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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  • Aristarchus

    The experiences you suggest definitely wouldn't cause me to question anything. I already know that any number of atheists convert to various religions all the time, some of whom probably agreed with me a lot beforehand. I'd want to hear their reason for converting, since it's possible they have some sort of new argument I hadn't heard before, but if their argument isn't convincing (which it probably wouldn't be) then I'd just write them off as one more semi-rational person who still makes mistakes. I also don't doubt that religious rituals have emotional power for many. That seems to me like some of the worst possible evidence for God. (Why would it be convincing if it happened to you, when knowing it happens to millions of others all the time isn't convincing?)I also don't care that much about the nature of God. Once someone proved he did exist, I would see no reason to default to him being bad, so pretty weak evidence might convince me that he's probably good.To be convinced that a god or gods existed, I would need to see some sort of proof of supernatural powers. If someone came to me in a dream and made very specific, unlikely predictions, that I wrote down and talked about at the time, and then those things happened, that would be evidence. (If the event was sufficiently unlikely to be true by chance, it might be strong enough evidence for me to really question my belief.) If the Pope or someone was able to make predictions of this sort that routinely came true, that would probably also work. Similarly, if the holy book of some religion had such clear and correct prophecies, or if it had revealed some extensive new scientific knowledge, that might work. I need actual proof of the supernatural, not just proof that the idea of the supernatural is appealing to many people (myself included).

  • Sarah

    Hello!First your criteria, then mine.#1 surprised me. Do you really know people whose beliefs match yours well enough that this would work? I'm trying to think of some for me, and I can't do it. I already know people who believe in God and also believe in the basic moral and descriptive principles that are important to me, the difference is more about the way we understand how those things fit together. Sure, it would be interesting if, say, an ultra-staunch atheist friend converted, but unless he were able to make me see what made sense about his new beliefs, it would tell me more about him than about my own perception of the truth of religion.#2 actually feels more like the scenario you described in your lead-up, about being "forced" to believe in God. Yeah, I guess I would have to believe in God if the existence of God predicted facts in the world, but that doesn't feel particularly religious to me. That data wouldn't be enough to give me a coherent new spiritual view, and so I still wouldn't want to obey God or love God or whatever.#3 makes the most sense to me as a criterion. Personally, though, I already have feelings when I do Jewish stuff, occasionally even spiritual feelings–it's just that they aren't particularly God-directed.So, here's my (related) criterion. Right now, I believe in a lot of things that are associated with belief in God: the truth of morality, the overwhelming value of human-ness, the goodness of the universe, etc. It's just that I can't figure out how to fit an entity that acts into all that. If that started to make sense to me, then I would believe in God. How might that happen? Well, I already know some Jews whose spirituality is only marginally more entity-like than mine (ahem: Yishai, among others), but who are able to conceptualize that spirituality as "God" anyway. Maybe if I did a lot more reading, thinking, and practicing in Judaism I would start doing that too. But maybe not, this God entity is a really weird concept for me.

  • Thanks for your comments, Aristarchus and Sarah! Aristarchus, I think the two of us are thinking about how evidence of supernatural events would impact our worldviews very differently. My explanation is a little long for a comments thread, so I’ll try to put up a brief post fleshing this out later today.Aristarchus, you’re certainly right that (sadly) “any number of atheists convert to various religions all the time” which I why I specified an atheist I knew well and had been very much in agreement with. If we both have the same basic approaches to evaluating evidence and have access to the same evidence, we should come to the same conclusion (I’m drawing on the Aumann's agreement theorem, which is well worth a look). If a very rational atheist friend of mine converted, I now have weak evidence against two propositions. The argument that there is no god became a little weaker, and the argument that my friend is a good (Bayesian) reasoner is also weakened. Now I have to look at the other evidence for both propositions and see if one now lies below the critical threshold for belief.The example may be of more use to people who know me personally, like Sarah, but here goes. If my friend Jason P____ became a Christian, I would be shocked and, because of the intellectual respect I have for him, I would feel compelled to give his sect a second look. (Obviously, this goes out the window if there is compelling evidence that this is a rationality lapse, i.e. a sudden general credulity that has also led him to believe UFO hoaxes or become a sudden proponent of birtherism).

  • @Aristarchus,The longer follow up I promised is posted here: God's Place in a Supernatural BestiaryLet me know if this clarifies.

  • Aristarchus

    I'll respond to the other post over there, but on the friends converting thing:You're right that one of two events had to happen – either their rationality failed, or they found really good evidence. The first event, however, seems to me to be massively more likely. People are not rational computation machines. I'm pretty smart, but I know myself well enough to know that I behave irrationally in certain circumstances. I've read enough psychology to know that there are things hardwired into our brains (some directly related to religious feeling) that are meant to override rational decision making. I know a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me, but I have seen all of them espouse beliefs or take actions that are clearly irrational. The amount of society-wide propaganda, pseudo-intellectual argumentation, and brainwashing that occurs in support of religion is astounding. It means that even most very intelligent people are somewhat religious (in the US at least). The bottom line, I guess, is that my prior belief that they were rational can't ever be so complete that they could change my mind on something I had considered carefully purely through my respect for their opinion. They'd have to actually explain to me why they changed their mind, and I'd evaluate that on my own, as I would any other argument. (It's definitely an argument I would feel is worth my time to listen to, but that's about all the special significance I'd give it.)

  • This being the first post I have read, my questions and comments very easily could have been addressed in other postings, and if so, please inform and ignore this comment, but if not, I would be very interested in hearing your response.What is your definition of God? Is it a person living in the sky with powers greater than President Obama? Is it Alanis Morissette coming to Earth at our time of need? Or is it simply human nature?It is very easy to point of the stupidity of religion (of course Jesus could not walk on water, it's a story, along with everything else in the bible), but religion has given many hope in times of struggle, it has kept people, towns, societies, and nations bound together, and some say it is a fundamental need for our species, being of such high intelligence and rather minimal knowledge.And perhaps another way to think about the validity of religion would be see others doing good in the spirit of a religion. If you left your wallet in a cab and the driver found the wallet, looked at the ID, and returned it to you, all in the name of his religion, would that convince you that religion has purpose? Is that moment when the cab driver decided to return your wallet and not keep it for himself evidence that God exists?So to summarize, what is your definition of God?

  • I wonder if about anything could do it. I've typically thrown out the typical 'amputee healed in front of me via a request in the name of Jesus and timed perfectly with a clap of the hands from the requester' but you bring up a great point about the difference between power/existence and character.To believe in god's character given that I've become far more aware of OT difficulties when it comes to reconciling OT god and NT Jesus, I would probably have to become a modern day Paul.- Strong initial encounter like you described- Some form of continued revelation and instruction (Paul, who never met Jesus, put together the most theology about him of anyone, even eye witnesses)- Some personal interaction which affected my life in a powerful way (instructions to talk so so and so and ask them about an area of their lives I couldn't know of otherwise, etc.).I mean, I think it really comes down to establishing that god has me 'in the palm of his hand.' I would want to be on mission for him and, thus, would need some direct input.But then one needs to examine the lives of 'strong' Christians. They do believe that god is doing this in their lives through scripture and words in prayer, etc. I know friends that prophesy at prayer meetings (I attend those prayer meetings), claim to have witnessed healings and promptings, etc. So, is it just that this doesn't/hasn't happened to us? Or are they using coincidence to reaffirm prior presuppositions?

  • Anonymous

    You are missing the point. All of you. Faith has nothing to do with proof, in fact Christian texts, such as the gospels, repeatedly point out that 'proof' is not the point. If you wanted to investigate religion from this angle the appropriate thing to do is completely give up on trying to discern it using 'proof' and reason.I say this as an atheist who has recently decided to try Catholicism for a while, maybe I'll let you know how that turns out!

  • @AnonymousI don't think I know what you're suggesting in lieu of discernment by 'proof' and reason. What are you trying in your exploration of Catholicism, Anonymous?

  • @Anon:"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, emphasis mine)Weird. So why did Luke care so much about establishing certainty about these things?

  • Interesting site. I saw a comment of yours on Mark Shea's blog and followed it over here. I am also an observant agnostic. I attend mass, but don't believe any of it. (I used to, and it's somewhat of a "you've made your bed now lie in it" sort of thing.) But to your question, I think religious belief is different than you've described it. I think what makes people convert (into our out of faith) is a somewhat comprehensive view that a particular perspective explains the world better. For example, if what you heard in the sermons at mass seemed to give you a new insight into human psychology, and if you started to see how it worked in real life, that might incline you towards belief. Of course this is horribly unlikely because most sermons are useless tripe, but … you get the idea. Or, again, let's say you started to see that unbelief seemed more like kind of petulant, childish rebelliousness than an honest pursuit of truth. That might influence you.

  • I just read this post …… and it highlights what I mean in my comment above. People convert because the new perspective seems to make more sense of life.

  • There is only one correct answer to the question, "What would God have to do to change your mind?"The answer is: "If it really is God, then He already knows."If somebody is asking you why you don't believe in an omnipotent, omniscient being who wants you to believe in Him, then the obvious and correct answer can only be, "Because He doesn't want me to." God, having made you, already knows exactly what it would take to change your mind. So the fact that He hasn't can only mean He doesn't want to, which means He doesn't want you to believe. After all, somebody has to fill out the waiting list in Hell.Note that this does not go the other way: the theist does not get to avoid answering what would change his mind, because the atheist is not positing a omnipotent, omniscient being who wants you to stop believing. The atheist is the one who wants you to stop, and he wants it for perfectly simple, rational reasons (which he should be happy to explain). Ergo, he deserves a rational answer.

  • Remember the burden of proof is always on the god-worshipers. They are the ones asking you to suspend the scientific method for faith.

  • LKJ

    Reply to MCPlank's post. As Leah herself has pointed out, God's direct presence would only inspire fearful obedience if we haven't come to know Him and His love via freely chosen interactions on our part. Which would subvert His ultimate goal. CS Lewis says it better than I can. Excerpt From the Screwtape Letters Chapter 8(Enemy in the context of this letter is God, Us/We are Demons/Satan)MY DEAR WORMWOOD,So you “have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away”, have you?… The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. To decide what the best use of it is, … you must ask what use the Enemy wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. … our aim is the absorption of its (human) will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because … the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.But of course the troughs afford opportunities to our side also. …SCREWTAPEC. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. (HarperCollins, 2001)

  • When you ask, "How can I know if there is a God?", I wonder if you are also asking how you know other things. You know you yourself exist, because there is your stream of thought as evidence,(Descartes,cogito ergo sum) but how do you know anything else? If nothing is in the mind which has not been in the senses(Locke, I think) (which in itself is an assumption) then how can you trust your senses? How do you know that what they deliver to your mind, and how your mind shapes and interprets them, is actually what they are? If your mind is a brain in a skull case, you have no access to what is, only to a version of what is conditioned by your senses. True, the world as conditioned by your senses is orderly and predictable to a degree, but being able to predict is not the same as access to the essence of things. Furthermore, do you know that there is any reality to any value, belief, or experience you have which goes beyond prediction that appearance A will lead to appearance B? Is there any reality to your feeling that a sunset, say, is beautiful? Why does light refracting off dust particles at a certain angle create in you anything more than thoughts about angles of incidence and refraction and absorbed and reflected spectra? Stars, waterfalls, great trees, and the art human beings have created in an attempt to capture and mirror their beauty, how are they beautiful? How can the concept of beauty have any meaning? And how did this universe in which nothing exists except particles acting according to fixed laws, give rise to a being who experiences beauty? How did this universe in which nothing exists except particles acting according to fixed laws give rise to a being who asks why she experiences beauty? to be continuedSusan Peterson

  • Of course "nothing exists except particles acting according to fixed laws" (Francis Bacon) is an antiquated physics, and we now have not only waves and forces which act at a distance without an exchange of particles, and probability theory, and the uncertainty principle, and an understanding that at a certain degree of complexity predictability wanes. Somewhere in that fuzz of complex unpredictability is supposed to lie the origin of living organisms, which temporarily and with ultimate futility, reverse entropy. Does this more complex physics really account satisfactorily for beings who experience beauty? for beings who ask why they exist, and what is the purpose of their lives? Does it account for beings who ask why there is anything at all rather than nothing? And can it tell us why there is anything at all rather than nothing?(Heidegger) Not how anything at all came to be, a difficult enough question, but why? For what purpose? Is there a purpose? Does the idea of purpose have any meaning with respect to everything which is? But if not, if everything which is, produced human beings, why is it that we are driven to ask for purpose? Do our questions have any meaning? There is no doubt that thoughtful human beings have been asking "Why do I exist?" and "Why does anything exist" for thousands of years. All men by nature desire to know, (although most men desire other things more)(Aristotle) and what they desire to know with most intensity is the causes of things, and of the causes they most desire to know "that for the sake of which" something comes about. Yet according to the universe of 'science' alone, the universe of particles acting according to fixed laws, as amended by forces, uncertainty and complexity, there is no meaning to such questions unless they can be resolved into functional questions and into questions of what things are made of and how they physically affect each other. Ultimately, in that world, there is no meaning to such questions. If that world is all that is, and please linger for a moment on "is", and we attribute the emergence of beings who ask such questions to the effects of complexity, a sort of side effect of the complexity needed for survival by intelligence, we are left thinking that the ultimate questions for us, the ones which really drive us, have no meaning. We ask of the universe "Why are you?" and "Why am I?" and it does not answer, but its silence means "Your question has no meaning." What manner of beings are we then, whose desire to know springs forth into a universe which cannot answer it? We are strangers in our own world, aliens. And nothing is left for us but "to observe the strange vegetation of that waterless desert where the confines of thought have been reached." (Camus) So what we can predict, that apples dropped will fall to the ground, we know only as conditioned by our senses and the frame of our understanding, not absolutely and in essence. And why we experience beauty, or how it is that we have come to be such that we ask that question, we cannot answer. There is no answer. This is the world of what you are calling reason-I do not say at all that it is reason-and where it leaves us. (And by the way that would also gives inadequate ground for the values of morality and character to which you appear to adhere, but this post is already too long.) If you saw water in that waterless desert, where the confines of thought have been reached, would it be a mirage? Susan Peterson

  • Very interesting. I’m simply curious to hear your take on the following:

    If evolution is true, and all humans are advanced animals, WHY has every culture, differing in every way imaginable, and separated by barriers or time and space, found a god to worship?

    From pagan African jungles to North America to Europe to Malasia to China to the Middle East, all history we have access to FROM THE BEGINNING OF TIME to the present has and does worhip some god(s).

    From what does this desire for deity spring, if not from some Higher Power that planted it in the soul of man?

    • leahlibresco

      The most obvious answer to me is that humans tend to overattribute events to agents.

  • Darren

    Well, two years late, but I shall give it a go.
    To begin, I identify myself as a Simulationist, which right off the bat puts any absolute knowledge of, well, anything right out the window. Objective morality, the existence of God, the existence of mater, Cause and Effect, Reason, all are suspect. However, I am also a pragmatist (or at least, not a suicidal lunatic). True, the bus may not really exist, but according to all the laws of the reality that I appear to be in, stepping in front of it will be a very painful experience. So I don’t. Until such time as I know different, I shall assume that Reason is more or less valid, that Cause and Effect do (sort of) exist, that Reality is, in short, real.
    Now, that said, what might convince me that God exists, that he has more or less the characteristics ascribed to him (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc.)?
    Primarily, I would have to say “Informed Consent”.
    So, we are to believe that some all powerful being created the whole of existence, that he created humanity, that we are obligated through no fault of our own to obey his laws, that our very nature as created by God and again through no fault of our own (thank you, Adam) means we are absolutely incapable of obeying God’s laws, and aha, there you have it, caught dead to rights and into the lake of fire we go for all eternity… Unless we sign up for the Get Out of Hell Free card, free for the asking, but you do get to spend the rest of your life groveling and shouting “We’re not worthy”, and of course 10% of the gross wouldn’t hurt, you know, for God’s work and all.
    But, it gets worse. There are multiple competing examples of this story, each one exclusive, and at most only one of them can be right… Pascal’s wager my rear end… Two by two matrix? More like a 32 by 32 matrix…
    So, where exactly did I sign up for this?
    You could not legally sell someone a washing machine in this country under those terms, or enlist them in the Army, or sign them up for clinical trials, or accept a blood donation. But it is OK for the most Just being in the entire universe? I think not.
    So, if tomorrow morning, I were to awake and find the Jesus Christ himself was standing there, with a stack of forms, and the Owner’s manual for Darren’s Life in hand, and he spent the next week following me around, and answering all of my questions about Life, The Universe, and Everything, and how all of creation is actually Just, despite appearances, and then gave me a choice, sign on the dotted line or evaporate from existence…
    Well, the most reasonable conclusion would be that I had gone completely insane.
    Now, if the same exact thing were happening to all 6 billion plus inhabitants of Earth, all at the same time, all visible to everyone else?
    Well, again, I would assume that I was insane.
    But, after a little while, and when Jesus did not evaporate, I would have to conclude that this was really the way the world worked, or at least appeared to work, then I would happily sign on the dotted line.
    Now, for an infinite being, this task would be trivial. This would also not violate free will, as I would have the free choice, should I find the idea of Christianity and eternity in Heaven so repugnant, to simply evaporate into a cloud of insensate neutrinos. Something like this would also, I think, be about the minimum to qualify as Fair. God says, “Welcome to my universe. These are the rules. Play nice or you are free to leave.”
    I think that would just about do it.