As I wander through social media engagements around religion and atheism, I am stunned how often communication fails over semantics. We become so defensive of word usage, that we often miss the opportunity to impart vital information in the answers we post. This occurs almost daily with two frequent questions posed to atheists. The first is, “Why don’t atheists offer proof that God doesn’t exist?”
What follows this question, naturally, is an argument regarding burden of proof. We can’t go about “disproving” something for which there was no evidence in the first place. While true, this sub-argument fails to offer any of the plethora of scientific information that does, in fact, challenge and disprove religious myths. It doesn’t direct the readers to any number of nonreligious scientists, philosophers, and commentators who are hardly shy about presenting rock-solid evidence against the supernatural. We are so quick to present the burden of proof argument that we miss a golden opportunity to present reason to those who need it most… the quiet, undecided readers who are following the thread.
I tackled another frequent flyer on Quora today, and I’ve decided to share it with you here. I’m sure you’ll recognize the age-old Pascal’s Wager in this one. The question was, “What is the atheist response to the religious claim, “You have nothing to lose if you believe?”
In the fine tradition of religious reasoning, this question blows logical fallacies out both ends. For starters, we don’t “choose” our beliefs. Our beliefs may change throughout our lives, but at any given time we either believe something, or we don’t. And it would be just plain silly to believe something only because we have “nothing to lose” by believing it. I could apply that line of reasoning to justify a limitless number of absurd ideologies. Heck, I might as well “choose” to believe in the one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater, rather than risk unpreparedness for a mauling by it.
Once again, though, we get tied up in elucidating the illogical nature of the question, and we miss an opportunity to share truth. Sadly, however appropriate our argument may be, the asker (and the readers of the thread) are surely left thinking that we are dodging the question. When engaging with believers, I have decided to give them what they want, an answer that makes sense to them. I am careful to use my words in the way they would define them, and I very much enjoy backing up my statements with Bible references.
Here was my short list of things you can lose by “choosing” to believe in God.
Speaking for Christianity, you lose:
Reason. Noah’s Ark, a talking snake and donkey, warriors flying through the sky on horses, virgins giving birth, dead people coming back to life are all true stories now, not myths that span cultures, (or pretty cool sci-fi.)
Compassion. We believe that cruelty towards others is justifiable if it is “God’s will.” Throughout history, this has manifested in the massacre of native peoples and pagans, the African American slave trade, the horrible practices and animal abuse in factory farming, the emotional and-or physical abuse of children in some Christian homes and-or churches, and discrimination and abuse inflicted on individuals of the LGBTQ demographic.
Joy. As it does in any cult, following strict rules that are often inconsequential diminishes one’s sense of freedom and joy to experience life. Behaving and making choices out of fear of punishment reduces one’s sense of self-worth. There are many songs, philosophies, relationships, theatrical performances, dances, conversations, and scientific discoveries that Christians will never experience, because they believe them “offensive” to God.
Self-respect. The belief that we are born sinners, deserving of death, as well as the constant reminders of how “broken,” “sinful,” and “ugly” we are begins to eat away at our sense of value. We strive to subdue our own personalities and choices and allow Jesus to take over, because we are “bad” and God is good.
Initiative. We could take action to support scientific and medical discoveries, or push for human rights, or help protect the Earth, but we believe all of this is temporary and in God’s hands. We focus on the “hereafter” instead of valuing our ever so precious “here.”
Money. Lastly, we lose the free will to control our own finances. We are expected to contribute so often to the collective “good” of the church, that we take money away from things that could be life-enhancing to ourselves, our children, our home, extended family members or the charities we feel strongly about.
On top of all of this, what if Pascal’s Wager were reversed? What if we lost all of this, only to realize that this was the only life we had? The only time we could have spent loving others, extending compassion to the marginalized, enjoying art, appreciating our intrinsic value and worth, learning about amazing scientific discoveries, and using our hard-earned money for the things that bring us peace and comfort? We can’t get this time back, which is why I won’t “wager” my life on religion or myth.
As you can see, I didn’t waste any of my valuable time fighting the futile war of reason and semantics. I gave the asker the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they really wanted to know what they could lose, if they chose religion. Sure, it’s more likely that they just wanted to razz atheists, but at least I left the page with my integrity intact.
By the way, I’m on Quora almost daily, providing snappy (and sometimes not-so-snappy) answers to silly religious questions. I’d absolutely love it if you visited me over there, and perhaps became my follower. Not in a creepy spiritual way, of course (wink, wink.)