Christian Daily has a rather revealing article that grants an insight into the inner workings of religious belief within the human mind. Billy Graham, the quite famous and now also quite elderly evangelist, was recently asked for advice by somebody on how they could win over and convert an atheist friend. This was not a face-to-face interaction, and instead was via his website where there is a Q&A section, so we can never be truly sure that it was actually Mr Graham himself who responded, it could just have easily been a staff member who perhaps wrote the answer in his name. That however need not detract from the observations I have.
My best friend and I enjoy each other’s company, but I’m a Christian and he says he’s an atheist. I’ve tried to argue with him, but he just laughs and says I ought to grow up and forget about God. How can I win him over?
And the revealing answer that came back was this [I’ve interleaved my observations with it all] …
You can point him in the right direction—but to be honest, you can’t win him over by yourself (as you’ve discovered). He’s convinced that he is right—and even if he has secret doubts, his pride probably gets in the way.
First point, “right direction” is a reflection of a sincere belief that the christian message is right and that everything else is wrong. This however is not a position exclusive to belief, most humans will be quite sure that the specific views they embrace are correct. Who honestly thinks to themselves, “Well, today I think I will accept several quite obviously wrong ideas as ‘true’“.
Interestingly enough you can apply the exact same guidance to anybody wondering how you can persuade a religious person that they are not correct.
OK, so thinking a bit further about this opening paragraph I have two points to make.
Acceptance of an idea is not a binary condition
What perhaps tends to be forgotten or passed over is that accepting something as true is not a binary condition, and instead there is a great deal of fuzziness in the mix. We generally accept different ideas and beliefs with a wide ranging spectrum of confidence, and even that can change from day to day. Religious belief itself is not simply one idea, but instead is a collection. For example, you might find that most religious believers are highly confident that Jesus really did die just for them, but if asked if the talking snake in Genesis actually physically existed, then you might find a degree of disbelief and a suggestion that it is simply a metaphor used to explain the human condition. That of course is fascinating to discover because if you do not believe that the talking snake actually existed, then why would you believe that Jesus died to solve the problem created by the talking snake?
One other observation to draw out from that first paragraph is the use of the word “pride”. It is correct to make the observation that when people engage in a dialog, they tend to stick to their initial stance and generally do not shift their position. That however is not something exclusive to those that do not believe, and is universal. Think back on almost every discussion on any and every topic you have participated within on Facebook and ask yourself if you can think of even one instance of somebody saying something along the lines of “Well gosh you are indeed correct, I was quite wrong about that“. It generally tends not to happen.
I should also add that most of those who do not believe, tend to not do so for quite rational reasons. They generally have given it all a lot of thought, and so often you find that those that do not believe are far more familiar with the bible than those that do. That actually is a statistical fact, the category of people who came top in the 2010 pew religious knowledge poll were atheists. In other words, atheists do not believe, not because they have not read the bible, but often because they have.
Prayer, emotional manipulation, & Transformation
But God can do what we can’t do, and He can conquer even the most stubborn heart. And that’s why the most important thing you can do for your friend is to pray for him, asking God to convict him of his sin and his pride and convince him of his need for Christ. Pray also that your life will be a witness to him—a witness to Christ’s peace and joy. People may argue with what we say—but they can’t argue with the reality of a life that’s been transformed by Christ.
Prayer is the psychological mechanism humans utilise to grant themselves the illusion of control over the things that they have no control over. If there is a good outcome, then god is granted the credit, and if things go in a different direction, then it is the will of god. There are however two important observations from this second paragraph.
First, note the term, “conquer even the most stubborn heart”. Belief is essentially an emotional experience, rationality and reason play no foundational part, and so if you are to be converted then it will have to be via emotional manipulation. If you have ever attended a religious service then you will have observed that it is indeed pandering to human emotions. Within some strands it consists of repetitive traditional rituals that offer comfort and hope. Others reject such traditions as dull and empty, and instead opt for a more open random format, and can manifest both catchy modern songs and tambourines (basically the happy-clappy-hugging crowd). The un-initiated, if they step in, will potentially find themselves caught up in a whirlpool of human emotion. Do not mistake such feelings for truth.
The second point to draw out is the claim of being “transformed by Christ”. If there was any truth to this claim then the lives of those who believe should be measurably superior to the lives of those that do not, not simply as an opinion, nor as a religious claim, but rather as a statistical fact. This however is not something that is demonstrated. Yes there are people who will testify that when they found Jesus their lives became better, for example they found freedom from drugs. That however is not something exclusive to belief because you will find that in general people do eventually grow up, mature, and make better life decisions. The religious tend to attribute such a change to a religious conversion experience. Often what happens is that they have used such an experience to give themselves permission to make better life choices and then utilise the belief to help sustain that.
As a bit an anecdotal observation, I once chatted with a chap who had woken up one day on a beach in Spain after yet another drug-fueled night and thought to himself, “I’m not doing this shit anymore”, so he simply walked away from all that into a better life. He never looked back. No religious belief was involved.
If you were indeed to buy into the concept of the un-transformed life, then you are buying into the myth that without god there is no morality and humans can not and do not behave well. That is of course a testable claim. If we review the prison population under the assumption that this claim is correct, then we can predict that the majority are not religious. This however is not what we find. Instead we discover that the number of non-believers in prison is tiny, to be precise 0.1%, with as many as 55 of the 135 US prisons having no atheists at all. To put all that another way, statistically it is far less probable that you will be a convicted criminal if you are not religious.
On to the next paragraph then.
In addition, encourage him to face honestly the consequences of his atheism (which many atheists, I’ve discovered, never do). If God doesn’t exist (as he claims), then he has no hope of life after death. Nor does he have anyone to turn to when he needs guidance, or when life turns against him. He is like those of whom the Bible speaks, “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
The “consequences” word is often in this context a code word for the “you are going to hell” claim, but even if it is not specifically that, it is still quite frankly a rather blatant attempt at emotional manipulation. The “hope” that Mr Graham speaks about is a religious fantasy that does not have one jot of actual evidence to back it up and so if we are going to get into the game of embracing fantasy as “truth” on the basis of no evidence at all, then you can do a lot better than the more traditional mainstream belief.
Personally I am far more interested in understanding the things that are actually true and coming to terms with that.
The final paragraph reads …
Most of all, urge him to examine Jesus Christ honestly and openly, as He is found in the Gospels of the New Testament. When he does, he’ll discover not only that God exists, but God loves him and wants to come into his life.
The problem with the Gospels is that we have no evidence that what they claim is actually factual. Mark, the earliest was written in roughly 65 AD, more than thirty years after the events it describes. Matthew and Luke appeared about ten years later, copied most of Mark, and added lots more material. John was the last and was written sometime between 95-110.
Often there is an immunity to facts that will emerge when discussing these texts. As an example, you might ask how the authors wrote down exactly what happened when Jesus was off by himself and there was nobody else to witness it. Belief can and does of course enable a solution to pop up, “Ah but the Holy Spirit inspired the author”, and so when it comes such observations, the ability to simply dream up untestable magical solutions as a rebuttal enables the belief to survive.
So the bottom line here is this. Reason and logic play no real part, and that is because the human religious experience is essentially an emotional one. This is why you find terms such as “winning your heart“. Thinking critically about it all can lead to disbelief, but often people are so deeply invested in the idea emotionally that they are immune to any credible and wholly reasonable rebuttal.
In the end, if engaged in a discussion with somebody who is religious, the best you can ever do is to be polite, and ask questions that have the potential to enable them to start thinking critically about it all. You can’t tell anybody anything, because they really do need to work it out for themselves.