No Proof God Exists (Lessons in Talking to Skeptics)

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“If God exists, I want proof.” Almost as if reading a script from my past conversations with atheists and skeptics this person repeated this common question.  What do you say? How do you react? Before we get there, let’s talk about what NOT to say.

NOT TO SAY

1. “The Bible says in…”  Unless you are talking to someone who is already a believer, quoting from the Bible is like chasing after the wind. If they trusted in the authority of scripture, they would not be atheist. Because they are questioning the very existence of God, giving them an explanation that relies on the authority of scripture makes you seem like you are blinded by your own belief.

spiral galaxy2. “If you look at the sunset…”  Though this has a great Biblical source in Romans 1:20, using the fact that creation requires a creator simply doesn’t hold water. These skeptics likely have no problem trusting the current scientific consensus around the Big Bang and may even understand the developing multiverse theory that explains how the Big Bang went bang without the need for a divine spark right at the beginning. Fighting science or dismissing it will prove fruitless and make them think of you as one who ignores solid proof because of your religious belief.

3. “Cogito Ergo Sum…”  Employing one of the classic logical proofs for God may be interesting to your Christian friends and helpful in refining your understanding of God, but if you’ve ever listened to a freshman philosophy class poke holes in these arguments, you know that they are far from perfect and can be dismissed easily by an intelligent, skeptical listener. Using these makes them feel like we haven’t thought critically about the proof we believe.

WHAT IS LEFT?

What’s left once we eliminate the Bible, creation, and philosophy?  Not much,  In fact, my initial response to this question is something like “To be honest, I don’t have a lot of proof. It may surprise you, but I have struggled with that same question myself.” This response does two things. First it recognizes that the question is difficult and that you are not treating it lightly. Second, it signals that you aren’t in some sort of religious defense/attack posture, but are willing to question and think.

To be clear, I do not go into these conversations expecting to “take hold of another soul for the kingdom” as a result of what we talk about.  My goal is many steps back from helping them say the sinner’s prayer or draw that nice picture from the tracts of my youth with two cliffs and a fiery pit in the middle. All I want to accomplish is to get them to consider God and open themselves up to experiencing the Divine.

Since I have this more accomplishable goal in mind, I have a good answer when they follow up to my recognition of their difficult question with, “Why do you believe in God?” To that I respond with a story of my personal experience of God. I convey the narrative around some powerful moment or clarity of insight into who I am.  I talk about the life change I have witnessed in others.

Finally, I give them the one piece of data that I have that cracks the door for me.  Right now 98% of the world believes in God.  Even in the more secular, scientific USA, that statistic is 94%.  The reality is that anything where this many humans agree on and have agreed on for so many millennia cannot be easily dismissed. There is something to that.

Sometimes I leave it there, other times I ask if they would be willing to open themselves up to experience God, and if so would they mind if I prayed with them for God to do that over the next couple of weeks.

What have we learned in this lesson about speaking to skeptics?

1. Set realistic goals for your conversation.

2. Do not dismiss tough questions.

3. Give personal answers rather than philosophy or science-focused ones.

Though that’s not all we need to know, it is a start.  Tune in next time as we think about how to go the next step without resorting to the Lord, Liar, Lunatic proof.

Jeremy Steele, UMR Columnist

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry and the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. You can find more of his writing and a list of all the places he contributes at his website: JeremyWords.com

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11 Comments on "No Proof God Exists (Lessons in Talking to Skeptics)"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Earl
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Jeremy and Mark, what you are each doing are representative of two possible approaches. They need not be treated like they are against each other. People we meet will have different degrees of resistance or openness. I mean the approach must be dependent on the actual situation of personal encounter. One may not work at actual face-to-face exchange at one time and the other might work. A possible combination of approaches is also possible depending again on the circumstances of encounter. I thank you both for sharing your views. I pray for such unbelievers, especially the most hardliner of them.… Read more »
bill krill
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No one can talk or argue someone into belief; we can only love them into it.

Dan
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Jeremy, I appreciate the article, it is good advice on how to further someone along into the kingdom. If someone is at the point of wanting proof of God, they are usually indicating an openness to listen. That is, they have already taken the first step themselves. They are looking for someone to either help them take the second step, or realize the first step was a mistake. You make a good point that you shouldn’t go into the discussion with the expectation to “take hold of another soul for the kingdom”. Paul himself acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 3… Read more »
Mark
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A rational defense of the coherence of theism: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-coherence-of-theism

Mark
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I had left comments a couple of days ago that were not printed…whether accidentally or purposely I cannot say. If purposely I can only wonder if you are interested in intelligent dialogue and will not bother reading your column again…if accidentally then no offense taken and apologies for innuendo otherwise. Suffice it to say that I find your reasoning uncompelling. You are essentially suggesting that Christians ignore some of the strongest evidence for theism—hailing from science, logic and Scripture—in favor the more subjective “most people believe in God” or “I don’t think some of the good things that happened to… Read more »
Ann Wolf
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Jeremy, I very much honor the data that 98% of the world believes in God. However, I’d like to say that within that 98% there are many different perspectives of what God is. Please allow me to share with you how I came to know God and what I share with skeptics. My personal knowingness came when I began to focus on the Holy Spirit. It was because of my daily silent prayer/meditation routine and intense desire to know “who or what God is” that I began to perceive how Spirit penetrates/infiltrates all life everywhere present. And it is within… Read more »
Mark
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Jeremy, have you studied apologetics very much? In fact there are many rational arguments for the existence of God (see C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for starters, but other convincing arguments have been presented by G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayer, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Athanasius, Louis Markos, John Lennox, Alistair McGrath, J. P. Moreland, Lee Strobel, R. C. Sproul, Ravi Zacharias, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, even Isaac Newton, etc.) You may want to investigate William Lane Craig’s newsletter/website, “Reasonable Faith” (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/). Craig is a proponent of the Kalaam Cosmological Argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalaam_cosmological_argument), which I find persuasive. The Big… Read more »
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