Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Constitutes “Evidence” of God

A common refrain from atheists, especially when asked to explain why they don’t believe in God, is that there is just no evidence to support a rational belief in God. Not that there’s no proof, mind you, but no evidence. And this seems to cause quite a lot of consternation for many theists who like to think of themselves as rational and who are quite convinced that there is, in fact, plenty of evidence to support their quite rational belief in God.

[Now, granted, there are some theists who are perfectly willing to admit there is actually no evidence for the existence of God, but they don’t care since for them it’s all about faith. But that’s a topic for another day.]

So, how do we reconcile this conflict between the claims of evidence vs. the claims of no evidence? Surely it’s a binary proposition and there either is or there isn’t evidence for God’s existence, right? And therefore, one side must be right and the other side must be wrong, right?

Well, not quite. It all comes down to what somebody actually accepts as evidence in the first place, and this includes how one defines the term as well as how high or low you set the bar with your standard of evidence. It's probably better to say that atheists lack belief due to an absence of good evidence rather than an absence of any evidence, despite the fact that some atheists refuse to even concede this much and claim that any evidence that doesn't meet their standards doesn't even count as evidence in the first place.

Regardless of whether the issue is what constitutes “good” evidence or what can even be considered evidence in the first place, though, the underlying requirements are the same:
  • Good evidence is objective in the sense that it is or can be experienced by anybody equally, given the same circumstances. As such, personal spiritual experiences do not constitute good evidence since, by their very nature, they are personal and cannot be directly experienced by others.

  • Good evidence can be independently verified and replicated. As such, so-called “anecdotal evidence” such as stories of miraculous occurrences and third-hand accounts does not constitute good evidence since they can't be verified.

  • Good evidence provides affirmative support for a proposition and doesn't just attack supposed counter propositions. As such, any of the many supposedly logical arguments for the existence of God do not actually constitute good evidence for the existence of God insofar as they take the form of “Science doesn't have a comprehensive explanation for some phenomena (the origin of the universe, the origin of life on earth, the apparent design in nature, etc.) and therefore it's more likely that God did it.” For more on this point, see Lack of a Better Explanation Is Not Evidence for Your Explanation.
Again, some atheists will claim that any evidence that doesn't meet these criteria isn't “really” evidence at all. And some theists will claim that these criteria are arbitrary or unimportant and their “evidence” is just as valid. But the point of this post is to point out that when theists and atheists argue about evidence they may not actually be talking about the same thing.

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