How to talk to a true believer

How to talk to a true believer October 9, 2013

I think this blog has failed to do something it could do reasonably well: Help literal Bible-believers and non-believers to understand each other.

There are too many stereotypes flying around on both sides (notably with both atheists and self-professed fundamentalists accusing each other of stupidity), and I think I have sometimes taken the lazy route of treating fundamentalism as ridiculous. The truth is that when you believe the Bible literally, it does form a coherent worldview. There are tensions and difficulties with it, but that’s true of all worldviews, and usually we’re all blind to the faults in our own belief systems.
This is not me going soft. I certainly will not stop supporting the victims of abuse. This is just me saying “We’re not getting anywhere by attacking each other.” I want to join Adam Laats in saying “why can’t we all just get along?
I had a message the other day from one of my oldest friends. It said (in part):
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is calling you back to Himself. It is time to stand up and be counted.

The seed which He put in you, even as a young boy the things that He spoke into your heart, He wants to bring to pass.

You have calling, you have purpose, you have destiny, and as you read this now, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Open your Bible Jonny, take a deeper look! Allow His love to carry you, allow His grace to keep you. When everything has turned to dust, what remains true is God Almighty. He is calling you!

Now, I could say a lot of things about this, but I’m only going to say one: The idea that I just don’t think God exists is incomprehensible to my friend.

Some atheists consider the concept of God to be logically contradictory and incomprehensible. This is theological non-cognitivism, brilliantly illustrated by my friend The Singing Duck:

God exists ≈ I will grapefruit my talons when I triangle
God exists ≈ I will grapefruit my talons when I triangle

What atheists often fail to understand is that to believers like my friend, atheism is non-cognitive. The existence of God is just obvious. It is beyond question because it is one of those assumptions that is necessary to function. I can’t prove that the future will be like the past, but I still don’t jump out of high windows because in the past, people who tried found that it ended badly. I can’t prove that human senses aren’t deceiving us about the nature of the real world, but assuming sensory information is accurate allows me to exist. For many Christians, belief in God is in this class.

I didn’t know about presuppositional apologetics when I was younger, but I suppose I was more or less a presuppositionalist. The existence of God was just a lens through which I made sense of the world. When you think like that, you see God everywhere, “sustaining all things by his word”. It then becomes absurd not to believe. 

These days I don’t think we should lump “the existence of God” into the same class of ideas as “my senses are trustworthy”, because I can conceive of another way of looking at the world. If I decided my senses were untrustworthy and therefore ignored the visual signals warning me of an oncoming car, I would die. If I decided it is not rational to assume that the world will continue to operate much as it always has, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. But I can stop thinking God is there, and the world continues to spin on its axis. That, I think, should stop us from taking the existence of God for granted.

Alright, philosophical detour over.

Because it didn’t make sense to my friend that I simply wouldn’t believe in God, her message says “you know what I’m talking about!” Having grown up in that spiritual milieu, I can guess that she was thinking either that I was “running from God” or that I was “angry at God”. That’s what we used to say about pretty much all “backsliders”. And, well, they both sort of imply that I must be stupid.

Running from God

I always believed that God is everywhere. The only realm where God is not, inside or outside of this universe, is hell. By all accounts, hell is not an especially welcoming place, and only an idiot would want to go there. Therefore only an idiot would run from God.

Angry at God

This probably makes more sense to my atheist readers. They would say that an all knowing and all powerful God who allows suffering deserves anger. But to a believer, this position again makes no sense. God is good. God is the definition of good; there is no goodness outside of God, and there is no evil within Him. If I believe God exists, I’d have to be stupid to be angry at Him. Especially since being angry at God is a sin, and sin has ugly consequences.

So, I am not “running from God”. I am not “angry at God”. I just don’t think God is there. To my old friends, this is very hard to understand because the existence of God is just basic common sense. They feel God in everything, so to them I’m just denying what I know to be true. They think this is true for everyone, but it’s especially true for me because I used to be one of them.

All this doesn’t mean that anyone else is stupid for believing in God. I went to see Alom Shaha speak at the weekend, and he made this point very well. We all have narratives that we use to make sense of our lives. That’s not to say all narratives are equal; I haven’t become a relativist. But when we realise that emotional and social reasons play as much of a role in shaping our beliefs as rational ones, we can become a lot less judgemental of each other.

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