No sooner have I finished my second reply to that power-saver guy who took an entertaining religious tack in his dispute with me, than this shows up:
Hey Dan. I enjoyed reading some of the material on your website. You've definitely got some serious knowledge and understanding (not that you needed me to tell you that). But the reason I'm writing you is that it became clear to me that you reject the concept that God created the universe and yourself. As much as you know and can effectively explain to others who are wondering, you can not logically explain away the fact that you know deep down that you were created by God. And I am prepared for you to write me off as a religious psycho (though I myself hate religion) but I wanted to let you know that I prayed for you tonight that you would come to know your Creator who loves you and sent His Son, Jesus, to give you life. This email did not just happen by chance, just like you did not happen by chance. God is drawing you to Himself and I pray that you would accept His invitation.
"That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" Romans 10:9, 10
You know, I actually do kind of wish that I did "know deep down that I was created by God". It'd make me quite a lot happier, I think. It'd certainly beat the hell out of the terrifying contemplation of the unimportance of all human endeavours when compared with the overall scale of the universe, and the glum certainty that no matter what any human does, and no matter what brilliant tricks any human may manage to pull, in the blink of a geological eye we will all be cold and forgotten dust.
(I think this sort of thing is at the core of your classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror stories. A story that's just about one guy sitting in a chair contemplating his mortality and unimportance probably wouldn't be serialised in sci-fi magazines, though, so you have to add tentacles, asymmetric brain-swapping elder races, all-powerful entities with no mind at all, people who aren't people, and a whole lot of hilarious adjectives.)
The philosophical argument has been advanced that if a God-as-described-in-the-Abrahamic-Scriptures did exist, everybody even slightly sane would believe in him. The fact that there are many apparently reasonable people who do not believe in God may, therefore, be a valid argument for God's nonexistence - it's called the "argument from nonbelief".
(There's probably a nice tidy philosophical name for the argument Stewart presents, that there actually aren't any real unbelievers,
atheists don't actually exist, and everybody's secretly religious even if they deny it. Does anybody know what that's called?)
But in any case, even if some mysterious suppressed kernel of religious belief survives in my black atheistic heart, why on earth would you assume that the God-of-the-Christians is the only entity that could have inspired it?
(This is the flipside of the there-are-no-real-atheists argument. It can be argued that in fact everybody is an atheist, because everybody disbelieves countless gods, most of whom they've never even heard of. By this measure, the only difference between "real" atheists and religious people is that atheists disbelieve slightly more gods.)
I don't think there's actually much point to asking somebody presenting Stewart's argument why they assume that my alleged tiny ember of religious belief is in the Abrahamic god. I already know what the answer's likely to be. Faith, right? You just know, and you don't need a reason.
If you ask me, just knowing without a reason is defective thinking, which can severely weaken any attempt to think critically about any subject at all. Most religious people seem to be able to compartmentalise their faith away from their everyday life, so if they're crossing the road or buying a house or choosing a movie to see, they don't just kneel down and close their eyes until the Lord tells them what to do. But critical thinking is something you have to learn to do, and learning to be unthinkingly faithful pulls your mind in exactly the opposite direction. It can get to the point where you actually seriously argue that you can arrive at faith via the scientific method, because Jesus said that if you do God's will you will be convinced that it, um, is God's will, which sure sounds like solid scientific proof to me!
(The minor problem that the world is full of people all doing contradictory things while convinced that they have the full support of one or more gods does not appear to injure this argument.)
Many religions say faith is laudable in and of itself, and actively encourage adherents to believe all sorts of weird things. Thinking critically is hard enough as it is; thinking critically about religious topics is almost impossible, unless you're willing to devote years to your education and then, quite possibly, end up sounding not unlike an atheist anyway.
So I can't really blame people for taking the blind-faith route. It combines simplicity with laudability! How often in life does one get the chance to be commended for being lazy?
Around this point, the religious person often says that everybody has faith, it's a perfectly good reason to believe things, don't you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow and that all of the intersection traffic lights won't turn green at once. And yes, of course you do, but that faith is based on long experience; religious faith, in contrast, is defined by its lack of evidentiary support. You just have to believe that you'll get that million dollars when you leave town.
Clearly, Stewart believes I should embrace some sort of Christianity - while, um, hating religion, by which I presume he means organised religion - but what if the one I choose isn't the right religion? Christianity isn't even the world's majority religion; in total, Christianity is more popular than any other religion, but it's still only got 33% of the religious market (rather less than 33% of the world's population, since many people have no religion). And of course Christianity, like Islam, is itself broken down into various sects which usually insist that members of the People's Front of Judea are all going to Hell, and you'd better join the Judean People's Front if you know what's good for you. It's all very well to reject organised religion and come to your own understanding of the scriptures, but there will still be many other incompatible interpretations, all with believers every bit as sincere as you.
Perhaps I should go with the oldest religion that's still at all popular. That might be Judaism, though of course the Judaism of 1000 BC probably didn't bear much resemblance to any Jewish sect today.
Or perhaps I should tour countries where everybody's very religious, take notes, and see who's got the best argument. Algeria's 99% Muslim, Armenia's 99% Christian, Bhutan's 97% Buddhist, half of Madagascar's population retain their slightly peculiar traditional ancestor-worshipping beliefs, and about 70% of Albanians profess no religion at all!
In all of those places, I can tell you now that the strongest determinant of anybody's faith will be the faith, or lack thereof, of their parents. Adolescent rebellion doesn't actually usually make a lot of difference to that. Which, again, is a bit of a funny thing to see; if there's one faith that you can just start believing and then, hey presto, its truth becomes apparent, you'd think the global religion market would have settled more solidly on that faith by now.
At this stage in the discussion, the theist will usually sally forth with the warm-and-friendly big-house everyone's-welcome ecumenical argument, saying "there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God". I really cannot accept that, though, since the statements and requirements of many of the world's religions are very clearly incompatible with each other, and people seem to get quite upset about it.
Saying that all, or even many, religions are philosophically compatible is like saying that all codes of football are compatible. OK, sure, a soccer player can pick up the ball, run like hell while dodging the bemused opposition and then dive over the goal-line for a righteous touchdown, but I think you'll find that his team's score will not then rise by six points.
So here I am, back in the quandary of which religion to settle upon, with my immortal soul - if I have one - hanging in the balance.
I think the best course of action is to continue to eschew all religious observance, because I think that'll give me - in a sort of permutation of Pascal's Wager - the best chance of getting into heaven or a better spot on the reincarnation wheel or whatever. Because if there's a god up there, and it's fair, it ought not to cast me into a lake of fire unless I directly choose the wrong religion. If I'm just completely confused by all of the options, each and every one encrusted with bizarre counterfactual and/or solipsistic dogma, and so avoid them all and just try to live a good life, then a fair god should let me into paradise.
And if God isn't fair - as, objectively speaking, unfortunately seems to be the case - then we're all screwed anyway. In that case, I might as well not waste any time praying.