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Are decisions about God always based on evidence alone?

October 17, 2013

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’?

From → Comment, News

  1. Amy permalink

    Hi Rob interesting post. It reminded me of an article I’d read previously, based on a study conducted in the US interviewing college aged atheists about what led them to become atheist. Essentially the article concluded that often such a decision wasn’t just based on evidence per se, but often the teenagers were disappointed by the lack of sincerity/authenticity they experienced in the churches they had been exposed to, as well as emotional factors among others that ultimately affected their decision towards becoming atheist, rather than just evidence alone as many would initially claim, which I thought was interesting. I wonder how many atheists would see any of these reasons as a factor in their rejection of God?

    • Great question and I’d love to hear some atheist responses to this one. Thanks for the comment Amy.

  2. Jayno permalink

    Hi Rob, that was a really good answer to my question, thanks heaps for thinking it through so carefully. It’s great having a forum like this to be able to go deeper in our thoughts and be challenged in a friendly and helpful environment. Thanks again Rob, Jane

  3. How can you have evidence for something supernatural? Such evidence would face a verification problem on a pedestrian level, and suffer from the interaction problems with substance dualism on a metaphysical level (if something produces sense data, isn’t that just what we call natural and describe as having location and participating in cause and effect relationships?). These are issues which also plague Anshelm’s argument taken literally: a being greater than which cannot be conceived is not conceivable. I may have an idea of such a being, but as a creature fixed in time and space my concept is not the true one. That is the real point of such arguments. A supernatural creature must remain a basic postulate. That doesn’t make it irrational. If you assert the postulate, you can build a coherent explanation of the world on that basis. However, there can be no evidence for such a thing. One must either choose to accept it or not, presumably on the basis of intuition, if you trust in intuition…

    • Very good question – re: evidence for supernatural. I think you have articulated the Kantian divide? i.e. phenomenal vs. noumenal. I think you’ve properly understood how I take the arguments of ‘first cause’ etc as being properly foundational i.e. a ‘basic postulate’ (and you’re correct in suggesting that isn’t irrational), but you’re right in questioning how we ‘access’ this foundational thing? Essentially I think it comes down to revelation – i.e. does this ‘basic postulate’ want to be known or not? Karl Barth I think helpfully broke the Kantian divide by suggesting that the incarnation i.e. God becoming man through Christ, is the way that we can access this ‘basic postulate’. Hence the nuomenal enters the phenomenal and makes this basic postulate known. Keen to hear your thoughts on this one?

      • Jesus as a bridge law. Never thought of it that way, but I guess it makes some sense – if you have the intuition that Jesus knew what he was talking about…

  4. Personally, the mass-healing of amputees by prayer would be a really good point to get my lack of faith questioned.

    • Sure, thanks Atomic. That’s interesting. Just wondering if the healing of one man with a deformed hand by a word as per the narrative of the man I outlined in the post would be a possible start?

  5. The backfire effect is definitely an interesting phenomenon. I’d like to think that it could be overcome at some point, perhaps even if people were just aware of it and tried to keep it in mind, or perhaps at some point the amount of evidence could be so big that some people could be convinced by it.

    As to the lack of evidence for God, I often cite that as my reason for being an atheist, but in my case the lack of evidence overcame my bias. I grew up Christian and at some point examined the basis of my faith and found it quite weak. I desperately wanted to believe and looked very hard for good reasons to stay Christian and never found anything credible. The fact that I was trying so hard and still came up short says a lot to me.

    • Thanks for sharing some of your story. I agree that I think that the backfire effect can be overcome at some point, but it must always be considered in these types of questions. I’m intrigued, which works did you consult when considering the Christian faith? I’ve heard many stories of the opposite (including my own journey where I seriously contemplated atheism). I’m also intrigued what you make of the resurrection of Jesus? Thanks for your comment and it was great having you on this forum.

      • I wasn’t much of a reader back then, but I did spend quite a bit of time in church, talking to the youth pastors or just listening and absorbing the sermons. Then much time in informal debates with people both from church and friends from outside the church. I also saw a few formal debates, although it’s been so long I can’t remember who did the debating.

        As to the resurrection of Jesus, I honestly don’t see a good reason to think it really happened. As far as I’m aware the only evidence to it is the bible itself, which doesn’t seem like a reliable source to me at all.

  6. jamie permalink

    ask yourself this if you heard a voice in your head that you believe was God and he told you to kill your firstborn son could you do it my answer is Nothat is one of the reasons I don’t believe there is many more and an even if he did Exist I would not worship Him

  7. matt permalink

    Conversely – how many come to faith in Christ as a result of weighing up the evidence versus being convinced by an emotionally manipulative preacher at a young age that then forms a foundation and lens through which all other evidence is viewed.

    I think it cuts both ways.

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