One of the reasons I am no longer a Christian is what I call “deficit apologetics,” the argument for God’s existence that, if you think about it, is actually a reflection of his non-existence. A recent blog post by David French at Patheos gives us a good example of deficit apologetics in action.
There are two sides to David’s apologetic: the personal anecdote (aka “testimony”) and the rationalization. The anecdote, while dramatic, is not particularly perplexing or inexplicable. He was diagnosed with incurable ulcerative colitis, but got better after extensive treatment and hospitalization, which his doctor believes is because the diagnosis was incorrect, but which David believes is because God supernaturally intervened (after weeks of suffering and mounting medical expenses) to miraculously cure his incurable disease.
The real point of his post, however, and the primary apologetic he presents, is a clever stratagem believers can deploy in order to discard data that does not support their desired conclusion. I’ll let David explain how it works.
What is “evidence”? A decent legal definition is “every type of proof legally presented at trial . . . which is intended to convince the judge and/or jury of alleged facts material to the case.” This proof can include eyewitness testimony, expert testimony, scientific evidence, and circumstantial evidence… But whatever its form, the bottom line is the same: It is proof that is intended to convince another person of the truth of the matter asserted.
Evidence is often contradictory … but as anyone with even a few seconds of courtroom experience understands, the mere existence of alternative explanations does not — by itself — nullify evidence presented. Conflicting evidence or alternative explanations certainly increase the difficulty in discerning truth, but saying that one is not persuaded by the evidence presented, or believes that the evidence for one proposition is stronger than the evidence for another proposition, is a materially different statement than the assertion that there is no evidence at all. [Emph. added]
In other words, superstitious people are free to ignore explanations that are more consistent with more real-world facts. If something happens that’s actually not all that surprising, and you want to give God credit for it, the mere existence of a simpler explanation does not mean that you can’t reject the natural explanation and claim that your experience is “evidence” that God exists.
David tiptoes around the fact that superstitious arguments can be nullified by factors beyond the mere existence of simpler explanations. Nor does he point out that nullified evidence, aka invalid evidence, is not really evidence at all in any meaningful sense. The whole point of this apologetic, and the point where he stops considering what it takes for evidence to be valid, is the incomplete claim that “the mere existence of alternative explanations does not nullify the evidence presented.” It’s a gambit for rejecting natural explanations on the grounds that they exist, and therefore they can be ignored.
There are lots of deficits that come along with this particular apologetic. For one thing, if you apply this principle consistently, there’s a lot more evidence for God’s non-existence than for his existence. Remember, David isn’t using a logically rigorous standard of evidence and proof. The standard he cites above is a subjective standard of evidence. “Evidence” is whatever succeeds in convincing someone, whether it’s true or not. If we’re going to take one recovery from illness as evidence that God does exist, then every failed or non-miraculous recovery is–by David’s standard–evidence of God’s non-existence. David may have an alternate explanation involving “mysterious ways,” but the mere existence of his alternative does not by itself nullify the non-miraculous as evidence of God’s non-existence. And there’s tons more of the latter.
David’s standard also has the deficit of providing too much evidence. It wasn’t God that healed David, it was Santa Claus. David may have an alternate explanation of who miraculously healed him, but the mere existence of his apologetic interpretation does not nullify his experience as evidence for the real existence of Santa. Or to put it another way, David is providing us with as much “evidence” for God’s existence as he does for the existence of Santa (or medical elves, or Spontaneous Magical Entropy-Reversal Fields, or whatever).
Then there’s the deficit of intellectual integrity. David knows that there are simpler explanations for his recovery, of which the simplest is the one his doctor already told him. Digestive disorders can be notoriously hard to diagnose, and it’s not at all uncommon for a diagnosis like that to be mistaken. Worse, stress and anxiety can also produce symptoms of digestive discomfort, masking recovery from the underlying conditions, so you can actually be responding to the steroids and yet still feel sick due to your anxiety about your perceived failure to recover. Under such conditions, the power of suggestion can make it appear as though one thing (prayer) produced a nearly-instant effect, when the actual cure was longer, slower, and hidden.
David knows all this, which is why he presents his story in the context of a rationalization claiming that superstitious attributions still count as some sort of “evidence” for God’s existence even when you know there’s a simpler and more natural explanation. He’s compromising his own intellectual integrity by tampering with his own internal rules of evidence in order to “prove” subjectively that God exists (whether or not God exists outside of human imagination).
If God actually were real, such compromises wouldn’t be needed. In fact, if God existed, there wouldn’t be a need for apologetics at all! The harder apologists work to convince themselves and their fellow believers that God is real, the more clearly they demonstrate the fact that even believers have to work hard to make themselves believe–and they have to cheat and lower their standards to do it.