The Problem of Evidence in Atheism

A snippet from a recent essay of mine on Atheism:

“In the God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think the theory of evolution is an answer for everything and quite easily remove God from the equation of life.  Life is explained by evolution. Not so. Evolution explains the changes in life. It does not look at origins of life nor physics nor God. His explanations of how it might explain religion and consciousness and many other things are pure speculation, not fact.

Alex Jensen, professor of systematic theology at Murdoch University, points out the basis of such an argument is a logical fallacy. When we do science, we do not assume God. We assume God does not make my car run, the engine does.  So the fact that the car runs without God proves God does not exist. Not so.

To make the conclusion that God does not exist, when God has not been factored into the experiment in the first place, makes an inconsistent leap. “Methodological atheism jumps to ontological atheism with no explanation.”

evidence

Nathan Duffy brings up the issue more clearly in his blogpost: Evidentialist Atheism

If you traffic in atheistic circles, online or elsewhere, you’ll notice that the primary objection lodged against belief in God is the evidential objection i.e. “I believe things based on [usually ‘scientific’] evidence (and others ought to as well); in the absence of evidence for some proposition, I withhold (and others ought to withhold) belief in it; there is no evidence for God’s existence that I’ve ever seen; hence I can’t justify believing in God (and neither can anyone else).” Not only is this the primary objection, it’s virtually becoming the sole objection. There are many weaknesses to this argument, but I just want to examine one of them in this post.

Namely this: for someone who adopts this stance, what would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God? And if it turns out there is not any sort of event, fact, datum, or combination of facts that would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God, then how is this stance distinguishable from a priori atheism, rather than a result of a survey of the pertinent evidence? And if it is indistinguishable from a priori atheism, why countenance the objection seriously at all?

If an atheist can give criteria for what would count as evidence for God or the supernatural, and a good reason for adopting whatever particular criterion they choose, then they can be rationally justified in their unbelief if they have never been confronted with the sort of evidence they require. The vast majority of atheists I’ve encountered  adopt the ‘scientific’ criterion for belief. That is: they will believe in those things which are deliverances of scientific method and nothing else. Now, this doesn’t mean that some atheist somewhere couldn’t adopt some other criterion, in which case I would have to address whatever criterion that would be, but in this post I will be content to address the criterion that the vast majority of unbelievers appeal to.

If ‘science’ is that certain sort of investigation of natural phenomena via a particular systematic method of observation and experiment, then immediately one must ask why this criterion for knowledge should be adopted to answer a question necessarily outside its purview i.e. the question of the existence of the supernatural. Could the supernatural theoretically exist and never be isolated and observed in material phenomena, with conditions necessary for repeatable, controlled lab experiments? Not only could this be the case, but if anything supernatural did exist, then this would necessarily be the case: science as traditionally understood and practiced, could not be performed on said phenomena. So we are left with no sensible, justifiable reason to think that the scientific criterion for knowledge is capable of addressing the question of whether anything supernatural exists. Anyone who demands ‘scientific evidence of the unscientific (or a-scientific)’ makes a nonsensical demand.

Read more on his blog: http://nateduffy.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/evidentialist-atheism.html

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27 Comments on “The Problem of Evidence in Atheism”

  1. fusstrated says:

    “Could the supernatural theoretically exist and never be isolated and observed in material phenomena, with conditions necessary for repeatable, controlled lab experiments?”

    I’m new to the ways of atheism and consider myself an agnostic at this point. I see the point you’re trying to make, and my question to you is this.

    Yes, science may not ever be able to find answers to the supernatural. So god may very well exist and we may forever be unable to prove his existence regardless of that fact.

    However, if he exists, god gave us this intellect to help us understand the world around us. If, by using that intellect we cannot correlate the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god with the injustice we see in the world around us then that is not our fault.

    It is (and forgive my disrespect) god’s own fault. Being All-Knowing he would know that religion today has so many inherent flaws that it cannot stand up to rational logic. If he exists, and wants us to live our lives the way the books say he does, should he not give us proof instead of expecting us to believe in books that are either morally flawed or sorely inconsistent or both?

  2. Allallt says:

    What evidence has lead you to believe?

  3. katiecraun says:

    Hello! I stumbled into this post while browsing and find it interesting. However, I think you may be slightly misunderstanding Dawkins’ and the majority of atheists’ stance, myself included. First, Dawkins never said that evolution explains the origin of life. Like you said, it explains the changes in life, which in itself is a contradiction to Christianity because Christianity (at least the fundamental, literal sect that Dawkins hates) maintains that life was created AS IT IS approximately 6,000 years ago. That is a direct contradiction to the scientific theory of evolution, and would therefore prove creationism (and as an extension, literal Christianity) wrong.

    At least for me, and probably most other atheists, evidence of God would include: a difference in results when something was prayed for vs. not prayed for; physical evidence of miracles such as resurrection, such as modern occurrences that defy the laws of physics; and physical evidence of a conscious being that definitely started the Big Bang (I’m not sure what form that would come in, however).

    What we do NOT count as evidence: anecdotes and the “god of the gaps” logical fallacy. The latter includes the following reasoning: we don’t know how the Big Bang started, so it must be an “intelligent designer” or “god.” Besides defying Occam’s razor, history tells us that this kind of reasoning is bound to fail. After all, people used to think that lightning, thunder, disease, and birth were caused by the gods. Science has shown otherwise.

    Nathan Duffy wrote that the supernatural could exist but be unable to be proven by science. That is true. But it is no reason to automatically believe in it and live your life accordingly. Theoretically, anything at all could exist but be unable to be proven by science-Zeus, Osiris, Sol, and the thousands of other gods throughout history; invisible pink unicorns; flying spaghetti monsters; and teapots circling the Earth. Again, that is no reason to believe in these things. Duffy’s argument comes dangerously close to the “well, you can’t prove it doesn’t exist” reasoning. The burden of proof lies on the person saying something DOES exist, and if you have to resort to saying “maybe it exists but is just outside the realm of science,” all that shows is that you really have absolutely no legitimate reason to believe what you do.

    Lastly, the notion of a priori atheism is completely nonsensical; does Duffy really think it’s more logical to bring to the table the opposite assumption, that there is a god, when looking at evidence? Most atheists do not have any religious assumptions at all when surveying the evidence. Instead, many (myself included) start out as theists and are only persuaded that there are no gods AFTER looking at the evidence.

  4. Mr. Atheist says:

    The ontological argument always seemed hollow to me. I could be wrong in my assumption about ontology (I did drop out of high school – basically in the ninth grade) so I would love to be corrected. I have been corrected many times, so I can take it. 🙂

    We have to do a little time travel. Say, 1078. Ansel of Canterbury said, I’m paraphrasing here, there is nothing greater than god. Since there is nothing greater than god, nothing is greater than god. God is the greatest being. Since god only “exist” in the mind of the believer it must therefore be real. Am I close?

    Why is empirical observation done away with? Is this important?

    Going back to ontology for a second… I cannot prove that everything we know to exist came into being 11 seconds ago and that all the memories and all the observable universe came into being at the same time – making us think it’s been around a lot longer. Can you disprove that?

    Anyway, I don’t mean to belabor this point, but I need to understand how this isn’t an “a priori” argument? You assume that god exists to set the stage for the rest of the argument. I could be so lost right now, I hope you can help me course-correct, if I am missing something.

    Mr. Duffy states:

    “…how is this stance distinguishable from a priori atheism, rather than a result of a survey of the pertinent evidence…”

    This sounds so cool at first reading. I had to read it a few times (in context of course) before I could stop scratching my head. It almost sounds “chicken-and-egg”-ish.

    Which came first, my atheism or my arrival at atheism?

    I am looking for an honest conversation.

    Thanks for posting.

  5. Atheists cannot give anyone an explanation of what would constitute evidence of God or the supernatural because believers have yet to give an operational definition that would be meaningful in any scientific explanation. The objection to atheists’ denial of God’s existence is precisely as irrational as a Christian’s denial of the existence of Zeus or Thor.

    I would also wonder why there is a need to posit the existence of any god to begin with. I have yet to run into anything that I couldn’t explain without invoking the concept of an omnipotent, invisible, undetectable being. This, of course, doesn’t force the conclusion that there is no god. The question remains, if this god is undetectable in any known sense of the word, and there is no need to invoke it to explain anything, then what is this other than de facto atheism that is basically forced by the principle of parsimony?

    In the end, the old quote still seems to hold true: “I contend we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  6. Mark says:

    ‘Lastly, the notion of a priori atheism is completely nonsensical; does Duffy really think it’s more logical to bring to the table the opposite assumption, that there is a god, when looking at evidence? Most atheists do not have any religious assumptions at all when surveying the evidence. Instead, many (myself included) start out as theists and are only persuaded that there are no gods AFTER looking at the evidence.’

    With respect, you have misunderstood Duffy’s argument. The a priori is not that there is no God, but rather that evidence for God must be derived from science. This is the position that scientific athiests tend to hold. And Dawkins does indeed claim exactly this, almost verbatim.
    The real delusion is in believing that one can come to assess anything sans a priori positions.

    • falsedichotomie says:

      Amen brother!

    • katiecraun says:

      You’re correct that people always have a priori positions when looking at evidence, or at anything for that matter. We’re only human after all. But my question is this- what would you consider evidence that was not scientific? Like I said, anecdotes and god of the gaps is not proof of anything. Scientific evidence is really the only type of evidence there is.

      • falsedichotomie says:

        The type of evidence you consider valid is entirely dependent on your epistemology.

        Scientific evidence is restricted to one area of knowledge and has a very specific epistemology.

  7. Mark says:

    ‘Scientific evidence is really the only type of evidence there is.’
    And there it is. Your a priori position. You have neatly demonstrated Duffy’s point.
    Scientific evidence is hardly the only kind of evidence there is.

    • katiecraun says:

      Ok then, in that case, I believe in invisible pink unicorns. My evidence: 1. people in the past drew pictures of unicorns. 2. Animals can be pink, such as pigs. 3. You can’t see them, so obviously they’re invisible.

      So, are you convinced that invisible pink unicorns exist? Probably not. Why not? Because that. is. not. evidence. Similarly, “evidence” for God tends to be as follows: 1. people thousands of years ago wrote stories about how there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing god, and obviously, we should unquestioningly believe the stories of this one particular tribe of Bronze Age desert nomads as opposed to all the other tribes of Bronze Age desert nomads because their beliefs are the ones that happened to stick in the culture I grew up in. 2. God has certain characteristics because humans do, and humans were made in the image of God (a priori). 3. There’s no scientific evidence for God just because God doesn’t want to be seen, because he wants you to have faith (also a priori).

      You don’t believe the first set of “evidence,” yet you expect people to believe the second set about God? That’s hardly convincing.

      So again, I am asking you, what exactly would YOU consider evidence that is NOT scientific? Give me examples related to your religion.

      • falsedichotomie says:

        Perhaps a better question would be: what is evidence?

        Wiki defines it as:

        ev·i·dence

        noun /ˈevədəns/ 
        evidences, plural

        The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid

        Information given personally, drawn from a document, or in the form of material objects, tending or used to establish facts in a legal investigation or admissible as testimony in court

        And this bit from the freedictionary is interesting too:

        evidence, proof – Evidence—from Latin e-, “out,” and videre, “to see”— is information that helps form a conclusion; proof is factual information that verifies a conclusion.

        In Anglicanism (my denomination) we decide whether something is true via scripture, tradition and reason/experience. So evidence for God is provided by these things. Mark has demonstrated this beautifully in his reply. He has used scripture, tradition and reason/experience.

        Testimony is also evidence. We use it in law and we use it to judge what is true by listening to others. I’m not sure why the testimony of the ancients ( or what you might call anecdotal evidence) does not count as evidence in your opinion. It certainly does in most other areas.

        The problem with requiring EMPIRICAL evidence for God is that empirical evidence is restricted to the five senses and the physical realm. Expecting empirical evidence for God would only be valid if that was the question you set out to achieve.

        For example. An experiment designed to provide empirical evidence for God would have to go something like this.

        Being able to reproduce Boyle’s Law under specific empirical conditions proves God exists.

        Which is ridiculous of course.

        Empirical evidence (as opposed to scripture, tradition and reason/experience) does not ask the question of whether or not God exists. The question is never factored into the equation.

        Therefore, empirical evidence cannot be used to prove God exists.

        Which was my professor’s point above that I quoted:

        “To make the conclusion that God does not exist, when God has not been factored into the experiment in the first place, makes an inconsistent leap. “Methodological atheism jumps to ontological atheism with no explanation.”

  8. Mark says:

    Do us the courtesy of not tossing around words like ‘unquestioningly’ as it is patently nonsense. You just have to read this blog to see there is at least one Christian who questions.
    Leaving that aside, if we want to start slicing and dicing with Ockham’s razor, tell me how you think it shoud be applied in this case: for two millennia, a continous stream of tradition was held by a community of people, who had experiences of the divine entity connected to this religious tradition. Is it more plausible to hold that all those people, for all that time, were suffering from a mass delusion? Or rather the experience and tradition surrounding that divine entity that bound that community over time had a basis in a reality, one perhaps that is not poets empirical verification (a system, by the way, of approaching the world that is not the result of inevitable, Hegelian progress, but rather is a contingent accident of history)?
    More specifically, and since you asked about my religion, which is Christianity, I can give you one example that has always been very important to me. Personally, I believe I am connected through the Holy Spirit to the resurrected Jesus, through whom I am connected to God the Father. However, the testimony of our holy book, the Bible, holds that the first apostles had an experience of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Here is the thing that has always impressed me – these disciples were so gripped by this that they were prepared to die (and almost all of them were executed for holding this belief) rather than deny what they had seen and experienced. Is it logical to believe that they died to support a story they had made up? That they had been deluded, all of them? Or that they actually experienced what they said they did?
    There is far more to evidence than what can be empirically verified. We have logic, we have history, and we have (I hope) the humility to perceive that science is not the end of history – new paradigms are coming, which will develop, as science did, from contingent twists and turns of our current age.

  9. katiecraun says:

    falsedichotomy- thank you for answering my question. I don’t think any further debate/argument is necessary because we’re on completely different grounds as far as what we consider evidence. Just know that you’ll never convince an atheist that your religion is factually true based on your evidence from scripture and testimony, because in our opinion, scripture is not evidence of its own truth; it’s like saying “the Bible is true because the Bible says so.” You might convince someone based on emotional grounds or something of the sort, but if you did, the person would probably have been an agnostic as opposed to a scientific-minded atheist.

    Mark- in my opinion, your argument is hypocritical. You think it’s logical to believe that Christianity is true because the first apostles died for it and so many people have followed it since; but couldn’t you say the same about Islam? Or any religion for that matter? Muslims believe just as passionately in Allah and Muhammed as Christians believe in God and Jesus. So which one is true? For most people, the one that is “true” is the one that is most prevalent in their own area and culture.

    As far as the first apostles, I don’t pretend to know what exactly happened to make them believe what they did. I don’t even know exactly what they saw or believed, because the only documents we have about them have been so altered throughout the millennia, and they (the Gospels) weren’t even written down until a few hundred years after the event. The original version of Mark didn’t even have the resurrection story. That’s why I don’t consider them evidence. A simple comparison of the Gospels shows that they are not 100% factual, because of all the contradictions.

    Also, to both of you, scientific evidence is trusted much more greatly than testimony. In courts, forensic evidence (fingerprints, DNA, etc) always trumps eyewitness accounts. Always. That’s because it’s many times more reliable. The reason: the mind can play some crazy tricks on people. Numerous psychological experiments have been done showing that much of the time, what you swear you saw isn’t what you actually saw, because of 1. the influence of other people (their version of the story becomes your version, and it can become completely different very quickly) and 2. memory is unreliable.

    So for me, I’ll stick with scientific evidence because I trust science- it’s given us medicine, travel, safety, technology, and knowledge. We have no need for God, because it’s not God that prevents us from getting sick or cures us when we are. It’s doctors. It wasn’t God that created life as we know it. It was the long, natural process of evolution. It’s not God that gives you a job, food, and shelter. It’s your own hard work and your will to live. If it helps you in your life to think it was God, then go for it. But personally, I see much more beauty in life and humanity when I don’t factor God into the equation. When I was a Christian, I saw humans as weak, despicable “sinners” who are dependent on their creator for every good thing about them. Now, I see humans as beautiful, strong, resilient, ever-changing creatures that are intimately connected with all other life and the universe. We are rare, we are here by what started off as chance, and this one breath-takingly short life is all that we have. That’s what’s beautiful to me.

    Thanks for the conversation, guys. It’s nice to see some intelligence even if I don’t agree with you 🙂

    • falsedichotomie says:

      I’m happy to hear you got out of some bad theology katicraun.

      Just remember, most Christians see the pitting of Science against God as a falsedichotimie.

      😉

  10. Mark says:

    Do you know what hypocritical means? Because the way you have used it makes no sense in terms of grammar and semantics.
    And everything you are saying confirms more and more Duffy’s point. You are working from your a priori positions, and you do not really want to look at them critically.

  11. Mark says:

    Hypocrite (n)
    1.
    a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.
    2.
    a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.

    Always helps to use words properly.

    • katiecraun says:

      Yeah, I didn’t really expect you to actually address anything I said. And maybe you forgot, but I said that I used to be a Christian. A very devout Christian. Studying the evidence is what made me become an atheist. Therefore, my current positions are not a priori because I was forced to these conclusions while I was still a Christian. Trust me, I did not want to become an atheist. I went to church, multiple Bible studies, apologetics forums, I took classes in college on religion and the Bible, and I studied the Bible on my own. I also took many science classes, researched scientific issues on my own, and read essays and books and lectures by atheists. So please don’t say I haven’t thought critically about my beliefs.

  12. Mark says:

    Since you are the one tossing around words like ‘hypocrite’ I really don’t see how you get to take the moral high ground. Nice try, though.

    • katiecraun says:

      The “moral high ground”? How am I taking the “moral high ground”? I said absolutely nothing about morals or anything related to them. All I said was that I did extensive research before forming my beliefs because you seemed to be under the opposite assumption. You’ve degraded this conversation into nothing but petty ad hominem and instead of addressing issues I brought up, you’ve quoted definitions and obsessed over specific words because you know that I won the actual argument. You’re obviously not mature enough to have a real, intelligent debate, so I’m done with this pathetic conversation.

      • falsedichotomie says:

        katiecraun, you haven’t “won” the argument. You’ve just proven Duffy’s point (as Mark said before) admirably.

        In terms of scriptural evidence, here’s a great little video on comparing the New Testament scriptures with other ancient writings. They are far better attested to than all other ancient documents that historians use to create history today.

        http://vimeo.com/29942711 (Gospels as ancient biographies)

        It sounds like you have come from a tradition that requires the scriptures to all say the same thing because otherwise they wouldn’t be true.
        The very fact that the New Testament contains four different accounts of the story of Jesus should tell you immediately that that can’t possibly be the underlying assumption of the compilers of the New Testament. The four gospels are different because they describe events from different theological viewpoints in different historical contexts and through different received oral traditions.

        It means you have to approach them critically (like you do everything – including scientific experiments), but to dismiss them altogether is illogical and reflects an a priori position.

  13. katiecraun says:

    Just to point out, the speaker in your video makes an error- Paul was not an eyewitness to the resurrection and never claims to be. He lived after the time of Jesus (as did all the authors of the NT) and had a “vision” of Jesus, which is different in different accounts.

    Christopher Hitchens makes some very good points about the New Testament in this video:

    Like you said, the Gospels are different because they’re from different theological viewpoints. The Gospels were never meant to be taken as factual biographies of Jesus. If they were, they wouldn’t contain the many obvious fabrications about the census, wrong governors, etc. I do not “dismiss them altogether.” I do think Jesus existed and was one of many “prophets” of the time who preached the imminent coming of the kingdom of God (a Jewish concept, obviously). I do not, however, think that he was born of a virgin, claimed he was the son of God, and was resurrected. Those elements of his story are completely unoriginal and were VERY common in earlier and contemporary cults- Osiris, Mithras, Horus, etc. Look them up.

    • falsedichotomie says:

      Paul claims Jesus appeared to him in 1 Cor 15. The Damascus road experience is indeed a vision but is an encounter with the risen Christ so he was technically an eyewitness, not someone who just heard about the resurrection.

      As for other contemporary myths, I’m aware of them. The video I linked to speaks about them.

      The uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian vision lies in corporate bodily resurrection and Jesus just being the first fruits of that.

      • katiecraun says:

        You think that Christianity was the first religion to claim that its central figure was literally resurrected? Ok, you keep thinking that….

        You’re giving the impression that you think that just because an aspect of Christianity might be unique, that contributes to the truth of its claims. In that case, virtually every religion would be true because virtually every religion has something unique about it.

      • falsedichotomie says:

        A very interesting philosophical point again!

        If something is common (virgin births) is it untrue?
        If something is unique (general bodily resurrection) is it true?

        I’m not a philosopher ( I wish I was ) so I don’t know the underlying arguments to such questions. But it does all seem to revolve around how truth is defined.
        For me, Christianity is true on a number of levels but primarily from the truth of experience.
        But that’s probably what makes me a postmodernist. 🙂

  14. Mark says:

    Haha, what a hissy fit. Happily we have the facts to stare at in plain site.
    ‘You’ve degraded this conversation into nothing but petty ad hominem’
    No, you did. You called my views hypocritical. That was not only an incorrect use of the word, but it was an insult. You are the one engaging in ad hominem, not me.
    You haven’t won, or demonstrated anything.

  15. Mark says:

    To engage some of the substantive points, I want to unpack why you are actually confirming Duffy’s point. You claim that your positions are reached a posteriori, as a result of looking at the texts critically. Actually, what you have done is something that would not be available to a per-modern person – you have adopted a different paradigm. That paradigm is science. Had that paradigm not been there – and for most of history it wasn’t, you would not be able to ‘critically’ examine the evidence and settle on the scientific approach. The latter has to exist prior to you adopting it as an available paradigm. It was. Thus, you have the a priori of the scientific paradigm, which you have adopted in place of the a priori of religious faith.
    Religious people also have a prioris – everyone does. We just acknowledge them, whereas for people like you they remain hidden.
    As to the cultural point – I have heard Dawkins many times argue that his Christian interlocutor, had he or she been born in Arabia or Indonesia, would be arguing for Allah, or if born in India, for Krishna – and so on. It’s a good point, and I think cultural background is definitely an important part of which faith if any one professes. But Dawkins, and you, do not give intelligent religious people who have grown up in modern, religiously plural societies enough credit. I have examined Hinduism, and Islam and even atheism. If I was convinced they were better, or represented the truth more clearly about the divine or the nature of the world and reality, I would adopt them. I have not been so convinced. Once again, Dawkins argument works better in a pre-modern world, where people were born, lived and died without experiencing many other religions or cultures. I get uncomfortable when religions start to use exclusive language – and Christianity dies, I admit. But while I may not think Christianity is the only legitimate religion, I make no bones about claiming it is the best one.
    Grace and Peace to all this Good Friday.


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