The question was posed to me in the comments of a recent post asking:

Could I ask: what would it take for you to accept that there is a God? I hope I am not maligning Richard Dawkins, but I think somewhere he says that even if a statue of Mary waved to him he would attribute it to a freak coincidence that the random motion of molecules happened to occur in the same direction for some short space of time. If anyone has a “faith” in atheism that would surely be it. That is to say, it is hard to see what could count as proof. As Jesus points out: “Not even if a man should rise from the dead would they believe.”

Jonathan Baker

It’s an interesting question, and one that I have pondered in the past but never articulated.  I thought it best to begin by stating what will not lead me to believe in a deity.

Something Science Cannot Explain

There is a school of thought that believes atheists can be converted if they can be shown something which cannot be reasonably explained by science.  This falls into the realm of the “God of the gaps” argument.  For me, personally, seeing something which cannot be reasonably explained by science simply means that it cannot currently be explained by science.  Science is a constantly evolving beast by its very nature, and problems which seemed insurmountable only a couple of decades ago are now taught to school children.

Any Holy Book in Isolation

Note the clause at the end of that statement.  I don’t believe any book can change my world view enough so as to make me believe in a deity.  The reason I trust science is that there is no trust required.  If I read a book that proposes a theory, I can exercise my right to validate the theory.  If I choose not to do this, I can look upon the works of others and examine their methods in order to determine whether they meet my standards of proof.  And even if they do, I can repeat the experiement in order to be sure that I am happy with the method and the results.  Of course, I rarely exercise this right, so there is an element of trust, but there are two key differences between trusting a holy book and trusting a scientific theory.

  1. Even if I put my trust in the results of a scientist, I can still go out and prove it myself.  This is not possible with holy books.
  2. Trusting a holy book is putting your trust in a single source.  Scientific theories are, in the vast majority of cases, confirmed or rejected by many other scientists who approach the experiment with an open yet critical mind. It’s very rare that science has to rely on a single source, and such theories are always treated with the requisite scepticism.  This is not a quality generally shared by the religious community.

The “in isolation” clause should be fairly self-explanatory.  While I cannot accept any holy book as it stands (plus, which one would I chose, there’s so many!), there may, in the future, be evidence that comes to light that substantiates all of the claims made in such a book.  And let’s be clear, evidence would have to exist for all the claims made.

A Miracle, a Message from God, a “Spiritual Experience”

The example of Richard Dawkins, who would dismiss an image of the statue of mary waving at him is an interesting one. I am sure that I would also dismiss such a thing, and I’m sure many others would to.  If I was already a believer, I would be even more ready to question anything that confirmed by belief, anything that I wanted to be true. Taking the specific example of a statue appearing to wave, there are many reasons this might appear to happen. As we know, light can bend altering the appearence of objects, statues can actually move as their structual integrity decays.  There’s a myriad of ways to explain such an event.

Similarly, many spiritual experiences can be easily explained through known phenomena. I would also be careful to consider all aspects of such an event, such as similar experiences that didn’t make sense or fall into some sort of plan.

What Would Make me Believe?

The answer to this question is “nothing”.  There is nothing that would make me believe in any deity. However, I do not, and cannot, rule out the possibility of my accepting a deity exists.  Note the subtle but important difference in wording I’ve used. I will never believe in a deity, but if the presence of a deity can be proved to the point where belief is not necessary, I will accept their existence.  And at that point, I would no longer be an atheist.  I have so far yet to witness any evidence whatsoever for the existence of any deity and therefore find it hard to believe such a day will come.  It would be very un-atheistic of me, however, to not examine any evidence should it ever be produced.

Do I Want God to be Real?

Jonathan posted a second question, which I feel obliged to answer.

Finally, how about a second question: would you like there to be a God? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that that would prove anything. It would just give some idea of your perception of God.

Jonathan Baker

Again, an interesting question, but the answer really depends on what your definition of a God is. For example, I would not want the Christian God to be real having read the Bible.  It is a vengeful, spiteful, angry, jealous, arrogant God who seems more interested in being worshipped, like some celebrity, than guiding people down the right path. I feel similarly about any deity that builds into their religious teachings (used under advisement! I do not believe any deities exist and therefore do not believe there are any teachings from these non existent beings) any intolerance of any other belief (or absence of belief) system or that requires any form of worship.  I cannot concede that any being powerful enough to create the universe, and wise enough to impart such knowledge and wisdom, would be as egotistical to demand that the creatures he has created constantly worship him.

On a personal level, I don’t actually care whether a deity exists or not.  While, if they were proven to be real, there would clearly be an impact on all of our lives, at this moment in time I don’t really mind.  I don’t care whether my origins are primates or a creator.  I would say that in my experience those who believe, and especially those who come to religion later in life, do so because they need to believe, and I do not have that need myself.  I can accept that my life is unplanned, and not part of some great scheme of a creator, that doesn’t worry me or make me feel inadequate in anyway.  In fact, I feel quite comfortable with it.  So my response to the question “would you like there to be a God” would be “I have no need for there to be a God”. A slight cop-out, perhaps, but an honest answer.