So, what would it take to persuade me I was wrong about religion? What could persuade me to convert? I think there are three separate questions embedded in this question; what would it take for me to believe a religious claim, what would it take for me to believe a religion, and what would it take for me to believe in faith? I’ll answer them in that order.
All I need to believe a religious claim is evidence. If its a claim that a person can perform miracles, I would like to see those miracles performed, and then analyzed to ensure they couldn’t have been performed by mundane means and then attributed to supernatural powers. If its a claim about who founded the religion, I’d like historical evidence that this person really existed and a historical record that’s consistent with the religion claims they did (yes, I use they as a singular pronoun. Get over it). If its a moral claim that a particular behavior is an abomination, I’d like evidence that there is something objectively harmful about that action, as opposed to it being simply a cultural taboo that was encoded in the religion. And in fact there are some religious claims that I do believe. I believe it is generally moral to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Empathy is a key aspect of morality, and the Golden Rule is an application of empathy. Some religious people claim that holding ones beliefs to a rational standard leaves out things like love, compassion and morality, but that is simply not true. I have never encountered a rational argument against love. I haven’t experienced anything that would make me doubt that some actions are morally reprehensible. I see no evidence that compassion does not exist. In the fields of psychology, sociology and even neuroscience all those things are studied as real phenomena, just like evolution and the weather. Just because I am convinced of the existence of morality does not mean I need to believe all other religious claims, which brings me to the second question.
To believe and follow a religion, I would first need all religious claims essential to that religion to hold up to rational analysis. You can’t expect me to believe an unverifiable concept of the afterlife, an inconsistently accurate version of history and a cosmology that contradicts scientific understanding, just because your religion also has some good moral rules and its founder probably existed. I also would not accept a denomination of a religion that threw out religious claims after they’d been firmly established as false, held onto the ones that are either true or unverifiable and then claimed their version as the one true version despite the “false” ones having been around far longer. I can appreciate the intent, but that is not rational justification of religion, it is retconning. I’m looking at you, progressive Christianity.
And then there’s the meta-question. What could persuade me to accept faith? This is the one where I come up blank. I could come up with evidence that could persuade me to accept religion, but not religious faith. By religious faith I mean that stage of religious belief after you’ve been persuaded and converted, when you stick to that religion despite evidence to the contrary. If you convert with a conditional, “and if I ever encounter new evidence that radically shakes my understanding of the evidence that caused me to convert I will deconvert again,” most religious people would consider that a false conversion. That’s not an aspect of religion I ever want to return to. I think its a fundamentally flawed notion.
That’s not to say I don’t have faith in anything. Take my friend Karissa. I think its completely fair for me to have faith in her. I have faith that if I ask for her advice, she will give me the best advice she can. I have faith that if I do something wrong by her and apologize, she will forgive me. I have faith that when we hang out together we will have an awesome time. All of that is backed up by years of her living up to my faith in her and often surpassing it. I do not, however, have any faith in her ability to show up somewhere on time. She is the very definition of disorganized. The first few times we made plans to hang out, I had an expectation that she would show up on time, but she didn’t. So I let go of that expectation; simple enough.
I also take leaps of faith. Sticking with Karissa as an example, when I first met her, I took a leap of faith that my initial impression of her was correct. I’m extremely glad I took that leap. She’s a fantastic person. However, if she had turned out to be a passive-aggressive bitch, it would have been insane for me to cling to my initial leap of faith despite evidence to the contrary, and I think the same standard should apply to God and religion. For some reason it generally isn’t. Religious people fall back on faith time and time again, including answering questions of “why didn’t things turn out the way my religion predicts they would?” with “you just have to have faith.” I’ve observed that in debates with atheists, most theists know better than to fall back on religious faith as a justification for religious faith until they’ve run out of other reasons. Its a different story when theists talk to each other. Its one of the first ideas to be brought out. I prayed earnestly for something and didn’t receive it? “Have faith that God had a reason.” I try to see the reason and fail? “Have faith that there is a reason, you just can’t see it.” I try to see the reason for concealing the reason and fail? “Faaaaaaaaaaaith!” As somebody who lived with that approach from early childhood to about the age of nineteen, I’d like to say its pretty sucky.
It fails because its emotionally frustrating, and its mentally stifling as well. I’d rather interact with reality, and adjust my beliefs and expectations to meet it than adjust my perception of reality to fit my beliefs and expectations. Reality matters to me. Truth is something I value both ideologically and practically. As a fallible human being, I sometimes make wrong conclusions, and I need to hang onto my ability to discard wrong conclusions. I honestly can’t think of anything that could persuade me to choose religious faith over that ability.
But in all fairness, I’m not taking my rejection of faith on faith. I tried religious faith, for close to twenty years. It failed. You could argue that I had insufficient faith to begin with, but that’s a trap, not an argument. Its begging the question. In addition, I don’t have religious faith in atheism. I have Karissa-faith. If atheism has a negative effect on me, I won’t cling to it. I’ll go looking somewhere else. What I love about atheism is that atheists don’t consider unshakeable faith a virtue. This very post was inspired partly by Ebonmuse’s article and Greta Christina’s post on what could persuade them to convert.
The benefits of living with unshakeable faith couldn’t justify unshakeable faith itself, much less what I was supposed to have faith in.