Sometimes I really feel sorry for atheists. They are caught up in a faith-based system that can’t ever acknowledge that it is such. So they are forced to say silly things like, “just show me the evidence, and I’ll believe in God!” That way, they can cover up the fact that no amount of evidence, of any kind whatsoever, will ever convince them of anything.

Paula Kirby of Scotland, who is described as “a consultant and project manager, specializing in freethinking and secular organizations,” writes just that way in the “On Faith” column at the Washington Post:

So this is what it would take to convince me that there is a god: evidence. It doesn’t matter what kind: any evidence at all would suffice.

She then proceeds to say that while it doesn’t matter what kind of evidence, it actually matters what kind of evidence, because there are lots of things–some rightly, some wrongly–that she doesn’t consider to be evidence at all:

But let us be clear. By ‘evidence’ I do not mean conjecture -‘We are all steeped in Original Sin and stand in need of redemption’ – because we can all conjure up all sorts of stories that others cannot disprove.

I’m not sure exactly what she means by this. After all, she’s managed to use as an example something at least part of which is empirically demonstrable. Leave aside the word “original,” and you get “we are all steeped in sin.” This is only non-disprovable because it is, in fact, factually correct.

I do not mean ignorance – ‘Well, science doesn’t have all the answers’ – because the existence of things we do not yet understand is not evidence for God, as the gods of volcanoes and earthquakes and thunder could attest, if it weren’t for their now-undeniable non-existence.

In other words, no gods in the gaps. I agree that this is not an argument for the existence of God. It is, rather, an argument for humility on the part of those who think that they have scientifically demonstrated that God does not exist.

I do not mean wishful thinking – ‘But my faith is such a comfort to me!’- because the comfort you derive from your belief in God no more points to an external reality than does my neighbor’s belief that the arrival of the moon in Scorpio bodes well for her finances.

I agree that “wishful thinking” doesn’t prove the existence of God. However, what she’s essentially done here is say that any form of subjective experience doesn’t constitute evidence. That would be news to pretty much any trial judge, for whom the subjective experience of witnesses usually has a significant if not determinative impact on the outcome of a proceeding.

I do not mean threats – ‘An eternal lake of fire awaits those who do not believe’ – for you cannot make me fear that which you cannot demonstrate the reality of – especially when the self-serving nature of the threat is so patently obvious.

Threats of eternal punishment indeed don’t constitute evidence for the existence of God. Such threats can only be consequences of the conviction that a certain kind of god exists. While I would not use such information in an argument on God’s existence, I must take issue with Kirby’s characterization of such “threats” as “self-serving.” They can certainly be used that way, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be used as a form of warning against something that you would want someone to avoid. When I tell someone in the path of a speeding car to get out of the street, there is nothing necessarily self-serving in that.

I do not mean presumption – ‘But your life can’t have any meaning or purpose without God’ – since your apparent inability to find purpose or meaning in your own family, friends, career, interests, ability to influence the world for the better, learning, joy, laughter, personal growth, compassion, and awe at the beauties of the world around you in no way reduces my ability to find my life entirely fulfilled and made meaningful by these things.

“Presumption” isn’t evidence, and certainly people can find meaning and purpose in something other than relationship to God. But this is simply a way of elevating one form of subjective experience–in “your own family, friends,” etc.–over another. The fact that one is able to find fulfillment in such things proves that it is possible to do so because such things are real. Why does finding meaning and purpose in God not also demonstrate that there is a reality behind the experience?

I do not mean grotesque fear and distrust of your fellow man – ‘Without God there would be nothing to stop us from killing one another’ – since it is perfectly clear that the vast majority of us, believers and non-believers alike, happily comply with society’s rules and feel no urge to murder, rape or steal; and that religious belief has all too often added to the weight of human cruelty rather than militated against it.

Personally, I’ll put religion’s additions to the weight of human cruelty up against that of atheism–the French Revolution, the Communist regimes of the 20th century, etc. amply demonstrate that there is nothing inherently uplifting about rejection of belief in God. Here’s the real issue, however: if you believe that there is no order in the world beyond what humanity imposes upon it by the exercise of will and intellect, then on what basis do you morally object to the Nietzschean superman who by virtue of his superiority is beyond the confines of “mere” morality? You can say that such an approach isn’t in the best interests of most people, but so what? If I’ve got power, why should I not use it in the way I think best, regardless of what others say or believe? I’m not suggesting that atheists can’t be moral people–of course they can; the question is, what is the nature of the morality they advocate, and what is the foundation of it, besides their personal preferences?

I do not mean your subjective feelings – ‘I know in my heart that it’s true!’ – for neuroscience is casting an ever more piercing light on the workings of our brains and revealing our feelings to be hugely unreliable guides to external reality: which is why they always need to be backed up with real, proper, testable evidence before they can be trusted.

Here she makes explicit that she rejects any expression of subjectivity, but manages to hoist herself on her own petard. She mentions only “feelings,” but that same neuroscience she’s so fond of is also demonstrating that it isn’t possible to neatly compartmentalize our responses to the external world, that emotion, sense perception, intellect, and will are inextricably bound together. Try as we might, it is never possible to attain complete objectivity or scientific detachment. So, one is forced to ask: how does Paula Kirby know that her rejection of God is entirely based on what she calls a “lack of evidence”? What’s to say bad experiences in church when she was a child, the inducement of working in a particular field, or the influence of like-minded friends hasn’t caused her to fail to recognize evidence that countless other people see?

I do not mean the rejection of all normal standards of reason and truth-seeking – ‘The Bible must be true because the Bible says it is!’. There is a reason why we test that evidence, challenge it, try to find alternative explanations for it. And that reason is that the truth matters. God is not a subjective proposition: either there is a god, or there is not. The standards of assessing the objective truth of a claim apply here every bit as much as they do to every other field of inquiry.

I agree with her that “God is not a subjective proposition,” and that He either exists or He does not. I also agree that “normal standards of reason and truth-seeking” can and should be applied to the question. She still has the same problem with regard to objectivity that I previously mentioned, but what’s more is that she gives no indication that she’s actually examined any evidence.

Show me one tangible piece of evidence that there is a god – the kind of evidence that we demand for any other claim – and I will happily assess it with enough open-mindedness to satisfy the most demanding of judges.

For me, the evidence regarding the resurrection of Christ–which though not of the “2 + 2=4” variety is nonetheless very strong–also constitutes very good evidence for the existence of God (and not just any god, of course, but the God of the Old and New Testaments) unless we believe that corpses have the power to bring themselves back to life after several days. Has she examined that evidence, really, thoroughly examined it (and I don’t mean just by reading the collected works of John Spong and Bart Ehrman, either, but also the many scholars–say, N.T. Wright in his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God, for instance–who have painstakingly demonstrated that there is far more evidence for the resurrection than philosophical materialists are willing to admit)? Given that she refuses to admit that there is any evidence, I would have to conclude one of two things: either she hasn’t looked at it, and is simply ignorant of what she doesn’t want to know; or she has, and has a priori ruled anything that would run counter to her already determined conclusion to be non-evidence. Either way you look at it, that’s anything but free-thinking. In fact, it sounds like her own description of faith: “It is indeed in the very nature of faith that it has to be absolute, and that willingness to doubt religious dogma is inherently sinful.”

Advertisements