A question often posed to atheists is: “What would it take to convince you God is real?” It’s asked so often that I assume it’s taught in some hardcore Christian debating school — though I never learned this myself when I was a hardcore Christian.
I imagine each of us would answer differently.
For me, I can’t think of anything that would — by itself — convince me a god exists, though I can think of several things (listed below) that would point me in that direction. I would treat each item as a separate piece of evidence that would build toward a conclusion.
Also, it would depend on which god we’re talking about.
• Which God(s)?
If you’re a pantheist, you don’t have to convince me; I already agree that the Universe exists — we only disagree on the definition of the word “god”. If you’re a deist — believing in an impersonal creator God who set everything in motion but has since moved along — then I say it doesn’t matter. This god makes no requirements of me and doesn’t interact with us at all — it is irrelevant.
But these are not the gods normally asserted; about two-thirds of the Earth’s population claims to believe in some form of YHWH/Allah. Though there are dozens of major disagreements about this God, and hundreds of minor disagreements, in almost all claims He requires much and threatens much. If this God is real, there really ought to be evidence.
The things listed below refer to a God like the one claimed by Christianity and Islam.
• Clear Instructions
If the god in question is claimed to have sent a book to humankind, I’m going to need that book to be one that seems to have been written by a god. If the book instead seems to have been written by fearful shepherds who don’t know where the Sun goes at night, then it will not be convincing. If the book has a horrifying standard of morality, then we can assume it was written by humans with horrifying morals. (Yes, there is a possibility that a god exists with very dubious morals, but that god doesn’t deserve our worship or obedience, does it?) If the book contains prophecies, these prophecies need to be crystal clear, specific, and accurate. If the prophecies are instead vague, full of generalities, and consistently inaccurate, then I will not assume any god sent the book.
Further, it would help your case a lot of your god’s book was well-written. By this, I mean it shouldn’t have dozens of contradictions. Even if they’re only seeming contradictions, the book was written by God, so it shouldn’t require a human to explain them to me. It shouldn’t be filled with pointless parts, like how to sew priestly garments for a priesthood that no longer exists because your God put it out of business. It shouldn’t repeat itself randomly, giving the same instructions in slightly different ways dozens of times. It shouldn’t spend the first two-thirds ignoring the most important thing of all — Heaven and Hell and how to get to one and avoid the other — only to spring that bit on us at the end.
And perhaps most importantly, it shouldn’t be able to be misinterpreted and mistranslated in so many ways. Give any 10 people a Bible and tell them to read it all the way through. When they’re done, you’ll hear about 10 different theologies. When I buy a desk, it comes with instructions that say exactly what to do. Imagine if the assembly instructions randomly broke into poetry or genealogy lists. Imagine if steps 3-7 were repeated later in the booklet. Imagine if Step 12 said that Step 4 didn’t apply anymore because of a new corporate contract, but then Step 13 said Step 4 was still important. Imagine if when you got to the end, it said your desk would collapse and spontaneously combust, killing your entire family, unless you followed some other steps that had never been listed previously.
• Prayer That Works
If the god in question is asserted to interfere in human events in response to prayer, then evidence of that should be abundant. And by evidence, I don’t mean anecdotes about finding your car keys or “miraculously” passing a test you didn’t study for — because those things happen every day for people who didn’t pray about them. I also don’t mean recovering from illnesses or injuries that everyone recovers from — like the common cold or a scrape on your knee.
No, what I mean is it would have to be obvious that prayer works where other things don’t, and this would have to be shown in controlled conditions. For example, if everyone who got X type of cancer died except those who prayed for healing, and everyone who prayed survived. Or even if the death/survival ratio was heavily skewed in favor of those who prayed. (In real life, it’s not skewed at all; the death/survival ratio is exactly the same for those who pray as it is for those who don’t.) For another example, people who believe in this God and pray to it would have to get sick a lot less often than people who don’t believe in this God — instead of at the exact same rate. If this God is credited with saving people from a natural disaster, it should be obvious that those who were saved were all (or even mostly) believers in this God, while those who died were all (or mostly) unbelievers. Instead, it always turns out to not matter at all.
In fact, it seems to me that the followers of this correct belief would never need doctors or hospitals at all; because prayer would work. Modern medicine would never have arisen in history — unless heathens developed it to help themselves — because believers in the one true religion would have never needed it.
If any of this was true, it would be heavy evidence in favor of a particular god-claim, and I would be forced to consider it as evidence.
Would seeing a vision of God convince me? Perhaps. It depends. I see all sorts of strange things in my dreams, so I probably wouldn’t believe something I saw in a dream, unless it made an extremely accurate and detailed prediction about a major event. Hallucinations are a real thing, so I wouldn’t likely believe a “vision” I saw while awake, unless it could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, none of whom were in a highly suggestible state or under the influence of drugs. And again, the content would matter. Whatever was imparted in this vision would have to be something more profound than “be kind” or “things will change in the future”.
• ETs With Matching Religions
If astronauts someday make contact with sentient extraterrestrial life, and one of the religions on the aliens’ planet is exactly the same as a religion on our planet, that would be a coincidence I couldn’t ignore. Let’s say it was Hinduism. If we studied the sacred texts of the alien religion, and compared them side-by-side with the ancient texts of Hindus on Earth, and they were identical, that fact would change things for a lot of people on Earth. If their carvings looked the same, and their prayers were identical. I imagine most other religions would have a difficult time keeping up.
I would certainly consider this coincidence too much to pass up. Would it alone convince me? I doubt it. Because it could happen anyway, without any of that religion being real.
Once we ran across a third alien race, and then a fourth, and each one had a single religion that matched Hinduism, each time it would be more difficult to deny the series of coincidences pointing to the truth of that one religion.
• Better Behavior
If one religion in particular, or one set of beliefs in God, kept its followers from behaving badly, then that would be evidence for me. For example, if we surveyed the prison population in the U.S. (and around the world, for that matter), and found that almost none of them were Muslims, it would be worth looking into. If we further found that the reason for this is that Muslims weren’t committing crimes on the same scale as everyone else, then they might be onto something.
Beyond crime and punishment, though, it would be helpful if in day-to-day life it became obvious that adherents to one particular creed always caused fewer issues. It would indicate that something about the creed itself or the practices thereof were conducive to better behavior.
Instead, we find that all religions are represented in the prison system about proportionately (especially when controlling for post-incarceration conversion). And we find that people of all religions — and people without religion — tend to good and bad behavior at about the same rates.
• Scientific Discovery
If major scientific breakthroughs came from the prophecies of one particular belief system, I would consider it evidence of that particular belief’s veracity. What if, instead of scientists and researchers painstakingly conducting experiments and writing papers and digging up fossils for hundreds of years, there had been prophets who simply provided the answers?
E = mc2. Pi. General relativity. Quantum mechanics. Laws of motion. Penicillin. X-rays.
What if this type of scientific knowledge came from prophets instead of scientists? For example, what if the Bible had numbered the planets in our solar system accurately, hundreds of years before telescopes? What if, in addition to that, it had given their relative sizes and distances from the Sun? What if its writers had known that our Sun and other stars belonged in the same class of objects? Instead, its writers thought stars were very small things that could “fall to Earth” (Rev. 6:13).
But it never happens. Instead, these groundbreaking discoveries continue to be made by people studying science, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. Sometimes the new knowledge is the result of experiments. Sometimes it’s by accident. Sometimes is it through complex mathematical calculations.
Each of these things, taken alone, might not prove to me that a God is real. If accurate science was always coming out of Christianity, and only Christianity, it might just mean that the Christian creed lent itself better to rational discovery. If one religion’s adherents almost never showed up in prison, it might just mean they wrote their moral code better or had better methods of teaching their morals to their children. If one religion’s holy texts were better-written than the others, with fewer factual errors and better morality, it might just mean that it was written by better writers.
But if two or more of these occurrences began to stack up, and it was always from the same belief system, it would be increasingly difficult to deny the possibility that we’d discovered the one true faith.
Note: This blog entry is published in conjunction with my new short fiction story Convinced.