God and Values

Jim posted on Lya Kahlo’s fascinating experiment in which she visited Christian forums as an open atheist. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. She was asked, “If you don’t believe in God, why care about anything?” a total of 17 times. Some of us have been tempted to switch into full rant mode when naïve questions like these pop up. But I think it’s important for us nonbelievers to understand the motivation behind this question.

First, in my experience to “believe in God” typically conflates two things. To believe in God is to believe that God exists and further to believe that such a being ought to be our ultimate concern. In the absence of this ultimate concern, then presumably nothing is of concern, nothing matters, and all is lost. Therefore for anything to have value, the implicit thinking goes, God must exist.

I think the way to go about responding to this question is to nudge the theist into seeing his or her mistaken assumption that without God nothing can have value. Ask the theist this hypothetical: “Let’s just suppose for a moment that God didn’t exist. Would you still love your parents?” Obviously everyone is going to say that they would. So there is at least one thing to care about even in the absence of God. The truth is, none of us know whether God exists or not and yet this ignorance doesn’t stop any of us from valuing family, friendships, and our communities. All of us care about an enormous number of things in our lives.

Hopefully, the naïve question of the believer can be a teaching moment. With luck they will come to see that we largely value the same things that they value and that our values have little or nothing to do with the existence of God. The question won’t go away anytime soon but we can help guide theists who ask it to a greater understanding of atheism. Or we can switch into rant mode and reinforce all of their stereotypes about atheists.