God new evidence

GOD: new evidence


Should faith need evidence?

‘Evidence by definition cannot support faith. That is the definition of faith… If you need evidence to support your religious beliefs it is not faith. Period.’[1]

I want to respond here to the claim of contemporary atheists that faith cannot have evidence, by definition. (I will leave aside the fact that it seems very odd for someone who does not share my beliefs to tell me what reasons I may or may not have for believing them. Perhaps deep down the person making this claim is afraid that there may after all be something in this God business...  Or perhaps they are just trying to do an end run round all the evidence that does point towards God’s reality. It does not matter. I do not need their permission to have good reasons for what I believe.) I think this claim shows a misunderstanding of what faith is, and this misunderstanding is what I want to examine.

Faith is not just a religious phenomenon

In the past, people often looked at faith as some kind of special gift (as in 'I wish I had your faith'). Today they are more likely to look at it as some kind of disease - a sickness of the understanding. It is neither.  Rather it is a universal human activity.

Everyone exercises faith every day. You exercise faith whenever you eat or drink, and whenever you sit on a chair. Faith is simply believing that something is true, and acting on that belief.  It is obviously a mistake to say ‘You can’t have any evidence to support your belief.’  We decide what we believe on the basis of evidence. This is just the way it goes.

How good is the foundation?

The question of evidence is central to faith, because your faith may or may not have a good foundation in the facts. If I get on a plane, exercising faith that it will fly me to my destination, if it is in good working order, the crew are competent, and so on, then my faith has a good foundation. If the plane crashes from 37,000 feet, clearly the foundation was not so good.

What is important is not my subjective experience of faith, but the reliability of the thing or person I put my faith in. The facts matter. The strength of feeling I have is relatively unimportant. Personally I am terrified of flying. Every time I get on a plane, I think it is going to crash. So far, I have been wrong... On the other hand, a frequent flyer with an optimistic personality could get on a plane without worrying about it at all. But the plane could still crash. The strength of someone’s faith doesn't have anything to do with whether it has a good foundation.  However, evidence has a key role in determining how good the foundation is.

Everyone’s problem

When it comes to thinking about God, faith is an issue for everyone. Atheists usually talk as if the issue is asymmetrical: religious people need faith. Atheists know better. This is nonsense. God's reality or otherwise is not so obvious that we can prove it beyond doubt. If it was, either there would be no believers, or there would be no atheists.  There is some evidence that points towards the existence of God. There is other evidence that points against God's existence (e.g. the problem of suffering). The question is - as the saying goes - 'under-determined by the evidence.'  That is why even Richard Dawkins has to admit that ‘Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being.’[2]  An atheist needs faith (that there is no God) as much as a believer needs faith (that there is). Evidence has a part to play for both the atheist and the believer. In this situation, both will appeal to the evidence. They may appeal to different evidence, and they may give different weight to competing evidence, but the process is the same for both.

So faith is neither a special gift, nor an epistemological illness. Nor is it a specifically religious issue. It is a universal human activity of believing that something is true and acting on that belief. Evidence has a key role in our believing or disbelieving something, or someone. Thus there really is not a problem with the idea that there can be evidence in support of what you believe.

David Couchman MA, M.Sc, M.Min, July 2010

[1] Comment on the ‘Why Evolution is True’ blog http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/theists-on-the-run/

[2] Dawkins, R ‘A Devil’s Chaplain,’ Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2003, p. 149

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