Faith and the Non-Answer
Twitter for many people I follow is a daily battle of “belief vs proof” with theists who insist that they know god exists, and therefore proof is not something they need to provide. You see, faith is in and of itself the belief in something without proof, so to try and prove a basis for faith is impossible, and yet, when pressed, many theists will at least attempt to do so. When someone professes a belief in a god or gods, and are challenged, they always fall back on the position that you can’t disprove them. And they are right; It is impossible to disprove the unprovable assertion.
In constructive discourse, if someone throws up a dubious claim and is challenged, for instance, that the Loch Ness monster exists and that she likes to eat peanut-butter sandwiches, it is up to them to present their case and persuade the skeptic that there claim is veritable. In the case of Nessie, it is quite easy to ignore it, for nobody holds such a claim with any sense of importance to their daily dealings with the universe. But when someone claims god, and is challenged, for the claimant the assertion is more than real, it may form the basis for their lives, at least, according to them.
What is interesting here is that for some their faith, at least in their minds, is what stops them from spinning into chaos, eating babies, raping and pillaging and the like, but I suggest that they just haven’t thought their faith through with any kind of critical analysis. People tend to be lazy with their “deeper” thought, and the kind of rigour of thought that has brought many (including myself) to the conclusion that there is no reason, nor any proof, of the existence of a god or gods, is a difficult process, and one that may challenge the very core of what the believer once saw as their reason for existing.
So when a theist is challenged with a question like “You claim god exists, can you show me proof?” they come back to answers which have more to do with their faith than any proof of their assertion. These answers serve as a conversation killer, and it’s easy to see why so many resort to them; It is easier to assert belief than to take into consideration the many facets of the universe that don’t conform to any given person’s idea of a deity.
My friend Iron Atheist (or @ironatheist) has collated a list of “non-answers” that have been given by theists when they are asked for proof of their god-claim. Most of these are the same answer, just phrased in a different way, and most hinge on the idea that you “have to have faith”, or that “you have to believe”. Faith and belief however are the antithesis of proof; the assertion of truth despite lack of evidence to support it. Below are some of the answers compiled, in this case mostly from Christians.
“You have to have faith to truly understand god”
“Give yourself to and you will see god’s true power and feel his love”
“Because god loves you”
The idea that you have to believe in order to believe is just one of the many examples of circular reasoning that people resort to when questioned. To assert that belief is required to believe avoids the question entirely, and also assumes that not only the reason, but the outcome, are forgone conclusions. If a conversation leads to this type of statement, continuing is futile, and the person’s mind is already made up.
“Jesus’ sacrifice saved us from our sins”
“Because the bible says so”
“Because the bible is god’s word”
“You have to study the bible to catch the true meaning of it rather than the literal sense”
This scenario depends entirely upon the bible (or Koran) for its reinforcement, and is another kind of circular reasoning. The bible says it is the word of god, and how do we know? Because it says so right there in the bible! Of course this is no more proof that the bible is true than Lord of the Rings proves the existence of Hobbits. When trying to prove a truth claim, one must bring to the table more than simply the claim itself. Otherwise our wheels start spinning and we go nowhere.
“I have seen miracles that prove to me there is a god”
“Because people dreamed of god when they died and came back is proof”
Anecdotal evidence from experience is a tricky one. Experience is all we have to base our lives on. But when experience only comes from ourselves, or from stories of a “friend of a friend of a friend”, the experience becomes more like a game of “Chinese Whispers” than an actual fact. When people believe in miracles, they will look for them. Every little thing that happens is a potential miracle, if so ascribed by the one experiencing it. Those who are quick to claim “miracle” are those for whom analysis of the situation has ceased. For them, constantly waiting for a sign, a sign will appear in the form of something unrelated, like the face of Jesus in toast, or a small windfall in a scratch-ticket, is easily seen as an action from god. When something does occur, however small, ascribing “miracle” to this just means they were already looking for a miracle. Of course, our minds can play tricks on us. We know for example that we tend to embellish upon memories as time goes by, and the significance of an event may grow when we conflate unrelated ideas with the one that we started with.
A different approach to the same problem is the example from a story; “I was told once by my mother-in-law that Mrs McKechnie’s daughter’s mother’s friend from the bridge-club prayed for her cancer to disappear, and 5 years later after chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the cancer was gone!” An answer like this, or the “seeing god upon dying” as above are even less reliable, yet seem to serve as a strengthening of the case for a theist who is so disposed to miraculous stories. They can be flippantly thrown forth as indisputable evidence and can be ignored just as quickly.
“The wonder of the way the world & the universe are put together proves god’s greatness”
“Because without god there is no purpose in life”
“Without God what’s stopping you from killing everyone?”
The bottom line with this line of answers is the question, “If God created the universe, who created God?” The answer to this is invariably “God has always existed.” But of course this answer will never do. The same answer could apply to the universe, so why not just skip a step and discount god, saying the universe has always existed. But the theist is so stuck on the idea that their version of a god is the one “true belief”, so to this answer the response will likely be one of the responses outlined above. To a theist who thinks that god is everything, there is nothing that isn’t of or from god. The argument of “first cause” or “prime mover”, while may ask questions about the origins of the universe does nothing to prove the god of the bible as true. All it does is call for navel gazing and awe at the god they’ve already decided exists.
One interesting thing I have seen is in relation to the third of these examples: “Without God what’s stopping you from killing everyone?” This is a truly scary answer, for according to the theist who purports this line, if god did not exist then the universe would spiral into chaos and we would all kill each other and eat our babies. Of course this is just speculation, and since there is no proof of god anywhere, this answer could be ignored, except for one thing; If the theist’s belief in god is the only thing stopping them from killing and eating babies, these people are probably best avoided, because who knows what they are capable of in the real world?
There are many more examples I could give, but here I just wanted to highlight some of the frustrations many atheists have when arguing with theists online and in daily life. In most cases a conversation with a theist, asking them to prove their case, is futile, as they’ve already made up their minds, and will stick to it regardless of any question you may throw to them. So if a conversation ends here, or looks to be heading the direction of a “non-answer”, be prepared to give up with it as progress from most of these positions is halted, and can go no further.
The problem here is not the baseless assertions; The problem lies in the reasoning behind the arguments. If a theist comes to you and threatens you with damnation at the hands of a god that they assert exists, what they are really saying is “I don’t know the answer, but my belief helps me not have to ask the hard questions.” This is a pitiful space to be in, at least coming from someone who values knowledge and facts over fancy and the supernatural, as I do. Asking these questions, and then being challenged with logic, is not fun. For some it stands to unbalance what they see as the cornerstone of their very existence. True faith, one where the believer “truly believes” and isn’t just being intellectually lazy, is something that is deeply ingrained in a person, something that most of us are told we must have from an early age, and becomes for some part of their identity, their family life and the culture they live in. The threat to undermine what some see as their very existence will invariably be met with hostility, which is understandable. So if you feel you must engage with theists on this level, meet this hostility with cool-headedness and a calm, reasonable, rational, fact-based approach. You may not win them over, but you may at least, get them thinking. And isn’t that what we really need to see in this world, a planet of thinkers?