"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Basic Guide To Converting Me

Edit: Here's precisely how to be unsuccessful at converting me (note: the messages at the bottom of the video were not created by me):

 It has been an interesting intellectual exercise for me to try to posit what would convince me that God exists. That is to say, is there a hypothetical situation in which I would be compelled to believe that there is, in fact, a god or gods? Of course, I am not presently a religious person, so, as one would surmise, all attempts to provide reasons why one should believe have failed to convince me (if they had succeeded, I would be religious.)

What I would like to address here is two-fold: first, why do religious conversion attempts (specifically those made by Evangelical Christians) fail to convince me of anything and, second, what would convince me that a god (or gods) exist.

First, what does present religious conversion look like, especially in the Christian context? Here, I will talk about why I do not find these methods convincing. In other words, this is how not to convert me. I'll be presenting a case study on the Roman Roads conversion method (the only empirical data I could find with regards to conversion I did not find satisfactory for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we'll have to stick to this case study.) I chose the Roman Roads conversion method because, from those Christians I spoke to, it appears to be quite common. However, I suspect that much of what I have to say is applicable to other methods as well.

Before proceeding, I should state that many Christians to whom I have spoken feel the word "conversion" is inappropriate (I did have one non-Christian person communicate with me who felt that, with regards to his beliefs, the word was inappropriate as well. However, not all religious people are interested in whether or not other people accept what they believe as true. Therefore conversion is not an active part of the religious experiences of all peoples.) For the Christians that I spoke to, the point is to introduce someone to Jesus so that they can have their own personal relationship with God (who is also Jesus, since the ones I spoke to were Trinitarians.) To me, that sounds completely indistinguishable from simply converting to their religion, but I want to make pains not to force my own personal biases onto them. Rather, I will simply state that, for the purposes of this article, "converting" to any given religion x means coming to accept whatever ontological precepts one needs to have in order to be a good x-ist. Thus, as an example, in the context of modern American Protestant Christianity, one might often speak of a spiritual re-birth experience (e.g., being "born again".) That sort of experience involves a few different factors -- first and foremost of which is accepting that God exists and that Jesus Christ is your personal savior. These are ontological commitments, and taking them on is what I would term religious conversion.

One popular method for religious conversion is what is termed the Roman Roads to Salvation. My friend J is an ex-Christian from an extremely conservative background. She was the one who initially told me about the Roman Roads. She had this to say as a description of how she would have tried to convert someone when she was a Christian:

Start with some 10 commandments based questions (ie: Have you ever lied? Have you ever taken the Lord's name in vain? Have you ever disrespected your parents? Have you ever been jealous? Well, that makes you a jealous, lying, etc, person... so if you've broken God's law in so many ways, can you expect to go to heaven based on your works?)

1. So begins the Roman Road. They have acknowledged that they are a sinner, so we repeat that verse saying that God expected that of them anyway. Romans 3:23 'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.'

2. We've hinted at heaven vs. hell, so here comes Romans 6:23a '...The wages of sin is death...' which means eternal separation from the glory of God, in hell, a place of torment, crying, and gnashing of teeth.

3. But you don't have to go to hell! God loves you and made a way for you to spend eternity with him... you just have to accept this gift. Romans 6:23b '...But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.'

4. Explanation of said gift: Romans 5:8, 'God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us!'

5. To accept this gift, this is all you have to do: Romans 10:13 'Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved!'

However, J wasn't the only person with whom I communicated on the subject. Asking only an ex-Christian turned atheist about this might bias the presentation in some way; I therefore turn to T who is presently a Christian. He states:

"yeah man, i mean [J]'s roman road comment is pretty standard, the only thing i would add is that the goal isn't bringing people into a religion, its bringing people into a relationship with Christ. Christianity isn't the emphasis, Christ is. When im sharing the gospel with someone, my aim isn't to try to convert them to my religion, my goal is to introduce them to Christ. Doing 'religious' things and 'being a good christian' doesn't save you, faith in Christ does. Prayer is at the heart of that as well. petitioning Christ on the behalf of others and praying that others would come to salvation. Ephesians 3:14-19... Simply giving convincing arguments isn't the goal either. 1 Corinthians 1:21. yes we are to provide a defense for our faith, 1 peter 3:15, but salvation doesn't come from head knowledge but from the power of God 1 Corinthians 2:1-5"

I talked to a few other ex-Christians who said essentially the same things. If you're one of my Christian readers, the Roman Roads method might seem to you to be a wonderful reason to believe in a God. After all, you think, we're all sinners and deserve to be damned. God loves us, but in his pure goodness is morally outraged with us humans. Nonetheless, he loves us so much that your deity was kind enough to provide an escape hatch to get out of being plunged into eternal torment. How arrogant might one have to be, you might wonder, to defy God? To defy the very creator of the Universe? And, besides, it likely fills you with religious ecstasy to know that God loves you so much that it can all be forgiven.

In fact, the beginning of the routine is probably true. None of us are perfect, and, by virtue of having one fault or another, we probably have all done bad things in our lives. I wouldn't couch my description of the inherent imperfection of all people in terms of sin, but in so far as sin is indistinguishable from wrongdoing, I think there is something close to an apt description of the natural condition of people.

I remember something that was once pointed out to me in the context of Buddhism. In that religion, it is also believed that people have some inherent fault. In Buddhism, instead of having a sinful nature, the inherent fault is the suffering we all have from the impermanence of life and our endless thirst for the cessation thereof. To Buddhists, the first thing one needs to do to get on the path to Enlightenment, which represents the true cessation of suffering, is to accept that life is suffering.

However, this concept of suffering isn't necessarily a good translation of what was originally meant in the Dharma. The actual word which is used to describe this suffering is Dukkha. Dukkha can also be translated loosely as "discontent" or "unsatisfactoriness". It was once explained to me as being something like finding a wheelbarrow whose two handles are slightly, although nearly imperceptibly, different in length (I think this is actually in Huston Smith's "World Religions", but I couldn't find my copy.) When one uses the wheelbarrow, one senses that there is something which is inherently wrong about the whole thing; it just doesn't feel right. There's something missing (in this case, a few fractions of an inch) from one's experience of using the wheelbarrow. A Christian or a Buddhist would say that some similar feeling of unease or discomfort is felt by someone before they take on whatever particular ontological stance; in the case of a Christian, this would be accepting some set of propositions about Jesus and God (which particular set depends on the particular form of Christianity.) C.S. Lewis talks about something like this early on in Mere Christianity, and I remember being distinctly reminded of Buddhism when I read it.

Well, this is precisely where all of this fails. If you really want to introduce me to Christ, to having my own personal relationship with your deity, then you can't start by assuming that I already know that he exists. I don't know that he exists; if I did, I would already be a member of your religion. Even if my experience were somehow imperfect -- either by way of Dukkha or because of some inherently sinful nature or something else -- it doesn't stand to reason that your religious convictions are automatically true. There is no principle that I know of which says that our experiences need to be perfect. In point of fact, quite often, our experiences are imperfect regardless of religious belief. I don't have any empirical data on how often religious or non-religious people have bad days (or the ratio between the two), but I do know that simply being religious does not make one immune from negative experiences (something for which I only need a single example.) In fact, some of the happiest societies on Earth are non-religious. According to a major study by sociologist Phil Zuckerman (Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns):

High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world – particularly nations with high birth rates – atheism is barely discernible.

In fact, nearly all indices of societal health and of happiness are strongly anti-correlated with indices of religiosity in societies. According to another study, this one by Gregory S Paul ("Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies"):

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.

Thus, it would appear that the degree of religiosity does not influence either the health of a society or the happiness of people. So far as any one can tell, in the sense being advocated by the Roman Roads, there is simply no indication that people are better off with religion than without it (at least before death. It's possible that everyone in, say, Sweden is going to hell.) Some sociologists and anthropologists have advanced the claim that religions are advantageous adaptations to the groups which develop them, promoting things like group unity. Similar statements can be made about sports fandom and nationalism (and probably lie behind certain forms of ethnocentrism as well.) However, group selection in human populations is a contentious issue and, even if true, would not give more credence to this Roman Roads business.

A religious person might object that this contradicts both Romans and certain interpretations, namely Anselm's, of the 14th Psalm. They'd say that everyone does inherently know that God exists, and to deny this is simply to delude oneself. Citing the 14th Psalm, they'd say that only the immoral or the fool (depending on translation) deny that God exists. Nonetheless, before I can take either of those objections seriously, I need to first be convinced that the Bible is a reliable source of information not just generally but with regards to those two points. And, as far the 14th Psalm is concerned, I'd need to be convinced that this is an accurate reading of that text as well (which I presently doubt, though I also disagree with what I think the writer intended.) Arguing that we inherently know that God exists not only is a mismatch with my own experience, but is a mismatch with the available scientific data. According to several studies (for instance, see this one and this one), young children tend to make naturalistic and non-supernatural explanations and have to be taught to make supernatural explanations (although the onset of supernatural or magical beliefs occurs around the age of 5, so that there might well be psychological factors which predispose people to beliefs in various kinds of supernatural or magical beings.)

If belief in God were inherent, it would not have to be taught; if anything, one would need to do work to actively displace these sort of innate beliefs by non-belief. Instead, we find that there are plenty of cultures around the world which lack belief in a god. Some cultures lack anything even resembling what anthropologists usually identify as religion, the Piraha in Brazil being the most heavily publicised example. This is one reason that only 32% of the world's population are Christians (as of 2005; see here).

In order to cause me to believe a given thing, you have to compel me -- one way or another -- that the proposition is more likely to be true than not true. By starting off by saying that I am a sinner and that Jesus is the true path of personal salvation in the afterlife, and not showing that any of the various things assumed to exist by this set of propositions actually in fact exist, you've actually given me reason to simply shrug off what you're trying to communicate. Anyone could come up to me and tell me any story about some particular thing being the true path of salvation after death. What you need to do is to show me why I should accept your view on this subject.

Some, especially those participating in Western Abrahamic monotheisms, might say that one simply needs to have faith. This fails on several levels. First, there are those who say that we all have faith in something. Rubbish. I have trust in many people who have earned it based on prior experience. Likewise, there are various statements I believe to be true of the world, but those have all passed certain kinds of tests to compel me to believe them to be the case. I would not say that I have anything like faith, or, at least, the usual conception of faith. Nor do I see having faith -- believing in a given proposition for no rational reason -- as a virtue. I see it as horrendously dangerous and probably unintelligible. It's certainly possible that I am wrong, but if you want to convince me that I am wrong, you have to show me why I should want to have faith. But there's an even deeper problem here, and I would very much like to drive this home. If you find yourself having to prove to me that faith is a pathway to knowledge prior to proving to me that God exists, then you have placed yourself in the position of having to prove two things instead of just one. That's a rather poor argumentative technique, and I would recommend that any person who is arguing for any position at all, not unduly burden themselves by arguing for more than they have to. Therefore, unless you want to multiply your own difficulty for some perverse reason, stick to arguing for the existence of God more directly.

What are some things that I might be more receptive to?

First, understand that I see this as an intellectual debate. You're trying to convince me that some set of  propositions are true, and I'm skeptical; I remain unconvinced that any of them are true. Again, you might not see this as being anything like an intellectual debate, but if you try arguing that point, we'll be sidetracked off into arguing about what should be going on here. Again, you've unduly burdened yourself with arguing for many more things than you absolutely had to. You're less likely to convince me if you do that. Instead, a wiser move for you would be to simply accept the framework of a debate and present solid arguments or evidence for your position as you would for any other position.

Second, understand my position. I am an agnostic atheist. I would categorically deny that I actively believe in the non-existence of any gods or that agnosticism and atheism are necessarily separate. I would also deny that atheism is a religion. Rather, I disbelieve and remain skeptical about those gods. Don't like that definition of my own position? That's unfortunate; if you argue with me about how I describe my own position, you're again unduly burdening yourself. That takes us down a side-path that we don't need to go down. Even if you suddenly convinced me that I was using language incorrectly, I still would be no where near to accepting your position. Similarly, when speaking about my position, don't mischaracterise it; that's what's called a straw-man. Realize that I am the expert about the things that I do and don't believe, and the various positions I take on all manner of propositions (in fact, that's a trivial observation of all humans; each individual is the expert on themselves. That's not an arrogant statement; I expect that you're an expert on your own beliefs as well.)

Third, understand your own beliefs and the history of your own religion. It's quite likely that I'm already well versed in the precepts and the history of your religion. If I detect that something is amiss in your own understanding of your own tradition, I'm going to be very rapidly losing patience with you. Especially if I need to actually teach you about the actual history of your own religion. This includes being well versed on your holy texts (if your religion has them) and the various scholarly positions (from literary theory, archeology, etc) that have been formed around that text. For Christians and Jews, amongst other things, this means knowing the Documentary Hypothesis and modern critical/source analysis.

Fourth, don't egregiously abuse language either by misunderstanding or by purposeful obfuscation. Often, when I talk to lay religious people, they say to me, "you think that facts are really important" or "you're all about facts, aren't you?" They don't mean the word "facts" at all, and this is a terrible confusion of language. We're both all about facts; I'd say that just about every one is. It's simply that there is a different set of facts we believe to be true, and we accept different ways of accessing facts. After all, if you think that it is not a fact that your god exists, then what exactly are you trying to convince me of? To believe false things? No, you're trying to convince me that it is a fact that God exists. And you likely think that there are certain facts that we can access only through feelings or through faith or some such, and that I am relying too heavily on other kinds of faculties (perhaps you think I'm being too scientific.) Be honest about that. Don't obfuscate either; that is to say, don't use confusing aphorisms that you don't really understand yourself. Don't tell me that "god is just an energy" or some other such nonsense; depending on what you say, you're likely to either get a lecture from me on semantic content or on what scientific terms (like "energy") actually mean. So be damn sure that you know what you're saying and how to properly say it.

Fifth, I already know the most famous arguments for the existence of God or for belief therein -- the teleological argument, the transcendent argument, the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, Pascal's Wager, and Paley's watchmaker argument. I have read many of those arguments from their original sources, know many of their different incarnations, and I'm extremely well versed in the historical objections to those arguments. For many of them, I've even formulated my own counter-arguments. If you think that one of those arguments is going to convince me, then you should be able, and be prepared, to provide a strong counter to all of my objections. That means, at the very least, knowing what objections were made historically. Otherwise, I'd say that you should try to come up with a new argument. Get creative! Read widely in the philosophy literature, know what formal and informal fallacies exist, and know how to avoid them. Don't just slip back to whatever C.S. Lewis (or your favorite theologian) has to say; it's likely I've read them and know what fallacies they commit and where. It should go without saying, but I won't let it, that you should know deductive logic if you are going to present deductive arguments. Know how deduction fits with induction and abduction as well; this is freshman level philosophy.

Sixth, understand that I am extremely open to scientific evidence, probably even above deductive arguments. But if you are going to try to provide scientific evidence for the existence of your god, understand the science you are presenting. I am a scientist, so the moment you go there, you're stepping foot on to my turf. Be prepared to defend your supposed evidence against an onslaught of attacks. This is how scientists are with our colleagues; we routinely tear each other's ideas apart (or try to) and it's precisely what we want from our colleagues. Most scientific work is relatively mundane compared to the proposition that there is a god; it should take a tremendous bit of work to prove something as Earth shattering as that. If your argument can't even withstand the sort of attacks that we put normal scientific work through, how am I supposed to be able to take it seriously?

Lastly, I'll give an example of something that would make me inclined to believe that it was more likely that an intelligent being (of some kind) created the Universe than that one did not. Not all of my friends agree that this would compel them to believe in something like a god, but it would certainly push me in that direction.

In the early universe, there was a hot dense plasma in which light was strongly coupled to matter. As soon as light was emitted, it was re-absorbed. For this reason, light could not propagate widely in the universe. However, as the universe cooled and expanded, the gas spread out. Eventually, light became de-coupled from the plasma. At that moment, the first light to be emitted was sent out into the universe at 299792458 meters per second.

Today, we can still detect that cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang. It's called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR.) My astrophysics colleagues are continuing to retrieve ever higher resolution images of the CMBR, and it gives them information for what the universe looked like just moments after the Big Bang. It's one of our best clues about what the infant universe would have looked like.

Imagine that one day in the future, a number of astrophysicists retrieve a super high resolution image of the CMBR and it's shown to contain an intelligible message visible only with a sufficiently high resolution. Maybe it's the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew. Or some message traditionally attributed to Ahura Mazda. Or perhaps a message written in some non-human language, but still easily identifiable as something said by an intelligent being. Regardless, finding something like that would be very likely to compel me to a state of belief. As yet, my colleagues have not found such a thing.


  1. Thank you for this thorough and rigorous essay! I found it compelling.

    It puts me in mind of a thought I've had recently, and have yet to put to someone who'll address it as rigorously as I'd like. I preface by stating that I'm not trying to convince or convert you. This thought didn't convince or convert me when I had it, but I'm still mulling over the implications. OK here goes.

    Science is a method, and (in my view) a good one. Part of that method is what we observe about the universe. We have certain observational tools: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, proprioception, etc. We can observe things that affect those senses directly, and we can observe things that affect things that we can see or hear etc. E.g. we can't see X-rays, but we can see what they do to certain films.

    Unless my reasoning is flawed, it follows from this that there might be whole classes of phenomena occurring in the universe that neither are directly observable by human senses nor affect anything that is observable by human senses. As such, the existence or non-existence of said phenomena is fundamentally un-provable. And it might reasonably be argued that, if any such phenomena *do* exist, since they produce no human-observable effect they are in some sense irrelevant. I would counter that if a phenomenon is fundamentally unknowable, so is the degree of relevance of said phenomenon.

    But I do find the *possibility* of said phenomena fundamentally relevant. Shakespeare wrote "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, [t]han are dreamt of in your philosophy." That may have been right for the story, but it would not be an accurate statement in the real world we know about. It would have to be edited thus: "Unless and until we develop perfect knowledge that our observational powers are unlimited, there necessarily may be more things in the universe than we can know about."

    Again, I'm not trying to convince you that there *is* something behind a metaphorical un-pierce-able veil, or tell you what it may be; as stated, that's un-provable either way. The main thought here is the existence of said un-pierce-able veil. We'll never know that we know everything. And that, to me, is a fascinating thought with interesting implications.

    What do you think?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Amado!

    Are there things which we do not presently know? Yes, otherwise, I wouldn't have work left to do as a scientist.

    Are there things which we will never know, and might be impossible for humans to know? It's certainly possible, though we can't say for certain.

    However, there is no reason to suspect that any particular thing -- be it God, leprechauns, or Bigfoot -- is one of those kinds of things that we will never know about. And supposing that it were, we'd never be justified in believing in them. You have to actually have good reasons for believing that something exists to believe in it. But at that same point, you know that it probably exists. You've detected it, and it's therefore not one of these things whose existence we'd never know about.

    So, either God is one of these kinds of things and no one should ever believe that he exists or God is not one of these kinds of things and people may be either justified in believing (or not believing) that he exists.

    My position of withholding belief -- agnostic atheism -- therefore still wins.