Earlier this month, Greta Christina published a piece on AlterNet, based on my essay “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists”, that listed things that would convince her of God’s existence. She also repeated the challenge I posed to theists – prove that your beliefs are falsifiable by posting a corresponding list of things that would convince you to become an atheist.
The AlterNet post got hundreds of comments, and netted a total of two responses. In this post, I’ll briefly analyze them both.
First, there’s this essay from Verbose Stoic. I left a comment on his site which is reprinted below, with minor edits:
I’ve reviewed this list, and I think that rather than meeting my challenge, it emphasizes the point I sought to make by raising it: for most theists, belief in God is a deliberately unfalsifiable construct that bears no relation to the real world.
Your first criterion is that you would accept it if your definition of God was shown to be self-contradictory – but you’ve more or less said that in that case, you would just change your definition and continue believing. Also, it’s not clear to me why mere logical consistency should be your standard for believing. There’s an infinite number of self-consistent, non-contradictory entities that nevertheless don’t actually exist – unicorns, leprechauns, minotaurs, mermaids, and so on. Why should God be treated according to a different standard?
Meanwhile, your second criterion is so vague as to be useless. You just say “prove that there exists something that is incompatible with the existence of God”, without any explanation of what that thing might be or how one would go about proving that it exists. You cite the problem of evil as one potential example, but clearly you’re already aware of the problem of evil and don’t consider it a persuasive disproof of God, and you don’t explain why not or how it would have to be different for you to accept it as such.
Ultimately, you conclude that probably nothing would ever convince you of God’s nonexistence (“The qualities of God are such that such disproofs just don’t work”, and “my agnosticism makes me skeptical that they would ever work”). That, of course, is exactly the point I wanted to make by writing my essay in the first place. Belief in God is unfalsifiable, not dependent on any evidence in the world, which means, as Sam Harris has said, it’s not really a belief about the world at all.
There’s also this post, from “allthedeadheroes”. My reply, originally sent via e-mail:
I have a couple of comments on this:
1. You said you would give up your belief if you received “Objective evidence that contradicts my theory of God.” But you also said that your belief can explicitly accommodate everything science discovers about the world. Would you therefore agree that this criterion is impossible to meet? If not, what sort of evidence would qualify as contradicting your theory of God?
2. You also listed, “Proof that my subjective beliefs were in some way bad for me or the people around me.” Would you consider it harmful to encourage people to come to conclusions about what exists in objective reality based on their subjective feelings and sensations? Because I certainly do. That same method of decision-making is what results in people believing that God wants holy war and theocracy, that he commands the oppression of women and gays, that he condones faith-based opposition to science – all because they “feel” strongly that this is what he wants of them. To put it another way, how would you address the issue of people using your same method – that of subjective feeling and experience – to come to entirely different, and undeniably harmful, conclusions?
What’s notable about both these replies, which I think stands in sharp contrast to Greta’s essay and mine, is how noticeably they avoid contact with the evidence. They’re based on definitions, subjective experiences, moral beliefs, philosophies – anything but the facts of the world. They’ll go to almost any length rather than make a clear evidentiary commitment to give up belief in God if some concrete, objective criterion is satisfied.
This is all the more noteworthy because, if these beliefs are rationally founded in the first place, it ought to be very easy for a theist to explain what would convince him to give them up. It ought to be a straightforward matter of applying the argument to the best explanation, as I explained in a further comment on Verbose Stoic:
…it is relatively easy for an atheist to say ‘If this happens, I’d believe in God’ because they can point to an event and use it as a positive proof. That doesn’t happen for the negative side of the ledger.”
I don’t agree that theists have a harder time than atheists in outlining what would change their minds. If you agree that evidence is the link to truth, then it seems to me that this task could be accomplished fairly easily: explain what evidence convinced you to believe in God, and then explain what further evidence would overturn your initial conclusions.
As an analogy, let’s say I believe in Bigfoot. Let’s also say my belief is premised on several different lines of evidence: videos of hairy man-shaped creatures in the woods, plaster casts of giant footprints in mud, and the testimonies of several eyewitnesses who claim that they saw an anthropoid beast lumber out of the forest and into their backyard.
Now let’s say the man who shot that video came forward to confess it was a hoax, created with the help of a friend, and produces a receipt for a costume shop dated the day the video was taken. Let’s say he produces clay sculptures of feet that fit the casts that were earlier produced. And let’s also say the house where the eyewitnesses live is proven to have been contaminated with ergot mold that would have produced vivid hallucinations in anyone living within.
Clearly, in this case, I no longer have reason to believe in Bigfoot. Every strand of evidence that links my belief to objective reality has been severed, and new evidence points to a better explanation that accounts for the prior evidence more convincingly than my former belief did. Now, I might continue to believe in Bigfoot regardless, asserting that the creature could still exist despite the failure of all the evidence. But, I hope we can agree, that would be irrational at that point.
I’m not suggesting that belief in God could only be overturned by the discovery of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive humanity. But I can readily conceive of the discovery of lines of evidence – in fact, I would argue that such evidence has already been discovered – which adds up to the same result. If you think the theist has the harder task here, I’d venture to say that it’s merely because theists, having constructed their beliefs so as to make them immune to disproof, are naturally at a loss when asked what would in fact disprove them.