A vast majority of believers, though probably not all, believed in God before they ever encountered any arguments for its existence. For obvious cultural and psychological reasons, the concept of God is intuitively understandable and believable for most children and by far most believers start believing in childhood. Even those who spend a short time as self-professed agnostics or atheists before returning to belief in God later quite often believed as children.
And not only do most believers in God believe independently of evidential arguments, a seemingly vast majority also seem wholly disinterested in subjecting their belief in God to evidential tests. Of course, many believers will provide appeals to evidence when pressured to do so by unbelievers (or even when just learning of our bewildering disbelief). But that is different than actually forming their own beliefs according to evidence. Most believers do not believe because of evidence, even if they pull out some arguments for those who seem to not understand what they take to be obvious.
This means that even though they offer evidence, their beliefs are actually independent of it. What is striking in this regard is the extent to which their beliefs are independent of evidence in two different directions. On the one hand, when their evidence is shown to be flimsy, they quite often show complete indifference to this fact. Very often they do not just ask for more time to consider an interesting objection or make a game effort at reformulating their premises so that they can be more persuasive. And nor do they insist that the disbeliever must be thinking irrationally to fail to see the strength of their evidence.
Rather, in a great many instances, believers simply abandon a rejected argument like an empty squirt gun which they didn’t really have all that much confidence in anyway and appeal straightaway to the supposed “need” for faith–as though this is a need for everyone and not just for them. They’ll tell the disbeliever the disbeliever just needs faith and often not just mean “it requires faith to believe this proposition that we just established evidence fails to prove” but, more strongly, “you require faith (period)”—as though there is something defective about the disbeliever since he or she is hung up on this whole evidence thing when normal people just accept things on faith like they’re supposed to.
And the even more remarkable manifestation of many believers’ indifference to evidence is the way that some will actively resist arguments for the existence of God—something I have discovered often, to my surprise, when teaching students arguments for the existence of God. The majority of my students are, of course, theists and yet when I explicitly advocate for the arguments for the existence of God so that they will understand them and take them seriously, they will often treat them as critically as any other arguments I make all semester, for any other propositions. They quite often have few compunctions about pointing out the problems with the arguments if they can spot them. And, yet, they just as frequently assert an unshakable belief in God nonetheless.
Of course this is not everyone. There are some students who will instantly endorse any argument that leads to the conclusion that God is real and instantly resist any argument to the contrary. And, more broadly speaking, there are some people who are what I would call “gnostic theists” who perceive their belief as being grounded enough on evidence to say they know there is a God and that atheists are wrong on demonstrable rational grounds.
Some of these people may even be the likeliest candidates for atheism should they ever be dissuaded of their views of the evidence. I was such a gnostic theist and even though being a gnostic theist made me come off as more confident and unshakable than most people, I ultimately was not. By fundamentally being more committed to evidence than any specific belief—even the belief which was the central organizing factor around which my entire social, intellectual, and psycho-sexual identities were built—I was fundamentally capable of dissuasion through the force of evidence and argument (nearly) alone.
While the gnostic theist may be in some respects firmer in their beliefs since they hold them as matters of knowledge which they will confidently defend while far more rarely trying to hide behind the (rather pathetic) shield of faith (with its completely illegitimate claim to make undermined beliefs intellectually/morally/spiritually/socially acceptable anyway). They are more combative and more assured, but also more accepting of the terms of rational belief and capable of deconverting.
But the person who has long ago waived any interest in evidence, or never had one and never will be persuadable to have one, may just be the most imperious to reason. And, ironically, it is this person who readily concedes reason nearly entirely to the atheist, either only half-heartedly offering evidential arguments or declaring arguments for the existence of God flawed or utterly irrelevant and beside the point. Maybe these people will push an evidential line with a fellow believer to shore up a wavering faith but when confronted with a no-bullshit sort of atheist, they pretty quickly drop the pretense altogether and stake their claim purely on faith. They assert their identity. They are a believer. This cannot be taken away from them with reason anymore than the color of their eyes or their place of birth could.
This distinction between the person who has genuinely hitched their belief in God to the evidence they perceive for God and who is capable of engaging counter-evidence with intellectual seriousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, the person who only gives the pretense of using evidential arguments but ultimately would never in a million years seriously countenance counter-evidence with an open-mind and who when pressed reveals that he does not even think there is actually any strictly rational reason to believe, is a major one that no one–either theist or atheist–seems to explicitly address.
But the distinction strikes me as crucial. And it is why I think it is worth it to classify them with different labels and I think it would be valuable if in the future atheists in arguments with theists would start to get their theistic interlocutors to specifically identify themselves and take a specific stance on the meaning and relevance of evidence and on what kind of endeavor they are engaged in.
We should ask our theistic conversation partners, “Are you appealing to evidence because you are really going to decide this question evidentially yourself or only because you realize I claim to care about evidence?” Or, to put it another way, “I’m offering you evidence and trying to honestly assess yours, but are you only interested in offering evidence but totally disinterested in taking mine seriously?” “Will you accept that evidence can decide this question or will you insist on the faith card on any and all points you lose?”
A few months ago an old theist friend probed me a few times (sometimes with something of a rude scold) for explanations of my atheism. When I finally answered her at length in a back and forth, she felt overwhelmed by the torrent of reasons for disbelief and, rightly enough, insisted on time to go investigate what I had said and get back to me. I insisted that she read sources I gave her and not only those friendly to her existing views and she agreed but told me in advance she would not be changing her mind based on anything she read. I told her not to bother then since she would only be wasting both our time. I only agreed to continue to debate the topic with her if she agreed to open her mind and heart to the possibility that she could change her mind if the evidence warranted. She accepted the challenge but I haven’t heard from her since.
There is a common saying, for which I cannot find attribution, which says, “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” While there is truth in this, I think by calling people’s attention to how they did come to their beliefs and how irrational it is to found their beliefs in such irrational manners we have the best shot, if any, of actually confronting and addressing them where their decisions about belief are truthfully made. Addressing their actual arguments if they are not already a rationalist, committed to evidence, is probably in most cases to be fooled by a distraction and waste our time.
One closing terminological suggestion. I have for some time now been advocating that we call the theist who rejects arguments for the existence of God as incapable of generating justified beliefs (either in principle or as a matter of fact) a kind of agnostic. While the person normally referred to as an agnostic simpliciter is one who abstains from embracing either theism or atheism, the agnostic’s essential characteristic is the rejection (either as a matter of principle about the limits of metaphysics or as a conclusion about the state of this particular metaphysical question) of the possibility of justified beliefs on the question of God.
While most people who view the epistemology of the God question in this way become atheists by default (and so are most accurately classified as “agnostic atheists” if you ask me), there are those who share this exact epistemology and nonetheless believe by faith. These people’s views of the epistemic status of the God question are actually the same as any other agnostic’s, traditionally conceived, despite the fact that they nonetheless affirm belief in God and even despite the fact that they often give vain, disingenuous pretense of offering arguments for God’s existence to those who seem to need them.
When actually pressed, they reveal that, just like any other agnostics, they reject the God question as one either settled or settleable according to evidence. And if these “agnostic theists” are ever going to be persuaded or dissuaded of anything, it would behoove us to start right there, labeling and engaging them correctly from the start.
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