I am looking for help from skeptics and atheists. This is a genuine request – not a sarcastic request. I have been thinking about an analogy the past few days, but have not been able to vet it out. I figure what better way than to put it out to atheists as fair game to criticize. So if you are game, read on and feel free to comment here or on Twitter. I don’t mind criticism, so have at it.
The Setup: The Problem
I have been asked a few times on Twitter both “why do I believe” and also to provide evidence that God exists. I have been, admittedly, reluctant to respond. You may assume this is because I have no such evidence, but that isn’t the case. The problem is, the answer to “why do I believe” is not the same answer I would give to why you should believe. Frustratingly enough, I think that no matter how strongly I can present evidence of why you should believe, final confirmation rests in more than external evidence.
The fact is, I didn’t come to believe because I saw external evidence, although my faith has since been confirmed. I see that evidence now, but I never needed it to come to believe. I was raised Catholic. As a teenager and an adult I challenged my faith, investigated, and tried to seek out its truth (or lack of truth). What I found makes it utterly unreasonable for me to deny my faith.
This, however, is admittedly insufficient for anyone external to myself. So I want to provide an analogy and ask you, the skeptic, to respond. Does this make sense? I do not expect (nor am I trying) to convince you of God’s existence, just to explain why my faith is reasonable.
The Analogy: Proving Fire Causes Pain
I thought of this analogy when looking at all of the Catholic cleric scientists that have existed throughout the ages. I was reading quotes from Roger Bacon – father of the modern scientific method. I found this:
“Argument is conclusive… but… it does not remove doubt, so that the mind may never rest in the sure knowledge of the truth, unless it finds it by the method of experiment. For if any man who never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments that fire burns, his hearer’s mind would never be satisfied, nor would he avoid the fire until he put his hand in it that he might learn by experiment what argument taught.”
This sounds so much like many of the atheists I have had the fortune of talking with. I see some atheists talk about how faith in God is unreasonable, but for someone like myself who has ‘had their hand in the fire’, lack of faith in God would be to deny the reality of the burn.
In essence, yes, I do believe there is plenty of external evidence that fire burns and that God exists. But it isn’t until one places their hand in the fire that their conviction would be complete and their belief would be solid.
The Breakdown of the Analogy
The analogy breaks down for me in the differences between the experience of burning and the experience of God. The fact is, the experience of God is not a passing moment intense in its moment but diminishing with time. The experience of God fundamentally changes who we are as a person if we allow it to do so.
There are certain experiences in our lives that force a change in who we are as people. On the negative side we see this in soldiers who experience gruesome warfare, or people who endure extreme suffering. On the positive side we may see this when someone reaches a significant accomplishment or when a person finds a mate that they truly love. The experience of God is like that- just far more intense.
For myself personally, the confirmation of God comes with the great beauty that opens up before me. Humanity makes sense. Love makes sense. Our desires for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for the good of others and ourselves make sense. The logical disciplines of philosophy and the sciences fit into theology in a way that I imagine they could not possibly do for the atheist. They do so in a way that is more beautiful than can be possibly described. Just as the sensation of burn can’t be described adequately to someone who has never been burned, the beauty that Catholicism opens up for me as well as the indescribable shaping of my being towards God, is something that can’t be described, but hopefully it’s effects can be observed.
A Quick Frustration: The Unscientific Approach to God
I know many atheists hear this sort of an answer when they ask why someone believes: it’s personal, or “I’ve had an experience”, or something similar. I understand the frustration – it is why I am frustrated in trying to answer it. It is, of course, the best answer for reasons I explained above and reasons that Bacon would have agreed to: confirmation of God’s existence – that firm confirmation every atheist is asking for – requires that we put our hand in the fire.
Yet when I talk to many atheists (not all, mind you), I find that they never actually have tested the hypothesis of God’s existence.
The objection I hear is “why pray when I don’t believe or would be praying to nothing?” The answer to this is to simply pray to the vagueness, to the emptiness, to the nothingness. Reasonable men have done crazier things in the privacy of their minds.
As an atheist, you can deny that God exists, but you cannot deny the hypothesis of God. And it’s existence isn’t minimal either. Humanity is unmistakably shaped by it, and despite reports of religion’s death, we see evidence of it growing in many modern societies. Many atheists have looked for evidence and dismissed that which is given to them as ‘unscientific’ and ‘not objective or verifiable’. Yet the problem is that they are bringing their biases into the experiment. Their approach defines God first, then denies that biased definition based on what is offered as evidence.
Rather than take that approach, why not take the most basic approach to the question: “Does God exist?”. We know that Christianity teaches above all that God is love, God is personal, and that God is the creator of all things. So why not start here and keep all other biases out?
I would be genuinely interested in this experiment. I started from a position of belief and have had that belief confirmed by putting my hand into the flame. I would be interested if any atheist would ever be willing to, for some time, say a prayer without bias, with true curiosity and willingness to discover: “I do not know, but if you exist, make it known in your way and help me to recognize it”.
But I digress.
Your Thoughts on the Analogy
So I am interested in your thoughts in that analogy to explain why I believe. As I stated earlier, I do not expect this to convince anyone of God’s existence.
I do hope to effectively communicate, however, why reasonable people believe. I guess my hope is that the skeptic can look at the saints who lead lives extraordinary out of a love of God and recognize that if it wasn’t God, these saints had something that moved them to live incredible lives. That if fire doesn’t burn, it does something to cause necessary reaction to the person who puts their hand in the fire.
So go ahead and critique. This is not a fully thought out idea, so I may have just wasted 1300 words…