Part of One More Burning Bush
“The number of elderly Japanese who fell victim to scam phone calls from purportedly needy relatives surged in the last two months of last year, taking the total amount defrauded last year to over US$40 million, police said yesterday. There were 2,486 reported cases of the scam, in which a young man calls his elderly prey pretending to be a son or grandson in trouble and saying ‘It’s me’ instead of giving a name, in November and December, the National Police Agency said. There were 6,504 cases in all of last year, with losses hitting US$40.7 million, 40 percent of which was snared in the last two months of the year, it said.”
—from a January 30, 2004 article in the Taipei Times
Imagine you are at home one day when you hear a knock at the door. You open it to see an unfamiliar person standing on your front step.
“I need your help,” he says as soon as you open the door. “I have to borrow ten thousand dollars. Will you please give it to me?”
Now, ten thousand dollars is a lot of money – definitely not the kind of money you would just give, without a second thought, to any random stranger who asks. By emptying out your savings, you might be able to come up with it if you really had to, but if you’re going to loan out that much money, you’d appreciate some assurances that it will be paid back.
If this person was a relative or a close friend, someone you’ve come to trust through long and close personal association, you’d probably loan them the money without hesitation. Even if it was a stranger, you might be inclined to loan him the money, if his need was great and you were the especially altruistic sort. But in either case, you’re certainly not just going to give him the money and let him walk away without giving you identification or any solid assurance that you’ll be repaid; no rational person would. So you ask.
“I’m a compassionate person,” you say (presumably you are compassionate), “and I’m always ready to help a fellow human being in need. But what you’ve requested is a major commitment, one I certainly can’t give away to just any anonymous person who asks. As much as it pains me to say this, I have to have assurance that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person. I’d like to be able to trust you, but I need to establish a basis for that trust. I’m sure you understand and would do the same thing in my place if our positions were reversed. Can you please prove to me who you are? And what assurance can you give me that you’ll repay me in due time?”
Evidently this was the wrong thing to say. Your visitor puffs himself up and points an angry finger at you, his face reddening with rage.
“Don’t you know who I am?” he says menacingly. “I’m telling you my word is good; that should be enough for you. Listen, I already stopped at your neighbors’ house and they were happy to loan me some money, so you should be too. I’ve already given you all the evidence you need to make a decision. I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops proving my identity to everyone I ask to loan me money! Now you’d better give me what I asked for, or else bad things will happen to you.”
What would you do in this situation? Would you let this stranger walk away with ten thousand dollars of your money, without showing you any identification or offering any proof of his intent or ability to repay you?
As an atheist, I am in a comparable situation. The human representatives of God encourage me to make a huge, lifelong commitment to the beliefs they advocate, without giving me any convincing reason to accept their claims as true and trustworthy or solid evidence that my commitment will be repaid. This is a leap I cannot make. No rational person would give away his life savings to a stranger without convincing proof of that stranger’s identity and willingness to pay them back; similarly, before believing in the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon, or any other religious text, I need assurance that the being described in that book exists and is who the book says he is.
Some believers scorn atheists’ requests for solid, indisputable evidence for the existence of God as presumptuous, stating that the infinite, almighty creator of the universe, if such a being exists, is under no obligation to prove that fact to mere human beings. That is true enough, as far as it goes. But if God exists and wants us to believe in him and do certain things, then it is not presumptuous to ask for definite evidence of that. Is it presumptuous to have standards of evidence for accepting a claim? Is it arrogant to have criteria that can be used to judge whether an assertion is true or not? Is it overproud not to believe everything and anything we are told? Certainly not. Rather, what would be arrogant would be to have such confidence in our own ability to perceive truth that we declare ourselves fully justified in believing whatever proposition strikes our fancy, without a set of objective rules for evaluating whether that proposition is true. And to use such an unreliable, subjective standard to justify giving away our life savings – or our lives themselves – to an anonymous stranger would be foolhardy in the extreme. (Even if you knew nothing about the outcome of their decision, would you judge the elderly Japanese people who gave money to a stranger based on nothing but his claim of “It’s me” to have been acting wisely or foolishly?)
Most believers would probably agree that it is sound policy to ask for proof of identity from humans who make such requests, while asserting that God has the right to bypass those evidentiary standards. However, this is circular reasoning: whether there is a god who is making such a request of us is precisely what is in question! A proposition cannot be assumed and taken as evidence in favor of itself. Even if it is true that there is a god who is faithful and trustworthy and never lies, any entity who speaks to us through evangelists or scripture or any other means must still prove that he is that god before belief in him is justified. (This point seems to have been lost on, for example, John Bunyan, the seventeenth-century evangelist who authored the famous Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. When the title character is asked why he believes in the Bible, he answers that it is because “…it was made by him that cannot lie”. Either Bunyan did not notice the blatant circularity of this, or else he was confident that his readers would not question it.)
In reference to this, consider again the parable of the loan. Would you accept your visitor’s insistence that he was trustworthy as sufficient evidence to justify loaning him the money he asked for? Would you give in and give him the money if he angrily declared that he, and not you, was the one who had the sole right to set the standards by which his trustworthiness could be judged? Of course, no rational person would do this, because we understand that the person of whom a request is made is the one who has the right to set the conditions for meeting that request.
Given, then, that we are within our rights to ask for proof of trustworthiness from any stranger asking a great commitment of us, the natural follow-up question is, what form could such proof take? And how could the answer to this question be reflected in trying to decide whether a given religion is true?
The first step in establishing a relationship of trust would probably be for the would-be recipient of the loan to prove his identity by showing some document verifying his name and place of residence. Of course, there is nothing analogous which a deity could present, but if a supernatural being appeared to me I would accept that being’s declaration of its own identity provided it could back that claim up by displaying its supernatural power. This is a simple, rational standard: If anyone does not believe that I exist and I wish to persuade them otherwise, I can show up on their doorstep and identify myself, and for any skill or ability I claim to have, I can offer a demonstration. Why should gods be held to a different standard?
The second step in coming to trust your visitor would be for him to explain why he needed the money. After all, when giving a large loan to a stranger, ethically speaking it is important to ensure that they have a legitimate use for it. Similarly, if a god demanded of me not just mere belief in its existence, but worship, I would feel justified in asking what purpose such an activity served and why it desired it, and refusing to give my assent if I was not given a satisfactory answer. Believers often picture the relationship between human beings and God as one-sided, with God entitled to demand anything he wants of us and we entitled to nothing in return, not even a reason for why God wants what he wants. However, as this essay has argued, since God is the one asking us to make the commitment, we are entitled to ask for something in return – and a reason is the least we can ask for.
The final step in establishing a relationship of trust is for the visitor to demonstrate that he is worth the risk you are taking in lending him the money, worth the opportunity cost you pay by giving it up. What is needed, in other words, is assurance that your loan will be repaid in kind.
What would count as suitable evidence of this trustworthiness? For a human being, the best evidence would probably be testimonials – affirmations from independent parties with no reason to lie that they made similar commitments to this person and were paid back in full. A deity could provide this type of evidence, at least in those traditions that believe in an afterlife, by allowing skeptics to speak to those who have died believers to confirm that they received the reward they were promised. However, a supernatural being could presumably provide even stronger, first-hand evidence by allowing prospective believers to visit or experience the afterlife themselves. (All three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – contain stories about people being transported to Heaven while alive.)
Proof of identity, proof of good intent, and proof of trustworthiness – these three things are the essential elements of a relationship of trust that must exist before a rational person will make a major commitment to an unknown party. I feel strongly that even religious believers would concede that, if faced with a human being asking for such a commitment, these conditions are rational and reasonable. The question then becomes, why should we apply different standards to representatives of a religion? If we feel justified in asking for proof when it comes to something so mundane and terrestrial as a loan of money, why should the self-appointed spokesmen of God get a free pass? Indeed, when the stakes are as potentially high as the eternal fate of one’s soul, the standards should be even more stringent. No one should have to make a decision of such weighty import based on anything less than the very best evidence. And in the absence of such evidence that would allow us to decide in favor of one religion, logically we must remain with the default choice – atheism.
At this point, I must defend a potential objection to the parable of the loan. Some readers might feel they have identified a flaw either in the parable or in an atheist’s reasoning, based on the following: in real life, we often do trust people who are strangers to us based on nothing but the assurances of friends and loved ones. Can this type of trust be carried over into the question of atheism versus theism? If a person we have come to trust through long and close association invites us to join a religion he claims to know is true, is the most rational course of action to take him up on this offer?
My answer is that we, as rational people, probably would use an associate’s assurances as grounds to trust a stranger – but only in small things, not in large ones. We might loan a stranger, say, fifty dollars on a friend’s say-so (which would correspond to agreeing to attend church once with a friend or relative, or reading a book of apologetics they suggest – perfectly rational steps), but I speculate that most people would not deliver up their savings account or sign over the deed to their house to someone they had just met, even if friends or relatives vouch for him. And the question of which religion to believe in, if any, is a large commitment, not a small one, as explained above. (I firmly believe that the question of our place in the universe is the most important issue any person will confront in their lifetime – and this is just as true for an atheist as it is for a theist.) In any case, we are always justified in asking our associates to explain their reasons for trusting a person, so we can weigh the evidence and come to our own conclusion rather than just accepting their word for it.
However, the parable as I have presented it so far is flawed in a more fundamental way: namely, there is not just one religion demanding our allegiance. To extend the metaphor to fully mirror real life, you would have to open your front door to see a crowd of hundreds of strangers gathered outside your house, each one loudly demanding to borrow a great sum of money, most proclaiming that they were the only trustworthy person and all the rest were scam artists and con men, some threatening to burn down your house or worse if you did not give the money to him and him alone, and quite a few fighting viciously with each other. How would a reasonable person ever make a decision in this situation? Would a reasonable person even make a decision in this situation? Or, barring some clear factor that makes one member of the crowd stand out from all the others, would not the most rational course of action be to simply ignore them all and shut the door?
Proof of identity, proof of good intent, and proof of trustworthiness are the three basic conditions that must be met before reasonable consent can be given to any major request from an unfamiliar party, whether that party is asking for a loan of money or for a lifetime of service and devotion to a specific god; and in the absence of these things, the only reasonable response is to turn down the request. That is the point of the parable of the loan. These conditions do not place any onerous extra demands on the petitioner; in fact, they are the most basic, necessary and fundamental ones possible if one wishes to make a wise decision. And yet, proselytizers so often plead that we should forego these requirements, or insist that asking for them is somehow unreasonable. They are, in effect, making requests of atheists that are identical to the requests made of the elderly Japanese people, except that the caller identifies himself as “I am who I am” rather than “It’s me”. How can a sound decision possibly be made on such a basis?
If God exists and wants us to believe in him, why would he not take the steps needed to prove his existence and trustworthiness? Clearly it is not because it is too difficult for him, or because it costs him anything – for a being with unlimited supernatural power, fulfilling the requests listed above costs nothing at all. The only remaining option, assuming such a being exists, is because he chooses not to, because he expects us to believe based on faith. However, as this essay has argued, this too is unsatisfactory. We cannot possibly be expected to give assent to an offer without solid reasons to do so. A request for credentials is the mark of a wise and discerning servant, not the sign of a disloyal lack of faith, and a rational, intelligent being would understand this and would not ask us to decide without providing compelling evidence first. And yet, such evidence has not been provided. The most reasonable and likely answer to this problem of divine hiddenness, the lesson taught by this parable of the loan, is that no such being exists.