One of the most frustrating parts about being an atheist (of which there are thankfully very few) is the futility in discussing your points of view with those whose minds you’d most like to change. Belief and faith are so pervasive that if a believer exhibits the slightest move towards skepticism, his or her brain will spark feelings of guilt or treason. The idea that god is ever-watchful keeps the vast majority of religious adherents from challenging their beliefs.
However, as an atheist, I am not bound by my worldview to think in such a restricted fashion. If the clouds were to part and a large, celestial superbeing were to emerge, defy the laws of physics and perform wondrous feats as to defy imagination, then I would have to reevaluate how I view and perceive the world (but first, I’d obviously have to prove that I’m not dreaming and in a sober state of mind).
But such a cosmic encounter has never happened. If it ever did, and I determined that I was in a fit state of mind and we had ruled out that these towering astral beings were not extra-terrestrials with their own biology and evolution but in fact, supernatural gods, then what choice do I have left? I can’t simply put my head in the sand, close my ears and spit out “no, this isn’t happening, gods don’t exist” to the plain, unmistakable evidence before me. With all other explanations rendered unreliable or false, especially in the wake of such convincing evidence, I would have to stubbornly genuflect to my new deities.
The converse doesn’t happen because we can’t prove non-existence. The argument by burden of proof has been sung ad nauseum, but it still doesn’t stick in the minds of acolytes. Adherents believe that the onus is on atheists as non-believers to disprove god or somehow prove his non-existence. That is the fundamental obstacle that any atheist faces when attempting to communicate the lifestyle absent from belief and religion. It’s a primer for atheism but it’s a very simple argument that bears repeating in two different ways:
One popular comparison is the idea of a tea kettle orbiting the planet Saturn. I could tell you that buried within the planet’s iconic rings is a tea kettle, orbiting amongst the rocks. Prior to learning this from me, you had no idea that somehow, despite its implausibility, a manmade kettle had made its way into Saturn’s orbit. At this point, it’s up to me to prove to you that I’m correct, or at least provide you with enough compelling evidence to convince you of this wondrous kitchenware’s existence. I would hope that you would call my bluff or simply hold off your decision to believe me after I simply insist that it exists. In other words, the responsibility is on me to prove it instead of demanding that you disprove it.
The second comparison involves Santa Claus. Up until we turned 11 (or sooner for those of us with older, craftier friends), we believed that there was a fat, bearded man dressed in red robes who would squeeze down our chimneys and munificently bring us all sorts of gifts and surprises. Some of us actually saw him, though he’d usually enter and leave through the front door. But the gifts (and sometimes even the belly and beard) were real. True, we never saw the sleigh or the gravity-defying woodland creatures that he employed, but we saw just enough to believe in the entire myth.
But there did come a time when the story was dispelled by someone, either our friends, movies or in some sadistic cases, our own parents. Belief in Santa Claus only goes so far. Once we were old enough, we laughed at how preposterous it was. Popular movies have given creative explanations for how one person might be able to distribute toys to every single child-filled household in the world, but ultimately it’s all fantasy. We know that because it’s almost a rite of passage for children in the western world, tantamount to losing a significant piece of one’s innocence. But losing belief in Santa happens to almost everyone because at some point we all realize the truth: mall Santas are everyday people with white beards and an hourly wage, the guy who paid a surprise visit to your home on Christmas Eve was your fun-loving uncle and all the presents were bought ahead of time by your parents.
So why is it that when someone tells us that god isn’t real, we are so reluctant to entertain the idea?
It’s because the idea of god has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s near impossible for many people to abandon it. The most popular films regularly invoke god, chart-topping singles routinely invoke a spiritual power and even our daily colloquialisms are peppered with references to the almighty (even I say “Oh god” or “Jesus Christ” with regularity). Even if you were brought up by atheist parents, the language of god is everywhere, allowing for few exit options in the minds of the religious.
All of this leaves the question open: what would cause a believer to change his or her mind? I’m open to ideas.