One of the most common arguments I’ve seen used by atheists against belief in God is based on one or more of many obvious mythical, unreal or downright silly beings – commonly Santa, Thor, Zeus, fairies, even the cheesy Flying Spaghetti Monster and a hypothetical celestial teapot. The argument is that there is no more evidence for the christian (or other) God than there is for these beings – so if we don’t believe in them, why should we believe in God?
Steve at Think That Through made this comment:
To be frank, there is more evidence for Santa Claus than there is for the Christian God. Santa “lives” in a known location and when you ask for presents, you actually get them. God exists everywhere and/or nowhere, depending on who you ask, and doesn’t answer prayers anymore than a tree does.
Let’s think mathematically
Basically, this argument is saying there is a simple equation:
Evidence for God = evidence for other hypothetical beings
Steven facetiously suggested there was some plausible evidence for Santa, but obviously it is ‘evidence’ that would only convince a young child – not surprisingly. That is the point. He means there is no good evidence for any of these beings. I’ve never heard anyone say differently – there are a few Norse god worshipers in the world but I’ve never met one. Thus we can take it that the right hand side of the equation:
Evidence for other hypothetical beings = 0
But there is much that is claimed to be evidence on the left hand side of the equation (see Truth, proof and certainty), for example:
- Theists generally consider that logical arguments based on scientific information about the nature of the universe lead to the conclusions that God is the cause and designer.
- Philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists seek to understand and explain human consciousness, choice, rationality and ethics. Christians claim that these phenomena can only be adequately explained by the existence of God.
- Similarly, based on expert historical study, christians believe that the events recorded in the gospels provide historical evidence for the life of Jesus, and thus for the existence of God.
- Theists believe that God is capable of revealing himself to them and that their experience of life includes experience of God. Non-theists often use their experience of life to argue that God doesn’t exist.
- Some people claim to have been miraculously healed. These experiences can in principle be verified, and there is good medical documentation for a very few of them.
Those are the claims. We will all have our different views on the truth and value of these facts, but the important question here is: Do they qualify as evidence?
What is evidence?
The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid”. (This is the primary definition and the one most relevant to this question; others definitions are less relevant.)
The Cambridge Dictionary‘s definition is simpler: “one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true”.
On these definitions, the above facts on which christians base their belief would be evidence. They are a ‘body of facts and information’ and they indicate (to some people at least) that a belief (in God) is true. They are certainly “reasons for believing that something is or is not true” – theists look at the world and consider it to be a basis for belief; atheists look at the world and conclude that it is not a basis for belief, and may in fact be a basis for disbelief.
Thus the only way we can make the left hand side of the equation = 0 is to deny that any of the above facts indicate anything. The most common way this is attempted is to claim that the only valid evidence is scientific evidence.
It is true that most of the above evidence is not scientific – i.e. it may be based on scientific information, but the interpretation isn’t a matter of science. But:
- When atheists argue that the evil and suffering in the world leads to the conclusion that there is no God, they are using the world as evidence, so it would be inconsistent to disallow it as evidence when it points in a different direction.
- Most of the choices we make in life, and many important matters in law, history and even some science, are not based on strictly verifiable science (see Is there no evidence for God?), so to insist on only scientific information in this case requires serious justification.
- There is in fact some scientific evidence in the above list. Some accounts of medical miracles can be investigated scientifically (medically) and it can be shown that something abnormal has happened after prayer for healing (see Ten Healings).
This has been an interesting question to unravel. I conclude:
- Under normal definitions of evidence, there is evidence that can be used to help resolve the question of God’s existence. We can each evaluate that evidence for ourselves.
- The suggestion that only verifiable scientific evidence should be used is an unjustified restriction which has the effect of pre-judging the outcome.