How would it be if religious people were more honest?

FRIDAY, 15 JULY 2016

I was addicted to smoking cigarettes for about fourteen years. I had no illusions about the effects it had on my health. And, like other smokers, I was regularly confronted by people who regarded it as their duty to tell me that smoking was bad for me.

“Don’t you know that you can get lung cancer or emphysema?” these people would ask.

I know, I would say. Spare me the speech. I won’t even try to argue with you.

“If you know,” my well-meaning friend or relative would retort, “why on earth do you keep smoking then?”

Because, I would answer, I need it.

I believe there is a parallel between the conversation that smokers have with non-smokers and the conversation between atheists and theists over the latter’s faith.

Many so-called believers spare no effort trying to convince agnostics and atheists that there is more than enough proof for the existence of God (can be any divine figure, but let’s confine ourselves for the moment to the god of monotheists, and more specifically the Christian religion – hence the term “God” with a capital G). They will use science. They will quote famous scientists like Albert Einstein. They will refer to incidents and experiences in their own lives. They will try to catch opponents off guard. “What do you say now?” they will ask after some or other anecdote.

In fact, in the intellectual wrestling match between people who believe in the existence of God and people who do not believe in the existence of God, the former has the uphill battle. The only question the non-believer has to ask is “How do you know?”

If someone claims that water boils at a certain temperature, and someone else looks at him in disbelief and asks how he knows that, the one who has made the claim can simply put a pot of water on a hot plate, stick in a thermometer and – voila! – within minutes the claim will be proven as fact. If the other person argues that it was a fluke, they can do it again, or even better – the “non-believer” can perform the experiment himself, with exactly the same result.

“How do you know God exists?” is a problem question for believers because they cannot prove the existence of God. They say they can prove it, but not with the same certainty that it can be proven that water boils at a certain temperature. The existence of God can simply not be proven. Not that the challenge deters many believers.

It is at this point where I want to return to the smoker who says: I know. You can’t tell me anything.

Rather than getting hot under the collar and quoting everyone from Plato to Einstein and talking about the complexity of the fly’s eye and the heat of the sun to try to prove that God exists, I wonder how it will work out if a believer simply stands back and says: “I know. You can’t tell me anything. I’ve read Sam Harris’ End of Faith. I’ve read Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion. I’ve read Hawking. I’ve seen plenty of Christopher Hitchens videos on YouTube. I know exactly what you’re going to tell me. And I can’t really say much to counter it. I can’t prove the existence of God like I can prove that water boils at a certain temperature. I mean, I can tell you about times when I’ve prayed, and that certain things happened that I saw as proof that God had heard my prayer and decided to intervene. But again, I know you’re going to talk about confirmation bias and so on. I have to be honest: I see your point. The onus is definitely on me to say why I believe in the existence of God, and I can’t say anything that will satisfy you. I completely understand your arguments.”

Why do you believe then, if you cannot prove that what you believe in is true, the non-believer will ask.

“Because, I need to believe,” the believer will reply. “I want to believe. I really hope with all my heart that God exists, and that there is life after death.”

Okay, the non-believer will say, but if what you say is true, if the God of Moses and Jesus and Paul really exists, and there is life after death, what do you think will happen to agnostics and atheists and other people who base their beliefs on reason and science and logic? What will happen to people like me?

“To be honest with you,” the person of faith will start, “I don’t know. I believe in a merciful god, a god who does not need for people to confirm his existence. The god that I believe in is not an insecure god. So for all I know, in a hundred years’ time you and I will both be in paradise chatting away about something else.”

Why not? Why is the above such an impossible position for so many followers of the Christian religion to take?

Is it because it requires modesty? Is modesty not a Fruit of the Spirit? And if a person who self-identifies as Christian has such a big problem being modest, can he or she really assert that they are Christian – or is it not that simple?

Is it because many Christians believe in a god who is angry? Is it because they believe in a god who wants to punish, in a god who created people to test them? And that he punishes people when they fail? Believe, or I will punish you? Believe in the right way or face the consequences?

Is that why believers get so angry with atheists – because the latter dare to not believe in the right way?

How would it be if Christians were more honest, to other people and to themselves? If they do not harbour an unholy fear of the malicious atheist, but see him or her as just another vulnerable human being who tries to make sense of their life and the world around them? How will it work for the Christian if he or she replies to questions from non-believers with an honest, “I don’t know”? If they admit that they believe because they want to believe? If they have to admit that they believe because they need to believe? If they have to admit that an impersonal cosmos without God is just too lonely, and without purpose and meaning? If they have to admit that they believe because they hope that what they believe is true, even if they cannot prove a single thing?

Is it not true that the believer and the atheist and all grades of believers and non-believers in between are all human beings who just try to make it through another day and night?

What good does it do to be unreasonable? Who benefits from it?


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