On the Atheists’ Demand for Evidence

When asked why they do not believe in God, a common atheist answer is that there is insufficient evidence, or more commonly, there is no evidence at all. In one online conversation I saw recently, one atheist said of God “There is no evidence he exists, and until he is proven I must reject the god hypothesis.” Another replied “I can’t accept the unsubstantiated existence of any gods,  same as the existence of magic or ghosts.”  Such answers are common.

Modern atheists imply that if there were enough evidence that God existed, they would believe. They never seem to have a problem with the evidence for black holes and null sets, but they always seem to tell us that the evidence for God is insufficient or nonexistent. I have even had atheists tell me that they have found sufficient reason to deny that effects must have a cause, but not enough evidence that God exists.

David Berlinski, in his pointed response to modern atheists, The Devil’s Delusion, pokes a logical pin into the atheist balloon. He starts quickly:

It is wrong, the nineteenth-century British mathematician W. K. Clifford affirmed, “always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” I am guessing that Clifford believed what he wrote, but what evidence he had for his belief, he did not say.

With one swipe of the broadsword, Berlinski shows that atheist logic seems to run much stronger one way than the other.

It would seem quite reasonable to only believe in things where there is sufficient evidence. No one in the academic conversation would ask that anyone do so, certainly not Christian apologists. The way the conversations typically go with most atheists, however, there never seems to be enough evidence for God. Rational beings, they claim, never believe in anything without sure, solid, hard evidence. They claim they never believe in anything without it, even to the point of denying belief entirely, only accepting demonstrations of evidence. As the Clifford quote states, atheists always everywhere  demand sufficient evidence. But Berlinski’s logic pin is close by, ready to pop another inflated claim.

The problem, Berlinski says, is that “the concept of sufficient evidence is infinitely elastic.” It would seem that a reasonable person would apply the same requirement on all situations, demanding the same level of evidence for all things. But in almost all other situations, no one does. Berlinski explains:

What a physicist counts as evidence is not what a mathematician generally accepts. Evidence in engineering has little to do with evidence in art, and while everyone can agree that it is wrong to go off half-baked, half-cocked, or half-right, what counts as being baked, cocked, or right is simply too variable to suggest a plausible general principle.

Two of the atheists’ fundamental problems seems to be a demand for evidence that goes beyond the field of study, and a demand that the object itself be the sole basis for conclusions. As Berlinski points out, objects or facts by themselves cannot be the basis for any conclusions or belief. As an example, he uses the question of whether we should believe that neutrinos have mass:

A neutrino by itself cannot function as a reason for my belief. It is a subatomic particle, for heaven’s sake. What I believe is a proposition, and so an abstract entity–that neutrinos have mass. How could a subatomic particle enter into a relationship with the object of my belief? But neither can a neutrino be the cause of my belief. I have, after all, never seen a neutrino: not one of them has ever gotten me to believe in it. The neutrino, together with almost everything else, lies at the end of an immense inferential trail, a complicated set of judgements.

Believing as I do that neutrinos have mass–it is one of my oldest and most deeply held convictions–I believe what I do on the basis of the fundamental laws of physics and a congeries of computational schemes, algorithms, specialized programming languages, techniques for numerical integration, huge canned programs, computer graphics, interpolation methods, nifty shortcuts, and the best effort by mathematicians and physicists to convert the data of various experiments into coherent patterns, artfully revealing symmetries and continuous narratives, The neutrino has nothing to do with it.

Within mathematical physics, the theory determines the evidence, not the other way around.

When considering neutrinos, somewhere in the long inferential chain is a series of inferential steps. Each of these steps requires a certain degree of trust and confidence that the method being used is valid. I strongly suspect that if the question about the mass of a neutrino had implications about the moral life of the person running the experiment, the outcome would be not be pure logic, but fraught with emotion. If neutrinos having mass had implications for our sex lives or whether we should be more honest on our taxes, there would be a much higher degree of evidence being demanded for the conclusion. There would be a large number of otherwise logical people telling us that we have no basis for believing that neutrinos have mass, and that reasonable people ought to demand more evidence.

At the very least, we must agree that most conclusions rarely  add up like a math formula, and almost always require some logical inference.

But what of the claim that the evidence for God is on par with the evidence for magic, ghosts, and the like? I would simply ask: Really? Are you actually saying there is none at all?  Are you truly demanding the same degree of proof for all your other beliefs? Like the mathematician Clifford, what evidence do you have for holding the conclusion you do about the level of proof required?

My atheist friend, I submit that you are not as rigorous of a skeptic as David Hume, who went to great lengths to do exactly what you are trying to do. He once said this: “When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and it is difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attained with difficulty.” In other words, we ultimately have to put our little game back in the closet and return to normal, where we know we cannot doubt everyday things as severely as we doubt God, or we would not get through an hour of our life.

The atheist is therefore proven to apply his demand for evidence unequally. While worshipping at the alter of logic and reason, he falls upon it.




About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On the Atheists’ Demand for Evidence

  1. essiep says:

    Are you sure the same people who reject theism are the same ones who accept modern astronomy?

    Many people accept the idea necklace holds because they trust scientists and, more importantly, the scientific method.
    There are many reasons to mistrust religion and religious leaders.

  2. keithnoback says:

    I would disagree slightly with Berlinski’s characterization – a theory is a functional explanation, so it is provisional regarding what it explains, but that is not quite the same as ‘making’ the evidence. An unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, but correlation is not quite the same as creation.
    Still, that is not the problem. The problem is: what theory have we to discuss? A theory which proposes a thing-in-itself that is also a person with a perspective? A timeless entity which “thinks” and otherwise acts or responds? The immaterial?
    How does all that work?
    If we are talking about something which transcends all such considerations, then how is the discussion informative?
    I mean, isn’t the discussion over with that entre’?
    What are we talking about, exactly?

    • John Branyan says:

      Your questions are good! They outline the problem pretty well. If it is a ‘problem’ at all.

      God is personal and that will confound our efforts to build formulas and laws to describe Him in detail. We have the same problem with a ‘theory of Love’. We have the same problem with a ‘theory of Friend’. The question, “What are we talking about?” is exactly what we’re talking about.

      • keithnoback says:

        Hi John,
        A theory is not really the issue. It would be fine to go completely without a theory of God, if we could define the term.
        I can define love, after all, but I have no theory which tells me how it works (pity – I would be independently wealthy!).
        I don’t see how a definition is possible, for a definition describes the condition of a thing’s existence, and the one outstanding claim of theism seems to be that God is unconditioned.
        The situation makes God unknowable – except perhaps through some kind of direct experience. Experience is incontrovertible, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t stand further discussion.

        • John Branyan says:

          Maybe the ‘theory’ speaks to God’s existence. Either there is a God or there isn’t. The definition will, as you suggest, remain incontrovertible.

          The discussion can still be worthwhile, in my opinion. It’s true that love defies definition but most people theorize that it exists. Contemplating the various aspects of love has produced countless bits of music, poetry and literature.

        • Bradley Lodge says:

          Your Intelligence is your biggest problem in believing. Remember in the Adam and Eve story it was what tree that brought death to them… Yes the tree of KNOWLEDGE Only prayer and faith steadfast will give you the proof of Gods existence. Unfortunately to build strong faith you must not pretend to be able to aquire ALL the answers to the universe. The very definition of FAITH is believing without proof

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