This post by Nate had got me thinking about how I evaluate evidence regarding the existence of deities. Specifically, the post answered the following question put to him by a Christian reader:
“How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God[sic] we require inerrant evidence?”
Is that what people really require?
A good illustration of what I’m getting at is asking whether the sky is blue. Most people would say yes, even if we were indoors and couldn’t see the sky to make sure. On a cloudy day, or at night, people would still say the sky is blue. The reason for this isn’t because we’re all just guessing. It comes from repeated observation and not having any evidence to suggest the observation will change. Or, to put it even more simply, nobody has seen the sky change color.
The reason I used this example is because it’s a simple thing that most people don’t think about. Repeated observation and reliance on that observation ends up making this idea not a very big deal at all. It’s so mundane that if the sky did change color, people would notice immediately. Despite this, nobody goes outside to be ready for when the sky turns neon pink.
Philosophically, the question isn’t settled conclusively at all. If we were being strict about the whole matter, nobody could say with 100% certainty that the sky is blue at all times. Because we can’t be fully certain, I can’t tell anyone truthfully the sky will be blue tomorrow. Fortunately, people frequently don’t require absolute philosophical certainty to operate; reasonable certainty will do. In the question above, “inerrant evidence” is something that will lead to absolute certainty, and “[errant] evidence” is operating with the reckless abandon of reasonable certainty.
Who is ready to bet money the sky will be bright orange tomorrow at noon?
That’s what many Christians are getting at when the discussion of evidence for deities comes up. The bar isn’t being set at the same level for everything else. If atheists and other skeptics were really being fair, we’d say that allowing for reasonable certainty is okay.
Now, Nate took the option of arguing the point with the aim of showing that if you’re claiming that your invisible supernatural friend can do your laundry AND cure world hunger, we should see laundromats and soup kitchens closing pretty quickly. The same thing goes with arguing that there’s some being out there that is totally perfect. It really should be able to show people what it can perfectly do.
Sadly, there will still be people who think that’s a double standard, and that it shouldn’t exist.
That said, I’m okay with treating supernatural claims conceptually just like any other phenomenon. Indeed, the bar is just as low for deities as it is with the sky being blue. There still isn’t enough evidence to outweigh the natural explanations we have for a bunch of claims about the divine. I think this statement (also by the person who asked the question above) reflects the issue nicely:
“Your statement that all the billions of dead through history have remained dead is an assumption which you cannot prove.”
Religions make some really concrete claims, and Christianity’s biggest one is that someone came back from the dead after three days. Is it reasonable to think that one person managed to do this, despite the weight of the evidence suggesting people don’t come back? If we’re being completely fair, it’s just as likely that Jesus turned the sky bright purple for three days.
Am I really being fair here?
Despite being out of the faith for a couple years, that question still pops up in my head. For too long, I would have been the person trying to convince people that they’re not giving my deity a fair shake. I’d ask for fairness, and then I’d hold other people to the different standards I complained of. To call it embarrassing is a bit of an understatement.
The problem is that I’m being as fair as I can manage. No matter all the evidence I’ve been presented for deities, there are still many more proven natural phenomena which more than adequately explains it away. Fairness means taking everything possible into account. Nonetheless, I still remember years of indoctrination demanding otherwise.
Now that I’m free of that indoctrination, I don’t have to believe it.
And that’s just fine by me.