I was at my parents' house for dinner the other night, and somehow the subject of an afterlife came up. My mother asserted that she "knows" she would go to Heaven if she died right now, and my father and I both corrected her, telling her she doesn't know, but she believes. She continued to argue against us for a few minutes, refusing to acknowledge the difference between knowing a fact and believing something that is unprovable. It was very frustrating, and I held back from arguing too much because I didn't want to announce to my dad that I'm an atheist.

What arguments are there that will actually cause a theist to recognize the nature of their "knowledge of God" as subjective and not objective? Belief and not knowledge? I've actually had theists tell me that even though it can't be proven to anyone else, they still "know, objectively" that God exists. The example given was that if I talk to my cousin today and then tell a friend who's never met this cousin, "Hey, I talked to my cousin" tomorrow, that would seem subjective if I can't physically bring my cousin to meet my friend, but I would still know objectively that my cousin exists and I spoke with her. The difference, of course, is that the existence of my cousin can still be proven in one way or another, while God's existence cannot; however, explaining this never seems to bring this sort of person to admit the difference.

No amount of reason has ever worked on these people, and I've got to admit that while my mom handles my atheism pretty well, it's incredibly frustrating that I can't get her to admit the most basic of facts about belief, and none of them would be inherently damaging to that belief, so it's not as if she could "protect" her faith by avoiding them. I wonder if she's honestly naive enough that she can't grasp the difference between belief and knowledge, or if she's just averse to thinking critically about her faith because it's hard. So... if this comes up again, how might I try explaining the concept to her again in a way that might make her stop repeating her mantra of "I know" and actually listen to what I'm saying?

I don't want to appear overly confrontational over this if it does come back up between us, but I value intellectual honesty, and it bothers me when one of the most important people in my life won't be intellectually honest. I think that gently engaging her in these sorts of discussions and helping her to see where, for example, her beliefs are not equivalent to real knowledge will aid her in understanding my atheism, and perhaps give her some comfort in that area.

Views: 24

Comment by Jason Wagner on March 5, 2010 at 8:25am
If all she is doing is covering her ears and saying "La La La I can't hear you" then you are wasting your breath. You can't force people to be rational. Besides, your family is such that you are hiding your atheism so I have to imagine you don't really have an open forum of communication and acceptance. The only thing I might suggest is pick her up a book by Dawkins or Hitchens and ask her to read it for you, that it would really mean a lot if she would.

Just remember, you can't get blood from a turnip.
Comment by Jānis Ķimsis on March 5, 2010 at 8:27am
If your dad was with you on the "know/believe" issue, why are you afraid to tell him about your atheism?
Comment by wisp on March 5, 2010 at 8:59am
I do not wish to tell my dad about my atheism because, to make a very long story short, he has a degenerative nerve disease that is sapping his strength more and more every day, and he is depressed enough as it is. He seems to have been turning to his faith to try to find comfort, and I do not want to potentially make him feel even worse. The extent of his negativity could be unwanted pity for me, but if he were to end up losing his faith I honestly fear that he would give up on trying anymore.

My mom and I do communicate openly with each other and we make a great effort to accept each other's beliefs. Dawkins or Hitchens would most definitely be too over the top; I would never recommend them to her unless she made some serious steps towards being willing to question her faith. I don't want to deconvert the poor woman; I only want her to look at her beliefs in a healthier way.
Comment by Matthew on March 5, 2010 at 10:08am
In cases like these I like to use the ~Invisible Unicorn~ argument. I don't know where I got this, but in a nutshell it goes like this....
Tell your mom that you KNOW there is an invisible unicorn in the room. Does she believe you? Why not? Because it is unprovable. Then ask how her unfounded and unprovable beliefs are any different than the Invisible Unicorn.

I have used this several times and it always causes the believer all sorts of trouble. Like any debate like this, it doesn't cause them to change their mind on the spot. However, it at least gets them thinking.
Comment by wisp on March 5, 2010 at 10:28am
Haha... my mom loves unicorns, incidentally. That might be a nice, non-aggressive way to get my point across.
Comment by Mario Rodgers on March 5, 2010 at 11:54am
The Greeks KNEW the gods would help them against the Trojans. A lot of Muslims KNOW that they're going to heaven but not Christians.
Comment by Shine on March 5, 2010 at 12:18pm
The inability of most people to distinguish between belief and knowledge drives me insane. I have written a lot about it, because I really cannot see how the two are so difficult to separate. Like the cousin example, I often hear other hypothetical situation of Chinese rain used; because you cannot physically sense the presence of rainfall in China firsthand, someone will argue that you never know that it is raining in China but instead only believe what someone else in China may have told you. (This assumes that one is located somewhere in the western hemisphere.)

Essentially, the entire premise is to label everything we learn second-hand and not through direct sensory experience as a belief, thereby normalizing religious beliefs by including them with everyday beliefs. Of course, the critical flaw in the parallel is that while your cousin and the Chinese rain are potentially observable, the subject matter of religious beliefs are fundamentally unobservable and therefore unfalsifiable or unprovable.

I think that it is this potential to be observed that separates religious beliefs from everyday beliefs, and it really boils down to the difference between faith and trust. Religious beliefs about unobservable events are based solely upon faith, whereas everyday beliefs about observable--yet not directly observed--events are based upon trust. Faith is necessarily blind and recoils from knowledge, whereas trust is usually rooted in past experience and welcomes verification from truth.

Wisp, I understand why you do not want to tell your dad specifically about your atheism. My boyfriend also has a degenerative neurological disease, Friedreich's ataxia. Fortunately, he was an atheist long before me, back when I was floundering around in the mysticism of agnostic ambiguity. However, most of his family are devoutly Christian, and I know that many of them are emotionally dependent upon the idea of a heaven where he will be freed from his disease. Although both him and I accept the hard truth of reality as best we can, we still respect the reliance of his family upon theism. It is a situation that makes me protest against extremely pro-active atheism; while I oppose the supremacy of religion, I recognize that there are many people in pain who rely upon the comforts of delusion.
Comment by Mario Rodgers on March 5, 2010 at 12:43pm
That's a great post, Shine.
Comment by M on March 5, 2010 at 8:02pm
So, I read an American Atheist article somewhere, sometime, that kind of touched on what you're talking about. It seems as if the big thing is not necessarily believing in a god, but that there is a possibility of no heaven, no afterlife. To most people, this is just too frightening for them to face: that there is the biggest of possibilities that they are only temporary beings. It boils down to our species being egocentric, each person not being able to imagine some sort of existence going on without them. It's very biological and probably survival-based, but it terrifies people. Death is so... permanent. We'd apparently all rather "follow the light."
Comment by Shine on March 5, 2010 at 8:05pm
Thanks, Mario. :)


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