By Brian Nicholson
I am fairly middle of the road when it comes to my agnosticism. That being said, I’m not apathetic about religion or belief in God – what some have dubbed “apatheism.” I actually see the topic of God’s existence to be relevant and important.
Religion impacts decisions people make in several significant facets of their lives. Were it just left to a few private rituals with no carryover into the believer’s social or working life, one could dismiss religion’s influences. But people are making highly impactful decisions based on their religious beliefs. These are often decisions about who they’ll date and marry, what scientific theories they’ll accept or dismiss (sometimes before any consideration of the coherency of those theories), how they’ll view homosexuality, and sometimes how they’ll treat illnesses and disabilities.
Due to the aforementioned factors, which aren’t exhaustive, the secular are in no position to throw in the towel. We need to be prepared to have dialogues with believers and express clearly why we think the way we do. A common approach, in my experience, is to try to always put the ball in the believer’s court, and ask them to present evidence for their position. The nonbeliever will often say they bear no burden of proof in showing deities don’t or likely don’t exist, any more than a nonbeliever in leprechauns needs to make a case for why they don’t believe.
While this isn’t a bad play, it’s incomplete, and I think pairing this approach with our own “testimonies” of why we find our particular worldview most persuasive will help further constructive dialogue. This will assist in helping both believer and non-believer to understand one another better. For example, some of the reasons I struggle to think God could exist deal with apparent gratuitous suffering and evil in the world. I find animal suffering to be one of the most persuasive arguments against God’s existence. Animals cannot sin and are not moral agents, yet they clearly suffer and experience pain. Since they can’t be punished as a result of their sinfulness, why does God let them suffer?
But I find some arguments for God to be quite interesting as well, such as the fine-tuning argument, based on the well-accepted fact that several of the universe’s initial conditions had to be very precisely calibrated to allow for stars, chemistry, planets, and of utmost importance to the reader, intelligent life. I’m fine to admit this is the best argument for a designer, in my opinion.
Here’s why I believe the non-theist is well advised to find a favorite argument for God. While on Twitter, I read a post from Catholic apologist Trent Horn asking what argument for God atheists find the most persuasive. Several people responded, “I find them all to be bad.” They missed the point. The point wasn’t if you found any of them convincing, only if you found one of them better than others. I find fine tuning more compelling than arguments from religious experience.
This is crucial. If you can pinpoint a particular argument for a theistic worldview that you at least find better than other theistic arguments, then you’re putting yourself in a spot to have more meaningful conversations. If you want to convince someone something isn’t true, you find points of agreement as much as you can. Hence, why Bart Ehrman is taken more seriously by Christians in his critical works about Jesus than people who deny Jesus ever existed, like Richard Carrier.
I mention these to emphasize the importance of knowing who you’re speaking with. Many religious believers take their faith seriously, and many of them have practiced defending it. These are influencers. These are the believers making changes that will impact our own lives and the lives of our children. We need to be prepared to engage with them. If you can compete at that level, then your average believer who accepts much of their beliefs “on faith” will be no problem. You’ll be able to have dialogues with the average religious person with ease, explaining why accepting things in the absence of evidence leads to trouble. Be very careful to have a gentle approach – you never know what someone has been through and what led them to their current belief system.
Being familiar with several of the popular level arguments both for and against God’s existence will help you to engage with nearly anyone on the topic, and you’ll show them that you don’t just have a shallow understanding of their beliefs. This will help them open up and listen to you, and vice versa. They’ll know you’ve considered things carefully, and didn’t just casually arrive at your beliefs. We are all on this planet for only a brief time, but the importance of religion, it’s impact and influence, and the way it shapes our world, cannot be ignored.