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Evidence, christians and sceptics

August 12th, 2013

Legal evidence

One of the most common things I find myself discussing with non-believers on the internet is evidence. Unfortunately, the discussions tend to be frustrating for both sides, and rarely reach any consensus, for several reasons.

Argument and counter argument

The same arguments and counter arguments seem to come up all the time.

Science is the only way?

One of the most common objections to christian belief is that the sceptic wants to see scientific evidence. It isn’t always easy to know exactly what they are looking for, but recent expectation was for the evidence for God to be provable, testable and falsifiable.

I usually point out that most things in life are not known with scientific rigour, for example, verdicts in court cases, history, ethics, politics and personal relationships. But the common response is that belief in an unseen but amazing entity like God requires much more proof than those things, because the consequences are so important.

My view is actually the opposite. If I want to know the date of a skeleton found at Stonehenge (an interesting question but hardly important) I am happy to wait until all the evidence comes in, but if I am in love with a woman and considering marriage (a much more directly important question) I would be foolish to keep on delaying because I don’t have scientific evidence that we will have a happy marriage, but base my choice on the evidence I do have.

Many sceptics seem unaware that even some science (the early stages of biological evolution) cannot be known by the normal scientific method, but by methods akin to historical study. So if they follow their stated views, they may be forced to disbelieve in parts of evolutionary science!

Philosophy?

I sometimes suggest that these questions relate to the philosophical discipline of epistemology (how we know things), and we should see what the philosophers say, but the common rejoinder (echoing a few prominent atheist scientists) is that philosophy is a waste of time, never solves anything, whereas science has a good track record in finding answers. And when I point out that the questions we are discussing are actually philosophical, not scientific, so if philosophy is bunk then so is their argument, they often seem genuinely to not see the inconsistency.

Proof?

Some sceptics go further and ask for “proof”. You might be surprised how often this word is used.

I suspect they have a different definition of proof than I do, because science doesn’t offer proof (its findings can always be overturned by later discoveries), but varying degrees of probability. The only things we can prove really are logic and mathematics.

So if most things in life, including science, are known by something less than proof, then it seems reasonable to include God among those things.

Flat denial

I find some sceptics make even stronger statements to the effect that it isn’t possible in any way to demonstrate the God exists. This response commonly takes one of several forms:

  1. God is an incoherent concept and so not worthy of any consideration or capable of any logical analysis. Or God is outside of time and space, so therefore can’t possibly be observed, heard or sensed.
  2. For some sceptics “burden of proof” has become almost like a mantra, to be used in almost any situation where they don’t have a strong argument, or any argument at all. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about something else entirely, like epistemology, they seem to think that they can make any statement they wish without offering reasons or evidence in support, because I as the theist have the “burden of proof”.
  3. If the findings of cosmology are used to argue for God’s existence, this is said to be a God of the gaps argument, and therefore invalid. God of the gaps is sometimes also used as a mantra, despite the fact that valid and strong philosophical arguments can be made that consider all the possibilities, and arguably point to the existence of God, because the other options can (arguably) be shown to be less likely.
  4. I have found that if I point to some well documented healing miracles, that sceptics are rarely interested in looking at the evidence, but prefer to simply say (possibly following David Hume) that miracles are impossible so they don’t need to look at some faked evidence. Thus, ironically, it is philosophy, not evidence, that leads them to a decision.

Faith vs evidence?

Sceptics from famous scientists and authors to ordinary people on the internet are trying to re-define “faith”. Faith is “irrational belief in something despite all evidence to the contrary.” Which leads them to the conclusions that “faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason”.

They maintain this despite the facts that (1) it is not how christians define faith, (2) it doesn’t explain why the New Testament stresses the historical evidence for Jesus, (3) nor does it explain how so many christians can also be scientists and engineers. I have never seen anyone argue the case for this definition, or show that it isn’t possible for faith and evidence to both be important.

Depressing anti-communication

I’m not suggesting that my side of these discussions is always correct or compelling – clearly my arguments fall short of that. I am also aware that internet sceptics are not a fair representation of thoughtful sceptics. And I am quite prepared to think that a thoughtful sceptic could pick out a similarly frustrating set of non-arguments used by some internet christians.

It seems to me that epistemological questions are the main cause of the vast chasm between atheists and christians. Both sides can fail to understand or give any credit to their opponents because their often unexamined epistemological assumptions make understanding impossible. In some cases, the assumptions are used (consciously or not) to keep an unwanted argument at bay, but thoughtful people on both sides shouldn’t be happy with this.

I’m sure I’m not happy with the state of play, at any rate. I’d like to see more thoughtful approaches to how we decide on philosophical matters, and more constructive discussion on both sides. Any suggestions from people on either side of the question would be welcome.

Read more

I have developed some of these thoughts in a little more detail in:

Photo Credit: Bill Selak via Compfight cc

11 Comments

  1. Great post. I’m in the interesting position of still being close enough to an atheist ( time wise) to remember it clearly. The idea that God is just an entirely invented concept that we have to keep us happy is something that I can relate to, and the absolute certainty that I had of this shows me that nothing you can say to an atheist ( of the angry variety ) will be of use. There’s little to no common ground, as far as I can see.
    I’m just working on a post about this at the moment, actually.

  2. The issue of making versus postponing a decision reminded me of “The Will to Believe” by William James. I can recommend that to you, despite knowing that we both differ from James’s thought at key points.

  3. I have heard a bit about James but I haven’t read any of his writings. But I have been thinking about some of these things. I generally defend a rational approach to christianity, because that’s how it is for me, but many other people are not like me (for which we may all be thankful!) I don’t think any christian thinks there are no rational reasons to believe (for example, almost all christians would believe that the NT is historical), but some depend most on personal experience (which is itself a rational reason, just of a different kind). But I feel many believe at first more out of hope (that God will help them) than evidence, but their life following that choice then vindicates their choice.

    I think I need to write on some of this. Thanks.

  4. I can see, this can be a touchey subject for you. Which I can understand. I would be offended if someone was insulting my intelligence and rational conclusion.

    And I have much respect for you, cause in your faith, you do apply reason and common sense.

  5. Thanks Marcus. Even though I cannot always understand how you hold your views, you have always been kind and generous, and I appreciate that.

    IN, thanks for the link. I will read it when I have time.

  6. In my experience it always comes down to what the person believes. The most “dogmatic” atheists seem to treat scientists the way most christian’s treat the prophets. I don’t agree with either but usually it comes down to the other person believing this or that and so it must be true. Everything after that is just them making excuses as to why they are correct.

  7. Yes, I think what we believe is often determined by what we choose to focus on. I’d like to think that most of us choose according to the information we have available to us, but I often think we choose what we want to be true. This isn’t intellectually respectable, of course, but it may be what God wants.

  8. @unkleE, “I don’t think any christian thinks there are no rational reasons to believe (for example, almost all christians would believe that the NT is historical), but some depend most on personal experience (which is itself a rational reason, just of a different kind). ”

    Personal experience does not always equate to rational. There are people in this world who from personal experience have witnessed family members strapping a bomb on their back in honor of their god and have chosen this path themselves to perform the same honor.

    Other people through their upbringing and personal experience believe family honor killings are rational and as adults are performing the same.

    @unkleE, ”
    I don’t think any christian thinks there are no rational reasons to believe ”

    The people in the examples above agree with the christians as well.

  9. Did you know, Ken, that studies show that most terrorism is not committed in the name of God, but in the name of a country or smaller group, and relates not to religion but to political and land ownership issues? Of course there are some in the name of religion, and religion is a factor in others, but these are not the majority.

    So where does the argument go now?

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