By Paula Kirby
In this week’s On Faith Question, Karen Armstrong asks: “What makes the best ‘case for God’ to a skeptic or non-believer, an open-minded seeker, and to a person of faith and Why?”
‘… an open-minded seeker, and to a person of faith …’
It seems to go without saying that a person of faith cannot be open-minded. It is indeed in the very nature of faith that it has to be absolute, and that willingness to doubt religious dogma is inherently sinful. A person of faith must set aside such failings as open-mindedness, the pursuit of evidence, and the rejection of beliefs which cannot be substantiated: faith demands that claims be taken, accepted, defended and propagated on, well, faith, and this closed-mindedness (for what else can we call the refusal to doubt?) is then praised as a virtue, to be eternally rewarded hereafter.
A skeptical non-believer, however, is under no such constraints.
The skeptic merely refuses to accept that for which there is no evidence. The moment evidence is provided, we will be happy to accept it and to change our minds accordingly. This is not the fluffy open-mindedness of the ‘spiritual’, the ‘New Age’, or the ‘seeker’. This is not an open-mindedness that says, ‘I can imagine it, therefore it must be possible’. This is genuine, healthy open-mindedness: a mind that is open, but judiciously so, as opposed to a yawning chasm that has no filter for sifting out the genuine from the phony, the rational from the irrational, the true from the false.
So this is what it would take to convince me that there is a god: evidence. It doesn’t matter what kind: any evidence at all would suffice.
But let us be clear. By ‘evidence’ I do not mean conjecture -‘We are all steeped in Original Sin and stand in need of redemption’ – because we can all conjure up all sorts of stories that others cannot disprove.
I do not mean ignorance – ‘Well, science doesn’t have all the answers’ – because the existence of things we do not yet understand is not evidence for God, as the gods of volcanoes and earthquakes and thunder could attest, if it weren’t for their now-undeniable non-existence. Besides, of course science doesn’t have all the answers: this is what spurs it on to greater and greater endeavors. But if science cannot yet answer a particular question, why should we assume that religion can?
I do not mean wishful thinking – ‘But my faith is such a comfort to me!’- because the comfort you derive from your belief in God no more points to an external reality than does my neighbor’s belief that the arrival of the moon in Scorpio bodes well for her finances.
I do not mean threats – ‘An eternal lake of fire awaits those who do not believe’ – for you cannot make me fear that which you cannot demonstrate the reality of – especially when the self-serving nature of the threat is so patently obvious.
I do not mean presumption – ‘But your life can’t have any meaning or purpose without God’ – since your apparent inability to find purpose or meaning in your own family, friends, career, interests, ability to influence the world for the better, learning, joy, laughter, personal growth, compassion, and awe at the beauties of the world around you in no way reduces my ability to find my life entirely fulfilled and made meaningful by these things.
I do not mean grotesque fear and distrust of your fellow man – ‘Without God there would be nothing to stop us from killing one another’ – since it is perfectly clear that the vast majority of us, believers and non-believers alike, happily comply with society’s rules and feel no urge to murder, rape or steal; and that religious belief has all too often added to the weight of human cruelty rather than militated against it.
I do not mean your subjective feelings – ‘I know in my heart that it’s true!’ – for neuroscience is casting an ever more piercing light on the workings of our brains and revealing our feelings to be hugely unreliable guides to external reality: which is why they always need to be backed up with real, proper, testable evidence before they can be trusted.
I do not mean the rejection of all normal standards of reason and truth-seeking – ‘The Bible must be true because the Bible says it is!’. Whether we are talking about history or science or a court of law, there is a reason why we seek evidence before we reach conclusions. There is a reason why we test that evidence, challenge it, try to find alternative explanations for it. And that reason is that the truth matters. God is not a subjective proposition: either there is a god, or there is not. The standards of assessing the objective truth of a claim apply here every bit as much as they do to every other field of inquiry.
Show me one tangible piece of evidence that there is a god – the kind of evidence that we demand for any other claim – and I will happily assess it with enough open-mindedness to satisfy the most demanding of judges.
But of course, once you have done that, your work will really just be beginning. For then you will have the task of demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that it is YOUR god you have just provided the evidence for, and not Baal, Mithras, Marduk, Atum, Ptah, Vishvakarman, Unkulunkulu or any of the other thousands of deities available to choose from.
Good luck! Until then, I shall remain a skeptical non-believer. Albeit an open-minded one.
Paula Kirby is a former Christian and a freelance writer, living in the Highlands of Scotland. She is a consultant and project manager, specializing in freethinking and secular organizations.