The privacy test for religious belief

When we are alone, we do not behave in quite the same way as we do when in company. One of the most stark examples of this difference concerns our ability to resist temptation. It is one thing to resist, say, a tub of delicious ice cream when we’re spending the day with friends, especially those who have agreed to help us diet, but it is quite another to resist it when we are on our own.

There are many other things that we would only dare do alone, such as go to the bathroom or pick our nose or walk around the house naked.

All these differences between private and social behavior raise a rather curious problem for the religious: if they truly believe that another person, i.e. God, is with them at all times, then why do they ever behave as if they were alone?

Let’s get back to the example of temptation. Imagine the following scenario: John is trying to quit smoking. He is having a particularly bad morning and asks his friend Sarah to spend the rest of the day with him so that he is not tempted to light a cigarette. Sarah happily obliges, keeping close to John for the remainder of the day. She is not a very talkative person but her presence helps John avoid giving into temptation: he wouldn’t dare show disrespect for the friendship by lighting up a cigarette right in front of her.

Now look at the same scenario again, but this time imagine John asking God to be with him for the rest of the day. I hope the reader will sense, as I do, that this scenario has far less practical chance of success as the original. The perceived presence of God inside one’s mind simply isn’t the sort of real social force that a physical companion can provide in this sort of situation.

But why, if the almighty creator of the universe is with you – indeed inside you – do you not feel the same blunt force of social duty that you would when a mere fellow human were present? Indeed, wouldn’t a lesser authority figure than God, such as the President of the United States, still have more potent a disciplining effect on your behavior than a personal friend? Would you dare to smoke in front of, say, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he had been told that you were trying to quit smoking? Why, then, does the presence of the universe’s most awe-inspiring occupant not have a similar influence? Why do believers, just like non-nonbelievers, still give into temptation when they are on their own, even though they claim never to be truly alone?

This situation seems to demonstrate that, despite their claims to the contrary, believers do not actually believe that God is a real person living with them. If they did, then they would behave – at all times – just as they would if they were in the presence of a physical companion: they would never behave as if they were alone.

I strongly suspect that believers unconsciously regard the presence of God as another part of their own minds, not as a distinct, independent personality eaves dropping on their thoughts. In fact, I’m not sure if the human mind could cope with the genuine belief that it was being surveilled every moment of the day by another person – and not just any person, but the almighty creator of the universe!  Imagine even the nicest, most compassionate person you’ve ever met being able to read every single thought that crosses your mind, and you will get a sense for what a horrifying violation of privacy such an experience would be.

So, I offer the above scenario – especially as it pertains to temptation – as a test of belief in God: if a believer can honestly claim that her behavior in the perceived presence of God is affected by the same social constraints as her behavior in the presence of a physical friend or family member then, and only then, can she truly be considered to believe in a God who knows her thoughts.

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