Today, I’m going to take to task this silly idea that there is any evidence for God. Cliff notes version: If you think there is evidence for god, you’re wrong and you don’t understand what evidence is.
Wow, that’s a pretty bold statement, you say! Not really. No, it’s not even controversial, actually. The only controversy to this statement is by believers who are desperately trying to justify their belief. And a quick note on the word “proof.” Proof is a specific mathematical term that has nothing to do with demonstrating a hypothesis correct. However, I know it is often used in common language to mean “demonstrated to be correct.” But since we already have words for that, and because the word “proof” fails to take in account the concept of confidence in a conclusion (how sure we are of our conclusion) I’ll stick with evidence.
I’d also like to note that throughout this blog, I’ll refer to evidence as it is used in courts or in science. I don’t to this by accident, and yes, it applies here. If you wish to discuss faith, that’s another topic. Evidence is evidence, and since courts and science deal with evidence every day they have advanced the field. Evidence of the type used to burn witches at the stake are no longer admissible in courts because, as you may have noticed, it resulted in the wrong conclusion. So I’m relying on the experts here.
What is evidence?
The first thing to understand is that evidence is information that can point toward a particular conclusion. Information is completely useless as evidence unless it is reliable. Unreliable evidence is not evidence. This seems pretty obvious, but unreliable evidence is the basis for ALL arguments in defense of religion. As I go through these types of unreliable evidences, think back on every discussion about religion you have had on either side of the debate. Think about the specific information that was brought forth, and how that was used to substantiate the claim that followed. I’m here to tell you, it was useless evidence.
There are a few ways that evidence can be unreliable. One way is if the evidence is tainted. In the age of crime-solving TV shows this seems obvious, but it wasn’t always so. When we examine evidence for any claim, it is very important that the evidence is pure and untainted. How are religious “evidences” tainted? Usually by forgery. And to really understand forgery in the religious history, it’s helpful to know that until a mere couple hundred years ago, a book was essentially the notebook of today. It was hand-written, frequently copied by scribes, and often by illiterate scribes that just mimicked the letters.
Owners of these books thought nothing at all about scribbling editing notes in the margins, and having those notes copied into future editions. But these changes and mistakes pale in comparison to the intentional forgeries. A Roman historian named Josephus made mention of Jesus, calling him a wonderful man that is the messiah. Only he never did. The passage language doesn’t match the rest of the book, so it seems like an insert. The fact that Josephus never converted makes it pretty clear he didn’t write it. But the nail on the coffin is that for over 300 years the apologists of the day were busy scouring every shred of paper they could find to justify their belief in a real Jesus, including the available works of Josephus, but were unable to find any. Then one day, a dude called Eusebius, who inherited his books from another apologist, suddenly found in Josephus a super clear, super exited passage about this Jesus guy. Clear forgery. Hell, Christian writers back then knew it was a forgery. They said so. But this is trotted out as evidence. It is not.
Forgeries took many other forms, especially in the medieval church. Prosperous entrepreneurs “found” the bones of John the Baptist, or other such characters, and sold them for a nice profit. If you add up the mass of remaining John the Baptist bones still in existence today, it still amounts to dozens of skeletons, including four full skulls. The Shroud of Turin is a well-known forgery, not only because we’ve tested it, but because church leaders in the day called it a forgery. Until they changed their mind later, that is. But it’s a forgery. The list of church forgeries could fill volumes of encyclopedias, and I don’t have the time to list them all. But if you hear someone talk about a supposed object or writing that counts as evidence for Jesus, they’re wrong. And I don’t mean to leave other religions out, by the way, Jews and Muslims and Rastafarians and Hindus and all the other religions as far as I’m aware have some forgeries in their camp. Again, no genuine articles, all forgeries.
Another way evidence can be unreliable is if it isn’t specific enough to point toward a particular conclusion. Think of it like this. One of your neighbors borrows your lawn mower while you are away. You know this because it has moved, but also because there is grass all over it, and you put it away clean. The fact that there is grass on it can’t be used as evidence as to which neighbor borrowed the mower, because either one of them would get grass on the mower if they borrowed it to mow their lawn. And what if you have three neighbors, or four? Yeah, the information is useless as evidence.
An example of people actually using such useless nonsense as evidence is the “look at the sky, there must be a god” argument. So now our two neighbors are, on one side “god did it”, and on the other “natural processes”. Both could form a sky. Therefore, the “evidence” is useless. And we still haven’t accounted for our third neighbor “Vishnu”, and fourth neighbor “aliens.” And there’s lots more possibilities. Without pointing at any particular conclusion, this information is completely useless as evidence. But it never fails to show up any time a believer “feels” something or is the recipient of a stroke of good luck.
A big way that evidence can be unreliable, is simply the unreliable nature of the evidence! This is information that points to a specific conclusion, but because it is not reliable, we would be kidding ourselves to use it. Let’s say there is a murder trial, and we take 8 suspects and sit them around a table and spin an arrow in the middle of them. Let’s say you are one of the 8. Are you gonna let your guilt or innocence reside in where that arrow lands? Hell no! Because that’s unreliable as hell. It is information that most definitely points in a direction, but as evidence it is useless. But how do we determine how reliable evidence is? We test it, of course. Have eight of your best friends over, and tell one of them to steal a couple cookies without anyone else knowing. Place that one friend at a table with the other seven and spin the arrow. This exercise will clearly not result in an accurate result.
And to add complexity to the subject of reliability, some kinds of evidence results in more error than others, which means we can rank evidence for reliability. Eyewitness testimony, often trotted out in courts as a sort of nail in the coffin of a case, is notoriously unreliable. Numerous tests have been done on this, where individuals or groups were exposed to a scenario, and then questioned. Answers are all over the map. In another experiment, a class of college students witnessed a person walk in to the front door of the room, grab the instructors purse, and run out. Almost every student described the thief as tall, but since it was an experiment we know for a fact that the thief was quite short. They all got it wrong because the instructor, who was in on the ruse, mentioned in the moments before campus security arrived that she just noticed how tall he was. Do you realize what this means? The memories of almost every student in that class were altered by a dropped comment. How fallible our memories!
So, eyewitness evidence is only marginally reliable, and in fact it barely squeaks in as allowable as court evidence. What is more reliable? In somewhat of an order, documentation, recorded observations (video, audio, or electronic), forensic methods based on repeated and tested methods, blind studies, and evidence that leads to accurate predictions.
What is considered useless as evidence? Second-hand testimony or hearsay. If first-hand testimony barely squeaks in as admissible evidence, second-hand testimony is clearly out. Just ask any child that has ever played “telephone” if the message relays correctly. Gut feelings also don’t make the cut. The entire bible is at best second-hand accounts, and at the worst at least 4 generations later. The Koran, according to the devout Muslims, was written down by people listening to Muhammed (because Muhammed was illiterate) who was repeating stuff an angel said. The story IS an account of third-party documentation, and is known through third-party knowledge. What a mess. Mormons have a similar tradition, with the addition of translation to muck up the result. One thing is clear, no religious text passes even basic evidentiary standards.
Evidence to conclusion
A quick note on the conclusions of religious people that argue for their faith. If you don’t have reliable evidence, you don’t have a reliable conclusion. Back to our neighbors, I can believe all I want that Bob is the guilty neighbor. I can base it on the grass. I can base it on my cousin telling me that his friend has a sister that said they saw someone with a certain description using my mower. I can base it on a photograph that was taken 4 weeks before the mower was even used. But in all cases, it’s fairly possible that I could get the wrong conclusion. And I am therefore NOT JUSTIFIED in holding my conclusion, and the only honest thing to do is to abandon the conclusion until I get more evidence.
Religious people don’t do this. Once the evidence fades away, the belief remains. They struggle to believe so much that they seek out more information to use as evidence. But as I stated up front, there is no evidence for God. They therefore are latching on to useless information and pretending that it is evidence.
There are a few honest theists out there that realize the search for evidence is useless. They have only one remaining card to play. “Faith.” That’s a topic for another blog.
The Spartan Atheist