I usually don't argue about religion on the Internet, but you seem really nice, so I'll give it a try.

First, sometimes it's a good idea to adopt relativist debate norms even if you think the thing you're debating is real. For example, music is real, and so are musical preferences -- if I go to a Jonathan Coulton concert, I will have a lousy time, and if my housemate goes to a Shostakovich concert, he will have a lousy time, but if you flip it around, then we'll both leave our concerts feeling inspired, refreshed, and satisfied. Neither of us thinks the other is mistaken -- it's just that we're wired differently, so what works for one of us doesn't work for the other. Why? It's hard to explain, even though we both know plenty of music theory and plenty of sociology. We try to trend gently on each other's feelings while talking about it, not because we think the other person's enjoyment of their music is somehow imaginary, but precisely because it's real, and because we know that most of our thoughts about music are inherently private or personal, i.e., they're quite difficult to effectively share.

If I tried to insist that my way of appreciating music was objectively better, I'd just hurt my housemate's feelings without accomplishing anything useful -- because even though the music is very real, its goodness is relative, not objective. If I observe the position of Uranus, I can tell you in precise mathematical terms exactly where Uranus is and you can confirm it with your telescope and make the exact same observation, but if I observe a Shostakovich concert then even if I tell you where the symphony is playing, you still can't reliably have the same Shostakovich experience that I did. I think religion is a lot more like music than astronomy.

Second, mainstream Christianity usually presents itself as a sort of self-protecting chain of arguments. The Bible is supposed to be literally true, and one of the things the Bible tells us is that we should obey God, and one of God's commandments is to believe in the literal authority of the Bible. If you begin by agreeing with any one of those statements, then you often end by feeling compelled to agree with all of them, and after that it feels silly and disingenuous to talk (as David Friedman does) about editing bits and pieces of your religion to better suit your ethical feelings. If you're used to thinking of God and religion as "aspects of that self-reinforcing loop of arguments that dictate an entire worldview," then anyone who blithely suggests that you just unilaterally change part of your worldview looks like they're not taking "God" or "religion" seriously.

However, speaking from personal experience, it's very possible to take God and religion very seriously indeed and yet not subscribe to that self-reinforcing loop. I don't think there's anything imaginary about God -- and yet, like Galileo, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. I think the Bible was divinely inspired -- but what happens when you apply divine inspiration to a bunch of cantankerous, illiterate Bronze Age shepherds is that you get a real mixed bag. Parts of the Bible are timeless enough to still be worth studying and meditating on today; other parts are trivial, cruel, or incorrect.

So, if I suggest that you might not need to call 911 about the fire in your apartment, it's not because I think you're hallucinating the fire -- it's because, in my experience, most kitchen fires can be safely put out with an ordinary fire extinguisher. And, if you strenuously disagree with me and say, no, no, I definitely need to call 911 about *this* fire that's in my home right now -- I will cheerfully nod and say, "OK, go ahead and call them, then." Not because I think there's no right answer about the danger posed by the fire, but because I acknowledge that fires can be different from each other, and it would be unrealistic to expect you to pause and send me a video of the fire. Any such video would naturally be obscured by smoke, and fires are urgent and scary enough that it usually makes more sense to get on with the business of dealing with them as best we can instead of endlessly arguing about their size with friends. After all, the fire is in *your* home -- by the time I could get over there and help you with it, it would usually be too late. Since you're the one who inevitably has to deal with the fire, and you're the one with the best view of your fire, I'm willing to trust your judgment about your fire even if your claims about that fire seem a priori unlikely to me.

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I need to reread this a few times to make sure I grasp everything, but a post that has David Friedman (I didn't know he had a 'Stack!) AND CS Lewis (yay Great Divorce!) in the first bits has me too excited to not toss out some thoughts.

1: I think that, in a bit of a sideways manner, Friedman is actually defending Christianity a bit. He is essentially saying "This apparently contradiction need not actually be one." I don't know the status of Lewis' argument in Christian circles, or of "Hell is created by people, not so much God" arguments in general, but the descriptions of Hell in canon are pretty vague, so it doesn't seem inconsistent so much as just looking at it from another angle.

2: With the housefire example, I think there is a big gap in the analogy that makes it not work. You mention your friend saying "Why not just disbelieve the fire exists?" But housefires are observable without your metaphorical telescope. If you friend is standing outside your house, which is now a smoking ruin, saying "why didn't you just disbelieve?" is crazy. If your friend is standing outside your house, which is perfectly intact, saying "why didn't you disbelieve" is pretty sensible, as he sees no evidence that your house was actually on fire.

The latter case seems more accurate with the conception of religion: believers always seem wrong to non-believers. Even related religions have believers that think the followers of the other religion are crazy and wrong. If there was clear objective evidence ("Uhm, your house is fine, man, and the fire department seems really mad you called them out") on religion it would be less of an issue, but almost by definition religions are the bits that can't be proven.

3: I think the value of saying "I believe what I believe, and they believe what they believe, and we will find out who is right later I guess" with regards to religion has to do with the implied actions of that belief, the immediacy of the reactions, relative to the testability of the belief. In short, dark matter and God are (to most people) about equally testable: you and I can argue about which is "true" but we can't prove it. Further, beliefs about the existence of dark matter will change almost no one's behavior in anyway. Belief in religion might, up to and including killing people who don't share the beliefs. The combination of low testability and high imperatives of action is a very dangerous one, as most of recorded human history has born out. Saying something along the lines of "Look, I think I am right, you think you are right, but we aren't going to find out who is actually right until after we die, so let's just shut up about it since we have to live near each other and don't want to find out who is right any faster than we have to" is a pretty good plan. Hence the old etiquette doctrine that one doesn't discuss religion at social functions.

Now, I note that my formulation is a bit different from the one you use in the article. I think saying "I can't PROVE I am right, and neither can you" is better than saying "I might be wrong, and maybe you are", but in terms of behavior towards the other they are pretty similar. I would stand behind someone arguing that the "You don't know you are right" version should stop being used in favor of the "We can't settle this now" formulation, however.

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But the thing is, God does not exist in the same way as a falling piano or a house fire. If He did, science would have detected Him by now. He still exists, but His existence does not work like those things. It works like this:


And I would be wary about leaning too hard on words when it comes to God. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao. Christianity really needs to get a shot of the Eastern religions, and viceversa: the Eastern religions are too light on Good Works.

You say you want to convert others to Christianity, but your take on Christianity seems to be fundamentalist, which is a very hard sell. At least as of right now, I don't know what is the difference between you and a fundamentalist, and this is a particular thing you need to address if you are indeed not a fundamentalist.

As to Good Works, a good Christian has an obligation to sign the Giving What We Can Pledge (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/pledge). Jesus did say you are going to Hell if you don't help others (what you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me), so I think this is much more important than the things most Christians spend most of their time on.

Is there a Hell? Maybe. I don't dwell too much on it, because if there truly is a Hell, it seems like it's a dicey business avoiding it. According to the Orthodox, the closer you get to God, the more you become aware of the depth of your sin, such that the saints, who are closest to God than anyone, would never say they are close to God.

I focus more on Earthly suffering, and trust that God will smile on me for that.

Also, as to knowing God, I think you need to engage with other scriptures to get to know Him better, as per our previous discussion. They're all touching the same elephant. The Bhagavad Gita is a great start.

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Different Christians interpret the information they have about Christianity, whether from the Bible or inspiration or some other source, differently. One way of deciding which interpretation to accept is by testing the alternatives for internal consistency. If interpretation A is consistent with everything else you believe about Christianity and interpretation B is not, that is a reason to prefer A.

We do the same thing with fires. If I wake up, observe a fire in my bedroom but don't smell any smoke or feel myself being burned by the flames, I conclude that there isn't really a fire in my bedroom. Either I am dreaming or something, perhaps a prank hologram set up by my roommate, is creating the visual effect of a fire but not the other sensory effects one would expect to accompany it. I am not changing the nature of the fire by an act of my mind, I am using my mind to draw conclusions about the nature of the fire.

We do it routinely in interpreting people. If someone tells me something implausible, I interpret it as a true but surprising fact, a mistake by the person telling it, or a lie, according to which explanation is most consistent with what I know of the person and the relevant circumstances.

My post was applying that approach to religion. The standard account of Hell seems inconsistent with the rest of what Christianity teaches about the nature of God. I offered an explanation about why God might want people to believe it even if it wasn't true.

For an example of a Christian doing the same thing in a less extreme way, consider the picture of Hell that C.S. Lewis offers in _The Great Divorce_. No fire, no devils torturing anyone, just people in reasonably comfortable circumstances trapped in the imperfections of their own souls, all of them with at least the possibility of making it to Heaven eventually. Lewis doesn't say God is lying, but he pretty clearly implies that the conventional understanding of what God says is a misinterpretation, and he forms a conjecture about what is really happening based on consistency with the rest of what he believes about God.

I am not saying "if you don't believe in Hell it won't exist," which is what your fire metaphor implies. I am saying "here are reasons not to believe that Hell exists."

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Nice job. Let me argue a little further along the lines of Neptune beliefs.

1. As far as I know, none of us religious folk have a 100% accurate model of God. Most of us, I suspect, would grant that it's *impossible* for a human to do so in this life.

2. Most of us spend some time wonder about or trying to figure out the nature of God in more detail, either out of a desire to be more like Him, to follow his guidance, or just curiousity.

3. Hell as a place of eternal torment does present some problems for my model of benevolence, and probably for most people's. Heck, even *creating* a universe where some people are going to be consigned to eternal torment strikes me as questionable. So what's going on?

a. It's possible that like the existence of evil, the certainty of eternal torment for some (maybe even most!) is a part of an incomprehensible but good plan, a logical requirement of a greater good, etc.

b. Or it's possible that no one is going to be eternally tormented after death. For example:

i. Maybe we've misunderstood the Bible.

ii. Maybe the Bible authors or translators misunderstood God.

iii. Or maybe God lied for the greater good. After all, if we grant He can consign intelligent beings to eternal torment for the greater good, maybe He can also lie? And if we don't like him lying, then where were we when He created leviathan, etc.?

David's on 3.b.iii, but I don't see it as telling someone not to believe in a burning house. It's more testing the conclusion from the premises. (E.g. "As you fled the burning house, you heard a ghostly voice telling you to go faster. One possibility is that you dreamt the fire - have you checked?")

And I think that is reasonable - the questions David's hypothesis raises are (a) how do we know that God is going to burn people in Hell, and (b) how do we know that God doesn't lie? Those are fair questions, IMHO.

(Of course, there's a separate issue, which is that if GOD decided that the greatest good is to lie to people about Hell, then it might be very harmful for us to expose that lie.)

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Sounds to me like Friedman needs to read some Old Testament. God is benevolent, sure, but he is also just. One of the bible's fundamental assertions is that it is no cruelty on the part of God if he sends everyone to Hell, because we are worthy of such a punishment. Honestly, it's hammered home frequently enough that I'm not sure why he sees an issue here.

Past that, his proposed solution is also pretty off the wall. The virtue of telling the truth and dealing transparently with others is another very consistent ongoing theme in the bible. It would be really weird if the all-powerful, all-knowing deity that founded this religion which holds truth in such high regard was a rampant liar, telling his people whatever fiction would make them behave best.

Alright, got that out of my system. You take a much more interesting approach than me, this was a good read! Interesting how a mere backdrop of non-belief can fundamentally change what beliefs we encourage others to pick up, even in a non-confrontational way.

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Yay! As a Christian-turned-atheist, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been hoping you’d write something in this vein, and I hope you write more. While I am leaning pretty heavily anti-Theist these days, I would love to be able to believe there is someone/something making sure everything will turn out alright in the end.

I’m not sure if I’ve been especially fortunate, or you’ve been especially unfortunate, but I’ve never encountered an atheist arguing like they do in your article. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, atheism, etc can’t all be true; at most, one accurately reflects reality. My journey to atheism was founded on that premise. The more I investigated, the more I found Christianity didn’t line up with reality. And that foundation lines up with all the other atheists I’ve encountered, especially the ex-Christian ones. The only way I’d ever argue “you should be comfortable admitting that ALL religions are real and true, and equally valid” would be to point out that you find all other religions unbelievable; why not Christianity too?

I’m very familiar with the problem of reconciling a perfectly good god with hell, but solving it by claiming god is lying - that’s new to me. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize his argument though - its strength is dependent on how serious the goodness/hell dichotomy is. Generalized, the argument is of course rather ridiculous - if there’s something about my religion I don’t like, simply throw it out. But as Han Solo says, “That’s not how the Force works!” However, I think this is a special case, like so: “My religion teaches X. X is fundamentally incompatible with my values, and/or logically inconsistent. Now what?” The approach I took, and many other ex-Christians take, is to say “Huh, maybe my religion is wrong. Let’s look into that.” Another approach is to change your values to line up with your beliefs. That’s the approach I used to take regarding homosexuality - I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but the Bible seemed to, so I grudgingly accepted I must be wrong. David Friedman’s takes another approach here, which is to posit something unsupported by (and in fact counter to) his religious texts. I see that as a simple effort to save his beliefs. He’d rather see God as a benevolent liar rather than give up his belief in God entirely. Or from a more rational perspective, he finds a lying god more probable than a non-existent one.

A minor aside that I find interesting is that he posits something completely untestable. There is absolutely no way we can distinguish a lying god from a truthful one in these matters. If god says “your head will explode if you travel faster than 100mph,” that’s something we can test out for ourselves. But if god says “if you don’t follow me in life, I will punish you after death,” we have absolutely nothing to go on except for his word. We will never, and can never, know if David Friedman’s theory is correct. It’s completely untestable.

On the Neptune beliefs, I’d like to dig into this more, but my thoughts aren’t complete yet and this comment is already pretty long. My short thoughts are, I’d say what religion does is tell you you aren’t allowed to use a telescope, but instead have to rely on a special Neptune-detector. But it only works when detecting Neptune, gives ambiguous data, and disagrees with alternative Neptune-dectors that claim to do the same thing. That’s where apologetics comes in, to explain why a particular Neptune-dector is the right one. Atheism posits that maybe the reason why there’s so many competing detectors, and why telescopes can’t seem to find Neptune, is that there isn’t a Neptune at all. Instead maybe what we’re seeing is like the case of the weird orbit of Mercury. That was explained not by finding another planet, but by discovering that our concept of gravity was incomplete. In the same way, maybe evolution, culture, psychology, etc can better explain why religions exist than anything supernatural can.

Anyway, those are my thoughts after reading the article. Biggest takeaway I’d like to give is that most of the atheists I’ve encountered, myself included, believe in truth and reality. The idea that they view truth as relative is something I heard that they did when I was a Christian, but haven’t actually seen in real life. Also, apologies if any of this is a rehash of other comments; I wanted to respond directly to the article before reading any of them.

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I agree with what you're saying here and I think you highlight a HUGE chasm between people arguing about things from the religious or non religious perspective.

It's always felt to me that there is a certain blindness on the non-believer side. Many of them seem to be running a "they cannot possibly REALLY (truly, really, the way we both believe in rocks) believe in this stuff" theme in their heads. This often leads to a vilification of believers. Non believers attribute malicious, manipulative or predatory intent to believers because the idea that someone could possibly believe that, idk, someone could go to hell for eternity if they reject Jesus just doesn't compute for them on some very basic emotional level.

You can apply this to pretty much every contentious social and ethical issue: sexual behaviour, abortion, religious observance, blasphemy, proselytising, other religions, afterlife you name it. Nonbelievers just ignore that telescope.

I'm writing all this as a lifetime atheist leaning occasionally agnostic, who grew up in a non-believer family in a extremely Christian culture. And it STILL tooke into my late 40s and it took a death of a very close person to get this. I was talking to someone highly religious after my bereavement, and she was kind and not pushy or evangelising, and it struck me then, like a true revelation: she REALLY believes death is not the end. She's not just saying it. She's not suspending disbelief. She's not using this notion as a symbol for memory. Or comfort. Or anything like that. She's sad because the person who died isn't here and because I'm sad, but she ABSOLUTELY believes they still REALLY exist and probably also that she will meet them again. And that blew my mind. Because it meant that communication and connection was impossible between us. Despite her empathy and kindness. We differed in such a fundamental way in our perception of reality, we'd always run into the elephant of "he's dead -- not REALLY".

And now having said all that. I'm glad you brought up that behaviour issue. And I don't think you can easily get out of it just by saying "nobody is perfect".

I imagined becoming Christian. I wanted to. I TRIED to believe (two or three times in my life, depending how you count), pretty hard. It didn't work, probably because no telescope ;) But the imagining did work and they key thing in it was this: IF Christianity is real, then becoming a Christian would mean huge and fundamental changes in my life. Not just adjusting my behaviour that would count as sin according to the scriptures. But also taking up a lot of positive moves. IF you truly believe in the "good news" then it's so big ---- so so so immense and important --- that the only logical thing to do would be to devote all possible hours after basic keeping yourself alive of your life to trying to convert as many people as possible. There's no other rational response to "Christianity is real". Everything else pales into complete insignificance.

I think it's not so obvious to people who grew up religious and surrounded by believers because possibly they cannot conceive of actual lack of belief the way we cannot truly concieve of belief.

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Another example that just happened to me... and why this article struck home. New therapist was asking me what my faith gives me- why I need it- what is its instrumentality. I understand that as an atheist/agnostic, that’s the way to think about it. But that’s not how I view it at all! There are benefits, no question. But it’s not instrumental, it’s what I believe is the truth. So it was a weird conversation bc she thought I wasn’t answering, or avoiding something, but it’s really just that it didn’t occur to her that it is a belief. (For the record I think it was all in good faith and she was being respectful. It was just a fundamental, total disconnect.) Maybe next time, I’ll try the house fire analogy.

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What you're saying about the general "respect all religions as correct" idea makes sense to me, but the David Friedman point seems a bit different. He seems to be taking what he percieves as a hard-to-resolve contradiction seriously enough that it should allow questioning strongly held beliefs.

What about the following analogy: your very reliable alarm system notifies you of a housefire while you're away, you rush to the scene together with your friend. Strangely, it seems perfectly intact. But you inspect the camera feed together and indeed see a raging fire recorded. Confusedly brainstorming, your friend suggests maybe someone hacked into the alarm system and there wasn't really a fire?

Back to the object level question of hell, perhaps to you it seems like a crappy resolution compared to other alternatives like "it's metaphorical" or something, but you don't seem to be making that point here. Lacking an alternative explanation, a contradiction does seem to justify a lot of doubt / questioning. What do you think?

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> We don’t do this with any other kind of belief - if someone believes that dark matter exists, and says so, they are by implication saying that anybody who believes that dark matter doesn’t exist is wrong, and believes something that’s false. Nobody has a problem with this or considers it particularly arrogant; people are generally allowed to think they are right about things, and then we argue about them.

I think I understand what your article is saying, and I suspect what I'm going to say is tangential to the thrust of it. Perhaps not. I'll let you judge.

The issue I take with this formulation of things is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever set another living human being on fire, or flown a jumbo jet into a skyscraper, over the question of dark matter existing or not.

So I suspect that at least some of the time, the agnostic or atheist asking the "why don't you treat other religions as potentially valid" question, is really more trying to propose a perspective of the world that avoids those sorts of things.

Apologies if I have wandered too far afield.

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I'm still reading through this. I'm where you mention bad faith (heh) argumentation. I'll come back at some point and add something, but I wanted to state that I am not an atheist who doesn't believe in God.

I am an atheist who considers God's existence immaterial. I don't answer it because it's not a question for me. I wonder how this article plays out in my personal context.

Big Edit Time:

My piece on atheism is about peace. I don't try to pull people over into atheism, because it's not my job. And, I appreciate when someone of virtue asks me to go to church, or says they'll pray for me, or the like, because I know it comes from a place of concern and love. I don't remember anyone making a concerted attempt to convert me.

I've been an atheist for two decades plus (I'm in my mid-thirties, and I learned not to ask because it usually makes people uncomfortable. But, I love talking about faith, so I miss having those conversations.

Ask away, here or through email.

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Gosh, I have so much to say about this. (You might remember me as Tam, btw. Hi!)

I was an atheist most of my life, but if all goes according to plan, I'll be officially Catholic after the Easter Vigil. Some thoughts in what I hope is a logical order:

1. Part of what finally converted me was reading a book (by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, aka the recently deceased Pope Benedict) that pointed out that (a) I was no more at rest in my atheism than I would be as a wobbly Christian (going far beyond the usual and unconvincing "no atheists in a foxhole" argument), and (b) the notion of "belief" can mean "in the absence of perfect knowledge, this is the ground I choose to stand on" and not necessarily "I've examined all of the evidence and find this perspective the most rationally convincing."

2. You really can (contra DinoNerd, at least) choose to believe something. Some of the ideas of Christianity are, IMO, beautiful enough to be worth dying for, and therefore, I decided, beautiful enough to be worth the risk of being wrong, especially in light of...

3. I'm attracted to a kind of inverse version of Pascal's Wager, that goes like this: If Christianity (and everything enough like it to make being Christian a good idea even if not the BEST idea) is wrong, and we live in a purely material universe, then I'm free to be as wrong as I want (by being Christian) and it won't matter a lick as in a few million or billion years there will no longer be any evidence, no matter how tiny or indiscoverable, that I ever existed.

4. However, if I just do a "choose your own adventure" faith, of course I wouldn't believe in it, that's just stupid, like (as you say) making up a planet you think would be interesting and claiming it really exists. Even if I use my best, noblest, smartest thinking to come up with the best, noblest, most wonderful and perfectly correct God I can, well, so what?

5. So I chose Catholicism, because it exists already, outside of me, and has decent claims to being the church founded by Jesus, and it has orthodoxy. I am not comfortable with all Catholic positions (I'm still a social liberal) but I can try to live by them and hope for better understanding as time goes on. And although disagreeing with me doesn't prove that a religion represents the Truth, it's certainly the case that the Truth would differ from what I think in some respects (as I'm not likely to have worked it all out on my own correctly). This isn't the ONLY thing I like about Catholicism, but it's certainly one thing. Also it seems to be the only rigid form of Christianity that hasn't been completely captured by the political right, in America. (The American churches that agree with me on social issues are totally loosey-goosey, whatever-you-think-is-fine, don't-really-believe-in-sin types of things, and that doesn't work for me. I might as well just go back to being a secular humanist or a Unitarian as I was raised.)

Getting back to your actual points, I find a lot of secular arguments about Christianity do this thing where they assume it's just not true, and that nobody thinks it is. It's like when people talk about how obnoxious it is to try to convert someone to your religion. Like, OK, sure, it might be counterproductive to the extent that it comes across as obnoxious, and if being Christian is equivalent to just really liking Thai food, then you shouldn't be pushy about it, but if it's true then you kind of obviously should share the news? Ugh.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

A pro-Christian variant on the same theme would be Pascal's Wager. For those not familiar with it, who don't want to google it, it's the arguments that if Christianity were true, and one didn't believe/worship, one would lose out on eternal life/be subjected to eternal torture, so therefore one should *believe*. Same flaw - belief being treated as something one can choose. (Somehow the argument presented is never that one should just obey the rules and perform the rituals, without being any more than lukewarm agnostic.)

It doesn't look quite the same, because this variant expects one to believe the whole thing, presumably in whichever form (sect) the particular believer considers to be truth. But this time the believer is expecting the non-believer to do what seems plausible to them, but NOT to the non-believer.

The same things apply - only some of the believers who use this argument are engaged in proselytizing; others are trying to explain their own attitude, or engage in what if games ("what if I didn't already believe").

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