How to convert an atheist:
Discussion

Index | Prepare to make the case | Cause the atheist to believe in your god(s) | Cause the ex-atheist to practise your religion | Supplement - Creationism / Intelligent Design | Discussion


I have placed various discussions on this page rather than have them interfere with the flow of the method.


Conversion

How much material "out there" is intended to convert atheists?

I sometimes find it hard to decide the category of the material I see/hear. In a lot of cases, I don't think the author had a clear objective, and much of the material fits into more than one category.

Categories include: reinforcing one's own beliefs; rallying the troops ("we haven't lost, we still have good arguments"); providing ammunition for others to use; justification for other agendas (perhaps political); putting obstacles in the paths of potential defectors (flock, children); looking good in debates; providing an expected service (academics, preachers); selling things (books, services); venting anger or having a rant; as well as conversion and others. A lot of the material out there insults other people's intelligence as well.

Sometimes "conversion" (or "recruitment", which is related) is clear - Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, for example. Sometimes people actually mention conversion, often in the form "what will it take to make you realise X?" I tend to assume "conversion" when things get personal, for example "you may not believe in Jesus but he believes in you", or "you are going to hell if you don't change". But those could also fit other categories.

Although I wrote here about "conversion", because it enables me to focus my thoughts, much of this material is useful in a number of those categories. For example, the "3 hurdle model" can be used in debates or political discussions.

Could I be converted?

God on the Brain - 1 of 6 (etc)
(Temporal lobe epilepsy)

I guess so, but the arguments and evidence would have to be credible and probably novel. (Studying religions "converted" me from being an agnostic to being an atheist, and this was consolidated by further studying of science).

Various changes to my brain, for example as a result of drugs or temporal lobe epilepsy, could cause me to change my beliefs and lacks of belief.

Is this framework fair?

It may be argued that "I have set the bar unfairly high", and made it too hard to "make a case". That makes this sound like a game, which it is not.

I haven't "set the bar" at all. Taking myself as an example, I have little control over what I genuinely believe, other than to study things until I change my mind. Even if I desperately want to, I cannot genuinely believe something just because of someone else's personal beliefs. I cannot force myself to believe weak evidence. I am describing the bar that exists in my brain as a result of my genetic inheritance and a life-time of experiences. This appears to be a general feature of beliefs.

If you cannot make an adequate case, you are in good company. Perhaps the evidence that would be needed isn't available in the universe. Perhaps there is a god, but with god-like perfection he hid all the sufficiently good evidence. Perhaps there is no god, and no one has managed to fake sufficiently good evidence.


Resources

Where are suitable arguments and evidence?

If I knew of such resources, I probably wouldn't be an atheist! (Although resources that wouldn't work for me might work for other atheists).

Examine the arguments and evidence that caused you to believe in your god(s). Given that what works in childhood may not work for adults, you may have to be selective. Ask others at your place of worship, including your pastor/priest/imam. I've provided references (on the right of the main pages) to resources of several religions that may be useful.

Then use your reconnaissance of the atheist to select from this set of resources.

"You need to open yourself to god"

I frequently encounter assertions such as "if you open yourself to god, he will reveal himself to you". There are variants on this, but the essential feature appears to be that god permits me to have free will, and therefore will not forcefully reveal himself. Instead, the onus is on me to seek him in some way.

Using myself as an example (without claiming that I am typical of all atheists):

  • I know that my beliefs could be altered if my brain was altered by drugs or damage. I also know that the quality of my judgments about reality diminishes when I am tired, emotional, under pressure, or ill. Not only would I be suspicious about conclusions that I have come to while in any such condition, but I also try to avoid being exposed to such intellectually dangerous combinations.
  • I automatically check religious claims against the fact that many gods are worshipped and many religions are practised across the world in the 21st Century. Therefore I am alert to "special pleading" (someone attempting to claim that their god and/or religion is special, without providing a credible justification for that claim). So my reaction is normally "why your god?" and "why your religion?" Why should I open myself to Allah, rather than Brahma or the Christian God / Jesus? Why should I believe that any reaction I detect arises from that god rather than one of the others or from a god no one has yet identified?

Gods

Do people ever believe in exactly the same god?

Do any two religious people share the same mental concept of any god? They may say the same words, but that is often required by religions with a strict doctrine, such as the Catholic Church or particular versions of Islam.

Will a converted atheist have the same concept of god as the person who converted the atheist?

Are the gods of the Abrahamic religions the same?

Are the gods of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Koran, the same? They are obviously very different in character and details, yet both Christianity and Islam are based on the assumption that they are the same God/Allah, and that the apparent differences can be explained (or explained away). It is rather as though Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have franchises on a loose concept.


Types of dialogue

The "burden of proof"

Who has the burden of proof in a discussion or debate? Carl Sagan said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Not everyone accepts that principle. And how is it determined whether it is the person claiming god exists, or the person claiming that god doesn't exist, who is making the extraordinary claim? To someone practising "presuppositional apologetics", even just saying that god probably doesn't exist is an extraordinary claim. A related question, of course, is "what is the default position"?

In practice, the burden of proof is assigned by those who control the context for the discussion.

Science and some other uses:
Someone suggesting a new theory or stating a claim must provide evidence to support it. It is not sufficient to say "you can't disprove this". This is claimed to be unfair by people who want their hypothesis to be accepted. But anyone can propose 5 new hypotheses before breakfast, so it is clearly impractical to place the burden on others to disprove those hypotheses. In practice, this rule works, sooner or later.

Court of law:
In respectable jurisdictions, the burden of proof rests on who asserts, not on who denies.

Debates:
There is typically someone who sets the topic and identifies who goes first. Often this determines whether the onus is on someone to argue that god exists or that religion is good, or on someone to argue that god doesn't exist or that religion is bad.

Politics:
Proof? What a novel concept in politics!

Intelligent Design:
In debates about "evolution versus ID", proponents of ID imply that the burden of proof is on proponents of evolution to show that any gaps are not the result of an Intelligent Designer. This may enable them to win a debate, or at least achieve a stand-off. They can't sustain this in a scientific context, hence the lack of scientific evidence for their case. Neither can they sustain it in a court, so they avoid courts where possible.

Unstructured discussions:
If the burden of proof cannot be assigned early, the discussion is likely to lead to frustration or worse. Walk away!

Conversion of an atheist:
The context is the atheist's beliefs, and even the atheist may have little control over them. The person attempting to convert the atheist doesn't control the context. That is why I have written these pages.


Evidence In Court - a very brief summary

(This section was supplied by hungarianelephant of the RichardDawkins.net web site):

This summary is in response to Barry Pearson's challenge to theists to produce evidence of the existence of God. The evidence must be of the sort of quality which a UK court would accept to send someone to prison for a month or pay a fine of £100.

I have only included the most important rules of evidence, and have focussed on the rules in criminal cases.

Whether admissible evidence is strong enough to meet the "beyond reasonable doubt" test is a jury question. However, the question of whether there is enough evidence even to ask a jury this question is a matter of law. For example, if admissible evidence of one of the necessary parts of the crime is missing, the judge will direct an acquittal. 

The basic rules are very simple:

All facts alleged must be supported by evidence

There must be evidence for all parts of the crime. If evidence is missing for part, then the case is incomplete and the defendant will be acquitted.

There does not always need to be direct, physical evidence. Evidence of the circumstances might be enough, as long as there is sufficient support.

For example, in a murder case, one of the things the prosecution must prove is that the victim is dead. It is possible, though rare, to get a conviction for murder without producing a body. But there must be enough evidence of death. The victim's disappearance is not, on its own, enough to prove this. The disappearance, coupled with the finding of three pints of the victim's blood splattered around the room, might be.

An important part of many crimes is proving cause. It is not enough to prove that the defendant stabbed the victim and that the victim is dead. You also have to prove that the stabbing caused the death. This can be done in several ways, most obviously expert evidence from a pathologist who examined the body. But cause can never simply be inferred.

In a similar way, if something requested in a prayer has in fact happened, this does not prove that prayer works. The person asserting it will either have to demonstrate a physical cause, or eliminate all other possibilities. Causative effect generally can be proved by a properly controlled study designed to eliminate all other possible causes.

All evidence must have a proper foundation

It is up to the person putting forward evidence to show that it is authentic (and relevant: see next section). It is not generally up to the defendant to show that evidence is fake.

Physical evidence can be authenticated by one or more witnesses testifying as to their personal knowledge as to how the physical evidence was obtained and how it was kept: the "chain of custody". Some physical evidence can also be authenticated by an expert witness showing that it has all the properties that would be expected if it were authentic.

It is up to the person putting forward witnesses to show that they are credible.

All evidence must be relevant

All evidence must be relevant to one of the issues in the case, in that it tends to make an alleged fact more probable or less probable.

Evidence is not relevant if it only relates to a matter which is not in dispute. It is also not relevant if it adds nothing to the weight of earlier evidence. For example, the second and third witness to a mugging have relevant evidence; the 35th witness probably does not.

There are other rules preventing evidence which is relevant, but whose prejudicial effect outweighs and probative value. For example, polygraph (lie detector) tests are inadmissible, because of the risk that a jury lends undue weight to them. Confessions extracted under duress are also inadmissible; this is also for several other reasons which I have not got into, including credibility and public policy.

Only experts may express opinions

Generally, evidence is restricted to matters of fact. Witnesses' opinions are not admissible: it is for the jury to draw their own inferences from the facts actually established by the witness' testimony.

The main exception is that expert opinions are allowed. An expert who by virtue of education, training, skill or experience has knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of an average person and sufficient to be relied upon, may give evidence about his / her opinion on a fact or issue within the scope of his / her expertise.

It is up to the person putting the expert forward to show the expert's credentials in the particular field.

The expert's opinion must be restricted to the particular area of expertise. For example, an astronomer might be called to give evidence that there was a full moon on the night of the crime. But the astronomer cannot go on to give evidence as to the relevance of that full moon.

The expert must also show that his / her conclusions were derived from the scientific method. The method used in coming to the expert opinion must be: subject to empirical testing; subject to peer review and publication; having a known or potential error rate; have known standards concerning its operation; and be generally accepted within the scientific community.

The opinions of theologians would not be admissible evidence of the existence of God, for several reasons. Firstly, it is doubtful whether they have any expertise in determining the existence of a deity, as distinct from philosophical conjecture or religious history. Secondly, they do not attempt to prove the existence of God using the scientific method.

Hearsay evidence is not allowed

Hearsay evidence - evidence of "out of court statements" - is not allowed (with some exceptions) if it is intended to prove the truth of the statement itself. This is because the statement cannot be tested in cross-examination.

For example, Alan would not be allowed to testify that "Bob said he saw the Charlie stab Dave", as evidence for the allegation that Charlie stabbed Dave. The prosecution should call Bob himself, so that Bob can be cross-examined about what he saw.

The rule does not mean that all third party statements are inadmissible - it depends on what the statement is trying to prove. For example, "Bob said that he saw Charlie stab Dave" is inadmissible to prove that Charlie stabbed Dave, but admissible to show that the witness was frightened of Charlie.

"God told me that eating shellfish is wrong" is therefore inadmissible to prove that eating shellfish is wrong. God would have to testify as to the wrongness of eating shellfish himself.

There are a number of exceptions, including public records and business records, assuming they are proved authentic and made in the normal course. A statement in such a record is usually admissible to prove the truth of that statement. However, this does not allow multiple hearsay. It only allows the statement to stand without producing the person who originally made it.

For example, if a business record states "Bob says he saw Charlie stab Dave", then the exception only works to allow it as evidence of what Bob said, without needing to call the person who made the record. It is not admissible evidence that Charlie in fact stabbed Dave. That is still inadmissible hearsay.

Declarations of a person's state of mind are also admissible evidence of the state of mind. For example, evidence that a person said "I am angry" is admissible. Evidence of statements of intention are also admissible as circumstantial evidence: a statement that "I am going to the pub" is admissible evidence that the declarant intended to go to the pub, and circumstantial (but not conclusive) evidence that he did in fact go to the pub.

However, such declarations are only relevant to the state of mind. Again, they do not allow multiple hearsay: "I'm frightened because Bob told me that Charlie stabbed Dave and I might be next" is evidence of the state of mind and of the statement by Bob, but not evidence that Charlie stabbed Dave.

Similarly, "I felt God telling me to kill unbelievers" is evidence of the state of mind, but not evidence of God's message per se.