This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
This is a question I always want to ask religious believers. (One of many questions, actually. “What evidence do you have that God is real?” and “Why are religious beliefs so different and so contradictory?” are also high on the list.)
If God is real, and religious believers are perceiving a real entity… why is anyone an atheist? Why don’t we all perceive him? If God is powerful enough to reach out to believers just by sending out his thoughts or love or whatever… why isn’t he powerful enough to reach all of us? Why is there anyone who doesn’t believe in him?
It seems to be a question that troubles many believers as well. At least, it troubles them enough that they feel compelled to respond. And as atheism becomes more common and more vocal, this compulsion to respond seems to be getting more common and more vocal as well.
I’ve seen a couple of religious responses to this question. Neither of which is very satisfactory. But they keep coming up… so today, I want to take them on.
Open Your Heart To Me, Baby
For more traditional believers, the answer to why atheists exist is simple: Atheists have closed our hearts to God. God has reached out to atheists — but we don’t want to believe. We want to pursue a selfish and sybaritic life, and don’t want to obey God’s laws (so say the real hard-liners)… or we’ve been hurt by life or by religion, and we’re rejecting God out of anger (so say the marginally more compassionate believers). But it’s important that we have free will — so we have to be free to reject God as well as to accept him. God can’t force us to believe. That would be cheating.
See, here’s the problem with that.
Or rather, here’s a whole set of problems.
For starters: This idea is totally unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove that you honestly gave religion a chance. Until we develop the technology to accurately record the inside of somebody’s head and play it back in somebody else’s, there’s no way to prove that atheists are sincerely open-minded and willing to consider religion.
Atheists can say a hundred times, “Really, I’m telling you, I’ve looked at this carefully, I’ve meditated on it, I’ve examined the evidence, I’ve studied lots of different religions… and I just don’t find any of it convincing.” We can ask believers to give us good evidence or arguments for God. We can point out the pain and distress many of us went through when we let go of our beliefs — pain and distress that this “You’ve just closed your heart to God” trope seriously trivializes. We can even go out on a limb and point to the kinds of evidence that would convince us we were mistaken (something just about no religious believers are willing to do). But since we can’t demonstrate the state of our minds and hearts, believers can always say, “You aren’t sincere. Your mind and heart are closed.”
There’s no way to prove that they’re wrong. It’s an unfalsifiable hypothesis.
Which makes it an entirely useless one. If there’s no possible way to show that your hypothesis is false, there’s no way to know whether it’s true.
What’s more, the “You’ve hardened your heart against God” trope is a perfect example of moving the goalposts. No matter how many times we gave God the old college try… we clearly haven’t tried hard enough. I mean — we don’t believe! If we’d tried hard enough, then obviously we’d believe! The fact that we don’t believe is proof that we haven’t tried hard enough. Q.E.D. (It’s a fairly entertaining logical fallacy, actually: a unique blend of moving goalposts and circular reasoning. I’m kind of impressed.)
And then, of course, we have the niggling little problem of self-deception and rationalization.
The human mind is very prone to believing what it already believes. It’s very prone to believing what it’s been prompted to believe. And it’s very prone to believing what it wants to believe. Rationalization is a deeply hard-wired part of how the human mind works, and while it’s a surprisingly important part — among other things, it enables us to get on with our lives without being totally paralyzed — it’s something we always need to keep in mind when we’re deciding if the things we believe are really true.
So if the only way to believe something is to try really, really hard? If what it takes to believe something is to “open your heart” — i.e., to put yourself in a state of suggestibility and wishful thinking?
That’s not a very good sign that this something is true.
Quite the contrary.
If we care about whether the things we believe are true — if we want to be sure that we’re not just fooling ourselves into believing what we already believe or what we want to believe — then the times we’re trying really hard to convince ourselves of something? Those are exactly the times we should be most skeptical. That’s not when we should be opening our hearts. That’s when we should be on our guard.
The reality for me, and the reality for a whole lot of atheists? I am open to my mind being changed. Heck, I used to be a believer. I used to be more than just open to the idea of God — I used to believe in God. (Or something that I was willing to call God.) In fact, it was my willingness to change my mind, my openness to reconsidering new possibilities, that led me to let go of my religious beliefs in the first place. And if someone can give me some really good reasons to change my mind back again, I will.
But “You just have to open your heart” is not a good reason. It’s an unfalsifiable argument — nothing I do can prove that I’m sincerely open to the God hypothesis. Its goalposts can be moved forever — no matter how carefully I’ve considered religion, people can argue that I need to consider it just a little more. And it’s basically a defense of wishful thinking as some sort of positive virtue. (Besides, nobody’s ever given me a good reason why I should open my heart to their particular god: why I should open my heart to Jesus instead of to Allah, or Ganesh, or the Goddess, or that blue peacock god some people worship in northern Iraq.)
“You just haven’t opened your heart” is clearly a terrible explanation for why God would allow atheists to exist.
Are there any better ones?
I Love You Just The Way You Are
There is another religious response to the puzzling question of why there are atheists. And unlike the unfalsifiable, goalpost-moving, “let’s treat people like pariahs for wanting to be careful that the things they believe are true” hostility of “You haven’t opened your hearts,” it’s a response that typically comes from more progressive, tolerant, pluralistic believers.
It’s this: “God doesn’t care if you’re an atheist.”
“As long as you’re a good person,” this idea goes, “as long as you love other people and try to do right by them, God’s fine with you. God doesn’t need your worship or your praise, or even your faith. God loves atheists, too. He doesn’t care whether you believe in him.”
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
God may not care whether I believe in him.
But I do.
I want to understand the world. I care about reality, more than I care about just about anything. If there really is a God who created everything, who guided the universe and the process of evolution so conscious life could come into being, who animates all life with his spirit — I bloody well want to know about it. I don’t want to be flatly wrong about one of the hugest questions humanity is faced with. In my years as an atheist writer, I keep asking believers again and again, “Do you have some evidence for your belief? If you do, please tell me about it. I want to see it.” And I’m not being snarky, or baiting them into a debate I know they can’t win. (Well… not mostly.) If I’m wrong about this, I sincerely want to know.
Why does God deny me that knowledge? Why does he give it to some people, and not others?
And maybe more to the point:
If there really were a loving creator of the universe who animates all life including my own, and from whom all that is good and valuable about the world emanates?
I wouldn’t want to be alienated from him. I’d want to be connected with him. (Her. It. Them. Whatever.) Especially the touchy-feely God that the progressive, tolerant, pluralistic believers believe in. There are certainly plenty of gods I wouldn’t worship even if I thought they were real — the God of fundamentalist Christianity is a sadistic nutjob, and even if he existed I wouldn’t give him the time of day. But the warm, gentle, “source of all life/ force of goodness and love in the universe” God that progressive believers believe in? Sure, I’d want to know him. I’d have some serious questions for him — why is there suffering, why is there evil, why can’t the Cubs win a goddamn pennant to save their lives — but I’d happily have a beer with the guy. We could be friends. I mean, he’s the source of all life, the force of goodness and love in the universe. Of course I’d want that in my life. Why on earth wouldn’t I?
If God exists… then why isn’t he reaching out to me? Isn’t it cruel of him to reach out to some people but not to others? (Not to mention the manipulative game-playing he seems to be doing, where he reveals himself in wildly different and even contradictory ways to different people, and then sits back while they duke it out over which one is right.) Why does he manifest in some people’s hearts, but not in others? Why is he being such a passive-aggressive jerk?
Let me be very clear about this: I am entirely happy to be an atheist. I’m not one of these whiny, moody, “I wish I could believe” atheists that so many believers think is the only valid kind of atheism. I am tickled pink to be an atheist. I won’t pretend that I didn’t lose a form of comfort when I left my beliefs — but I gained so much in return that the loss is a clear bargain. And the comforts I have now are far more comforting… since they’re built on a foundation of reality. I don’t have the constant nagging feeling in the back of my head that my beliefs are just wishful thinking, and that I’ve built my philosophy on a foundation of sand. I’m persuaded that God does not exist, and that’s just ducky with me.
But I’m happy with my atheism because I’m persuaded that it’s correct. I’m happy not feeling God in my life because I’m persuaded that God doesn’t exist.
If God really existed, I sure as heck would want to know about it.
So why don’t I?
If God really exists — why don’t I know about it?
As an atheist, I have some really good answers for why people believe in God even though he doesn’t exist. The human mind is prone to numerous cognitive errors — and many of those cognitive errors make people susceptible to religion. We tend to see intention, even where no intention exists. We tend to see patterns, even where no pattern exists. We give excessive weight to personal emotional experience, and aren’t good at applying critical thought to those experiences. We don’t have a good intuitive understanding of probability, and tend to think events are more improbable than they really are. We tend to believe what authority figures tell us. We tend to believe what we’re taught as children. We tend to believe what people we know and trust tell us. We’re reluctant to question the things that everyone else in our social group believes. Etc., etc., etc. People believe all sort of things that aren’t true… and from an atheist/ materialist viewpoint, that makes perfect sense. Atheism is not even a little inconsistent with the belief in gods who don’t exist.
But the belief in God is very much inconsistent with the existence of atheists. I have yet to see a religious believer give a good answer for why God exists — but not everyone experiences him or believes in him. I have yet to see a good answer for why God bestows the experience of his existence (however inconsistently and contradictorily) onto some people — but not onto others. I have yet to see a good answer for why God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good — or even anything close to all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good — and still isn’t perceived by everybody.
Does anybody have one?
(And if you say “Mysterious ways,” I’m going to scream.)