Yesterday, after Mass, a friend (though “acquaintance” might be more accurate) asked me if I was Catholic. Like me, he married a Polish woman; he accompanied her to Mass as they’d driven into town to share a Christmas dinner with us.
“No,” I answered, quietly. A year ago, I might have been more emphatic in my denial. “You?” I asked, though I knew the answer. He always struck me as an individual lacking passion, and for some reason, that deficiency made me think he was a non-believer.
“No!” he said with a little chuck and a touch of indignation. “My mind works in different ways. More scientific. I need proof.”
Funny — I might have said something like that a year ago. I wouldn’t have used those words: I don’t know if I was ever very dogmatic in my disbelief when talking. I might have put it as Tom Hanks’ character in Angels and Demons expressed it: “Faith is a gift I’ve yet to receive.” In fact, this gentleman later quoted that passage. “I like that,” he said. (I might point out that I Googled all the information about the quote. I’ve not seen Angels and Demons, nor read the book, and given the author, I have no intention of doing either: Brown couldn’t write a convincing grocery list.) I might have liked the attempted diplomacy in such a statement myself at one point.
Later, after Christmas dinner, we were talking with a third friend. We got to talking about faith and evidence again. I mentioned a proof which an online atheist (I can’t recall the name) said he would find convincing: imagine that at the moment of Jesus’ birth, a message miraculously appeared on the moon stating that Jesus was indeed God incarnate. It would be visible to all for all centuries, and due to prior astronomical records, we would know that it hasn’t always existed.
“That would be fairly convincing evidence for many,” my second friend, a believer with a Ph.D. in physics, said.
Friend One shook his head. “No, I’d need to see him appear before me.”
I found myself thinking, “You’d probably find a way to explain that as well.”
He seems to be of the same mindset as Jennifer Fulwiler was:
I always assumed that the reason I didn’t believe in God was because I was a more scientific-type thinker. My mind simply demanded proof before it would believe a theory to be true. And as nice as it would be to think that God and Mr. Jesus love me and want me to hang out with them and the pretty angels in heaven, the Christian story just seemed so bizarre and, really, absurd. (Conversion Diary)
Proof is such a slippery thing because of the subjective nature of our individual experiences. That which is proof for one individual is folly for another. The proof provided in the DNA evidence in the OJ Simpson trial of the mid-nineties is a superb example: proof for some, nonsense for others.
When we begin discussing proof in a religious context, that becomes even trickier. In some ways, proof is impossible for matters of spirituality. My earlier doppelgänger would have retorted that that makes spirituality nonsense. What’s the point of believing something that can’t be proven false? It’s something I’m still wrestling with.
There are a thousand reasons I could give why I don’t believe, why any “reasonable” person shouldn’t believe. But something seems to have changed. I’ve changed mindsets.
William James, in “The Will to Believe,” writes that there are two ways of looking at truth: we must know the truth, or we must avoid error. The atheist in me has always been the latter; I’m beginning to wonder about the former. Right now, proof — however I might have defined that a year ago — is not as important as I thought it would be.