Is It Fair to Expect Inerrant Evidence For Deities?

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

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.

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22 thoughts on “Is It Fair to Expect Inerrant Evidence For Deities?

  1. I sort of have a problem with lumping all these things together:

    ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law

    Simply because for a lot of these things there are matters for which there is an opinion or personal preference that doesn’t require evidence and only personal truth. Particularly when it comes to relationships. Politics…well I do try to base my political views on scientific evidence. I think the justice system should, and does in many instances, revolve around scientific evidence. History does have a methodology which is rooted in the scientific process even if it isn’t an experiment we can run again, but all history therefore does have some uncertainty, because records are lost, erased and rewritten by victors, contains bias etc. The bible is the perfect example of that. But I don’t think any atheist cares whether a person makes a decision for themself that only impacts themselves based on non-inerrant evidence. My problem is when that decision impacts others. You want to make a decision to deny gay people equal rights because of your religion, then I do have a problem with this decision based on non-inerrant information. I honestly couldn’t give a flying f**k whether someone wants to believe in God, but if they now want that God to be taught to children in school, I have a problem. The guy who doesn’t want to be accept the historical evidence for the holocaust is not a problem with me until he starts convincing others or using his views to oppress Jews. Then his decisions based on non-inerrant evidence is a problem.

    There is a great deal that science has to say about law, ethics, and morality and of course not even science can get to truth perfectly. But for religion to have to compete they have to show they can do it better. As you excellently point out, the weight of evidence does matter. Anybody can make a decision, but usually decisions made on more complete data turn out better.

    One important thing people forget about science is that really what we’re doing is creating a model that we hope will be predictive. How predictive is your non-inerrant evidence compared to my non-inerrant evidence. The move from the geocentric theory to the heliocentric one which even had numerous revisions is a great example of how science works because they knew the model wasn’t quite right when it didn’t accurately predict where the planets were going to be.So if we’re going to say that prayer works, then put it to the test. Show that it is predictive.Pray that the sky will turn orange tomorrow at noon, and I’ll use empirical observations from the past to make predictions about the future and we’ll see who wins.

    By the way I know I’m preaching to the choir here I’m just putting in my thoughts. 🙂

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    • You’ve kind of hit on an idea I’ve been toying around with for a while now, and that’s using better phrasing to describe why I find some evidence persuasive over others. Generally speaking, the byword is “science,” because its got those connotations of being authoritative. Personally, I don’t like saying I rely on scientific thinking when I mean empirical observation or just anecdotal observation.

      It all boils down to the reliability of knowledge. I didn’t get too much into it above because it’s its own rabbit hole of knowledge. That said, being able to make reliable predictions about the future is infinitely more useful to people than winging things as they come along.

      Of course, some theists might argue that calling my knowledge reliable is too conclusory or filled with assumption, but I think this is the real discussion we need to be having about all of this. I am saying that knowledge based on facts independent of perception is more reliable than religious knowledge. Not only that, but it gets demonstrated every single day. To believe otherwise is to put the minuscule chance of a resurrection at higher value than the billions of other cases where people haven’t come back at all.

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  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Sirius! I really like how you summed up my argument (wish I had made it this concisely to begin with):

    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.

    I’m also glad that you focused on that comment that we can’t prove dead people always stay dead. It’s a perfect illustration of how believers and non-believers can often look at the same data, but obviously approach it from completely different directions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As far as a great many Christians go, it gets worse.
    Some believe in evolution. Some don’t.

    Those that do, generally have a dim view of their Creationist cousins and nothing but outright disdain for Young Earth Creationists.

    Yet the same ones who will scoff at their Creationist/ID brethren,who might quietly smile behind their hands at those who consider the Jewish foundational myths as real historical events, go out of their way to convince anyone who comes within earshot that Jesus of Nazareth was a genuine historical character who died and rose from the dead after three days and, just by the by also consider him to be the Creator of the entire Universe. And they see absolutely nothing wrong with this at all.

    These people need to be taken to task as much as Creationists.Possibly more, as they continually try to inveigle themselves within mainstream science in an attempt to gain an air of respectability they most definitely do not deserve

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s all cut from the same cloth, Ark. Regardless of whether it’s pseudo-science or just fancy word salads, the conclusions being asked of the rest of us are going to be incredulous. Pointing them out is going to be critical whether it’s someone claiming resurrections are real or claiming that dinosaurs couldn’t fit on an ark.

      But because people wrap their faiths around different things, each one has to be dealt with individually. It’s very much like the common cold. We can’t develop a cure because of how many different mutations it undergoes. In the end, we just have to do what we can to face it.

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    • I’ve know many christians who claim to be empiricists…I find it an odd angle to take, but many hard core believers nonetheless claim that title. For example, in claiming that jesus rose from the dead, they say there was observable evidence for the incident recorded in the good book. As an atheist this has made me rethink my own claims of being an empiricist…it’s something that is too easy to manipulate to either point of view.

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    • I’m terribly sorry, I was thinking of RATIONALISM, not empiricism in my other comment. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet and my thinking is a bit muddy. I definitely see myself as more of an empiricist than a rationalist now, and you are correct that religion and empiricism don’t intersect.

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    • While some Christians might not make claims that can be empirically tested, other Christians do. When those claims are made, it’s entirely reasonable to evaluate them with empirical evidence. So, while people might not be able to measure and collect physical evidence for a person’s love for Jesus, they can measure and collect physical evidence relating to resurrections.

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  4. .”..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?”

    Well, the claim of a god includes that god is an inerrant being. A being who can do anything, and wants us to know of his existence. So I think it’s reasonable to expect that if this claim is true, the evidence should be stronger than in other areas, since there’s no claim of an inerrant source for knowledge in things like politics or law. Yet the evidence is always much weaker, and there’s always goalposts moved and excuses given for why we don’t have good solid evidence in favor of the hypothesis. Any real god could simply do a better job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even with a lowered threshold for evidence, there’s still nothing that overcomes common observation. This is getting to me more and more, because I keep getting told how obvious it is that there’s this perfect deity out there willing to grant my stupid wishes (or give me a nice car in the afterlife).

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