Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument

This is the second in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument almost got left out of this list, as it was such a poor argument I’d actually forgotten about it; however, I was reading John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe In Atheists?’, which spends a lot of time on it, and I thought ‘Oh, yes… now I come to think of it, I do recall coming across this when I was researching the whole God subject’. So here it is.

This argument consists of telling the reader or hearer, in impassioned terms, about… well, obviously, about how meaningless lives are without God, with the implication that we should therefore believe in God. Or, to put it another way, ‘We should believe in God because we really want [our version of] Him to exist’.

This is what is technically known as an argument from consequences (or, if you want to get fancy about it, an argumentum ad consequentiam) – the claim that a particular viewpoint is true because the consequences of it being false would be bad. (Or, conversely, that a particular viewpoint is false because the consequences of it being true would be bad.) It’s the logic flaw that’s the downfall of the cancer sufferer who ignored that lump or worrying symptom for too long because they didn’t want it to turn out to be cancerous, the gamblers who convinced themselves that that long shot just had to pay off because they so much wanted it to.

It can work if used as an appeal to emotion, but it’s an argument too flawed to stand up in the light of day. Which is why you will probably never see anyone spell it out quite as blatantly as I did a couple of paragraphs above – if anyone attempting this argument ever did explicitly state ‘And because it feels so awful not to believe in God, God must therefore exist’ then the crashing failure of logic would (hopefully) be far too obvious to take seriously.

(Ironically, if this type of argument actually had worked well in converting me, it would have backfired on any Christian apologist who tried it, since I always found the idea behind Christianity quite horrifying. The idea of God existing – a wise, kind, all-knowing being in charge of the universe and steering its ultimate destiny – sounded lovely to me, and I always hoped my studies would lead me to theism as a conclusion. But the idea that this being had set things up so that people would burn in hell forever simply for having the wrong beliefs? It appalled me. If I hadn’t recognised the fallacy behind this sort of believe-what-you-want-to-believe argument, I’d have rejected Christianity in a heartbeat without further thought, simply because I so much didn’t want it to be true.*)

A more important problem I had with this argument as a teenager, however, was that the premise was so obviously false. Plain and simple, my life did have meaning without God. Plenty of meaning. I loved being alive, I loved enjoying life’s pleasures, I loved looking forward to everything life had to bring. Sure, I liked the idea of a God existing (as long as it was a nice one, not the horrible variety of god that I was hearing about from Christian sources), but I was in no way dependent on God’s existence for finding meaning in my life.

So all of these arguments about how meaningless life was without God got a rather blank look from me. I was sorry for the people who felt that way, who obviously needed very much to hold on to their beliefs and who seemed to struggle inexplicably with enjoying life for its own sake; but their attempts to persuade me that I felt the same way simply fell flat.

 

*Obviously, I ended up rejecting Christianity anyway. But I did so only after spending a lot of time, over many years, reading and thinking about the various arguments and holding myself to strict standards in terms of whether I felt any particular argument actually disproved the belief system or not. It was not just a case of ‘I don’t want to believe it so I’ll assume it’s not true.’ (All of which will make for another post series which I do hope eventually to get round to writing.)