Religion and evidence-1: Why people believe


The main reason that atheists deny that god exists is because there is no credible evidence for him/her/it. In trying to meet this challenge, religious people tend to split two ways, those who accept the need for evidence and those who think evidence is unnecessary for belief.

Ordinary religious believers tend to say that yes, they do so have evidence. When asked to specify what this evidence consists of, they tend to talk of personal experience of the presence of god, miracles, and things they consider to be deep and insoluble mysteries (like the origin of life or the universe). The problem is that what they mean by evidence is not anything that meets the normal standard of evidence in science or a court of law. It is not hard to show that these types of evidence are really weak. After all, personal ‘experiences’ of god’s presence are indistinguishable from hallucinations, delusions, or plain wishful thinking. Close scrutiny of miraculous events usually result in them turning out to have plausible material explanations. And the origins of life and the universe are no longer deep mysteries but merely scientific puzzles that are being systematically investigated.

Deep down, religious people must know that these kinds of evidence are not convincing and this is why there are desperate attempts to find evidence that is more concrete, such as conducting studies on the efficacy of prayer or the claim that the Shroud of Turin is genuine, or the search for the remnants of Noah’s Ark (the latest claim of success occurring on April 27, 2010), and other attempts to find things that corroborate claims in their religious texts.

Hovering over all these attempts is an unspoken paradox. If god did want to reveal his existence to us, why does he choose such oblique and unconvincing ways to do so? Why not simply show himself openly? And if he does not want to reveal himself, why leave any clues around at all, like an inept criminal?

The more sophisticated theologians and philosophers realize that the kinds of evidence that are produced in favor of god can be easily shot down by skeptics and so now they don’t even try. They tend to make the best of a bad situation by finding ways to pooh-pooh the whole notion of evidence, saying that we atheists are wrong to be tied to such mundane matters as material evidence or even raise the question of the actual existence of a god, and must open our eyes to appreciate the deep and sublime truths about the nature of god that evidence cannot touch.

This strikes me as total hogwash, the kind of pseudo-reasoning that only an intellectual can come up with. At least ordinary religious people realize the need for evidence, even if they cannot produce any credible evidence.

In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe (2000, p. 249) he quotes the results of a 1998 survey that he collaborated on with Frank Sulloway which explored the reasons that religious people give for belief. When people were asked why they themselves personally believed in god, the responses broke down as follows:

  1. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
  2. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us (20.6%)
  3. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
  4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
  5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something (8.2%)
  6. Raised to believe in God (7.2%)
  7. God answers prayers (6.4%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (4.0%)
  9. God has a plan for the world, history, destiny, and us (3.8%)
  10. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.0%)

Responses 1, 2, and 7 can be grouped together as evidence-based reasons (at least they are considered to be evidence in the eyes of believers) and make up 55.8% of the responses. Responses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 can be grouped as emotional and wishful thinking reasons and make up 27.3%, while the remaining two reasons 4 and 6 (about 17%) are based on habit or deference to authority figures.

But when the same people are asked why they think other people believe in god, the results are as follows:

  1. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
  2. Raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
  3. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
  4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
  5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
  6. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
  7. The Bible says so (5.0%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (3.5%)
  9. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.5%)
  10. God answers prayers (1.0%)

Emotions and wishful thinking (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) now rise to the top (53.4%), habit and authority (2, 7) comes second at 27.4%, while evidence (3, 6, 10) comes in last at 23.2%.

What is interesting about these results is that believers tend to think that while they themselves have rational reasons to believe in god, they think other people do so for emotional or irrational reasons. What that indicates to me is that even though religious believers value evidence, they either don’t think that their evidence for god is convincing and/or they do not have much respect for the rationality of fellow-believers.

I recently received an email from someone who wanted to know the numbers in ‘Einstein’s constant’. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as ‘Einstein’s constant’ other than his cosmological constant term in general relativity which is not a numerical constant in the way that (say) pi is, the wording was a little strange. She was not asking for the constant but the numbers in it. When I queried her what she wanted it became clear that she wanted to explore the work of Ivan Panin, who converted to Christianity and spent his life looking for hidden messages in the Bible using numerical patterns. While one might wonder what kind of god would put secret coded messages in the Bible, the point is that my correspondent (and Panin) were looking for evidence in support of their beliefs. The very fact that they try so hard and have to look in such obscure places is a measure of how weak they themselves think the evidence for god is.

This also explains why there is so much pushback to the arguments of the new atheists that there is no reason or evidence to believe in god. Although religious believers say that faith in spite of contradictory evidence is central to belief, they really like to think that that only applies to other people, and that they themselves are rational people who do use evidence. It also explains why so many religious people and accommodationists keep telling us that we should not cast doubt on beliefs that other people find consoling.

I must say that I found the result that people tend to value reason and evidence as important bases for beliefs to be a good sign, a measure of success for the widespread adoption of Enlightenment values, even if the evidence they produce is so unconvincing.

POST SCRIPT: God’s plan

Comments

  1. vee drive says

    Science is based on belief: one example; have you ‘seen’or experienced electrons/sub-atomic particles to accept their existence? On what criteria do you accept these facts? Because it’s in science text books?

    How do you prove love, joy, ‘feelings’ etc as a measurable quantifiable entity?

  2. says

    vee drive,

    Yes, we accept that an electron exists because it is in science textbooks because of the way that information gets into science textbooks. Information is not included in science textbooks because someone had a revelation that was claimed to be from god. Belief in the existence of an electron is not a belief in the same way that belief in god is.

    To see the difference, recall that the electron was first postulated in the early 19th century as a means of explaining the properties of atoms, and was first directly detected in 1897. By ‘detected’ we do not mean that people saw it because no one has seen an electron. It is too small for even our most powerful microscopes. The way we know that electrons exist is because just two simple properties of it (mass and charge) are sufficient to predict and confirm a huge number of experimental results to astounding levels of accuracy. All these results are reported in peer-reviewed journals which can be checked by anyone else who doubts them. The electron postulate has withstood all such tests. It is only such strongly confirmed phenomena that make it into science textbooks.

    Almost the entire structure of modern life depends on the correctness of this simple model of an electron. Do the claims of religious books undergo the same level of rigorous testing? Do you have a model of god that can be tested at the level of rigor that the electron model has been tested? Can you predict even a single action that can be solely and unambiguously attributed to the actions of god?

    The comparison with feelings is irrelevant. I do not claim that ‘feelings’ are measurable and quantifiable entities, as least given the current levels of technology. Feelings are postulated as being creations of the brain. As evidence we see that when the brain is physically damaged, people’s personalities change. When we die, our feelings die along with our brains.

    But electrons go on forever.

  3. Anonymous says

    To a large extent, vee drive, your argument is philosophical and hypothetical. You could just as easily ask, how do we “know” we’re sitting in front of our computers, reading Mano’s blog, when in fact we could be imaging all of this and be locked away in an asylum somewhere?

    The answer is, we don’t. But it’s the best we have.

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