“so, what would it take for you to believe in God again?”
If a Christian asks you this question, you cannot really answer it directly, because according to Jesus if you assert that some additional evidence is wanted, then your additional evidence will be viewed as hypocrisy and associate you with the wicked and adulterous. As Matthew Henry explains in commentary to Matthew 16:1-4: “It is great hypocrisy, when we slight the signs of God’s ordaining, to seek for signs of our own devising.” And, from their perspective, the problem lies in your refusal to interpret the kinds of things they think are evidence for God’s existence, not that you lack evidence in the first place.
One way to allow them to see the problem from your perspective is to ask some counter questions:
- [With some sensitivity because this can sound belittling even though it’s not meant to be] What would it take for you to believe in Santa Claus again? [The point is that you find other models to explain presents under the tree much more compelling than the Santa Claus myths that are told to children, so they can then offer up in your behalf the kinds of evidence that can cause a person to take seriously a different model of how the world works]
- What would it take for you to believe that Muhammed is God’s last prophet and Jesus Christ was not the Son of God but merely a prophet?
- What would it take for to believe A.J. Miller is the reincarnated Jesus Christ?
Regardless of their response to the above (which is sort of a dodge, but a fair one given the signs teaching of Jesus), a question that you can reasonably answer is: why is the evidence that influences most believers to believe not sufficient for me to believe? In other words, why do I set my bar so high for believing in God? For me, the answer is:
- We can demonstrate that the kinds of things that most people use to build their faith in God on are either epistemologically questionable or have been demonstrated to be self-generatable (e.g. , see these and especially the Intervention experiment).
- An argument can be made that religious faith is not a virtue. For me, based on the evidence I’ve been exposed to and sought out, to “choose” to believe in God in spite of this evidence seems like it would be some kind of immoral act (at the very least, not authentic at all). To be clear, I’m not certain that some kind of God doesn’t exist, but most LDS believers want more than that (they want positive, specific belief1).
God (if he/she/it exists) knows why I am skeptical: and it’s not because I don’t want to believe in God or because I am adulterous in my heart.2
Because I want to subscribe to accurate models in order to do the most good3, I simply do not subscribe to an interventionist God model at this time. Given that God knows this (assuming a God), they also know precisely what kinds of events or evidence would be required to cause me to believe in them again, and they know this far better than me.4 So, the original question “what would it take for you to believe in God again?” may also be framed as “why has God decided not to give me evidence sufficient to compel my belief in him?”
And that leads us to “the test”: the test of life, so believing members assert, is to believe in God and follow his commandments, growing in confidence as we exercise trust in him.
But if the test of life is to apply my confidence fully to a concept that I genuinely see as poorly supported, then I will fail that test. But, I would argue that such a test is intrinsically unjust, hence I would not want to worship or live eternally with a God who tests people in that manner. If the true test of life is to love goodness and to and love others (regardless of religion, say), then I am not at all nervous about passing that test, and that’s the kind of God (i.e., a just and good God) I’d be happy with anyway. So, failing the “faith” test is no concern of mine since I view the test as intrinsically unjust.
But this still doesn’t fully address why some people think it’s superior to choose to believe in God, regardless of everything I stated above, and I think this is why:
There are two related concerns with the models a person chooses to adopt:
“How often does the model make useful predictions and how often are those predictions correct?” All else being equal, good models make lots of useful predictions and hence can help everyone minimize suffering and maximize joy. For instance, the early pioneers should have been boiling their water to avoid cholera (and then cooling it before drinking to avoid esophageal cancer) to avoid death and discomfort. But they did not understand germ theory (or the ways people get cancer). The scientific enterprise and associated models are superior at understanding and predicting the causes of health and disease in resolution than any religious enterprise I am aware of, and this generalizes to several other areas impacting quality of life, too.
“How do models make the people subscribing to them feel and act?” If models have the same predictive power, then we can do more good by encouraging the adoption of models that make more people act in “better” ways. The religious model makes lots of unfalsifiable predictions, and many of those make their holder act in good ways and create good communities. For instance, the idea that we will live again prevents existential crises and helps the disadvantaged from despairing. Sam Harris uses the example that a person may subscribe to a belief where they have a refrigerator sized diamond buried somewhere in their backyard. They love the fact that digging for the diamond brings their family together and the digging gives them strong muscles. Whether or not there is a diamond is beside the point from this POV.
Together, these two aspects of the models we subscribe to play out in ways that generate joy/pleasure and misery/suffering.
Most educated Latter-day Saints and former members fall into two pools5:
2/1: Those who choose #2 in spite of #1 are merely asserting that the misery caused because of bad predictions (#1) is outweighed by the good of subscribing to a religious model (#2). Maybe patriarchs do give blessings with bad predictions in them that sometimes ruin a few lives, but simply being in a tight-knit community where hopeful predictions are made in the first place more than makes up for the failed predictions.
1/2: Those who choose naturalism because of #1, even if they believe that the religious model is somewhat better for many people (#2), are simply asserting that the misery caused because of bad predictions (#1) outweighs the good of subscribing to religious models.
I would argue that nobody has conclusively demonstrated that either 2/1 or 1/2 is maximally optimal for everyone on all the measures of joy/happiness/pain/suffering we care about (take the religious engagement paradox for example).
So, framing the discussion like this focuses us on how we weigh the goodness of our models, and it finally gives us a framework to answer the original question without “sign-seeking”, per se.
I would believe in God and encourage others to believe in the God model if I thought that the God model was superior in the combined concerns of making the best predictions and encouraging the most goodness of its subscribers.
Maybe the symmetrical counter-question for believers (no more loaded that their question) is:
What would it take for you to subscribe to models with better predictive power (when they compete) than the God model?
[inspired by a question from /u/Fuzzy_Thoughts and some of his initial private thoughts on the matter]
There is plenty of good evidence suggesting that other consciousnesses (i.e., humans) really do exist and that their conscious experience matters to them as much as mine does to me. ↩
If God wants me to take the initiative in communicating with him, I have already asked that they communicate with me many, many times in prayer (no obvious communication beyond what can be self-generated). And, I have outlined an authentication protocol whereby God can send me a message, and I can be reasonably confident that the being communicating with me is omniscient, at least. ↩
Some people believe that religious models make better predictions than scientific models and so would choose the religious models based on #1 and #2 (faith healers for example). I could provide evidence to this group, but their position tends not to care for the kind of evidence I might provide. ↩