Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Albert Einstein was famous for using thought experiments to explore ideas in theoretical physics.  He would describe a situation that, while not possible to create given current technology, was nevertheless theoretically possible.  A famous example of his concerned trains flashing lights while passing each other at close to the speed of light.  Not possible practically but we can easily imagine the situation in our minds.

So here’s a thought experiment for Christians:  What would happen if you no longer believed in God?  How would that affect the way you conducted your life?

I know your first response is, “I just can’t imagine abandoning my faith.”  I realize that it may be just as difficult for you to abandon your belief in God as it might be for me to accept belief in God.  But I am asking you to make a best effort.  That is why I am calling it a thought experiment.

How would abandoning your belief in God affect your moral and ethical conduct?  Would you still be a “good” person?  Would you still obey the law because you felt that was the right thing to do?  Or would you decide it was OK to cheat or steal, as long as you could get away with it?  Would you still treat others with respect and kindness, or do you believe you would be motivated solely by what was in your personal best interest, regardless of the effect it would have on others?  Would you still have the same love for family and friends?

“Wait,” you say, “my character--how I interact with the world, who I am--is the result of my religious faith.  If I were somehow to lose my faith, which I can’t imagine, I might still relate to others in the same way, I might still be law-abiding.  But that’s because of my Christian upbringing.  It was through my faith that my character was established.”  However, here I am not addressing the question of the source of the framework for your character.  Rather, I am asking you to consider what would happen to that framework were you no longer to believe in God.

Let me explore this just a little further.  If you suddenly believed that this life was it, that there was not going to be an afterlife, would you still conduct your life in the same way?  Or would you “let loose”?

And here’s another question: If bad things were to happen--the loss of a loved one, say, or the loss of your home in a tornado--and you did not have God to turn to for help, how would you handle it?  Would you curse the bitterness of life, or would you pick up the pieces and make the best of what you have?

Remember, in considering these questions, you need to “pretend” that the “scales were lifted from your eyes” and you saw that there was no God to whom you ultimately owed obedience, on the one hand, or to whom you could turn to for support, on the other.

So here is what I think.  If you really and truly engaged in such a thought experiment and considered what you would do, I believe you would agree that you would continue to be very much the same person you are now.  You would still have the same love and regard for others.  You would still be law-abiding, not because you thought you otherwise might get caught but because you believed it was the right thing to do.  And you would continue to have the same general outlook on life, understanding that this is the one shot you have and you should do your very best to make the most of it. 

In short, you would have the same attitude toward life that I and my fellow atheists have.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. John, it would be impossible for me NOT to believe in God and Him with me each day. I don't believe my life would change and I would still be a "good" person

    1. Wanda,
      If I understand you correctly, you are agreeing with me on this one. We agree, I think, that you can no more voluntarily change your beliefs about God than I can mine. But you also agree, as a conclusion to this little "thought experiment," that how you conduct your life would not change whether you believed in God or not. Your beliefs may affect how you take comfort in your life, but they don't affect how you relate to your fellow humans. Belief in God doesn't make us better or worse humans. Hope I'm not putting words in your mouth.

  2. John,
    That is so well said. I agree with you entirely on everything. I can change my belief in God and you can change your unbelief. We just would still live our lives as we do now. Nope you didn't put words into my mouth.

  3. Everyone believes in a God ... albeit the Christian God, Self ..... I would pose the question ... what would life look like if you did not believe in your self???

    1. I am trying to understand the thrust of your comment. Are you saying that everyone believes in a Christian God, which clearly is not the case? Or are you saying that everyone believes in his or her personal self?

      And by the question you ask: "What would life be like if you did not believe in your self?" I assume you mean the reality of one's self-identity. I think that, because of the way our brains are constructed, we have this strong sense of an inner life that gives rise to a self-identity. Just speaking personally, I developed such a sense at an early age and have carried it continuously ever since. I'm guessing I'm not much different from everyone else in that regard. It is this sense of an inner life that distinguishes me from the rest of the world. That is what I understand by your term "self." But I feel that this sense of self is,strictly speaking, an illusion in that at the end of the day we are simply part of the world. We are comprised of matter and energy just like everything else. So in an intellectual sense, I don't believe in my "self" as something separate from the rest of the universe, but from an emotional perspective, I don't believe I will ever relinquish my sense of self.

      Let me know if I caught your question properly.