This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
And when they’re asked what evidence they have, how do believers respond?
In my conversations with religious believers, I’ll often ask, “Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?” Partly I’m just curious; I want to know why people believe what they do. Plus I think it’s a valid question: it’s certainly one I’d ask about any other claim or opinion. And if I’m wrong about my atheism — if there’s good evidence for religion that I haven’t seen yet — I want to know. I’m game. Show me the money.
But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.
What I typically get is a startling assortment of conversational gambits deflecting the question.
I get excuses for why believers shouldn’t have to provide evidence. Vague references to other people who supposedly have evidence, without actually pointing to said evidence. Irrelevant tirades about mean atheists. Venomous anger at how disrespectful and intolerant I am to even ask the question.
Today, I want to chronicle some of these conversational gambits. I want to point out their logical flaws. I want to point out the fiendishly clever ways that they armor religion against the expectation — a completely reasonable expectation, an expectation we have about every other kind of claim — that it back itself up with evidence.
And I want to talk about why believers resort to them.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Show Me The Money
We begin the parade of deflective gambits with this:
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
The problem is that religion makes claims about this world. The physical one, the one we live in. It claims that God sets events into motion; that guardian angels protect us; that our consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul; etc.
So if there really were a non-physical world affecting this physical one, we should be able to observe those effects. Even if we can’t observe the causes directly.
My favorite analogy for this is gravity. When Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion, he had no clue what gravity was. For all he knew, gravity was caused by demons inside every physical object, all pulling at each other by magic. He tried for years to figure it out, and eventually gave up.
But even though he had no idea what gravity was, he was able to observe its effects. He was able to describe the laws of motion that govern those effects: laws that to this day make startlingly accurate predictions about the behavior of objects. He wasn’t able to see or even understand the cause — but he was able to observe and describe the effects.
I could give a zillion other examples. We can’t see subatomic particles directly, either. Magnetic fields. Black holes. But we can observe their effects. We can make accurate predictions about them. We know they’re there.
If there really is a non-physical, spiritual world affecting the physical one… why can’t we come to an understanding about the nature of that world, and how it affects this one? Why, after thousands of years of religious belief, are we still no closer to an understanding of the spiritual realm than we ever were? Why do religious beliefs still all boil down to a difference of opinion?
The obvious answer: Because the spiritual realm doesn’t exist. Because the spiritual realm is a human construct: invented by human minds that are strongly biased to see intention and pattern even where none exist, and to believe what they already believe or want to believe.
And believers only fall back on this “The spiritual is beyond the physical, so we shouldn’t expect evidence of it” trope because there isn’t good evidence. This argument isn’t really an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely serves to armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Why should that be?
I’ve heard this argument a thousand times. And nobody making it has ever been able to explain to me: Why should that be?
Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It’s not a subjective personal experience, like, “I passionately love this woman and want to marry her.” It’s not a personal instinct or judgment call, like, “I think my life will be better if I quit my job and move to San Francisco.” It’s not a personal aesthetic opinion, like, “Radiohead is the greatest band of this decade.” It’s a hypothesis about the world — the real, external, non-subjective world. It’s an attempt to explain how the world works, and why it is the way it is.
So why should it be beyond reason or evidence?
Unreason and emotion, personal instinct and flashes of insight… all are important. Our lives would be flat without them. And they can tell us important truths. But they tell us important truths about ourselves. When it comes to finding out what is and is not true about the real, external, non-subjective world, these methods are far too flawed, far too biased, to blindly trust as the sole foundation of our understanding. Instinct and intuition can give us ideas about the world — but we have to then rigorously test those ideas and make sure they’re consistent with the evidence. History is full of scientists getting brilliant ideas in flashes of intuition — but it’s also full of scientists getting flashes of intuition that turned out to be balderdash.
The careful gathering of evidence, and the rigorously rational analysis of that evidence, has shown itself time and again to be the best method we have of understanding the world. It’s biased and flawed too, of course, as are all human endeavors. But compared to casual observation, personal intuition, and each individual’s biased analysis of what seems to make sense to them… it’s much, much better.
And every time religious claims have been carefully evaluated by a rigorous scientific method, they’ve collapsed like a house of cards.
The only reason believers fall back on this “religious experience is inherently irrational, beyond reason or evidence” trope is that reason and evidence don’t back up their beliefs. This trope isn’t an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely serves to armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Here we have a classic case of special pleading.
Almost nothing can be proven or disproven with 100% certainty. And proving with 100% certainty that something doesn’t exist is virtually impossible.
Which is why we don’t apply that standard to any other kind of claim.
We don’t say, “Well, you can’t prove with 100% certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun — it could be a mass hallucination caused by a mischievous imp — so we should give up on deciding whether it’s probably true, and call it a matter of personal belief.”
With every other kind of claim, we accept a standard of reasonable plausibility. With every other kind of hypothesis, we accept that if there’s no good evidence supporting it, and there’s a fair amount of evidence contradicting it, and it’s shot through with logical flaws and internal inconsistencies, and similar claims have never turned out to be right…. then unless that situation changes, those are good enough reasons to reject it.
Only religion gets the “If you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, it’s reasonable to believe it” standard.
When asked, “What evidence do you have that this is true?”, how is it reasonable for believers to reply, “You can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t”? How is that even an argument? How does it support the claims of religion? How does it do anything but armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims?
And we have more special pleading.
In a reasonably free, reasonably democratic society, we don’t call it intolerant to criticize ideas. We criticize ideas all the time. Political ideas. Artistic ideas. Scientific ideas. Ideas about relationships, money, music, food, philosophy, sports, cute cats. If we think other people have a mistaken idea about the world, we think it’s reasonable and fair, admirable even, to try to persuade them out it. We might think it’s bad manners at the dinner table — but in public forums, in the marketplace of ideas, we think it’s just ducky.
Only religion gets a free ride.
In the marketplace of ideas, only religion gets a free ride in an armored tank. Only religion gets to sell its wares behind a curtain. Only religion gets to make promises about its wares that it never, ever has to keep. And when people hand out flyers in the marketplace saying “These guys are selling hot air, the Emperor has no clothes, here’s all the reasons why our wares are better,” only with religion do people scowl disapprovingly at the disrespectful, bigoted intolerance.
Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It is entirely reasonable to treat it like any other hypothesis… and to point out the ways that it’s logically flawed, inconsistent with itself, and entirely unsupported by any good evidence.
“You have no right to make your case” is an argument people make when they don’t have a case themselves. It’s not even an argument. It’s the deflection of an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Many believers accuse atheists of arguing against the most simplistic, most outdated forms of belief; of ignoring the wonderful world of modern theology and its advanced understanding of God.
And yet, they do this without ever actually explaining what that advanced understanding is, or what the arguments and apologetics and evidence for it are. The promise of a truly good modern argument for God is dangled in front of us like a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose.
I’ve actually read a fair amount of modern theology. I’m not a theology scholar, but I got a B.A. in religion, and I’ve read a fair amount since then.
And I am repeatedly struck by how weak and sloppy modern theology is. It either redefines God out of existence, defining him so abstractly he might as well not exist… or it amounts to one of the many excuses listed here, excuses for why this powerful being with a pervasive effect on the world somehow has no solid evidence of his existence. (Or else it’s the same old bad arguments we’ve seen for hundreds of years — First Cause, the Argument from Design, Pascal’s Freaking Wager — dressed up in po-mo academia-speak.)
But more to the point:
You can’t just point to the existence of modern theology and say, “Look! Modern theology! It’s new and improved! With 30% more reason than medieval theology! It says so right on the box!” You have to actually, you know, tell us what that theology says. And then you have to tell us why you think it’s right.
If you can’t… then that’s not an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
This one kind of ticks me off.
As a rule, atheists are the ones saying, “I don’t see any good evidence for God… but show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” And believers are the ones saying, “Nothing you say could possibly convince me God is not real — that’s what it means to have faith.” Believers are the ones with all these defense mechanisms I’m writing about; all these elaborate excuses for hanging onto a worldview that’s not supported by one piece of good, solid evidence.
So how is it, exactly, that atheists are the close-minded ones?
Having an open mind doesn’t mean thinking all possibilities are equally likely. It means being willing to consider new ideas if the evidence supports them. And it means being willing to give up old ideas if the evidence is against them.
So to any believer who thinks atheists are close-minded, I want to ask you this:
What would convince you that you were mistaken?
Most atheists can answer that question. We can tell you what we’d accept as evidence for God. Atheists are open to the possibility that there might be a supernatural world. In fact, most atheists once believed in that world. We just don’t believe it anymore. We are provisionally rejecting it for lack of evidence. If we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.
What about you?
Are you open to the possibility that you might be mistaken? Are you open to the possibility that there is no God, and that the physical world is all there is? Is your God hypothesis falsifiable? Is there any possible evidence that would change your mind?
And if not — then on what basis are you accusing atheists of being close-minded?
This “atheists are closed off to the spiritual world” trope is clearly not an argument. It merely reiterates the very claim being discussed — the claim that there’s a supernatural world to be open to — without offering any evidence for it. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
If They Had The Money, They’d Show It
I would like to point out this:
If religious believers had good evidence for their beliefs, they’d be giving it.
When something even vaguely resembling solid evidence for religion appears, believers are all over it. The Shroud of Turin. The Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. That ridiculous prayer “study” supposedly showing that sick people who were prayed for did better… until the study was blasted into shrapnel, and the researchers were shown to be dishonest at best and frauds at worst, and subsequent studies that were actually done right showed absolutely no such thing.
More commonly, believers frequently trot out the old standby forms of religious “evidence”: personal intuition (translated: our biased and flawed tendency to believe what we already believe or what we want to believe), and religious authorities and texts (translated: someone else’s biased and flawed intuition, passed off as fact). Even in the era of evolution, even when we know in great detail how the complexity of life came into being, many believers — including moderate, non-creationist believers — often point to the apparent “design” of life as evidence of God. And any number of coincidences, twists of fate, supposedly miraculous medical cures, and other happy and unhappy accidents — the kind we’d have every reason to expect in a physical- cause- and- effect world — will be readily chalked up to spiritual forces or the hand of God.
Believers — many believers, anyway — are hungry for solid, non-subjective, real-world evidence for their beliefs. But in the absence of that evidence, and in the presence of positive evidence and arguments countering their beliefs, they’ll resort to slippery, contorted, elaborately constructed excuses for why the expectation of evidence for religion isn’t fair.
And as I look at these excuses, I think I see why.
Religion is like a castle that’s formidably protected — with moats and walls, trap doors and vats of boiling oil, attack dogs and armed guards patrolling around the clock — but where the castle itself is made out of paper.
The armor has to be first-rate.
Because the structure itself can’t stand on its own.