Monday, December 20, 2010

The Blissful Burden of Proof

The summer I spent in Washington, D.C. was a huge learning experience for me, especially outside my internship. I went to Philly for a conference and met a guy who also happened to be in D.C. for the summer. When we got back, he invited me out to dinner with a couple of his friends. I remember God coming up in the conversation, for some really random reason. They went around the table: Agnostic, Atheist, Agnostic. Then came me: Roman Catholic! I mostly listened, making a few comments when appropriate, but felt out of my element. All three did not grow up with any type of formal religion (unlike my own very structured upbringing), but, knowing that did help me better understand their thought processes.

At my internship, religion would just come up. I didn't even need to bring it up-- people would ask me what I thought, which is one of the highest compliments one can bestow on another. My cold little office had frequent visitors who liked to chat with me about politics, government, their day, music, growing-up and "the good old days" and yes, even religion. People knew I was Roman Catholic through general conversation, and thus confided in me: my editor was Jewish; the letters editor minored in Religion in college but aligned his beliefs closer to Christopher Hitchens'; the managing editor was a traditional Catholic; one of the editorial writers was Episcopalian but married to a Catholic; even the (now former) VP of editorial once felt the need to explain himself to me- he used to former Catholic- how he wanted to get married- how he wanted to have kids- how, yes he was dating someone, but had never met the One.

I'll never, however, concede to the notion that there is no proof for the existence of God.

This post was inspired by an article in yesterday's WSJ, "A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I Am An Atheist" by British Comedian Ricky Gervais. It was shared via two friends of mine, both Atheists, and "liked" over 32,000 times, which I admit troubles me deeply.
He starts out the "open letter" by saying:
Why don’t you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith.” I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe,” comes across as both patronizing and impolite.
Arrogance is another accusation. Which seems particularly unfair. Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence - evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray. Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
I agree. You can't have your own facts. I love how it takes an Atheist to call out Relativism, even if that wasn't his intent. But I strongly disagree that science and religion are opposites of each other, that a person can only have belief in God or belief in science. They have two different purposes-- one to say why the world goes round, and the other to say how. This makes them complementary, not contradictory.

I follow a blog of a "geeky atheist who picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend" and this is what she says under "My Burden of Proof":
During one discussion, I pressed him to name something that could serve as a disproof of Catholicism. He named the historicity of Jesus as messiah. If convincing historical evidence emerged that Jesus had never lived or that the Resurrection was a scam, he would be forced to give up his faith.
Then he turned the question on me. What would I accept as proof of Christianity?
And I paused. And came up with bupkis.
I can imagine evidence that would convince me to believe in the supernatural or, that at the very least, human understanding of the laws of nature was deeply flawed, but that's a long way from being able to believe in a personal God who loves me. I've given it some more thought since then, but, for the most part, I'm still at a loss.
So what would be enough for an atheist to see God? Well first, they'll have to freely choose to find him. Walker Percy was impressed by a fraternity brother who got up early every day for Mass. T.E. Hulme went to the plains of Canada, felt his own insignificance, and knew there was a God. Gervais, for example, stopped believing in God because his mother could not answer his brother's question of how she knows that God exists. Well, I'm sorry that happened, but Mrs. Gervais is not the only one who struggles to answer that question; however, this is not a situation that IF Mrs. Gervais does not know how to properly explain to her sons the existence of God THEN God does not exist. Then what happened-- did he go to a priest? Did he ask anyone else?

The loss of inquisitiveness about God worries me more than anything else. People don't seek more information that what is readily available to them. People, on a general level, are more interested in perception than truth. And worse than being atheist, I think, is to see God and reject parts of him. To love him conditionally. How would you feel if people only loved the good parts of you? The most common roadblocks I hear is only believing if God is good. Only believe in God if God's followers are perfect replicas. Only believe in God is he and his followers have all the answers. Only believe in God if God conforms to you, not you to him. I see this with people who struggle with the Church as well.

I am a big fan of Thomas Aquinas. I read the Summa Theologica for the first time my sophomore year of college and an entirely new world of religion and reason collided in my head. I've read a lot of the Theologica, but not all of it by any means. (It is very, very big.) I finally bought it, though, so I can stop piggy-backing off other people's copies. Why I am I so hooked on reading and promoting Aquinas? That is a good question. Aquinas is all about logic and reason. He formulates all his questions first with the objections (usually three), then answers the objections, then proffers rebuttals.

I am attracted to Aquinas, in part, because I come from a very analytical family. Logic is very important to any argument. Nothing is taken for granted. If something doesn't make sense, we ask a lot of questions, we make counter-arguments and reason our way through something. My parents nearly-always have an answer, and then point us towards more resources. Even when assigning chores, it was never "Because I said so." It was always, "We had children to make you fold socks. Now fold."

No one person can convert another; only God the Holy Spirit can convert people's hearts to God. I'm blessed to have been born into a family where my parents made our Catholic faith a priority. I'm lucky enough to see the way God can tangibly change people-- friends who have converted to Catholicism, friends who are currently in the service of the Church. I might seen as a dogmatic Roman Catholic, but I wasn't so set when I went to college. I was held more from habit. (Better habit than nothing, said Aquinas!) My parents raised us well enough in the faith, but it really wasn't enough for me. I always felt unsettled, like I was missing the big picture. It didn't help that I went to a liberal high school where I had to defend the Church, instead of cultivating more knowledge, and growing in understanding of its teachings and traditions.

I was swayed by my roommate, the witnessing of countless other Catholics and Protestants on campus and hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of research and reading. It took being labeled as the "token Catholic" in my Intro to Western Religions class and the mortification that I would misrepresent the Church while being asked ridiculous questions in class to make me truly understand how off-base most people's perceptions are of the Catholic Church. ("If a Catholic kidnaps an Atheist baby and baptizes it, does that make it Catholic?" will forever be my favorite question posed to me that semester.)

It took most of college, tripping and falling, laughing and reading, re-learning how to pray and really, really wanting God in my life, even when the world didn't seem so pretty, to convert my heart. I didn't ask for a sign. I didn't ask for proof. Why not? Because it's already there. God may give us the gift of faith, but it's up to us to cultivate it and become well-versed in his word and truth. If you're going to learn to play an instrument or study a subject or get to know someone, it requires the same kind of patience, time commitment and dedication to learn truth and have a relationship with God.

The common denominator in humanity, no matter one's religion, is that everyone is seeking truth. The difference is where they choose to find it. Being nice is not a way of life. God is not an opinion. God is a fact. Even when there were pagan gods, civilization as a whole knew there was someone bigger than themselves to whom they owed homage.

The evidence is out there. If one chooses to accept something, then one can begin to believe bigger, believe in mystery. Faith isn't a feeling; it isn't spirituality. Having faith doesn't mean blindness or brainwashing. My faith is completely dependent on proof- proof that God lived, died and was resurrected- whose existence is so burdensomely abundant that any doubt I experience is promptly squashed.

Happy Holidays, Mr. Gervais. I hope you enjoy the blessed season.

What would y'all say if someone asked you to prove the existence of God? What is "enough" for you? What convinced you?

Ahh, Monday, Monday. Have a good one!


  1. Hi Julie,

    Part of what I meant when I wrote that 'Burden of Proof' piece is that I had no idea about what kind of proof could be offered as evidence for a god that was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent (as opposed to simply proving the power of a god that might, like the gods of the Greek pantheon, have none of these attributes).

    The other big thing I don't know is how I would go about recognizing the presence of god, should he exist. I know some atheists-turned-converts have spoken of an internal emptiness or a yearning for the Eucharist after attending Mass, but I feel neither of those things. If I am supposed to be converted by the Holy Spirit, not by simple argument, it seems reasonable to me to continue not to believe without a sign of this sort.

  2. Hi Leah,

    Thanks so much for your comment! I understand what you mean-- I suppose it's a matter of even knowing where to start looking. That's where your boyfriend, I think, definitely helps-- a sort of guide to God (your Beatrice of sorts?).

    I am also not sure how you would go about recognizing the presence of God, but I suppose I would start out with the ordinary: we believe nature to be a reflection of God's work in the world, as well as people. God is that motivating force, the breath in our lungs, the thoughts in our head. Jesus said, whatever you do to the least of your people, you do to me. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will work through a sign or through an argument: I do not mean to place limits on his means and methods, just merely to note that conversion does not come only from arguments. Plenty of people need signs: the apostle Thomas had to put his fingers in the wounds. God gives us signs. I truly believe God will give you a sign; just the means is not known. We Catholics have physical signs of Christ: making the sign of the cross to remind us of the Trinity, Mary's miracles, pictures and statutes, etc. All of these are signs, as well as the history of miracles in the Church-- it might interest you to look into stigmatas. The most recent case was St. Padre Pio, a priest. Talk about a physical sign!

    Thanks again,

  3. Two years ago, I was an “agnostic”. My experience as a Vietnamese Boat People led me away from God since I cannot believe that a God so loving would allow horrible things to happen to people like us.

    Around three and a half years ago, my father was diagnosed with blood cancer. Since my father was too old, chemical therapy or other options was not possible. My wife, who is a devout Catholic, suggested that we pray to God and the Holy Mother and vows make votive candles offering every week for my father. A few months before my wife made the suggestion, I have witness my wife interceded for her uncle who was suffering from Alzheimer and was near death and witness his sudden recovery and without any option, I agreed.

    At the time, my father suffered a bout of infection and his White Blood Cell Count has fallen to 0.50 (the White Blood Cell Count for a healthy adult is around 3.0 to 5.0). The doctors at Stanford Hospital thought that my father had about three days to live. However, a week after our intercession to God and the Holy Mother, my father White Blood Cell Count went up to 5.0 from 0.5. My father went from being bedridden to a healthy person, able to drive and travel, he lives for another year as active adult, doing everything that he wanted to do and then pass away peacefully.

    If you believe that you came from nothing and when we die, we return to nothing, you tend to live only for yourself since what do you have to look forward to when you die, except nothing? However, love is a peculiar thing, I have found that the more I love people without being selfish (especially my family), the more love I get back. After witnessing these miracles, I return to the church and have witnessed many other wonderful things since then, the most miraculous being the changes in my own heart.

  4. Why would I only live for myself just because I don't believe in an afterlife? The belief that this life is the only one I have makes my relationships more precious than anything because I know I will only enjoy them for a short time.

    1. Also, That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. You can believe in anything if the only condition is that nobody has proved it doesn't exist.

      Therefore I dismiss the notion of God because there is no evidence to support that notion, and I need not prove why I think God does not exist.

      Lastly, asking what would it take to prove God is a silly question. As is requiring me to "choose" to find God. You can't go looking for evidence with the conclusion you want to prove already in mind. You must find evidence and THEN draw conclusions from that evidence.

    2. >Therefore I dismiss the notion of God because there is no evidence to support that notion, and I need not prove why I think God does not exist.

      Not true. There are four answers to the question, "Does God exist?"

      A. Unknown (not explored)
      B. Yes
      C. No
      D. Cannot know

      Only A can be a default. The others require some sort of demonstration.

      >You can't go looking for evidence with the conclusion you want to prove already in mind.

      Nonsense. That is how the scientific method works. I want to test a particular truth. I devise an experiment to test said truth. In order to create a valid experiment however I already must have an idea of what it is I'm trying to demonstrate.

      It's amazing how many people who claim to follow science have no idea what science actually is.

    3. "Only A can be a default. The others require some sort of demonstration."

      I was dismissing the assertion of God's existence. Not claiming with certainty he does not exist. It is impossible to declare with 100% certainty that something does not exist.

      I am a scientist actually. Technically science tests hypothesis, not truths. The hypothesis here is "Does God exist?" The problem is many religious people who set out to answer a religious hypothesis are 100% convinced of the truth of their beliefs and will dismiss evidence to the contrary. The proper way to approach any hypothesis is with complete skepticism and to consider ALL evidence, especially if it undermines your conclusions.