Monday, October 27, 2014

Unwilling Unbelievers

There’s a very interesting class of person that gets far too little press. A huge amount of contemporary Christian thought and attention goes to loud-mouthed Atheists. But there are atheists who do not want to be atheists. Actually, a surprising number state that they’d rather believe if they could.

Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum: they want to disbelieve, and the intellectual arguments are face-saving excuses. I once had a very long conversation with an atheist that ended with my discussant acknowledging that Christianity was the more rational position. Rather surprised by the concession that I had actually won a heated argument, I asked if he was ready to convert. He stated that, despite its irrationality, he preferred the illusion of being in control of his life.

Distinguishing those who want to believe but can’t from those who don’t want to believe is quite important. To identify the former group, I've started asking: “If I had a perfect rational argument that would utterly convince you intellectually that God exists and the Jesus rose from the dead, would you become a Christian?” Had I asked this question, I would have saved myself many hours of pearl-casting on a person who disbelieved for emotional reasons. But even in those who answer “Yes” to my question, there still may be a lot of psychological resistance to conversion. This can be explored in a variety of ways. There is the cool, abstract question, “What psychological or emotional difficulties might there be in becoming a Christian?” But my favorite is an emotion-laden visualization, “Imagine I convinced you rationally right now. Then imagine we walked down the street to my church’s baptismal, and then had my pastor baptize you. How would you feel?” In one person, this produced an overwhelming feeling of disgust and horror. Once generated, the emotions can be explored, “Why did that frighten you?” There’s a wide variety of emotional reasons to resist conversion with more or less rational backing. I’ll write about this separately. But once this is done and it becomes clear that the person’s disbelief is honest, yet they are motivated to change, then what? They can’t just flip a switch.

As far as I can tell, there are three major paths to overcoming the resistance.


The first way is a kind of workaround. Most of our beliefs of whatever variety are formed by our social connections.

The social effect is unbelievably powerful. Of course, close friends can convince us better than strangers. But even a handful of strangers can override basic visual processing. If you set an experimental subject in a room with five other “subjects” (who are actually experiment confederates), and ask basic questions like “which line is longer?” you can get normal people to trust strangers’ eyes more than their own. It would seem that seeing is not believing: hanging out is believing. In general, the closer the ties, the stronger the effect.

The old argument, “You only believe X because you were born in Y” is a true statement about efficient cause; it is the manner by which it came about. That is, the mechanism by which a vast majority of our beliefs come about is social geography. This works in early childhood; a person might say: “I was born in Texas; when I was younger, I believed in the Republicans.” In adulthood, it still works: “…then I went to UCLA and reconsidered a lot of my old beliefs. Now [like a vast majority of my friends and professors] I am a Democrat.” Of course (though apparently this is not obvious to everyone), how someone came to a belief says nothing whatever of the truth of that belief. The social mechanism is truth-independent: it would work for any belief, true or false. But that’s exactly what this tool is for in human history. A pipe wrench can’t measure the true distance between two points; social beliefs can’t tell you whether those social beliefs are true or false. So it’s a very good idea to only intentionally use this mechanism to help change oneself from a false belief to a true one. Or, for those of you who disbelieve in the idea of truth, the social mechanism should be used only to change an unhelpful belief to a helpful one. The fact remains: one big and effective way to change your mind is to join a particular social network that holds a target belief.

Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has written about this effect in Evangelicals (and previously, in psychiatrists). “When God Talks Back” is, in part, about how beliefs are reinforced by social participation and ritual. In other studies of conversion, it is often found that social networks play a huge role. The most natural and common way to change your mind is to spend time with people whose mind you want to share. If you want to be a Christian, go to church. Sing the songs. Attend Bible studies. Make friends with Christians, particularly Christians qua Christians. While it’s helpful to see them at work or on the golf course, it’s even more helpful to go to the place where they are feeling Christian emotions and thinking Christian thoughts that, as with all emotions and thoughts, are contagious.


The next way is somewhat contested. While it boggles my mind, there are apparently-thinking people who are convinced that thinking is not a way to change one’s mind (these poor souls are among the most tragic casualties of Post-Modernism). I suppose there are those in this world who have never had the wonderful experience of hearing an argument and changing their minds; more likely, this has happened, but they forgot to pay attention.

We live in so-called “Western Civilization,” and one of the defining and differentiating aspects is our conviction, at least since Socrates, that systematic thinking is a noble pursuit, that arguments are worthwhile, and that by engaging in it, we might actually make progress toward what’s true. I have had the experience several times of having a vigorous discussion with another person, and then my making some comment like, “So what you’re arguing is [summary of their position]” to which they respond in all sincerity, “I’m not arguing anything. I don’t think what I say is true.” I am skeptical of those skeptics who fire up the great engine of rigorous thought and forthwith drove with terrifying speed to the conclusion that they never went anywhere.

Some less skeptical folks will maintain that reason is great for science, but is useless elsewhere. I had an intense discussion with someone recently, who aggressively demanded of me, “What empirical proof do you have that God exists?” It’s a fine question; it implies that if empirical proofs are lacking, then a thing cannot be known. The argument goes like this: “1) Assume only physical things can be known 2) God is not a physical thing 3) God cannot be known.” The trouble with the argument is that just about everybody believes that 2+2=4, that killing Jews in a holocaust is wrong, and that sunsets are beautiful. ‘4,’ ‘wrong,’ and ‘beautiful’ are not physical things, but most of us are pretty sure they’re real. Those who make the arguments that start with “what proof do you have that [spiritual thing]?” are almost never willing to ask the same thing of addition, morality, or beauty.

But enough! If you think reasoning a worthwhile endeavor and have the courage to apply it to the non-physical, read on! For the rest (for whom I've never quite understood why you’d read anything in the first place), feel free to skip. For those of you who are willing to gird up your intellectual loins, get ready for a new experience! There is an entire field of study for the rational defense (and offense) of the faith. It even has a name: “Apologetics.” The first thing to note about the field is that it, like Chuck Norris, doesn't say “sorry.” The English name comes from the Greek word, apologia, meaning either “verbal defense” or “a reasoned statement or argument”; the root, logos, is the same one used in the English word “Logic.”

For the unwilling unbeliever, one could explore apologetics for a lifetime without exhausting it. If one really wants to be persuaded, there are a multitude of possible arguments. The two kinds of argument can roughly be divided into “offense” and “defense”: part of apologetics involves providing evidence and arguments for why Christianity is true (e.g. historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; philosophical arguments for the existence of God); the other part of apologetics involves responding to arguments against Christianity or answering “hard questions” (e.g. “How can a good God allow suffering?” “What happens to those who never heard of Jesus?”). Apologetics is a wonderful field because it is a multi-disciplinary pursuit. It’s quite open-minded and acknowledges that we can be persuaded by historical truths as well as philosophical truths. While most of the credit and history of the field goes to the philosophers and theologians, I know that some of the more significant shifts in my opinion have come from arguments based on history.

This article is meta; this is an article about apologetics, not directly an apologetics article. Nonetheless, I’ll give you three apologists that have influenced me, describe their work, and allow you to investigate the arguments yourself: William Lane Craig (philosopher), NT Wright (historian), and Rodney Stark (sociologist).  Craig is a professor of philosophy who has become perhaps the foremost apologist in contemporary Christendom, debating the top atheists in the world and winning (even by Atheist accounts). He presents well-validated mostly philosophical arguments for God’s existence with precision and conciseness. Craig’s writings and materials are a prime specimen of what most Christians mean when they say ‘apologetics.’ However, this line is less influential to those who are disinclined to think philosophically. Much of the ire against Christianity, and conviction in secularism is the belief that, more or less, religion leads to war and superstition, and secularism leads to peace and prosperity. This subconscious “reason” was powerfully at work in me until I read Rodney Stark. He takes a broad sweep of history and argues that Christianity was the reason for the peace and progress: Science, Representative Government, Capitalism and the end of slavery, were all fruits of Christianity. The book summarizing his other books is The Triumph of Christianity. Wright is probably the foremost historian of first century Palestine; he provides an eminently scholastic account (video summary) of how the resurrection of Jesus was so un-Jewish and un-Roman that it requires an extraordinary explanation, “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” He also does a superb job of explaining how Christianity is exactly not about “dying and going to heaven,” but involves making earth like heaven.


I once had a change of mind like a dam-bursting. It was an experience on the rational path, but has lessons for the spiritual path. In the course of a two-hour lecture, I went from one side of an argument to the other; I was taking notes on my own feelings and opinions in the margin, and was able to identify a period of 20 minutes where I went from a solid opponent of the idea to avid defender. It was like a chemical reaction: I found a lower and more stable energy state, never to return to the starting position once catalyzed. I've seen this sort of thing happen with belief in God after a spiritual experience: a person goes from reluctantly granting some arguments for God’s existence, and then leaping to an expression of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

I've seen people who wanted to believe follow either the social-emotional or the rational path for a time, and sometimes a long time. Then something happens. Maybe it’s a dream that shakes them to the core. Maybe it’s a ‘coincidence’ of profound personal significance. They were making glacial progress, as one who went from convinced atheist to tentative theist over the course of years. But then, in a flash, they find that they arrive at the destination of Christianity. Others don’t even start down the path when they are called. A famous case is the Apostle Paul, who started as a persecutor of the faith when he was called, but he was obedient to the vision. I've heard many accounts of this sort of thing happening today, often in the Muslim world. Whatever progress one has made, it can be accelerated by miracle.

The final way to go from unbeliever to believer is to meet God. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds. If the hypothesis that “there is a personal God” is true, then it is, in principle, entirely possible to meet Him. This is completely compatible with an honest scientific perspective. Science involves taking the sense-information and incorporating it into a theory of how the universe works; one cannot arbitrarily exclude sense-information that happens to align with Theism.

Try to pray regularly for a time. Play a lower-stakes version of Pascal’s Wager: if God is real, He hears and may respond. If God is not, you've gained new information about the existence or nature of God. Ask God to show Himself to you. Ask for a sign. But be careful, especially before attempting this path. The danger is this: sometimes when you ask for a sign, He shows you one.

After His resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples when Thomas was away. They told Thomas about it but he would not believe, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Thomas would not believe on the testimony of others; he needed to meet Jesus himself. Jesus was happy to oblige, appearing to him and saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” This is all in accord with Jesus’ words on the Mount of Olives: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

So, if you dare, knock. But do not be surprised if the door opens.


  1. Dave,
    I would say that you end up on the right track but what's missing from this is a discussion on the Will. It seems that the motion up for debate is this: a rational explanation ought to lead to belief. But consider what Christ intended in Matthew 18:3: "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." If conversion is fundamentally the same whether it takes place within children, inarticulates, fools, geniuses or philosophers, then doesn't this necessitate acknowledging some agent in the mechanics of conversion outside of rationality if some may be converted who are capable only of limited rational thought?

    I would argue this agent is the Will and is at the core of the phenomenon you observe.
    I'll keep my response tidy and bring up one particular account which I think sums in actions what I would otherwise clumsily labor to articulate. Consider the young rich ruler's response to Jesus. After claiming to have kept all the commandments, "Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions." (Mark 10:22) Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples this grieving of the young ruler was a result of trusting in riches. I would argue trust in this sense is a capacity of the will. Just as one can will to trust in social value, rationality, tradition, newness of an idea and so forth, this young ruler had willed to trust in riches. Furthermore I would assert that the decision to dedicate oneself to God means someone cannot trust merely in rationality – though one may acknowledge rationality as a necessary means for constructive thought and a useful means by which to arrive at faith. Rather, the decision to convert should be remembered as such - a decision and therefore a manifestation of our Will
    Your friend,

  2. Any argument partially or fully premised on an assumption such as "the assumption that only physical things can be known" is not a rational argument, is not an empirical argument and, frankly, can only be sound as a thought experiment merely.