God Does Exist

beautifulmind3Last summer I spent entirely too much time in discussion groups arguing with people about whether or not gods exist. I say “gods” because there were several being debated. Of course, where I live, everyone safely assumes that only one particular deity is even on the table for discussion. But the internet can open you up to a much wider world.

For example, it was through participation in one of these groups that I learned just how silly and egocentric Pascal’s wager really is. I learned this when a Muslim chided me for not honoring Muhammed, warning me that I would be punished for eternity if I did not capitulate. He cited Pascal’s wager and told me that the downside to not believing in Allah and Muhammed was so great that if there is even a slight possibility that I am wrong, it behooves me to go ahead and believe in him just in case. I found this deeply amusing, since I had been told exactly the same thing about believing in Jesus. Evidently I’m screwed either way. If I reject Muhammed then I go to Muslim Hell, but if I reject Jesus then I go to Christian Hell. It is, quite literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

For a while I couldn’t even figure out why I spent so much time debating people in that group. Nothing any of us said ever changed anyone’s minds. The whole thing was basically a mental exercise wherein all of us hashed through what we believe and why we believe it for our own benefit (I suppose) but no one “switched sides” at any point in the process. So why does anyone even participate? I kept at it for a while because I saw two or three potential benefits. First, there are “fencesitters” who need help thinking through where they are on the spectrum, and these discussions probably help them process things. Second, in a way it helps clear your own head. Talking through why you think the way you think can be a helpful analytical process, and it can help you work through any cognitive dissonance you may be experiencing. But most importantly for me, I felt like I needed the process in order to learn how to talk (and how not to talk) to people I love about the ideological differences that now separate us from each other. Call it practice. For that reason, I suppose it wasn’t a total loss.

Incidentally, that last point right there is something you must realize about me: Many people whom I love are devout evangelical Christians. That’s my background, and my friends and family are very solidly in that camp. Oh sure, I could choose to become overtly antagonistic towards theism, and there’s no shortage of people telling me that’s the only appropriate response for an atheist. But those people clearly know nothing of my own personal life situation, and frankly it’s none of their business how I respond to the existence of faith in the world around me. I’m going to respond in the only way that’s appropriate for my situation, and that means first empathizing with faith and belief and reminding myself why it was that I ever believed in invisible spirits in the first place. Which brings me to the original reason for today’s post:

Yes, Virginia, God does exist.

He does. Or she does. Or it does. Or whatever version you were taught. They do exist. They exist because you make them exist. You were likely taught from your youngest days to believe in this entity, and some of you have spent a lifetime cultivating a way of thinking about and perceiving a world which includes this Being in the midst of it. You were taught to listen to the thoughts and feelings in your own head and consider that some of them may very well be this Person communicating with you, telling you things you should know. You’ve spent many years reading a text which you were told represents the right way to think about this person, and if you’ve had as long as I had, you were able to internalize its vocabulary and its thought forms until they became second nature to you. In short, you do experience this person as if s/he were a real person, and it won’t do anyone any good for anyone else to stand there and tell you s/he does not exist. That’s simply incorrect. S/He exists because you make her/him exist.

In the movie A Beautiful Mind (spoiler alert!), the protagonist spends decades relating to three people who he later discovers are figments of his own imagination. But he experienced them as if they were real. No amount of argumentation or explanation could help him see that these three people only existed in his imagination. And do you know why argumentation didn’t help? It’s because when you yourself are doing the work of creating a person in your own mind, nobody else but you can change your mind. Nobody. And it doesn’t do any good for someone else to argue that the person you’re experiencing doesn’t exist because to you, he does exist. He exists because you make him exist. In the end, our protagonist had to finally come to a realization himself that the three people he had grown to love and need were not aging in any perceivable way. One day it finally occurred to him that something didn’t add up about that. Real people age. These people didn’t. That finally did it for him. But nobody else but him could make him come to that realization. It had to be him.

That is why I don’t think a direct address of theism is ever very useful. I don’t see much point in trying to convince someone that gods don’t exist (even though I find it hard to resist trying it every once-in-a-while) because for them, they do exist. If I am right, and those deities are creations of their own minds, then no amount of argumentation will dissuade them. In fact, religious faith is often framed in such a way that its adherents are taught to believe things even when empirical observation seems to suggest the opposite of what they believe. Biblical faith in particular is praised in proportion to how much empirical evidence it ignores (see Noah, Abraham, Gideon, Elijah, etc). So a direct address of theism is frankly a waste of time.

The mind is a powerful thing. It’s powerful because it’s the means by which we perceive and process everything else. So as long as we believe that we’re supposed to see something (even if it’s not really there) we will see it. That’s why I love science. The scientific method teaches you to think about things differently, to question what you believe. If something cannot be verified through some reliable means outside your own head, it is immediately suspect. We are ingenious at fooling ourselves, so we need science to cut through all the figments of our own imaginations (even our collective imagination). But you should realize along the way that when you’re fighting a creation of someone else’s mind, you’re gonna lose. Only they can take on that task for themselves. And it takes time. So be patient. For them, God does exist.

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school Geometry teacher, a tutor, a swim coach, a father of five children, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil mostly writes now about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.

  • http://puddinsilovemylife.blogspot.com/ Tonya Richard

    This is how I deal with everyone around me who still believes, which is pretty much everyone I know! When I have tried to argue, they get almost frantic. This belief is very important to them, and I won’t be the one to try and take it away. My goal is to try and persuade them to at least practice their faith in a way that doesn’t hurt or trample on the rights of people who believe differently. My biggest argument with my very kind and compassionate believing mother is about the love and acceptance of gay people and people like me, who no longer believe in her god. If we can get believers to at least stop acting like bigots, I will feel like the collective we accomplished something. Quite a task in the religion soaked South!

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog, I very much relate to your journey. It is very different being an atheist in a place that takes belief in the Christian god as a given.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Thanks, Tonya. It’s a different kind of world down here in Dixieland. People who don’t live here just don’t get it.

  • http://gravatar.com/ignoranthuman ignoranthuman

    Well this is a change of pace. Normally, you relegate the anti-theism crowd to the “it takes all types” argument, but now you are clearly coming out against them.

    I don’t think a direct rebuttal of theism is a waste of time. However, you must consider your audience. This is the great thing about books and YouTube. It allows theists to consider anti-theism discussions without having to fear damage to their reputations either with the other debaters, or within their own religious community.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      I do think there are formats (certainly not an interview in a church like I did in the video) which lend themselves to a more theoretical discussion, and in that format you can be more direct. Even there, though, there’s a fine line between forthrightness and rudeness. Accounting for that, I agree with you. I shouldn’t have said there’s no value to direct address of theism…I should have qualified it a bit.

  • nviktorkol

    Daniel Quinn summarizes this by stating that we “cannot accurately put a number on the gods.” An atheist says there are zero gods, a monotheist – one god, polytheists – many gods, etc, ad nauseum… None of them are incorrect in their theological perspective.

    We know that the concept of a deity is an existential construct and not an objective reality. I accept that my family & some friends believe in the christian god and I accept that their faith is their rock/crutch/whatever. If/when they fall, I intend to being standing strong on my loving humanistic nature to catch them and help them understand that everything’s going to be okay.

    • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

      @nviktorkol

      “We know that the concept of a deity is an existential construct and not an objective reality.”

      It is true. The “concept of a deity” is a just that a concept. Even though the “concept” itself is an objective reality it is not the reality that it refers to.

      The finger pointing at the moon is just that, a finger.

  • Wendell Neal

    Very good synopsis. Not only do I agree, but would add that such discussions/debates have proven counterproductive in some cases with my being cast as satanic. And some of these folks are very bright people….they believe. As politicians know well, perception is reality. A lot of the views and commentary of my Christian friends on life, politics, social issues, etc. are not not only at odds with my views, some are offensive and downright stupid, leaving me with wondering how any thinking person could have such views. The answer to that rhetorical is always the same….the Christian mindset drives the thinking and does so no matter what evidence suggests otherwise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/missiscariot Alex Manuel

    I enjoy the fact that you’re not a strict ideologue, and I’ll wager it’s easier for those with different circumstances to demand that staunch, forthright atheism in all aspects of one’s existence is the only way to have a purposeful, honest life. I hate that sort of rigidity no matter what side of the theological fence they’re on.

    Human relationships matter. Everyone is driven by something different but, for each of us, powerful. What drives me is compassion and connection, so in that vein, I’m often divided between wanting everyone to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams (and it often makes me angry when people throw wrenches in the gears for people who aren’t like them), and wanting everyone to coexist and stop fighting each other. Sometimes I think a little piss and vinegar is good, and that you have to fight FOR people in some respects.

    Other times, I think bickering and fighting and focusing on differences is pointless. So far as I’m concerned, people can believe in whatever craziness they wish. All I truly want is for them to accept their limitations and stop trying to make everyone else abide by their beliefs. I think that’s a reasonable compromise and it doesn’t require anti-theism.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Well put. For most of us, all we really want is to be left alone—to no longer have other people’s beliefs forced upon us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.holifield.7 Kyle Holifield

    That is how I deal with one-on-one encounters. I still argue on-line, however, not because I think I can change the opponent’s mind, but because I believe that the silent observers will see their arguments contradicted and have a better chance of not shutting down the thought of possibly being wrong. Those people have a better chance at being persuaded because they have no ego at stake. Ego gets in the way, most, if not all of the time. I think on-line debates have a better chance of changing some minds, even if the debater’s mind has little chance of changing.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Interesting observation. That explains in part why I am more likely to let my inner debater out when I’m online. It’s a step removed from an in-your-face argument. Although I still think a whole bunch of people could learn some better manners.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com hausdorff

    Interesting post. I agree that the likelihood of changing someone’s mind is pretty low, especially at the time of the discussion. However, I always figure that you can get an idea into someone’s mind that they can think about later on. That played a huge part in my leaving Christianity. Of course, I never changed my mind during a discussion, I dug in like crazy. But if they made a good point it would stick in my brain and I would mull it over later, often on long drives.

    Another point is what Kyle said above, onlookers could see how poor an argument is. If they aren’t actually putting forth the argument themselves they should be a bit less emotionally involved and the chance that they can see how poor it is goes up.

    And finally, even if you don’t change someone’s mind, if you understand one another better I say it’s worth it. This one I get a lot, people will make claims like “all atheists think X” and I can say that some do, but others don’t.

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  • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

    @godlessindixie

    “The scientific method teaches you to think about things differently, to question what you believe. If something cannot be verified through some reliable means outside your own head, it is immediately suspect. ”

    I would suggest that the idea, “God does not exist”, is also inside your own head.

    “So be patient. For them, God does exist.”

    For “them” a variety of ideas about the nature of God exist. Those ideas, are often quite unsophisticated. This would be a limit of the individual not of God.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      “I would suggest that the idea, ‘God does not exist’, is also inside your own head.”

      Isn’t that true of EVERY idea, actually? My point isn’t where ideas exist; my point was that anything we say exists beyond our own ideas should have some kind of verifiable existence outside our own heads.

      • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

        “anything we say exists beyond our own ideas should have some kind of verifiable existence outside our own heads.”

        Who/what would be the audience for that?

        If the term “God” is problematic, what would you prefer?

        • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

          I would prefer things which have some existence outside our own heads.

          To my knowledge, invisible spirits don’t fall into that category.

      • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

        “I would prefer things which have some existence outside our own heads.”

        The “preference” itself resides somewhere. Is it more or less real than the tree outside your window?

        Our “heads” in relation to “God” are no more inside than outside.

        “To my knowledge, invisible spirits don’t fall into that category.”

        The Infinite Totality is not an “invisible spirit”. Conceiving of God as anything less than the Entirety, should be impossible. The majority of Christians, do their darndest to though. Putting God outside of Creation.

        Which, please consider, sounds a lot like “prefer(ing) things which have some existence outside our own heads.”

        I’m hoping that you don’t feel I’m attacking you. This point can be pretty elusive, but passing on, “God does not exist”, to our children, and leaving it at that, is as crippling as indoctrinating them with some of the religious nonsense that Atheists so rightly despair of.

        It might be better to say “God does not exist. God is existence.”, and leave it at that.

        • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

          But why insert the concept of “God” at all? Whence cometh this need in the first place?

          I hope to pass on much more than a negative to my children because I am not merely an atheist. I am also a Humanist. I value reason, critical thinking skills, science, community, cooperation, and civil discourse. These are great things to pass along. No religion necessary.

      • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

        “But why insert the concept of “God” at all?”

        A concept is not much use to anyone really. I’m more into the experiential side of the quest.

        “Whence cometh this need in the first place?”

        I think it is an instinct very similar and related to science. Man trying to live up to his full potential. An increasingly conscious engagement with evolution. etc.

        But that’s just me.

        Perhaps you know,… where in the DNA molecule does instinct express itself?, or,…what is self awareness all about? etc.

        Anyway, I’ve given it my best shot. I like your blog. Thank you for letting me participate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.c.amos Mark Amos

    Well said.

    I think understanding the need for god/religion may be useful. If we can, in some way, help fill that need, then the theist might need their god construct a little less…

  • Donald Butts

    Good blog. I quit trying to convince people that atheism is “the way, the truth, and the light,” (to borrow a phrase), a long time ago, since it only tends to raise barriers and close minds in most cases. It is sometimes possible, I suppose, to insert a seed in some believer’s mind, but in my experience the only way to come to atheism is through personal contemplation and reason. I often quote Darwin: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science.”

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ christian

    Often ministers tell people that go to witness its about planting the seed. I think as atheists this is our job too, to plant a seed of doubt. Unfortunatelly you can only plat it, as people will deny it until they are blue in the face. Its like you say about existence in the mind means you are fighting yourself. And fighting yourself is most difficult just like any ex-addict will tell you.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      It’s like Inception but for atheism. I like it :-D I’ll be thinking about it like that from now on. Thanks!

  • Lee

    “So far as I can remember there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.”

    ― Bertrand Russell

    I’m reading a lot of Mr. Russell right now and can’t get enough. I share the quote above to point out several recent personal encounters on this argument. When “confronted” with the fact that their close friend, child, spouse, etc. simply can not accept the supernatural beliefs they hold so dear, most believers (especially here in the South) simply fall apart or regurgitate the arguments you’ve noted in your post and refuse to have “intelligent” discussion about the matter.

    Herein rests what I believe to be a critical fault with any faith based set of beliefs; the simple observation that few (if any) religions hold “intelligence” as a central tenant, much less the process of intelligent discussion or some system of proof (i.e. scientific method). Everything rests on the individual’s “faith” in that religion’s key tenants or “rules” most often as explained in very poorly written stories complied over hundreds of years and hundreds of translations. I use what I call my “intelligence” radar when entering these types of “discussions” with theists. It goes off early and often and at it’s piercing alert, I withdraw the big guns and simply listen.

    One day, man will advance his understanding of this universe to a point where any intelligent being can not refuse the evidence and the world’s leaders will discount believer’s as the minority. Then we can quit wasting money, time, and effort on perpetuating the faith arguments and move on with perpetuating our race and improving our local situation.

    • brmckay

      @Lee

      “One day, man will advance his understanding of this universe to a point where any intelligent being can not refuse the evidence and the world’s leaders will discount believer’s as the minority. ”

      If, on advancing our understanding of the universe, it turns out to be sentient, would you then be obliged to “eat crow”?

      • Lee

        Absolutely!

    • Lee

      Just realized my post was intended to be in response to “Changing the Subject”. Doesn’t read entirely out of context though :)

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  • MIchael E

    I was an Evangelical for 40 years and a trained psychologist as well. I remember very well the point where the voice inside me stopped being real. I had spent several months in frantic research on the truths of the Bible which led to a horrific panic that it was all made up. I liken it to being married to a serial murderer and learning piece by piece about the evidence for my spouses guilt. Over and over I would rationalize away the data until it overcomes me in a giant wave. And once the wave comes over, everything that you have rationalized makes sense. And once you have reached that point, you can never go back. And at that point, the inner voice just goes out like a flame flickering out in the wind. The silence is deafening. When facing a tough meeting, the inner friend is no longer there. I described it to a friend as falling and falling with no bottom. For me, that took at least a year to get over. Occasionally I still miss that inner voice, but not that often.

    • http://brmckay.wordpress.com brmckay

      Just sounds like the shoebox got to small and burst at the seams.

      When you learn that Kindergarten is over, is the reasonable response to abandon school?

      This may not apply to you but I think that Christians especially have a hard time moving to deeper levels of contemplation. The dualism of the creator god is so completely foundational to the religion. When it comes time for more direct experience of the eternal Now, they have not been prepared. In fact probably preached against it.

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