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Mar 08 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-4: Why evidence is crucial

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both requests are embarrassing for religious believers and so people must be deflected from asking them.

The reason why evidence needs to be produced for empirical claims becomes apparent when the situation is reversed. When non-scientists demand to see evidence for the claims of science (say time dilation or evolution), we do not fob them off by saying that it is impertinent to make such a request until they have first studied Einstein’s or Darwin’s works in depth. We try to explain what those scientists’ theories assert and, more importantly, what evidence we have that makes us take those claims seriously. The questioners may not have the expertise to fully evaluate the evidence and for that they may need to do some studying on their own, but nonetheless we have an obligation to point them in the correct direction and indicate the nature of that evidence. Sophisticated religious apologists do not provide evidence and try to evade the issue altogether by saying that evidence is unnecessary or adopting the Kierkegaard Gambit.

The nice thing about the call for evidence is that it does not depend on expertise. If someone makes an empirical claim, we do not dismiss it simply because they may not be scientists. In fact, non-professionals often turn up evidence that has implications in astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. If you have evidence to counter the theory of evolution, then it does not matter if you are not a biologist. If you have evidence for the existence of god, by all means present it and atheists will consider it.

If the Kierkegaard Gambit is uniformly applied to all spheres of activity, then we would have to insist that only those people who can produce evidence that they have studied both science and religion in depth can form judgments about whether they are compatible. That would immediately rule out almost everybody, including many theologians and philosophers. And yet, that is not what happens. It is assumed that people like John Haught and H. E. Baber and Karen Armstrong are competent to talk about the implications of science for religion but Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers are not. This is what makes so apropos Daniel Dennett’s statement that, “Debating a religionist is like playing tennis with someone who lowers the net for their shots and raises it for yours.”

What is fascinating is that ordinary religious people have no trouble understanding the need to provide evidence for their beliefs and they will attempt to do so if asked. Their evidence may be weak or spurious or inconclusive (faces of Jesus in toast, prayers allegedly answered, personal feelings, etc.) but at least they usually try. The whole problem with ultra-sophisticated religionists is that their beliefs are evidence free and thus content free which is why theology is so flexible, able to accommodate anything. If you are not constrained by evidence, then anything goes. As Carl Sagan wrote in Broca’s Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. (my italics)

Carl Sagan, like Charles Darwin, called himself an agnostic. Both are people that I describe as ‘good’ atheists’, people whose beliefs are functionally indistinguishable from atheism but who go to great lengths to avoid hurting the feelings of believers, unlike us mean old new/unapologetic atheists. But what Sagan is saying here is as tough as anything that new/unapologetic atheists would say.

And he is right.

POST SCRIPT: And the murderer is…

I grew up devouring the entire oeuvre of English mystery fiction by writers like Agatha Christie. There was something endlessly fascinating about the eccentric and exotic private detective Hercule Poirot investigating murders set in quaint villages and country estates. The denouement was usually dramatic and took place in a drawing room in which the villain is unmasked and immediately confesses.

That Mitchell and Webb Look capture the mood perfectly.

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