That thing called evidence.

It is remarkable how often I hear it said that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Of course this is uniformly said by atheists – not that remarkable – but what is truly jaw-dropping is when they say it in the middle of a debate against a theist, as if to bring to the table some agreed-upon axiom.

This is a fascinating speech by celebrated atheist, Sam Harris.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6BxzA3hbGc

If you watch the whole thing you’ll hear a lengthy, and challenging, moral criticism of the Christian faith. But if you were watch this in its entire context, you’d see that this was one of Harris’ speeches in a debate against William Lane Craig, about whether or not morality can truly exist without the existence of God. And then you would hopefully realise the futile irrelevance of Harris’ entire speech here, because rather than justifying the existence of morality in an atheistic universe, he simply presupposes his own atheistic moral law, and uses it to attack the moral standing of Christianity, making its God out to be a monster, and his followers out to be psychopathic – all the while unable to actually justify the reality of his moral categories without reference to a deity. In short: a disgusting, fat, greasy circular argument.

But putting that issue aside, if you watch the first 30 seconds of this video, you will hear him say in passing, “now happily there is no evidence that the Christian Hell exists”, and then if you watch the whole thing you’ll hear him repeatedly make very similar remarks. And thus the main reason I bring this video to your attention is that it is a classic example of an atheist, mid-debate, blurting out loud his assumption that there isn’t any evidence for God; just putting it out there in passing. This is wrong on many levels: it’s circular, it’s arrogant, and most importantly, it’s false. 

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Now let’s think about the debate that Harris was taking part in at the time. It was a classic debate about whether or not there can be a rational foundation to morality without the existence of God. Harris was in the affirmative, and Craig in the negative. Why do we think they were having this debate at all? What is the logic behind arguing about something like this? Well to look at it from William Lane Craig’s perspective, if he could prove that without God, morality is an entirely sentimental, non-rational, meaningless enterprise, then he has proved that in order for morality to really exist there needs to be a God, and then, given humanity’s near-universal insistence on the truth of morality, he has given us very good reason to believe in God; in other words, if Craig is to win the debate, then he has given us evidence for God’s existence. That means that for Harris to say there is no evidence for God’s existence is to presuppose from the outset that his opponent’s thesis is false. So then for him to go on and use the premise that there is no evidence for God in an argument supporting his thesis in the debate, is somewhat circular, don’t you think? And Harris is not the only culprit. I frequently see the ghastly claim brought out, assumed to be true, and then used as a premise in an effort to defeat someone else’s argument for the existence of God. What strange behaviour.

It is also demonstrative of an intellectual arrogance of a high degree. It’s certainly no modest claim, to say the least. So many atheists, in the middle of public, private, or internet-borne debates against Christians arise to their platform of communication and passingly assert that their opponent has no evidence whatsoever for what they claim, that they have no reason at all to believe what they believe, and not only that, but that the millions or billions of other Christians around the world who share these beliefs, do so without any reason. It’s not that they have reasons that simply aren’t quite good enough, but that they have no reason at all. Well that is a strange assertion isn’t it, because they’re in the middle of a debate with some Christian who is up there to convince them and all the other viewers of the truth of Christianity. Now how does this Christian intend to convince them? Well what usually happens is that they propose reasons why we should believe in Christianity, believing themselves that the reasons are sufficient for us to actually believe in God, Jesus, and the rest. What an atheist implicitly says when they say there is no evidence for Christianity is something like, “the reasons that I have heard to believe x have not convinced me of x, and therefore there do not exist anywhere, reasons of any kind to believe x.” He who makes claims of such a nature makes himself the measure and standard of what counts and does not count as evidence. It is a flat refusal to utilise any intellectual empathy; a mindset that, if consistently applied, will result the sentiment that there is only evidence for those things that they believe to be true.

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And that is the conclusion that I intend to combat here. I believe there can be evidence for a proposition that is false. More than it being arrogant to say that there is no evidence for the existence of God, I say that it is not true, and that it is the result of massive epistemological* misunderstandings.

Okay. What is evidence? Well one thing Sam Harris and his friends could mean when they say there is no evidence for the existence of God is that there is no scientific evidence for God. This is the old “all evidence is scientific evidence and anything that is not scientific evidence is not evidence” – a symptom of a kind of scientism, which far too many atheists are infected with. If you want to define “evidence” as scientific evidence, then, while tending towards a different definition, I’d grant you this one, so long as you acknowledge that you can then rationally believe something without “evidence”. There is so much more to rationality than just science. If you care to disagree with me on that, you’d better not claim to disagree on rational grounds, because the only argument you could justify yourself with would need to be philosophical, and therefore non-scientific, and therefore, by your lights, irrational.

Now as far as there being no scientific evidence for the existence of God, I have to more or less agree with the atheists. I do think there is empirical evidence for God, but of a historical, not a scientific nature. But you’re being ripped off if you’ve been persuaded to think that a lack of scientific evidence for God in any way suggests that there is no God. That would be like concluding from a thorough examination of your left arm that there are no humpback whales in the Indian Ocean; your left arm simply has nothing to say on the matter. Likewise, science, a study of the regularities in the natural universe, has nothing to say on matters of God’s existence. If there is a God, we should probably expect science to be silent about it. Many books could be and have been written on this topic, so I won’t really try any harder to convince you of this here.

The other thing atheists could mean when they say there is no evidence for God, is that there is no rational reason to believe in God’s existence. And while I would commend them for using a broader, better, and more consistent definition of “evidence” here, this definition would also make their claim – that there is none of it that points to God – utterly ridiculous. This is because it must be the case that there can be reasons to believe in things that happen to be false.

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For one thing, this is because evidence comes in degrees. You can believe something that’s true, while having lesser or greater evidence for it. You can also believe something that’s false, while having lesser or greater evidence for it. You can even have a belief that is incredibly irrational, and while your evidence is poor, it might still be possible for you to have had worse evidence for it. Let me prove it to you.

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Imagine two people, Jake and Barry, each of whom falsely believe their own brother’s hair is on fire.

In neither case is it true that their brother’s hair is actually on fire.

And in neither case do either of them have very good evidence at all that their brother’s hair is on fire.

In Jake’s case his brother comes up to him, insisting that his hair is aflame. Jake is standing in front of him, sees with his own eyes that his hair is quite comfortably normal and flameless in appearance, and feels no heat radiating from the vicinity of his brother’s head. Yet, trusting in his brother’s testimony, he concludes that his senses must be mistaken, and his brother’s head is on fire. That’s a pretty irrational belief.

But then consider Barry. Barry and his brother live in Antarctica. Barry’s brother is standing right in front of him, and isn’t making any claims about his hair being on fire. Not only that, but his brother is actually bald; there exists no hair on his head that could be on fire, and his brother has only just stepped out of the shower, without having yet applied a towel to dry off his still soaking wet bald head. Considering all these things, Barry concludes that his brother’s hair is on fire.

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Now while Jake’s belief is incredibly irrational, Barry’s belief is surely more irrational. And while both of them have miniscule evidence for their respective beliefs, surely Jake has more evidence than Barry does. Evidence comes in degrees. Now while Barry arguably has no evidence for his belief, I insist that it would be wrong to say that Jake has no evidence, for he couldn’t have more evidence than Barry if he has zero evidence. To point it out for you, Jake has his brother’s testimony, and even though the majority of information and evidence to its contrary outweighs Jake’s brother’s testimony, none of that contrary evidence cancels out the existence and legitimacy (though not quality) of that testimony as evidence.

You see, I don’t have to prove to you that God exists in order to prove that there is evidence for his existence. All I have to show you is that someone, somewhere has ever attempted to make a case for it. And of course more than a few people have; there is a several millennia-long history of all kinds philosophical arguments made for God’s existence, there is considerable historical evidence about the life of Jesus, and particularly for his resurrection – and I’m not here trying to persuade you of the quality of this evidence, but we can be very assured of its existence. The thing is, Dawkins, Harris, the late Hitchens, and all their internet minions have heard most of these arguments, but the problem is that they hear the argument, it fails to convince them, and then having dismissed all the arguments they’ve heard, they come to voice conclusions like “there isn’t a shred of evidence”. Now to say that the evidence doesn’t convince you would be fair and wise. But claims that the evidence is non-existent should not be coming out of the mouths of people who hold PhDs in philosophy like Sam Harris. This is not just because it diminishes the standard of intellectual courtesy and humility in debate, but also because it is bad epistemology.

There is a case to be made for theism and a case to be made for atheism. I just happen to think the case for theism is significantly stronger.

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*Epistemology is the area of philosophy that seeks to understand knowledge – what knowledge is, how you get knowledge, the difference between knowledge and mere belief, the difference between rational/reasonable beliefs and irrational/unreasonable beliefs, etc.

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