite suffering on both of you for doing so, it’s hardly surprising that you’ve stopped believing in God, partly because it’s an absurd proposition that a supposedly loving God would do that. This emphasises the fact that a fair amount of the time, it’s we theists who are to blame for a former theist becoming atheist. It’s our fault. Consequently we might not even be the right people to argue with such atheists, and in any case it may be more about living by example and allowing God to express love and compassion towards someone rather than actually talking about religious doctrine.
Nonetheless, I do in fact have several arguments I tend to use to support my theism when asked. Before I come to them though, I want to talk about something rather than tangential: what I would probably believe if were I not theist. Because for me the position is not theism vs. atheism but theism vs. ignosticism, also known as theological non-cognitivism, and also to some extent theism and atheism vs. agnosticism. You don’t hear the word “ignosticism” very often, but it’s basically the position that religious language is neither true nor false but nonsensical. It’s like the famous “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. Well, do they? Likewise a statement such as “there is a God” seems to presume that we know what we mean when we say the word, that it’s rigorously defined in a coherent manner. Maybe it isn’t. Moreover, not only might it not be, but also the idea that it isn’t, in spiritual terms that God is beyond the comprehension of a finite mind or, adopting the via negativa, that God can only be said not to be certain things rather than to have certain attributes, is actually a pretty respectable mystical idea held by people whom outsiders are likely to think of as theists. Hence I’m not just playing games when I say if I wasn’t theist I’d be ignostic. In a sense I’m already there, and that position is less confrontational and less opposed to atheism than might be thought.
Even so, I do believe God exists, and when I say God I mean the unique omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient supreme supernatural being who holds reality in existence and is not dependent on the physical Universe, who interacts with human beings and loves us. That’s the God I believe in and am in a relationship with. That doesn’t make me superior in any way to anyone else. It’s just a fact. Moreover, I may as well be honest and say I just am going to believe in such a God anyway and that my belief is likely to be recalcitrant to attempts, however rational, to persuade me otherwise. If you want a reason for my theism, I would offer you the following: it’s the result of a coping strategy as a young child deployed to handle separation anxiety. If my parents were absent as a toddler, I would reassure myself that there was a supernatural being who took care of me and soothed my fears. There you go: I obviously wasn’t there in the ’60s because this is a personal memory from that decade. And I would say, furthermore, that I think this is probably the cause of many other people’s theism: our God is an ersatz parent imagined to help us cope with being in a cot in a dark room whose parents were nowhere to be seen. That doesn’t, however, mean that God doesn’t exist. We can after all hit on a true conclusion by pure chance. There is more to say about this though. Muslims have a concept of “fiṭrah”, which is the belief that we are all born with the innate knowledge that a single God exists and is good. Freud seemed to believe something slightly similar: that we begin with “infantile omnipotence”, that we are the Universe, and that only later do we become aware of things we can’t control. It’s always seemed entirely feasible to me that such things are true, and therefore that the assertion made by certain atheists that all babies are born atheist is incorrect. This is going to need some unpacking.
Atheism is, to quote the 2000 edition of the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief”. Although the last clause concerns differentiating the position from agnosticism, the most interesting aspect of this definition, in a secular philosophical encyclopedia with no theological axe to grind, is that it is an actual conscious belief that there is no God. It isn’t enough to have grown up in Albania under Enver Hoxha, for example, and simply never to have been introduced to the idea of God – I’m guessing this was so there but maybe not, so substitute the imaginary regime of your choice if you like. That would be a person who simply lacks a belief in God, like I lack belief in something I’ve never thought about such as the contents of an arbitrary chest of drawers in Ulan Bator. It’s a completely respectable scientific position to assert that a new born baby isn’t even a conscious being, although I don’t agree with it. If you assert that a non-conscious object such as a neonate is atheist, it follows that that chest of drawers I just mentioned is also atheist, and that’s a somewhat peculiar thing to believe. Something which entirely lacks beliefs of any kind is somehow co-opted into the community of atheists, and that to me seems like projection. We don’t remember early infancy, and we can just as well project theism onto a person at that stage in their existence as we can atheism. Hence my separation anxiety motivated theism is not less valid than any atheism. Maybe it emerged from my own infantile omnipotence or my fiṭrah and I just parcelled off a bit of reality, of which I was already aware, and labelled it “God”. And it is God. Hence the reason I believe in God is that God has caused me to believe in God. God could arrange us to perceive of the divine in such situations. It isn’t necessary to the process conceptually, nor is it ruled out. And fine, you can prefer the psychological explanation, and that is also doubtless correct. It doesn’t contradict the existence of God though.
Somewhat related to this is the sense of the numinous people tend to have. We generally have a strong sense of the spiritual. Even my strongly atheist ex has this, which she associates with beautiful rural scenery. This illustrates that what Paul Tillich calls “Ultimate Concern”, in an attempt to be non-commital about its essence. Ultimate Concern is the numinous or holy, distinct from any profane reality. Hence it can include such things as the nation state for fascists and the coming communist utopia for Marxists, but also the usual things associated with religion such as God, enlightenment or the Dao. We have various senses, and those senses are sometimes mistaken. For instance, dreams are at most alternate perceptions of reality to waking life, and there are other examples such as the tingling of a limb one has slept on, the ringing of tinnitus or the visual impression of an afterimage. However, there seem to be no examples of senses which never have objective stimuli. Therefore, if the sense of the numinous is literally a sense, it would be highly anomalous if it never had such a stimulus, in the form of what I would painfully call God if forced to give it a name, to paraphrase the ‘Dao De Jing’. There is, though, a pretty obvious flaw in this argument, namely that the sense of the numinous may only be a sense in metaphorical terms. This sense is fairly easy to induce by the use of electromagnetic fields on the temporal lobe of the brain, and some people have a temporal lobe condition called Geschwind Syndrome which seems to involve persistent or repetitive religiosity. I personally think Paul’s Road to Damascus experience was a temporal lobe seizure, but this has no adverse affect on my belief because to me that was just one way God talks to us, so it would be. Some religious people would deny this, but why?
Evolution is true. Consequently, it’s fairly common for inefficiently organised aspects of the body to be selected against since they’re a waste of energy and reduce fitness. This has not happened with the sense of the numinous, so it seems to have adaptive value. Either that or it has yet to be selected against. This doesn’t entail that God exists, but to me it suggests that religious belief serves a biological function and also that the belief some anti-theist atheists have that religion has been superceded and can be eliminated is an unwarranted leap of faith. Even if this facility is not influential or doesn’t exist at all, the psychological bonding aspect of ritual and belief means that irrational beliefs which arise in groups due to happenstance will sometimes be retained and come to serve a function. The idea that religion even can be eliminated seems to be based on the supposition that people are primarily rational animals and can function well without it. I think it’s pretty clear that what actually happens is that people develop new beliefs to serve that function as time goes by if they are no longer able to reconcile their previous religious faith, such as in flying saucers or fortune-telling. It just is going to happen because that’s what people are like.
Another aspect of evolution being true is the oddity of a line of primates living on the Afrikan savannah developing the ability to do decorative embroidery, drive cars and understand nuclear physics. None of that seems to follow from the ability to forage for berries and insects in a tropical grassland or to chase antelopes until they’re exhausted and then slit their throats with a sharpened stone. Clearly organisms are flexible and don’t just follow the rules like computers, but I have to say that, though it irks me, this capacity we have is a bit strange and unnecessary. It might also mean we’re completely wrong about everything, and in fact in scientific terms, maybe we are, but is that the hand of God? I don’t know. Just seems a bit suspicious, is all. By the way, this is the only concession I make to the Design Argument for God’s existence. Nothing else suggests that to me: the Universe is indeed fine-tuned for us in terms of physical laws, constants, number of dimensions and so on, but that just suggests there are a load of other universes with different properties which are completely empty or rather boring. Humans evolved on a possibly unusual planet in an unusual galaxy and may have been extraordinarily lucky to exist at all, but the Universe is a big place with countless stars and planets in it and it’s easily possible, though infinitely depressing, that we’re the only example of intelligent life in it, so that doesn’t imply anything either. And so on.
Finally, there’s prayer, and there are good rational and psychological reasons to believe in this. My case for prayer is this: if one prays for something specific, that will be followed by events which are improbable in ways relevant to the topic about which one has prayed. There is of course the element of pareidolia to be considered – we may be seeing patterns which aren’t there, as our brains are wont to find, like constellations for example. Improbable events also happen all the time anyway, and we may be engaging in cherry-picking, choosing to ignore all the times it doesn’t happen. I can give examples from my own life, but I don’t need to because you the reader can just pray and see what happens. However, even if prayer works it doesn’t mean there’s a God, because for all we know we might simply be generating some kind of psionic force like a Poltergeist with our minds, or perhaps doing so as a religious community such as a church, to achieve the same ends. But the trouble with this belief is that it’s arrogant and likely to lead to delusions of grandeur, so it makes more sense to attribute prayer to an external force simply for the sake of sanity.
None of these are clinching arguments by any means. Nor do we have clinching arguments for all the other stuff I mentioned at the start. Maybe life is a dream and everyone else is a robot, maybe we’re all brains in a vat which sprang into existence from nothing last Thursday. Or maybe we are the products of millions of years of evolution living in a society consisting of conscious individuals acting with a purpose. Likewise, maybe God doesn’t exist because of all the counterarguments to my arguments, which are in any case not that strong. Or, maybe God exists, and even if there is no God, it might still be either inevitable that one tends to acquire irrational beliefs, so why not this one?
But of course there is a God.