Many atheists claim that they don’t believe in God because ‘there is no evidence for his existence’. Famous atheist comedian Ricky Gervais once claimed that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence”. The reason to reject God is claimed to be simply ‘lack of evidence’.
I hear many atheists claim that they would believe in a god if there were ‘evidence’ for his existence. Yet I’m not completely convinced by this. I wonder if the reason to disbelieve in a god is based on more?
This was the essence of a recent comment on this blog. They asked me if I’d written written anything on whether we disbelieve in God and Jesus because we think there isn’t enough proof, or that rather even if we could prove his existence beyond doubt (ie. walk and talk with him), we would still hate him and want to get rid of him?
This raises an interesting question on the nature of ‘proof’ or evidence. Do we really impartially view the ‘evidence’, or are is our view based about predilections or other factors? This is an important question (particularly for a forum such as this which seeks to make conclusions and stimulate ideas based on evidence and intelligent reasoning).
Providentially/coincidentally (depending on your view) on Monday I saw an article written a couple of years back by John Dickson concerning this very issue of ‘proof, persuasion and changing our minds’. He writes slightly provocatively that ‘facts’ alone won’t necessarily change our minds..
However, a rather inconvenient truth needs to be borne in mind: recent research shows that ”facts” alone rarely persuade us to change our minds on anything significant. In fact, they frequently entrench a contrary view. Numerous studies underline how impervious to evidence our strongly held convictions are. Whether on political, religious or ethical issues, it seems our minds have an unusual power to reorganise contrary facts in order to support our beliefs.
This is a startling claim – that this ‘backfire effect’, that counter-evidence does not conquer belief, potentially undermines the suggestions that someone will change their mind simply by examining the ‘evidence’.
This perspective is also clearly illustrated in the Gospels, as Jesus interacts with his opponents. Exactly the same ‘evidence’ was presented to the followers of Jesus as to his opponents, yet very different conclusions were drawn. For example In Mark 3 Jesus is confronted with a man with a shriveled hand. Jesus’ opponents stand there ‘looking for a reason to accuse Jesus’ (3:2). Jesus demonstrates his power and hence further reveals his identity as the divine ‘Son of Man’ by healing the man with the shriveled had. Yet this is not convincing to the Pharisees and Herodians. For as a result of this ‘evidence of power’ they went out and began to plot how they might kill Jesus (3:6). Evidence alone was not convincing to everybody.
Similarly the ‘evidence’ for the resurrection did not automatically lead to belief. Even the earliest alternative explanation of the resurrection i.e. the disciples stole the body (Matt 28:11-15) is made in the ‘teeth’ of the evidence provided by the guards as they reported everything that happened. Even being given an eyewitness report of the resurrection was not enough to convince the chief priests.
Jesus recognises that ‘evidence alone’ will not convince people in Luke 16:19-31 where he comments on a rich man who ignores the poor and dies and meets Abraham. The man is in torment and does not wish the same fate upon his brothers. Hence he pleads with Abraham to send the poor man Lazarus back from the dead to convince his brothers to repent and to not come to the same place as himself. Yet Abraham disagrees and concludes (in the parable) by saying ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (16:31). Evidence alone will not convince someone who won’t listen and is determined not to believe.
Hence I’m unconvinced that ‘evidence alone’ will convince someone that there is a God or that Jesus rose from the dead. Interestingly John Dickson draws a similar conclusion in his article.
Typically, my atheist mates have protested that, for them, it is entirely a matter of evidence. “If there were more proof,” they say, “I would readily believe.” I don’t believe them for a moment.
Does this mean that ‘evidence’ is unimportant or irrelevant? No, not at all. Instead it means we have to be very careful in assessing the evidence, we need to be careful our preconceptions, our assumptions and the possibility of self-deception. We also need to take the opponents arguments at their strongest. I believe I have changed my mind on certain questions based on ‘evidence’, but I am also aware of this ‘backfire effect’ (it’s hard to break out of that).
So I’m unconvinced that decisions about God are always based on evidence alone. I’m intrigued to ask what would it take you to change your mind on the question of the ‘existence of God’?