Saturday, March 8, 2008

Faith vs. Evidence: A False Choice

On the way to work the other day, I was listening to a show on public radio that featured Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and Oxford professor, as its guest. His fundamental argument was this:

Since religious belief is not based on evidence, it is foolish to believe in it, and irresponsible to teach it to children.

I knew exactly how I would counter this argument, but I didn't call in because I was driving in icy conditions, and when I got to work, well... I was working (which are both excuses for the fact that challenging a very intelligent atheist in front of thousands of listeners is a bit intimidating), so instead I waited for someone to call in and raise the argument I thought was obvious.

But alas, no one did, at least while I was listening. Some people called in to challenge him, but frankly their arguments were weak:

"How can you argue religion is bad when atheists like Hitler have done such bad things?"

"How can you say religion is bad when our society was based on it?"

"Do you really have no beliefs?"

"Don't you know that religious people have been shown to be happier in scientific studies?"

As I would suspect, he swatted all of these arguments like injured flies. They are all softballs to the intellectual atheist. To my surprise, no one brought up the most obvious rebuttal.

My response to his argument is simple. His premise is false:

Religious belief is based on evidence.

I suppose some of you might be saying, "Of course!", while others might be saying, "That's heresy, don't the scripture say that faith is something that is 'hoped for and not seen?'" Yes, but just because something is not seen does not mean that there is no evidence. We do not believe in blind faith, last I heard. And I'm not talking about archaeological or historical evidence here--I'll leave that to FAIR.

At one point in the discussion, the host ask Dr. Dawkins, "So how would one prove the existence of God?"

His response: God himself could easily prove his own existence. He need only to speak from heaven and say, "I am here." Both guest and host chuckled.

So I would ask Dr. Dawkins: "So what if God, or an angelic messenger, appeared before you, and told you that God exists. Would that be enough evidence for you?"

Hypothetical Dr. Dawkins: "Of course."

Me: "So what if instead of appearing before you, he caused you to have a feeling in your heart that was so unprecedented that you knew it must come from some outside source. And at the the same time thoughts began entering your mind that you knew did not come from your own head. These feelings and thoughts worked together in such a way as to stimulate the same feelings and thoughts that you would have if God himself were standing in front of you. Would that be enough evidence for you?"

Mormons are familiar with this idea, as we believe that the Holy Ghost will teach us the "truth of all things." But an atheist would balk at it, since they normally counter such things by saying that these feelings are rooted in our own survival instinct--a desire to feel comfort--, not an external source. But I would argue that, even for an atheist, there must be some level of non-visual experience that would convince them to believe. After all, what is sight? It is only our brain telling us that something is in front of us. If our feelings can be deceived, then why not our eyes? If we can trust that our eyes are telling us the truth, then why not trust feelings that teach us truth also?

Me: "So let's suppose you had a feeling that was so strong that it was undeniable that it came from God. Would that be enough evidence?"

Dr. Dawkins: "Well, if I had such an undeniable experience, then by definition I would have to believe."

Me: "Would it then be irresponsible to teach it to your children?"

Dr. Dawkins: (silence)

Me: "Aha, so you see many who believe in religion do so because they have evidence, not in spite of it. But it is personal evidence. I can no more convince you that there is a God than I can convince you by words alone that the walls of my living room are green, but both are equally evident to me, whether it be by my physical eyes or those of my spirit."

It's fun to debate hypothetical intellectuals.

For more on how faith is based on personal evidence, see Elder Douglas L. Callister talk from the last General Conference entitled "Knowing That We Know." It's a good one.

And Doctrine and Covenants 6:23 "Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?"

But here's a follow-up question: Why did no one bring this up? Is Dr. Dawkins right that most religious people believe with no evidence, even personal evidence? Do they just believe because they were told to? This would be a surprise to me, but based on the evidence of that show, and it's lack of callers making my argument, I'd say he just might be correct.

Editor's Note: This was a repost, since the date on the original post was incorrect.


Anonymous said...

Me: "So let's suppose you had a feeling that was so strong that it was undeniable that it came from God. Would that be enough evidence?"

You are engaging in circular logic here. There is no more reason to put ‘God’ in this question then the ‘Tooth Fairy’. You associate a strong feeling with God, and then invoke God as the source of your strong feeling.

I imagine Dr. Dawkins would simply, and rightly, dismiss your use of a ‘feeling’ as evidence.


Mike said...


I think you are right that Dr. Dawkings surely would have had an intelligent counter-argument. I'm not so conceited as to believe that the real conversation would have gone as I described my hypothetical, tongue-in-cheek one.

However, I think you are misunderstanding what I mean by "feelings". I tried to explain it, but perhaps it was inadequate. I'm not talking about the kind of feeling like "I'm feeling happy right now and I don't know why, therefore God must be making me feel happy." I'm talking about what we believers might call "revelation". The idea goes like this:

Dr. Dawkins surely would have to admit that God exists if God appeared to him and told him so. So, even though it is possible for our eyes and ears to be deceived by our own mind, in general we put quite a bit of confidence in what we see and hear. But what is seeing and hearing? It is only our brain processing messages that our sensory organs are telling it. So who's to say that's the only way we can sense what is true? Couldn't God, in his infinite power, cause similar inputs to be stimulated in our minds without seeing and hearing physically. So one moment and I can be sitting here and then God could cause me to know, just as surely as if I had seen or heard him. This is not the same as saying "I'm feeling happy."

Now, I'm not claiming to have had such a powerful spiritual experience. I have had what I believe to be spiritual experiences, but not to the extent that it would be the same as if I had seen God. Neither could I prove to you that they came from God and not from my own mind. However, to me my spiritual experiences serve as some degree of evidence. (Note that "evidence" is not the same as "proof")

So the point of my post is not to claim that my argument is without flaw and that Dr. Dawkins would not have intelligently countered it, the point is that I was surprised that no one even brought it up. No one even tried to challenge his premise: "Religious belief is not based on evidence." Surely there are people such as I that believe their faith is based (at least to some degree) on evidence (at least in some form). I assumed most religious people do, but now this anecdotal experience has caused me to wonder if many religious people really do have "blind faith".

Anonymous said...

I think the next line of argument would focus on rules of evidence. Our senses, and I include our emotions here, do not perceive ‘truth’ they only report on the environment around us. We interpret this based on our own ‘rules of evidence’. Our personal rules of evidence are likely more lax than if we were to present our evidence in some published journal. Speaking for Dr. Dawkins (with no authority to do so of course), I think he would argue that our personal rules of evidence should be more stringent.

We seem to be compelled to ‘know’ God’s existence. Given the nature of the evidence, and our own weaknesses in both perceiving and interpreting that evidence, doubt is natural. God knows that, and I believe expects us to harbor some doubt. That is, after all, what drives our inquiry.


Jeff G said...

Being an no-longer-beleiver myself, I find the second half of you post bogus for reasons already mentioned. However, I think the first half is spot on. Dawkins & co. treat faith in a far too limited sense, and that is why they will never have success in deconverting people, other than college students perhaps.

They say that we should only believe (have faith in) that which is supportable by evidence and logic. Of course the question to put to them is why we should believe (have faith in) THAT idea? No, religion is not well supported by evidence or logic, however this doesn't mean that there can't be other reasons for believing it nonetheless.

I don't like the definition of faith in that scripture. For example, I hope there is an afterlife and there is certainly no evidence for it at all, but all the same I don't believe that there is one for a second. Under the scriptural definition of faith which you provide from scripture, I have faith in an afterlife, something hoped for but not seen.

Instead, I think we should define faith in terms which give it the sense of moral importance which believers feel in their religious beliefs. Faith is a belief based in the perceived importance (perhaps moral importance) rather than in evidential or logical support. People have faith in X because they find a life without a belief in X unbearable for whatever reason.

If Dawkins & co. would engage this definition, they might have a little more success and maybe not sound so hysterical all the time. Sure, it's not as easy as simply yelling "There's no evidence, stupid!" over and over, but it seems a lot more responsible.

Anonymous said...

If you had evidence for your god, you wouldn't need faith.

Mike said...

"Our senses, and I include our emotions here, do not perceive ‘truth’ they only report on the environment around us. We interpret this based on our own ‘rules of evidence’."

I agree.

Jeff, if you don't like that scripture, Alma 32:21 adds the qualifier "which are true". (and this whole chapter is a good explanation of what I mean by personal evidence).

"People have faith in X because they find a life without a belief in X unbearable for whatever reason."

That might be good enough for some people, but it wouldn't be for more. I agree with Dr. Dawkins on the point that just because something makes us happy doesn't make it true or justify teaching it. And that's the question I'm getting at in the last paragraph of my post.

"If you had evidence for your god, you wouldn't need faith."

That depends on your definition of faith. In my opinion, faith is not just belief. Faith is a type of knowledge (see the scripture I quoted above) that is not based on physical evidence (but, as I argue, is still based on spiritual evidence). Of course, if you don't believe in God, I wouldn't expect you to accept that, since it's impossible to "know" something that isn't true.

Anonymous said...

…spiritual evidence
This is where a spiritually minded person and a scientifically minded person will never agree. I think Dr. Dawkins would accuse you of abusing the term evidence.

Scientists are human. When they conduct experiments and gather facts they feel an inner tug toward an outcome they personally favor. To be completely dispassionate is the goal, and it can be difficult. If the scientist is not careful he can be easy to fooled into believing the data is telling him whatever he wants it to. There is also the danger of only asking questions that you know will support a conclusion you have already made in your mind. The scientific method has evolved to provide this dispassionate framework. It can be frustrating to adhere to, and is often accused by those outside of science of being an obstruction to progress.

The hardest thing to do is withhold judgment because of insufficient data. We want answers.

The danger from ‘faith’ from the scientific stand point is that you already ‘know’ the answer and are only ‘seeing’ evidence that supports that answer. The evidence in use would not pass the scientific method. In fact it is seen as obstructive to truth. The harm is that once an idea is locked into such a mindset it will never be dislodged. Truth when it comes along will not find a home.

Thanks for the post. This has been an interesting discussion.


Mentat said...

Interesting post. I wonder, though, if "evidence" such as a divine appearance can really indicate final proof of God's existence. I think not. Certainly we have scriptural references to indicate that physical appearances of divine messengers (Laman & Lemuel being the most notorious example) do not necessarily change behavior or even core belief. We are quickly approaching the day when a physically convincing "divine appearance" could be fabricated via technology, perhaps slightly modifying Arthur C. Clarke's maxim to be "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from divine power." Internal, spiritual evidence has been, and always will be, the root of faith - a truism that can never really be debated, or even discussed, with a "true believer" atheist such as Dawkins.

Mike said...


That's a good point. I had thought of it, but Dr. Dawkins himself admitted that if God spoke from heaven, for everyone to hear, he would consider that proof enough (although I think he was joking). So I was basing my argument off of that, noting that from the perspective of a single person a booming voice from heaven is no different than a powerful, undeniable spiritual witness. However, you are right that even the booming voice might not be enough to prove his existence in a scientific sense.

DPC said...

What's interesting to me is that Richard Dawkins does not define what would constitute evidence of God. Would it be sensory perception aided by logic? Would it be reason unaided by sensory perception?

And if sight was the only evidence is it really all that useful. If I encounter something that I haven't seen before, I ask what it is. I didn't know what an okapi was until I had seen a picture. Without a picture, I wouldn't have been able to identify an okapi as an okapi if I happened to run into one.

If I was to encounter God, how would I know that it was Him, if I had never seen or experienced Him before and no there were no pictures of Him?

LifeOnaPlate said...

I personally like Givens' take on it. He basically summed up in words what I'd been feeling for a while. God can give us enough evidence to believe, and enough evidence to disbelieve. If we were given unequivocal evidence, we would be "forced" to know, and exalted or damned thereby. The beauty of faith (and this applies in scientific experimentation as well) is that you can have enough evidence to justify the continuing faith while at the same time know of evidence that may counter that faith. So we are pulled from either direction and made free to choose.

Mike said...

This idea of "choosing to believe" is something that I've read in this thread and comments elsewhere also. It doesn't sound quite right to me. Is having faith really just "choosing to believe" because we don't have enough evidence either way?

One of the points of my post is that we shouldn't believe in things (at least to the degree that most hold to religious beliefs) without enough evidence to lead us to that conclusion. But that evidence can be personal.

If I'm awake some night at 2am and happen to look out my window and see a red car drive by, and then the next morning the police knock on my door and ask me if I saw a red car around 2am, I can tell them I did, but I can't prove it. I have no evidence except personal evidence. As is said in the GC talk I linked to in the post, the most important witness for what is true is you.

I think the same is true of religious faith. Dr. Dawkin's argument relies soley on scientific evidence, and dismissed entirely the personal, spiritual evidence. So should the person who sees the red car at 2am not believe it's true since he has no way to prove it to someone else, scientifically, after the fact?

I'm considering doing another post on "what is faith?" (I know, that question has been asked like a million times, right?). But the more I think about it the more I think there is confusion (including myself) on what it really means.