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It is common for non-believers to say that there is no evidence that God exists. But is there really no evidence that points to God? Evidence can be defined in many different ways. Wikipedia suggests a very general definition:
Evidence …. is anything presented in support of an assertion.
Science, philosophy, history and law courts all use slightly different types of evidence. So evidence has to be appropriate to the matter under discussion. So what is the ‘right’ type of evidence for God? How we answer this question may well determine the conclusion we come to about whether God exists.
What is evidence and what isn’t?
This isn’t as easy to answer as we might think. Evidence is used in many different situations, and each one has a slightly different meaning. For example, evidence is defined and used differently in:
- history and archaeology
- law courts and police investigations
- investigative journalism
- everyday life (e.g. “is there any evidence of termites in this house?”)
So there are many different definitions of evidence:
- whatever we experience through our senses (“seeing is believing”)
- everything we know
- a truth that makes some conclusion more probable
- physical objects (like fingerprints in a police case)
- the repeatable results of scientific experiments
- whatever is a sign that points us to the truth
Horses for courses
It is clear then that what is good evidence in one situation may not be in another. For example:
- most things that are seen as evidence by historians, archaeologists and courts of law are not the results of scientific experiments and generally cannot be repeated;
- we might be quite sure of things we have seen with our own eyes (e.g. a ghostlike figure) but we may not convince others of it;
- a court requires evidence beyond reasonable doubt, but in real life we are likely to react even if we are much less certain (e.g. if we are crossing a road and hear tyres screeching, we may jump back onto the kerb just in case), and historians can rarely have such certainty;
- a court of law values direct evidence, what someone saw or heard; however such evidence would be less valued by scientists;
- if someone borrowed money from us once and never paid it back, we might take that as evidence that we shouldn’t trust them again if they ask to borrow again, but this is neither the “beyond reasonable doubt” evidence of courts or the repeatable and statistically significant evidence of science;
- much applied science (e.g. ecology or medicine) relies on statistics for drawing conclusions, which may not be the “beyond reasonable doubt” of courts.
So what types of evidence should we expect for God?
Some people say that the only acceptable evidence for God is scientific. This requires someone to conduct a scientifically design experiment where success would prove God existed. But it is hard to conceive of any that could achieve this, because any strange event could be explained as God’s action, or as a natural phenomenon. And it is worth noting that not all science is based on evidence like this.
Some look for experiential evidence – let God grow back an amputee’s leg after prayer, or write a personal message to them in the sky, and they will believe. But again, other explanations are always possible. In fact, miraculous events are sometimes reported, but they are generally disbelieved by those who don’t believe in God but often believed by those who do believe in God. It seems that most often, belief or unbelief interprets evidence rather than evidence leading to belief or unbelief.
On the other hand, some are happy to accept the evidence of history (e.g. the stories in the New Testament), of scientific discoveries combined with philosophy (e.g. the arguments for the existence of God based on the question of where did the universe come from) or of personal experience (belief that God spoke to them or healed them). Unbelievers scoff at these reasons, but they are convincing to many, suggesting that they have quite different views of what evidence is.
Evidence for God?
Is there any objective way to decide this question? It probably depends on what sort of question we think “Does God exist?” is:
- If we think the existence of God is a scientific question, requiring experimental and repeatable evidence, we are likely to conclude that no God exists.
- If we regard it as a philosophical question, we are likely to conclude the question is unprovable either way, but we may feel that there is sufficient evidence to justify belief or non-belief.
- If we regard it as a historical or personal question, we are likely to accept much more as evidence and may well conclude God exists.
In Truth, proof and certainty I suggest there are at least five different forms of evidence that theists consider lead to belief in God:
- Scientific evidence from cosmology, which theists consider can be best explained by the universe being God’s creation.
- Historical evidence about the life of Jesus.
- Our common human experiences of a consciousness, choice and rationality, love and a sense of justice, which theists consider cannot be properly explained by atheism, but can be understood if we are God’s creation.
- The apparent experience of many people that they have been healed by God, some of which can be medically verified.
- The experience of christians who live in communication with God day by day.
So are the sceptics right?
If they want scientific evidence only, and if they accept only scientific evidence in all other parts of their life, then their conclusion that no God exists is consistent. It is doubtful that anyone is scientifically rigorous in all decisions they make, on relationships, ethics, or politics for example, but non-believers will argue that this is the level of proof required.
But that doesn’t mean that believers are required to accept this definition of evidence. They may reasonably use other definitions and decide there is sufficient scientific, philosophical, historical or personal evidence to believe.
Thus it seems that many, perhaps most, believers believe on the basis of evidence, but not the narrow definition of scientific evidence. But in the end, it seems that most people will use the term “evidence” in the way that suits their belief or unbelief.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.