Or, How to Convert an Atheist in Seven Extremely Difficult Steps
Faith, defined a little too simply, is a belief one holds without evidence. Perhaps that definition sounds somewhat derogatory or appears to contain an implied rebuke. But people of all stripes have beliefs they cling to for no intellectually defensible reason, whether they be common superstitions (“Crime is more prevalent during the full moon” — it isn’t), personal idiosyncrasies (“Something good always happens to me when I wear my lucky sweater”) and even moral or philosophical precepts (“If I make a point of being trusting and kind, others will be encouraged to follow my example”). Most beliefs of this sort are quite harmless, a few are beneficial and the rest are a small price to pay for the freedom to be occasionally irrational. I think it would be a terribly dull world if everyone had a solid empirical basis for everything they did. Besides, I’d probably have to stop buying lottery tickets, and I like having something to fuel my daydreams.
The snag is that a belief held without evidence is also extremely resistant to change. Christopher Hitchens once said that anything that is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. That’s an intellectually justifiable position, but not a very satisfying one, at least not if you find yourself wrangling with someone whose judgement you otherwise respect about an issue you can’t agree on. Faith beliefs are felt in the gut; they accord with our sense of how the world operates and are the result of influences we are mostly unaware of, from our parents and families to the media messages we’re exposed to every day. Though I defend recreational irrationality, I don’t hold it as justification for never changing your mind. Resistance to evidence is usually rooted in fear: fear of admitting you may be wrong and feeling stupid, fear of having your worldview attacked, fear of having to start at square one in determining just what it is you believe. This kind of fear is unhealthy and ought to be stood up to, at least once in a while. So occasionally I undertake the mental exercise of determining what it would take to change my mind on an issue I care deeply about. Today’s issue: religion.
I am an atheist, and I am an atheist of a particular stripe: I do not believe in a god or gods. That is not the same as saying “there is no god.” The latter is a statement about the nature of reality, the former about one’s own knowledge and the limits thereof; another way of saying it might be “I have seen no evidence of a god.” This distinction is sometimes called “soft atheism” versus “hard atheism” (neither of which are to be confused with agnosticism, an oft-misused word that describes the belief that true knowledge of god’s existence or non-existence is unknowable by human standards). In practical terms, there is not much daylight between the two positions, and holders of either belief/nonbelief would be indistinguishable in how they lived their lives. The only difference is that one has come to a conclusion and the other hasn’t. In the spirit of jiggling a knife into that small chink in the armor of certainty, and in keeping with Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” here are the conditions I would require to renounce my atheism and adopt a belief in god.
1. I would require access to a secure room, shielded against any outside transmissions or energy sources. All illumination and video equipment (see below) would be portable and powered by batteries. The room would have no windows and one door to which I would possess the key.
2. Inside this room should be a table and three chairs, along with a tripod-mounted portable HD video recorder, thermographic sensor and a copy of Snooki’s beach read A Shore Thing. All items would have been purchased by me personally and kept in my possession until the experiment begins. The first chair is for me.
3. Joining me in this room would be an impartial observer of a non-Judeo-Christian faith, a person previously unknown to me whose mental health has been certified by an independent expert. (I am approaching this experiment from the point of view of a Christian because that is the faith I was raised in. It is a simple enough matter to imagine the process conducted from a differing point of view.) This man or woman would take the second chair.
4. I would then lock the door, commence recording and take my seat. The video camera would be set up to take a wide shot of the entire table and anyone sitting at it.
5. At some point following step 4, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New, must appear before me as he did in life (i.e., looking like a first-century Jew, not a pale-skinned hippie). When I say “appear,” I mean he must fully manifest himself as a corporeal being with weight and volume, capable of being perceived by all five human senses. (I’m guessing a guy from the first century would not smell like a guy from the 21st.) I would employ the thermograph to make sure Jesus gave off an appropriate heat signature. His physical reality thus confirmed, Jesus and I would exchange pleasantries — I am assuming the language barrier represents no obstacle for the Son of Man, and would indeed be quite suspicious if he appeared in the flesh only to stare uncomprehendingly at me and babble in Aramaic — and he would take the third seat.
6. Jesus would then reveal three facts about myself that only I know. These would have to be of sufficient obscurity that they could not be discovered by any conventional means of research. It’s possible that Jesus and a team of investigators could find out, for example, that as a boy I was obsessed with the Sears Tower and once even had a small statue of it on my birthday cake. To demonstrate his divine nature, Jesus would have to reveal something on the order of, “You once had a nightmare in which you were exploring a construction site and a chimpanzee in a green Army shirt fired a laser pistol at you.” (That is true.) After three such revelations (that latter one no longer counts as it is now public), Jesus must then perform a small miracle: he must make the text disappear from the pages of A Shore Thing while leaving the book itself otherwise intact. As a final formality, I would ask Jesus to confirm that he is, in fact, the Son of God and that the stories of him in the New Testament are essentially true. These deeds accomplished, Jesus would then be free to depart by whatever manner suited him.
7. My impartial observer and I would then discuss what had just transpired while reviewing the video footage. If our recollections matched each other and were corroborated by the filmed record and if Jesus confirmed to me personally that he is the divine manifestation millions believe him to be, I would be forced to admit that my atheism was no longer justified and become (or, as it were, re-become) a Christian.
A religious reader — the laws of probability suggest I must have one or two — may find the above crass and bordering on offensive. “Why,” they might well ask, “should God go out of His way to prove Himself to a wiseass like you?” While it must require a truly cataclysmic circumstance to force a deity to “go out of his way,” I think it’s still a good question. I can’t think of a reason. If I had to have a god, I think I actually prefer one with better things to do than worry about whether someone somewhere doesn’t believe in him. But let me climb onto my anticlerical soapbox just long enough to say that this kind of exercise is never carried out the other way. That is, the devoutly religious, as far as I have ever observed, don’t bother pondering what it would take to break up, or at least shift, the bedrock of faith that has supported them their whole lives.
The reason, I suppose, is that nothing would. As we noted above, faith is largely impervious to facts and logic — otherwise it wouldn’t be faith so much as a passing fancy. We live in a world that has seen the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, and the recent, terrible natural disasters in Haiti and Myanmar. We all know perfectly kind and decent people who have suffered senseless tragedy, and others who never got a chance to enjoy the gifts that life offered them. So if you can wrap all that up into a belief that there is still a benevolent someone up there who loves you and is looking out for you, just what would it take for you to question that belief? And if you’re reluctant to confront the question, why?