What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Antony Flew, Belief, God, Theism

4 responses to “What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

  1. Atheists will also be familiar with the mirror image question: “What evidence would convince you, then?”. That’s a hard one and like most atheists I can’t think of much that would convince me. The stars re-arranged to spell out “I am God” visible from every part of the world in every known language? Could be the result of some alien technology, beyond our understanding, but not supernatural.
    For me the problem would always be “Why now?” Why after millions of years of hiddeness and lack of compelling evidence would God suddenly do something so….out of character?
    I would need any revelation to explain the previous years of silence before I could start to be persuaded. But in principle I could be persuaded.

  2. I have heard a few coherent definitions of god. They are all axiomatic, so if you assume the condition, then you have a global explanation (e.g. Occasionalism, God as meta-nature) but by offering a global explanation, they also don’t offer a functional explanation. In other words, they are not compelling. That doesn’t make those concepts false, it just doesn’t matter much if they are true or false.
    None of them preserve god as a person. I don’t see how that can work.

  3. Have you read James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy? Angels begin to appear round the earth as heralds bearing great news (not great in the sense of happy) namely that God has just died, and the angel itself shows signs of being on the way out, losing feathers in its wings as it speaks and looking very pale. Apparently creation itself and humans remain stable, it’s just the divine realm and its entities that are dying. God then falls from the sky (a skyscraper sized human-shaped being) into the ocean and an oil tanker commissioned by the world’s governments drags his floating body into an icy tomb in the Antarctic. Then someone sues God at the World Court in the Hague for all the suffering God designed and perpetrated on living beings, and members of the court take a walking tour of God’s brain-mind which is still housed in the Arctic and still flickering with the last bits of life. Weird trip inside God’s head ensues. The lawyer defending God’s actions in the case resembles C. S. Lewis. Finally, God’s body has rotted and his skull has been launched into space and orbits the earth, where everyone can look up and see its empty eye sockets and toothy grin, and millions of people begin to commit suicide. But I think some people still retain a belief in God. So, I guess the question is moot as to what might convince people God does not exist. Also check out James Morrow’s other books! One of his short stories in Bible Stories for Adults won a Hugo!

  4. To your first argument about abandoning theism: There has never been any proof of God – arguments have always been either “God of the Gaps” (saying “God did/willed it” when we don’t understand something), or denial of reality (“The earth is the Centre of Creation” – and forcing those who claimed otherwise to recant upon pain of torture or death, and accepting reality only once the evidence becomes both incontrovertible and widely known. Then the apologetics begin. This isn’t a proof of incoherence, but there has never been a coherent argument *for* a Deity, either.

    But even if some God or other existed, you never make any argument in favour of the Christian one, or for Jesus. No contemporary evidence exists for Jesus’ existence. None. He does not appear on any Roman census. There is no mention of the itinerant Jewish apocalyptic preacher in any writings of the time. There is no mention of a resurrection of any crucified person (many were killed in his manner at the time) until decades after the events supposedly occurred. While I grant these facts are not “conclusive historical documents”, they do point to a rather weak foundation on which to base your noetic structure.

    Finally, the original (as far as I know) “argument from evil” is from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, writing about 300 years before Jesus (purported) birth. If you wish to address this argument, I think this version is more powerful than the one you present:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then He is not omnipotent.

    Is He able, but not willing?
    Then He is malevolent.

    Is He both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?

    Is He neither able nor willing?
    Then why call Him God?

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