[Note: This post, specifically the cat analogy, borrows heavily from ideas I first heard expressed on the highly recommended Atheist Experience TV show. I suggest you ucheck them out, and I thank them for presenting the argument.]
“Why should I believe you?”
My wife and I don’t have kids, but if we ever do, that will definitely be a question they’ll be raised learning to ask.
From Power Balance bracelets (astonishingly still being sold on the internet) to miracle diets, from reiki to homeopathy, from chupacabras to sinister reptilians, from phony 2011 apocalyptic prophesies to phony 2012 apocalyptic prophesies, the informational landscape in which we live is riddled with falsehoods, and heavily populated by hucksters and charlatans who would have us believe the stories they’re peddling in order to further their own agendas – usually to our detriment – that a skeptical approach is merited.
Skepticism is important for many reasons. One of the most important is that we prevent ourselves from baselessly believing untrue things, especially in cases where accepting false or unsupported beliefs may bring undue harm or ill consequences upon ourselves. But even in cases where believing things for no good reason may not seem to invite any immediate or apparent harm – say, for example, accepting that there is a loving god which created this universe and all living things in it – the same degree of skepticism should be applied. We act, after all, based upon our beliefs. And the further our beliefs become detached from foundations in reality, the more difficult it will become for us to make decisions which are beneficial in the real world.
But not all claims are equal.
Consider two assertions I might make to you:
1) I tell you my bicycle is parked outside.
2) I tell you my Lamborghini is parked outside.
Unless you happen to believe for some reason that I’m ridiculously wealthy (if only it were true) you almost certainly won’t believe my second assertion. You will, however, believe the first easily enough, and rightfully so. The vast majority of people can (and many do) buy bicycles, meaning that the likelihood of my owning one is fairly high, and further that the unlikelihood of me lying about owning one (when it’s nothing special) is even higher. Why in the world would anyone lie about owning a bike?
These thresholds of believability are something we all are familiar with and experience in our daily lives, especially in the internet age when viral rumors run rampant and the pace of creating false stories and claims exceeds the pace of debunking those falsehoods by what seems to be an ever-increasing margin. We have all kinds of expressions, usually involving odor (“that story doesn’t pass the smell test”) that display in our vernacular language our keen awareness of the many varying levels of plausibility when it comes to the stories people tell us.
Yet, when it comes to religious assertions, hands off! Thou shalt not disrespect the claims of another, so long as they qualify them with words such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “holy”, “religious”, “god”, or any number of phrases which serve as dogmatic antibodies to critical scrutiny. How often we all have heard it asserted that questioning another’s religious assertions is “disrespectful” or “inappropriate”.
But to those believers who would seek to assert their religious claims under the protection of such well-established social mores, it’s important that you understand that skeptics and atheists have no sacred cows. No claims are exempt from inquiry and investigation.
So when you assert, “God exists”, you may find it offensive when atheists and skeptics ask you, rhetorically, “Do you believe in bigfoot?” “Do you believe in leprechauns?” “Do you believe in alien abductions?” To many of you this may feel like a deliberately disrespectful affront to the sanctity of your religion. But it’s important that you understand this is not hyperbole or exaggeration on the part of the questioner. Skeptics do not recognize the sanctity of any claims which have not been shown to be built upon a reasonable and demonstrable foundation of evidence.
And please, if you will, consider how your claims sound to us.
Your claim is one of the existence of God. Let’s consider an analogy based on the existence of a pet. And return to the concept of varying thresholds of believability.
Like the bicycle example above, if I assert to you that “I have a pet cat”, you are more than likely to believe me. Having a cat is so commonplace, and nothing special. Why would I lie about that? And let’s say additionally that I’m your co-worker of several years, so that you feel you know me fairly well and have little reason to doubt or distrust me. Then you’ll be even more inclined to believe that a cat truly is living in my home.
So one Saturday evening I have a party and you have your first opportunity to visit my place – very much looking forward to meeting the cat I always talk so much about. But upon arriving and walking around a bit, you begin to notice first that there isn’t a cat wandering around, and then – as you move from room to room – that there isn’t a litter box in the bathroom, and there aren’t food and water dishes in the kitchen. There are no scratches on the sofa, and no signs of any cat toys, cat nip, or any cat-related anything to be found.
Your doubt builds, and appropriately so. My simple assertion (“I have a cat”) has become less believable as your scrutiny of my claim has raised your suspicions. After a while you just have to ask me: “So, where is this cat of yours?” But I just smile and say she’s not around right now. Time passes, still no cat, you raise the stakes: “So I’m sorry, but it kind of seems like you don’t really have a cat here…” But now I just laugh. “Oh, of course I have a cat, it’s just away from the home right now, and it won’t be back until after the party…”
At a certain point, when none of the evidence you should expect to have seen if I truly owned a cat has been anywhere in sight – especially the cat itself – you will find yourself in a position in which, even if you trust me and don’t believe I’m a liar, you really are left with no other choice but believing I don’t really have a cat. My once simple “cat” assertion has now moved closer to “Lamborghini” territory. Until, at least, I can show you some verifiable evidence that I actually do have a cat.
Or in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
And in this story, the only claim I’m making is that I have a pet cat.
So how do you think it sounds to people who don’t already subscribe to your God-concept when you claim that God not only exists, but has extraordinary powers and does things which go against everything we know of how the natural world works?
Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask you to show us the litter box? To show us the food and water dishes or the scratches on the sofa? And above all, to show us the damn cat?
I hope you understand this: Atheists don’t choose not to believe in gods. We can’t believe in gods. There simply is no reason to believe the entirely unconvincing claims that any gods exist when nobody on the planet can demonstrate a single shred of evidence that those claims are true. Under such conditions, “choosing” to believe in God is akin to “choosing” to believe we can fly by flapping our arms. It flies in the face of everything we know as evident reality.
I can’t do it. Nor would I ever want to, without good reason.