The God of the Old Testament made his presence directly and unambiguously known in many people's lives. He spoke directly to various Biblical figures, sent angels to speak on His behalf to various others. He was a very hands-on God. And while He changed His interaction significantly in the New Testament (sending Himself in the form of His son to directly interact with people), he was still very hands-on. But for the last two thousand years His approach has been decidedly hands-off. Now admittedly it depends somewhat on which faith or at least sect you subscribe to. There are Christian sects who believe in the visitations of other prophets, visitations of angels, and miracles, but even among these groups I think it's fair to say that fellow parishioners would look askance at any one arriving Sunday morning claiming a previous night's visitation by an angel bearing a great revelation. Something changed in God's interaction with us, or perhaps in our interaction with God. In either case I find the change hard to reconcile, and belief discouraged as a result.
One trouble I have accepting Christianity as truth-based is the stark differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. These differences seem peculiar to me. I would not have imagined an omniscient God would experience dramatic shifts in expressed personality over a span of a mere few thousand years. Our human personalities evolve greatly over our short lifespans because we acquire knowledge, we come to understand that knowledge, and we struggle with hormonal fluctuations that accompany the delicate process of growing and dying. God would have seemed immune to those issues, being both omniscient and omnipotent. And yet He seems to change.
This Old Testament God did a lot of punishing. For their disobedience Adam & Eve were cast out of Eden with all of us now suffering decay and death as a result. For man's growing wickedness all but Noah and his kin were killed in the flood. For their impenitent sin, everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah was killed except Lot and his two daughters. And for their enslavement of the Jews, all the first born males in Egypt were killed. And beyond all the punishment there is an awful lot of testing of men, including the horrible tale of Job and Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac. And there are ever so many rules laid down in the Old Testament about the behavior we adherents are required to keep lest be kept out of heaven or deserve to be stoned to death. And of course there is the curious fact that Old Testament God is not described as a trinity.
The New Testament God is markedly different. God does not engage in widespread punishment, does not kill those who transgress upon Him or His son, Jesus. And God seems little interested in testing people's faith, except perhaps that of His son. And the New Testament seems to relay a doctrine primarily about love, tolerance, and the need to focus on the core Biblical principles (e.g., love thy neighbor) and less on the minutiae (e.g., don't eat shellfish). And somewhat surprisingly, God also revealed Himself to be a trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How can these two very different experiences of God be reconciled, without either admitting God Himself radically changed over a period of a few thousand years, or if God is the same then admitting that man's account of God must be wildly inaccurate? Both possibilities strongly discourage my belief.
If thousands of years ago the Old or New Testament had descended slowly from the heavens as a blinding light, settling on the ground and revealing itself to be universally intelligible words (readable by all men of every language) printed on indestructible paper as yet unexplained and unreproduced by scientists, then I would be strongly inclined to believe its contents are the unerring truths and wisdom of God. That's not what happened, however. Instead the Old Testament was thought to have been composed over some thousand years, from the 12th century BC to the 2nd century BC, passed down for much of that time by word of mouth. Not surprisingly subtly and significantly different versions of many of the stories/books exist, and various churches have different opinions about which books are valid and can be included. Thus it's very hard for me to imagine the Old Testament is the inerrant and factual testament of God. The New Testament has a similarly complicated history, not having been begun until well after Jesus' death, and then composed of varying, evolving books coming into and out of favor for some 1500 years or so, until stabilizing somewhat in the 16th century. Again, hard for me to see an evolving text subject to the apparent whims of various ages being the inerrant and factual testament of God. I cannot understand, knowing what biblical scholars do about the creation and evolution of the bible, how anyone can believe the bible is literally true.
One of the curious things about many religions is their ability to interpret events to fit a positive outcome. No matter what the event.
A woman prays to God asking that her father be spared from the infection ravaging his body. If the father gets better, God is credited. If he dies, it's okay, because his dying was part of God's unknowable divine plan. Not every religious tradition couches things in exactly these terms, but they all have in them the very same conveniently indisputable doctrine of optional but universally positive involvement. People are encouraged to ask God for things, but He is never expected to act. How very convenient that is to preventing one from easily disproving His existence. We could similarly invent and then be unable to disprove the existence of anything else we might wish; and I can't help but find that style of existence deeply suspect.
Two related accounts:
My father went on a road trip recently, and very near the end of his 3,000 mile journey, about 50 miles from home he was pulling up to a light, and one of his front wheels fell off. His reaction, as he related it to me, "We passed through canyons, along cliffs, and at 75 MPH on highways and we would have died if the wheel had fallen off then! God was protecting us!" But the many other people who recently died in car accidents along the same route he took, God apparently chose not to protect them. Such subjective selection in which acts are credited to God I find frustrating.
I remember a while back watching a story about a family escaping unhurt from a terrorist bombing that killed dozens of others, and their statement was something like, "We just knew that God was protecting us, that we'd make it out, that he still had plans for us." The other people had apparently outlived their planned usefulness on this Earth (and were needed in Heaven). I am troubled by this woman speaking so confidently about how her family was so deserving of God's protection while seemingly not recognizing that others were equally deserving, just not as fortunate.
One thing that perpetually amazes me is the absolute conviction the faithful have in their beliefs; their very specific set of beliefs are right and true and everyone else is misled, confused, wrong, and/or ignorant. The average Christian is abundantly certain that Jesus is the Son of God, the messiah foretold in the old testament, that he performed miracles, that he died on the cross and rose from the dead to save us all from sin, and that the Jews, the Muslims, the atheists/agnostics, and everyone else is wrong. Almost every religion or belief system takes this same hard line approach. And what I can't get past is the tremendous chutzpah required to completely ignore the fact that every other religion that is now or has come before felt exactly the same way about their God(s) and their rightness. How arrogant it is to say, "My experience is real, but everyone else's experience is wrong, and maybe based on nothing." Jewish people absolutely believe their experience of God is real. The Muslims absolutely believe their experience of God is real. The ancient Greeks absolutely believed their experience of Gods was real. The ancient druids absolutely believed their experience of God was real. But apparently only the [INSERT NAME OF YOUR RELIGION HERE] and its narrow, modern day interpretation of itself is right, everyone else is wrong. That arrogance strains credulity, it suggests to me that strong belief must necessarily be suspect because it cannot allow or acknowledge our rich human history of flawed thinking and errant conclusions. Religions cannot all be right, and in some sense that means the competing ones remove themselves from my consideration by canceling each other out.
There are of course some more syncretic, universal belief systems that do allow all religions to be varying shades of simultaneously true, in as much as they all are simultaneously valid personal interpretations of some universal divine; any errors or contradictions between them are creative license by the cultures who created them. This posted reason for disbelief would not apply to these particular faiths, though others reasons would.
The faithful like to argue that the universe could not have created itself out of nothing in the moment of the Big Bang, that the idea is absolutely nonsensical. I agree. But what seems so curiously hypocritical to me is that those faithful are promoting exactly the same sort of nonsense, that either God somehow created Himself out of nothingness or that He somehow always existed. Both those something-in-spite-of-nothing beliefs make no more sense than the prevailing scientific theories about how matter and energy might have come to be in the Big Bang. Forced to choose between multiple ridiculous ideas, I'll choose to believe the most direct and least complicated one.
Listening to the Christian radio and television spokespeople you'd believe all Christendom was falling apart, with heathens attacking the pious followers of Jesus on every side. And it's just not so. In certain places on Earth Christians are absolutely persecuted (e.g., the recurring outrages against Christians in predominantly Muslim Pakistan). The persecution of anyone is horrible, and all persecution should be opposed. But every group is persecuted somewhere, and suggesting by way of omission or commission that Christians are uniquely or especially targeted is just not accurate. While it's true that society in the US has become more secular in these last hundred years, it takes some chutzpa to say that's unfair or even necessarily a bad thing. Many rotten things have been done in Christ's good name (e.g., Salem witch trials, Biblical defense of slavery/segregation, hateful attitude towards gay people), and the separation of church and state was intended to protect our very good republic from the grave evils of that.
While Christians decry the removal of the Decalogue from the state and court houses, fume at the cessation of prayers in public schools, it remains as clear as ever that a winning politician is a church going politician, and one who goes to a "sanctioned" church. Despite a lifetime of good deeds and treating his neighbor as himself, no atheist, no agnostic, no unorthodox Christian (e.g., Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.), no Jew, and certainly no Muslim will soon be President of the United States. Until and unless any of those groups stop being excluded from that role by the largely baseless bias of our numerous and vocal (often evangelical) protestant citizens, I'm not going to buy the mainstream and fundamental Christian arguments about their persecution here at home.
Standing up on a street corner proclaiming that you believe in Jesus Christ will definitely get you some annoyed stares (most of them from moderate Christians) but it's nothing to the hateful glares you'd get standing in the same spot declaring your conviction that Jesus Christ is as much of a fantasy as the previously worshipped Greek God Apollo. Thus I encourage Christians to focus less on their sense of persecution, and more on the joy of their continued majority; enjoy it while you can.
I can't help but reflect on the similarity between majority Christians feeling persecuted and majority white men feeling persecuted. The plum line of social equality set in significant motion most significantly back in the 1960s will oscillate back and forth a bit until it points the way to a new and equitable normal. It will for a time be somewhat unfair to all, but every day less and less unfair. I certainly encourage white men to not settle for less than equality, we need you to defend your rights, but for goodness sake make your case with a contextual and historical awareness so that you don't sound so pathetically whiny.
I strongly believe you can scientifically prove whether or not the worshiped God exists. God may be infinite in his personage, but he is experienced by man as the collection of claims made by His followers on His behalf. While priests and gurus are always careful to allow God plenty of flexibility in His work in any individual's life, they all universally sell the message that your life will be changed by belief, by a relationship with God, and they all bullet point various ways in which other people's lives will be changed and so can yours. God is routinely credited with saving people from their sinful addictions, with healing people from their mortal illnesses, with making people's lives profoundly richer (in ways measured by everything from smiles to dollars). Studies could be constructed to test these and almost all other claims, in the aggregate, comparing thousands or tens of thousands of lives. With proper controls we could discover whether the Holy Spirit works greater healing in the addictions of the devout Christian or the rabid atheist, we could see if the agnostic's surgery recovery is stunted relative to that of the evangelizing Mormon, whether the life of the Mennonite is a statistical improvement over the life of the Satan worshiper. If the claims made by His followers fail the test, show that belief in Him does not produce lives or circumstances better than a lack of belief in Him would, then He does not exist, at least not as His followers have defined Him. We owe it to ourselves to explore this topic, what worthier topic is there? If God exists He deserves our adherence and worship, if He does not exist our wasted energies must be redirected.
And while there have been studies here or there to measure such things as the healing effect of intercessory prayer, we need more studies, better studies, larger studies, covering all aspects of God's supposed influence on man. But there seems neither the interest nor the money to pursue such things, which seems particularly outrageous to me when we collectively spend $10 billion on something like the Large Hadron Collider so that we can find the "God particle", while ignoring the much grander and more personal study with ourselves as subjects, proving or disproving God's impact on our lives. But there lingers in the minds of most the conviction that God exists beyond reason, beyond measurement, and that God is nothing if not believed through faith. And too many pick one side or the other of Loyola's statement of faith: For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who disbelieve, no amount of proof is sufficient.
I reject the notion that God requires our reasonless faith and am sad that we don't seek Him out using the tools He has provided. With my limited personal research skills, with my limited budget, with my limited experience of the universe, I find no proof of God, and thus no belief in Him. But I am ready, willing, and able to believe.
I sometimes enjoy listening to evangelical Christian radio when I drive. I am not a Christian, but it is familiar to me. I went to an Episcopalian school from 3rd grade through 12th, my school was on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral, and my house was across the street from that. My mother was a holiday Christian, and my dad was a devout new age Christian. I've always had a fascination with religions (and cults), and (to some degree) an admiration of the religious (and the spiritual). Most of my fascination with listening to Christian radio relates not to its familiarity, but to the fact that I hear their arguments and I can't agree with their conclusions. And I generally enjoy the process of listening to the other side of an argument, trying to see things from the other person's perspective, trying to isolate the critical link of difference in the chain of reasoning that divides us. But I digress, I just wanted to explain why I listen, and enjoy, evangelical Christian radio.
On this particular day I was listening to a female preacher talking to what seemed to be an audience of young, perhaps troubled, women. In the context of the lesson, the preacher was identifying common failings of men, particularly young men. No doubt most of the women could identify. The key failing she was identifying was that the men of their past weren't, and the men of their future weren't likely to be, there for them when they most needed them. And that's why, she argued, these women should put their faith and turn their love towards Jesus, because he would never treat them like those men have and will.
From my perspective, this logic is a bit of beautiful, peculiar bit of nonsense. Because the reality in the world of external actions is that all of her complaints about these men could be turned around and directed at Jesus instead. The only thing that differs is that she ascribes to the men a malice or disregard that she naturally doesn't to Jesus, but the non-subjective reality is of an arguably similar nature. If a girl asks her boyfriend for something reasonable and he fails to do it, that would be read by this preacher as a sign of his poor and unreliable nature. If a girl asks Jesus for something reasonable and He fails to do it, that's just His ineffable divine plan. No one is allowed to require anything of Jesus or God. Many feel Their presence, feel the warm embrace of His love, but no one can expect anything specific of Him; He does as He sees fit, and faith promises that is how it was meant to be. These ladies' men aren't afforded the same lack of expectation. If the women were able to apply a similar faith with these men, turning their variance from expectation into a piece of some grand plan of theirs, they would likely find a greater solace and be less critical. Viewed from this misplaced (but arguable) faith, anything he does can have a positive spin. A man who leaves a girl when he finds out she's pregnant is merely providing her the opportunity to discover and nurture her inner strength; he would not have put her in that situation if she couldn't handle it. Similarly, a man that cheats on a woman could merely be teaching her an important lesson about the transitory nature of attachment. Anything he does can be cast in some defensible light.
And I do understand that the preacher sees a quite fundamental difference, that the big He is to be trusted and worthy of faith, infallible, while the little he is not any of these things, though both may refuse to be judged according to expectations.
(Anyway, I likely haven't done this argument justice, the people who agree with me will likely understand immediately what I was trying to say but didn't quite, and those that disagree will have no great trouble finding faults with my hurried argument.)