to make atheists believe in God?
It’s a popular question for both sides of the divide. Those who believe in Jesus wonder what they can do to bring people into his fold, those who think Christians are nuts wonder what could possibly pose a real challenge to their atheism, for them the question is rhetorical. There could be some people who genuinely wonder if God is real but hidden from them so they look for ways to find their faith.
I don’t care much about Christians, they mean well but come across as a bit condescending. They use such questions to validate their own faith by sounding out opposing views in a ridiculous and impossible way. Their real question is not “What would it take?” but “How could they not believe the same things I do?”
Some of these Christians might genuinely wonder what makes people believe. They’ve discovered faith for themselves but they don’t know how it can be implanted in others. In this we can find a common ground because we share the same concerns but I doubt they’ll ever ask us for answers so there’s no reason for us to worry about them.
People who genuinely want to find faith to see for themselves if it’s any good should be the target of our preaching, this is exactly the kind of people we should be looking for, one of the four mentioned by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gītā (BG 7.16). If they want to find the truth rather than simply satisfy their curiosity they are actually the best among four and are more likely to stay the course than those who are distressed and those seeking wealth.
We know what to do with them – give them books, make them read and appreciate, and they’ll become devotees in no time.
What to do about atheists, though? Should we be concerned with what to answer them? We are not supposed to preach Kṛṣṇa’s glories to them, we are not supposed to describe the glory of the Holy Name, not even the supremely attractive power of the mahā-mantra. Generally, they should be avoided and left on their own.
Sometimes, however, they can’t be ignored because they are the most vocal group and by preaching their atheism and often outright envy of God they confuse lots of innocent people who otherwise could still find faith in their hearts.
Atheistic propaganda must be stopped, it’s the mission of all our modern day ācāryas, from Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura down. It’s our service to try and stop māyāvāda in all its forms, of which atheism is the most prominent one in the western society. There’s also neo-māyāvāda coming from India but those hippies are not as prominent and influential, nor they are as harmful to the general population.
Many devotees feel that ISKCON doesn’t do enough to battle neo-māyāvādīs and I totally support this sentiment but let’s keep our priorities straight here. People who chant Hare Kṛṣṇa without proper faith and devotion are not our main enemies – atheists are, and it’s atheists who run the world these days, not various neo-māyāvādī deviants.
So, for atheists, “what would it take” question is one of the more powerful tools to discredit any kind of religion. By posing such a question they speak from the position of unlimited strength and confidence and they are more than ready to refute any other answer but “nothing, atheism is the greatest and the truest, nothing can challenge it”.
Our first mistake here would be to accept their attitude and go along and to accept their frame of reference and try to play at their own game. We cannot be seen as looking for honest suggestions in a situation where they will refuse them even before we start vocalizing our solutions. This is exactly what they want – to see us honestly try and then crush our dreams in the most cruel way. No matter how they frame it, polite or not, their actual answer would be “Did you honestly think you could convert me, you religious freak? No way, no chance in hell, I asked the question only to make you look stupid and ridiculous.”
This is why we shouldn’t put ourselves in such a position. Even Lord Caitanya avoided situations like this, when people can commit serious offenses simply due to ignorance, as was the case of his friends insulting the most exalted position of the gopīs. Not to mention that telling them how great God is would be an offense on our part, too.
So, when faced with a question like this, we should challenge the question itself, the attitude of the questioner, and we could also explain the fact that correct answer is indeed “nothing”, just as they expect, but not in a way they expect it.
Fact is, there’s absolutely nothing in this world that can make people believe in God. God is beyond this material creation, He doesn’t manifest Himself here except on some special occasions which are so rare in history that for modern people they are non-existent.
Atheists deny existence of supernatural, they accept only the empiric reality. If they actually thought this through they would have realize that if God is a supernatural being then there’s nothing natural that could relate to Him in any way.
By relate here I mean the sort of interaction they are willing to consider as proof – you probe something, it responds, and then you try to explain the nature of the object by this response. God will not respond to anything. We cannot catch His reflection in a mirror, bats will not see him with their ultrasound radars, we cannot catch Him passing through airport security, He cannot be scanned, His email cannot be hacked, He doesn’t have an id, passport or social security number. We cannot pour acid on Him, He doesn’t respond to alkaline solutions either, super fast particles in Hadron Collider go straight through Him without any effect on their energy or their course.
To an empiric observer God does not exist.
So, the question is not in what would make people to believe but what kind of supernatural response could be measured with natural instruments. None, not possible by definition of supernatural. The question itself is a kind of oxymoron and while atheist are prepared to ridicule us for trying to answer we can ridicule them first for even posing such an absurd question. They do not see the absurdity and so we can question their intellectual capacity, too. Maybe it’s not the most respectful answer but this should put them on the back foot and make them think twice before formulating the next question.
Here’s the trick – by challenging legitimacy of their question we make them think about God and how to “nail” Him, and thinking about God is devotional service already.
Okay, devotion must be favorable so we don’t consider Kaṃsa a devotee but for an avowed atheist thinking about God 24/7 is the best possible option, we should encourage it.
If we fade away and let them “win” they’ll go somewhere else and lose that chance to really ponder the nature of God and reality. The reality is that the more they think about God the better they understand what it means and if they make Him a genuine goal of their inquiry sooner or later devotion will awaken in their hearts, which is a mission accomplished for us.
So we should not leave them alone, if they want to talk God we should be happy to see such an interest. We should deal with it correctly with as much tact and diplomacy we can muster but we should not ignore it and let them forget they were interested in God once, or let them mock the idea and the devotees, it’s for their own sake that we stop them committing offenses.
Ultimate answer, of course, is that God must reveal Himself, there’s no other way. Most likely He will reveal Himself through material objects – gurus, deities, audible vibration of the Holy Name, but when He reveals Himself all questions about His existence will fade away. When a hungry person finds food and starts eating he won’t be asking if such thing as food exists anymore, he’d be busy stuffing himself.
This is what will happen to atheists when God reveals Himself to them. I hope it will happen to us, too, we all could see a little more of Kṛṣṇa in our lives in any shape or form.