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Internal Compass Failure

By WizenedSage --

[The following article languished in my “Not Sufficiently Interesting” folder for many months. Then I read “Rejecting Falsehood and Meeting Jesus” by Chris, published on 3/21/10 and changed my mind. I decided that my article was perfectly relevant and perhaps it was time to hoist it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.]

When you debate the existence of a god with a Christian, you may cover many of the standard arguments, from the ontological argument to the “universe is too perfectly balanced to be accidental” argument, the problem of evil, the “hiddeness” problem, etc. If you can get the believer to yield anything at all, he will almost always eventually fall back on the “I just know in my heart” argument. To the believer, this is proof enough, and it becomes quite difficult to get him to even consider that his feelings may be blinding him to the truth.

In the past, at this stage, I would remind him that the Muslim and the Hindu say exactly the same thing. They simply know in their hearts that Allah is the one true god and Mohammed was his chief prophet, or that Vishnu and Krishna are as real as the trees are real. Of course he can’t explain how it is that they are wrong and he, the Christian, is right, except that maybe they just don’t feel it like he feels it; deeply and all-consumingly. I would also point out to the Christian that he is just talking about an emotion and all an emotion can ever prove is that one is emotional. Additionally, there are hundreds of people in asylums who believe in their hearts that they are Jesus Christ, but obviously aren’t. But, of course, he will tell me that is irrelevant because he is not crazy.

In my experience, this line of argument generally ended in a stalemate at this point, so I have thought a great deal on this problem, searching for an example that might break through this last line of defense at least once in a while. Finally, it occurred to me that my own life provides a very good example.

No, I can’t prove there is no god, but neither can I prove there are no leprechauns, so I feel justified in believing in neither. My family was not religious at all and we never attended church (I know, lucky me!). When the neighborhood kids would talk about god, I would ask questions. One kid taught me about prayer, which I soon found didn’t work. His response was, “Just keep trying.” Anyway, he told me that god was everywhere, and saw everything, and even knew what we were thinking. Since he told me that everyone believed this, I naturally assumed it must be true. I was only about six years-old at the time. I did wonder how anyone knew this for sure, but soon I felt a presence inside me that just had to be god. I felt like I was being watched by god and acted accordingly. I also frequently talked in my head to this presence. It felt quite natural.

Fortunately, I saw very early on that most Bible stories were absolute nonsense, so I never became religious in the standard sense. Over time, being a science nut and a compulsive reader, I began to have serious doubts about the very existence of gods. I became an agnostic by my late teens, but religion was largely irrelevant to me at that time, so I seldom thought much about it. However, over the past decade or so I did some serious investigating and became an uncompromising atheist. No, I can’t prove there is no god, but neither can I prove there are no leprechauns, so I feel justified in believing in neither. I’m not interested in that one chance in ten billion or whatever that I might be wrong. People can go nuts that way.

So, while I once felt with utter conviction that there was a god, now I don’t believe it. My question to the believer is - what happened? Did the world change, or did I change? The obvious answer is that I changed, and either there was always a god or there never was a god. And it’s just as obvious that this inner certainty that I felt was absolutely useless as evidence on the question of the existence of a god. I also know of others who once “felt” the reality of a god but no longer do. Thus, I am not just describing a failing of mine, but a facet of the human condition.

In essence, I’ve run the same experiment twice. The first time, my experiment, my conviction, was that god does exist. In the second run of this experiment, the answer I got was that there is no god. It seems pretty clear that this experiment, this appeal to emotion, is useless since it is not consistent. My point here, and it’s all-important, is that whether I was right before and wrong now, or vice-versa, doesn’t matter. What matters is that my inner convictions have simply given no indication of how the world really is, and did not ALWAYS point to the truth. My convictions on this issue have been both right and wrong over my lifetime and it’s impossible to say without outside evidence when I was right and when I was wrong. For the believer, how can it make sense to always believe one’s inner convictions once it’s been absolutely proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that inner convictions sometimes fail, even in perfectly healthy, normal human beings?

Is this going to convince a believer that his internal compass is not dependable? Of course not, but it might cause him to think about it a bit and maybe look a little closer at the lack of external evidence. If he insists that he still knows he is right and his conviction couldn’t possibly be wrong, one might point out to him that he is then certainly guilty of the sin of pride. Let him chew on that for a bit. Naturally, no single argument is going to change the believer on the spot. As we all know, losing faith is seldom the result of an epiphany. It generally is a long slow erosion process and I just want to blow some possibilities across his topsoil.