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Posted by on Nov 3, 2014 | 4 comments

There Is No “Evidence for the Existence of God”

One of my most intelligent childhood friends abandoned his Christian faith at age 20, telling me that he couldn’t find a single scrap of evidence for God’s existence.

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It would be an insult to both his friendship and his intelligence to call such a view ridiculous, and my friend is far from the only person I know who says such things. Besides, with religious belief (or its lack) a lot more usually goes on than rational weighing of probabilities. But it is probably worth something to show that the kind of God described by Christianity is not the kind whose existence “evidence” could ever prove or disprove – that it is rather like Othello demanding evidence for Shakespeare’s existence, or Harry Potter asking whether there is a magical spell so powerful it can reveal J.K. Rowling to him.

The Christian definition of ‘God’ is not that he is an invisible spiritual being who is extremely powerful and has the ability to produce stuff out of nothing, who once produced the Universe out of nothing and has been trying to keep it under control ever since. That kind of God is quite easy to disbelieve in, and I gladly declare my unbelief in him. He is also quite easy to imagine and understand, which should always be a warning sign for us. No, the Christian definition goes further back than that. The Christian God doesn’t live within our understanding of reality at all. He is the source of reality – the existence behind all other existence, far more real than anything else – spiritual or physical – ever could be. And it doesn’t make much sense to demand evidence for the existence of the source of existence. What kind of thing would count as evidence? You might say instead that you don’t believe existence has a source – that, unlike everything else science has led us to believe about cause-and-effect, reality itself is an effect with no cause.[1] But that is an assertion on the same level as the opposite assertion that reality does have a source – i.e., one that cannot be proven or disproven by scientific observation.

The whole debate about God is really in the field of metaphysics, not science. Metaphysics has had a hard time in the 20th century, having been dismissed with equal force by both the analytic and continental traditions of philosophy. But no matter how much people try to dismiss it or avoid talking about it, metaphysics keeps creeping back into the way they talk. This is because everyone wants their beliefs to be grounded in something ultimate, something unchanging, that can be firmly relied on no matter what may happen in the future. In short, we can’t live without belief in absolutes. Even if you make your own “ultimate” belief the claim that we can never know about ultimate things, that single claim is still the metaphysical structure that supports everything else you believe.

If the Christian God is real, then he is at once further away than the furthest galaxy and nearer to us than we are to ourselves. If he is real, then everything in creation shouts his existence. If he’s not real, then life is ultimately absurd and meaningless because at the heart of reality is an incoherent chaos of physical matter that doesn’t know why it is there.

Further Reading

Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Yale University Press, 2014.

 


 

[1] Nor does it particularly help to argue that, on that logic, God must also have a cause. Everyone agrees that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. The choice is whether the buck stops with the physical Universe – gravity, the speed of light, electromagnetic force, etc. are their own source of existence – or whether there is a single unified cause to them all which sustains them all in existence. It seems hard to say that the former is more rationally satisfying.

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Barney

Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Julian Perlmutter

    Thanks Barney! Two quick points (ill considered because I should be doing something else):

    (1) Theists usually cite some evidence for their belief that God is real; it’s just that such evidence is not usually the sort that’d be accepted in court, as it doesn’t obviously support the worldview (‘religious experience’ of some sort or another is perhaps the most common, as well as testimony). I.e., background epistemology needs to be done in order for us to be confident that these things count as evidence. But they are counted as evidence even if on insufficient grounds; if there could not, even in principle, be anything that counted as evidence for God’s reality, then large swathes of the religious lives that we find wouldn’t have got off the ground.

    (2) I know you’re not doing the cosmological argument in this post, but simply defining the God for whose existence that argument argues – but I’ll just say that it while believing in no ultimate cause is no more satisfying than believing in one, for me there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think the buck stops a stage further back – at God – rather than just at the universe itself. And, of course, even if there is an ultimate cause, it could well be completely impersonal.

    • Very good point, Julian. Thanks for adding your contributions!

      1. Indeed, it depends what you mean by ‘evidence’. Most positivists would reject anecdotal evidence or personal experience as being determinative. But practically, everyone makes daily decisions on insufficient evidence, considered that way, and seems none the worse off for it. Religious experience is peoples’ most common reason for adopting belief in God, and I would guess probably always has been. But the God revealed BY that experience claims to have these metaphysical properties. Therefore, the God revealed by that religious experience is not the kind of God who might be discoverable by means of scientific tests.

      The above literary analogy helps to clarify this. If Harry Potter ever did find a spell that enabled him to contact J.K. Rowling, it would not be because the spell has power over J.K. Rowling, but because J.K. Rowling has chosen to let that spell achieve that result. If Rowling appeared in a dream to Harry and said “I am the author of the book you are in” then Harry’s quasi-religious experience leads him to have to make a decision about something no amount of evidence could ever prove or disprove. But his experience nonetheless plays into that decision.

      2. You’re right that even if there were an ultimate cause, it could be impersonal. This is only the beginning of the Christian definition of God, and much more comes after. But given that large numbers of Western society haven’t even got that far,it’s worth laying the metaphysical foundations to enable further conversation.

  • Simon Aspray

    Clear and concise reasoning – a super piece of writing. Interesting that a thinker from the post-modern era should talk about absolutes this way!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Dad! I agree that postmodernism isn’t in the habit of talking in metaphysical terms. But modernism was equally against metaphysics, because modernism wanted to define “knowledge” as something that could be proved by repeatable experiment. The approach I am endorsing goes back behind both modernism and postmodernism. It doesn’t claim that we can ever be certain, but it does claim that we can have (what is worth calling) knowledge of absolutes beyond the physical world, even if that knowledge is ultimately based on faith.