What would it take? pt. 1

One of the most interesting questions in the dialogue between atheism and belief is, “What would it take to change your mind?” I like it because it’s a question that either side can ask of the other, and because it’s a question that short-circuits a lot of the defensiveness that so easily springs up around such conversations. If you’re going to make any attempt to answer it, you have to extend your imagination into possibilities that aren’t part of your worldview; whether you’re right or wrong, I think this is usually a healthy exercise.

My esteemed colleague and I are both atheists, fairly newly crossed over from the medium-conservative Christianity we were brought up in. She’s going to answer the “What would it take to change your mind?” question from her current perspective; I’m going to relate what it did take to change my mind from my former one.

First of all, if you’d asked me that question when I was a believer, I wouldn’t have been able to give a clear answer. There are two reasons for this: first, faith is highly praised within a faith system (duh!) and stories of people holding onto their belief in spite of reason and evidence are part of the narrative of virtue; second, I was terrified of the possibility that I might actually, someday, be given a reason not to believe. I remember thinking over the question “What would it take…?” and shying away from possible answers, taking refuge in that “virtue-of-faith” business, because I couldn’t bear the idea of losing my belief in God. Faith was, to me, a cushion against a particular kind of existential dread that I’ve spent my life running from. Letting go of it (it seemed to me at the time) would be like falling off the edge of an abyss.

And that’s an important point, as we continue this conversation. In my own experience, there were three pillars my faith rested on: intellectual persuasion, social bonds, and that existential cushioning I just mentioned. Of these three, only the first is at all susceptible to arguments, evidence, even simple conversation. If my experience was typical — and I suspect that it was — the question “What would it take…?” has answers that have nothing to do with evidence or arguments.

But let’s start with the evidence and arguments: the intellectual persuasion. I have always been a skeptic of a certain degree, which is to say that I trust the scientific method as the best way of obtaining facts about the world. In addition, I seem to have internalized certain principles of elegance and parsimony. So when settling into a position on creation versus evolution, for example, I found any and all “young earth” theories simply laughable. I spent some time in my early teen years reading ultra-conservative “science” that attempted to refute evolution, but as I got older, I contrasted it with the actual science out there, and found it absurd. I was convinced on evolution, and there went any hope of a strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible. I figured some parts of it were meant to be taken literally (the histories of Israel, of Jesus and the early church, and the prescriptions in the epistles) and some were meant to be read on a mythic/allegorical level.

Then came the moral strictures. I never tried to believe in the purely intangible “spirit” that was somehow alive or dead, healthy or sick, without showing any evidence in the life of the person. God’s moral laws, I believed, were there for the nurturing of the whole human: mind, body, and spirit. Someone living according to them would be healthier, more whole, more in harmony with themselves and the world. Growing up, I was surrounded almost entirely by Christians who were following the big social rules: no drinking in excess or sex outside of marriage, along with being a decent, law-abiding citizen. I didn’t have much opportunity to compare different systems of morality to see what results they brought in the lives of their adherents.

Then, in my early 20s, my best friend — who’d always been a far stricter and more rigid Christian moralist than I — broke one of the Big Ones. She came out as gay, and started an open relationship with a woman. She and I were roommates at the time, so I watched her go through the whole journey, and what I saw flatly contradicted what I was supposed to believe. Embracing her love for women, and for this woman in particular, made her healthier, more whole, more in harmony with herself and with the world. Try as I might, I could not view her journey as a fall (and I did try, for several years). It was plainly an elevation.

So I decided that God must not have the rules about sexual morality that Christians have attributed to him. What exactly the rules were, I didn’t know, but it was clearly open for investigation.

Still, there was the matter of faith, right? I had this core, unshakable belief in God. If belief was virtuous and unbelief was sinful, it must be because everybody deep down knew that God was real, and that unbelievers were simply denying this, in their arrogance or lustful greed. I could comfortably believe this until I met Kurt.

I met Kurt at an important psychological moment, which I’ll talk more about in the next post. I connected intellectually with Kurt in a way that I hadn’t connected in years. We talked incessantly, often about religion in general and mine in particular. He did not believe in God. And as we talked, as we spent time together, I found it impossible to believe that he was arrogantly rejecting a God he secretly knew to be real. I knew him, I trusted his intellectual honesty, and I was sure that his unbelief was genuine and sincere. So fell one more piece of the crumbling edifice: I could no longer believe that whatever kind of God existed could justly punish unbelievers simply because of unbelief. Since my belief in God’s justice was stronger than my adherence to any particular doctrine, doctrines about the virtue of faith also fell by the wayside.

This about concludes the intellectual portion of my “What did it take…?” story. Three pieces of evidence (backed up by a number of smaller, more distant examples) against the conservative beliefs I grew up with: science’s persuasive explanation for the natural world; my best friend’s ascent into homosexuality; another dear friend’s noble unbelief. One could object that the last two are scarcely evidence. There’s no objectivity there, much room for human error. It’s true, and I would never hold up those specific examples to persuade someone else. All I can say is, I was close to both these people for a long time, and I struggled mightily before accepting what I saw in them. In the end, I was as sure of my perceptions of them as I am sure that my father loves me. Given a choice between that level of conviction and words on paper, I’m going with the evidence of my eyes and ears and heart any day.

Next time: the social and existential underpinnings of my faith, and how they crumbled.

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