The handy dandy guide to converting me

The handy dandy guide to converting me July 12, 2010

Thanks to all the theists who spoke up on last week’s post and told what evidence might convince them that their religion was false.  As promised, this week’s challenge takes the opposite tack, asking what could convince atheists that a particular religion was true.  As always, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu.

While kneeling in the pew at Mass one week, I tried to imagine what I would require to be converted to Catholicism. I imagined Jesus (or God, I wasn’t picky) appearing in church and magically fusing my knees to the kneelers, refusing to let me rise until I acknowledged him as Lord (I was cribbing liberally from the story of Zacharia being struck dumb in Luke chapter one).

Most of my first thoughts about being converted followed this pattern. The time I got hit with a few drops of holy water while the priest was sprinkling the congregation during Easter Mass and I discreetly checked (in a spirit of scientific investigation) whether I had been burned or marked in any way.

My heightened attention during services for Pentecost and the week when the readings featured Doubting Thomas, both of which seemed like appropriate weeks for any kind of God with a flair for the dramatic to make a personal appearance. The trouble was, when I thought about my reaction in any of these circumstances, it didn’t feel at all like joyful submission.

Every example I thought of was of a god (or any supernatural being) demonstrating puissance, not love. If confronted by these paranormal proofs I would willingly concede that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. If the pyrotechnics display were good enough, there were pretty good odds that I would knuckle under and follow what precepts I was given.

In this case, my conversion would be an act of obedience, not fealty. Any relationship with God I would have would be shaped by fear, not trust. I would not be confident of God’s goodness, merely convinced that he was an awful lot bigger than me and was holding all the thunderbolts. This picture of religion is exactly the type that deserves Lucifer’s contemptuous Non serviam.

It’s hard for me to imagine a single, spectacular event that could compell me to convert, particularly as I’ve done so much reading on pervasive biases and unreliable witnesses to trust myself that far.  After all, famed skeptic Michael Shermer had his own alien abduction experience during a long distance cycling race.  In the moment, his hallucinations felt just as real as any other part of his experience. So for the most part, personal experience ranks as very weak proof, if it counts at all.

Part of the trouble is that a proof of God’s existence must carry with it proofs of God’s character.  To prove that unicorns exist, I need simply trot one out and let you examine it closely enough to satisfy yourself that the horn was naturally affixed.  A God’s defining properties are not nearly so easily observed.  I’m not really offering possible disproofs of atheism here so much as evidence that would be less likely to occur in an atheistic world. After some consideration, I decided that the following events, if they occured, would make me feel more than a little agnostic:

  • If one of my skeptical friends converted.  If a friend with whom I am mostly in agreement with on everything from epidemiology to ethics became a Christian, then apparently the faith is less in conflict with many of my first principles than I thought.
  • I am not likely to be convinced by the claim that religion is a better explanation of the world as we know it.  As Ptolemy’s increasingly convoluted orbits show us, it is easy to to twist a model to fit any data set.  The reason scientific claims are compelling is because they accurately predict data that we do not yet have access to.  If a religion frequently made claims that kept being bourne out, even though they could have no prior knowledge of outcomes, I would be able to take its explanatory power more seriously.
  • If the religious rituals I attended seemed to become a positive and potent force in my life.  Several writers who converted to Catholicism from other forms of Christianity talk about their yearning for the Eucharist and feelings of awe at being in the Presence of the Host.  This is not a feeling I share when I attend Mass.  If I began to develop those kinds of feelings, with no apparent cause, that would be reason to doubt.

Those are the most plausible avenues for conversion that occured to me, but I’d be very curious to hear what other atheists might find to be compelling evidence or what proved to be compelling for converts.


What kind of personal experiences might cause you to conclude that a God exists?

Is it possible to become familiar with an entity’s character without a previously existing personal relationship with that entity?

What is the strongest evidence that you believe currently exists for theism?

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