Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Why do you need to convert me?

     Once upon a time, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I invited them in, and we talked for an hour or so. Although I didn’t share their beliefs, I was happy to give them the opportunity to convince me, and to that end I had to presume that maybe they knew something I didn’t. So I listened patiently, and when I had a question about something that didn’t make sense to me, I asked. After all, perhaps my objection was something they too once considered, but had found a satisfactory answer to resolve it.
     They kept coming back every month or so for the better part of a year, each time trying to answer questions I had posed during the previous session, although to be honest, I don’t think they ever really addressed any of them. It seemed to me more that they had promised to return, and when they had a new issue of the Watchtower, they did. But eventually it became clear to me that my initial presumption was rebutted; they did not seem to know something I didn’t know. On the contrary, it seemed that I had some understanding that they lacked. And so I told them that while they were welcome to keep trying to convert me, that was very improbable; it was much more likely that, as they came to understand my objections, they would come to doubt sooner than I would come to believe. They have not been back since.

     See, I’m not actually trying to convert anybody here. I understand that religious belief gives a lot of people comfort and purpose, and I don’t particularly want to take that away when I don’t really have something to offer to take its place. My atheistic world view works just fine for me, but I’ve spent close to four decades developing it. Applying any theory effectively takes a lot of practice, and the benefits gained may not always be worth the effort. We land space probes on other planets using Newtonian physics, even though strictly speaking Einstein’s theory is more accurate, but the Newtonian simplification gets the job done well enough. So if your belief in God works for you, I don’t really have a problem with it. If you want to convince me to share it, well, you’re welcome to try, and I’ll do my best to help you understand my objections so you can overcome them, if possible.
     But you do have to overcome them. If I find your beliefs nonsensical, you have to make them intelligible to me. I’ll try to help, but I really cannot just snap my fingers and make myself believe. That’d be a lie, and my conscience tells me that’s immoral. And if you ask me to do something I consider immoral, I’m likely to think you are immoral. So be careful with that.

     I’m writing this, as some readers probably suspect, because (at least) one of you has been commenting anonymously to try to cajole me into accepting a particular brand of Christianity, and I think I’ve reached the point where I’m satisfied that I have some understanding that you lack. Except unlike my Jehovah’s Witnesses visitors, you don’t appear able to accept defeat, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Some friends have urged me simply to block you or to delete your posts or to ignore you, but I feel uncomfortable with that, because I’m kind of a fanatic about open discussion and free speech.
     So why is it that you don’t give up? Part of it, of course, is the simple fact that you believe I’m going to Hell if I don’t convert, and you really don’t want that to happen. I appreciate that, though it makes me wonder a bit why I of all people merit such concern, when there are billions of others in every bit as much peril, and you could probably save many more of them in the time you spend preaching to me. Perhaps there is some personal connection, though I suspect there is something else at play as well, and that is what concerns me here.
     I’m a little worried, Anonymous, that there’s a hint of desperation in what you’re trying to do, and not just desperation for my sake. I’ve been trying to imagine what could motivate such tenacious efforts. Yours is a very demanding worldview, one that doesn’t take kindly to doubt. When eternal suffering awaits those who don’t believe, where belief itself becomes the principle virtue, it’s hard not to feel great anxiety around any doubt.
     Now, it if were just my doubt, you could sadly shake your head and leave me to my fate, and move on to the next poor soul in need of salvation. But I begin to suspect my doubt represents more than that to you. See, you’ve claimed many times that the evidence for God’s existence is obvious and irrefutable, readily available to anyone who is willing to consider it. But to me, it simply isn’t obvious at all. It really isn’t. So either you must conclude that I’m just profoundly, deeply dishonest (which you’ve sometimes hinted at) or that I’ve never considered the issue (which is obviously not true, given how much I write about it), or — horror of horrors — it really isn’t so obvious and irrefutable. 
     And that’s kinda scary, because if God’s existence isn’t obvious, if it’s possible for someone like me to be condemned to eternal suffering because something he earnestly tried to believe just wasn’t plausible to him, then that seems kind of unjust. Your perfectly just and merciful God has, apparently, created a reality in which cosmic injustices happen, and may not be fully corrected in an afterlife. Or, at least, if it isn’t an injustice, it may be hard for you to perceive the justice in it, and that in itself is a test of faith.

     I would try to reassure you that, just as you assure me belief will resolve all my concerns, disbelief will relieve you of your fear for eternal punishment, but I know it’s not that simple. Even if you have doubts, you can’t help but take the story seriously enough to keep such fears alive. But in any event, even if you have no fear for the hereafter, that’s not the only reason you might find doubt worrisome. There’s also the herebefore.
     I don’t know how long you’ve believed what you believe, or how much of yourself you’ve invested in, though I suspect it’s a lot. You seem to have wrapped up an awful lot of your self-image in your relationship with God. So perhaps you think that if I am right, and there is no God, you will have wasted all that time and effort and faith. Perhaps you fear that you shall have based your life on a lie, and all for nothing, if I am right. And maybe if you can convince me, then eventually you can convince anyone, and you can be at peace, assured that you were right all along.

     Believe me, I want you to have this peace. I really don’t want you to feel that you’ve wasted your life, partly because I don’t want you to suffer but also because I don’t believe it has been a waste. 
     When I was in grad school, back in the mid 90’s, I spent a couple of months struggling with a 20 page chapter of my thesis. I just could not get it to work. Something seemed wrong, somehow, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on what. Finally, I had an epiphany: the entire argument was wrong, and I was trying to prove almost the exact opposite of what I ought to have been arguing. Part of me, my old high-school minimum-word-count-assignment-writing self, lamented that I had just wasted 20 pages of writing and, like Sisyphus, had just been pushed 20 pages farther away from my destination. 
     But I wasn’t. I was, in fact, 20 pages closer. I had finished 20 pages of important work which brought me to a much better understanding of the subject, enabling me to write the rest of it with greater clarity and logic. The fact that those 20 pages would not appear verbatim in the finished text was irrelevant; they were research, and vital to the project’s success.
     In the same way, I would hope for you to see that your belief, true or false, has not been a waste. If your belief has helped you to find strength when you needed it, it’s been worthwhile. If it’s inspired you to be kinder to people than you otherwise would have, then it did some good. And if, in discovering that it might not have been literally true, you have gained a greater insight and understanding of the truly profound questions of the human condition adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty, then it has helped to make you wiser in a way you could not otherwise have been.

     I really would like for you to be at peace, but if you need me to believe in order to help shore up your own certainty, then I'm sorry. I just cannot be persuaded by the means you have chosen. If something is impossible, then it is false and no amount of fervent wishing and praying will change that, and even if I could simply will myself to believe a lie, it would still be a lie.
     The good news is that it is possible to be at peace with doubt. Indeed, it's possible to be at peace with God and to have faith in Him without any actual belief that He exists. I will not tell you that it is easy to do so, because it isn't, but it is possible, and that's all you need to know - for now - in order to have hope.