Not enough evidence?

When asked what he would say if upon death he found himself in the presence of God, Bertrand Russell famously replied that he would complain about the lack of evidence for His existence in this life. It is a common enough skeptical objection: if God really wanted people to come to a saving relationship with Him, why didn't He supply more obvious evidence of His reality?

It sounds plausible at first, but there are quite a few situations in which people have all the evidence they need to make an important decision, yet fail to act upon it.

Take smoking for example. The medical evidence is unanimous that smoking is a horrible habit and that it destroys your health, and often leads to deathly cancer. And this evidence is everywhere, printed on every single carton of cigarettes sold at legal outlets. The would-be smoker and the one who already smokes are both inundated with this evidence wherever they go. There are, to be sure, advertisements which make smoking out to be a 'sexy', alluring habit, but it's hard to believe that anyone really thinks that the social advantages of smoking mitigate against the disastrous medical consequences.

So if bountiful, clear evidence was all people needed to make the right decision, no one would smoke, or at least smoke for very long. But of course millions of people continue to smoke, often for their whole lives, and continue to get sick and die from it. What good was all that evidence to them? It seems that people find ways to rationalize away even the strongest evidence for a course of action they are not willing to undertake. When people break the habit, it is usually not because they have suddenly come across all the medical research detailing how harmful smoking is, but because they reach a critical moment in which the truth they had been suppressing suddenly dawns on them. It is more about a transformation of the will than the intellectual accumulation of evidence.

I am still sympathetic to those whose intellect gets in the way of embracing Christianity. I experience the anguish of the 'not enough evidence' protest often enough myself. Am I really supposed to radically commit myself to a worldview that promises discomfort and conflict in this life, when I am not 100% sure that it is true? But then I get to thinking, what if I and everyone else are more like smokers than we care to admit? What if for some reason we just don't want Christianity to be true, so that we would rationalize away even the strongest, clearest evidence for God's existence?

I don't know that the above considerations actually strengthen the evidential case for Christian theism, but at the very least they should give pause to those who press the 'not enough evidence' objection too far.


Ken Pulliam said…

I don't think the comparison with smoking works. Every smoker I know would like to stop and they all acknowledge that it is damaging to their health. It is an addiction which is not easy to break.

The evidence for God is much different. First, it is not scientifically demonstrated as the harmful effects of tobacco are. Second, the evidence can be interpreted in different ways meaning that it is somewhat ambigious. Third, the evidence for a supernatural being does not equate to evidence for evangelical Christianity. One could accept the evidence for a God and still not be a Christian. One could even accept the resurrection as evidence for Christianity and still not be "saved." They may have a faulty soteriology. So there are many steps one has to take to get to the "right" place and the evidence leading one there is pretty murky.
Anonymous said…
Hi Ken,

The analogy isn't perfect, and there are cases like you mention, but that doesn't explain why people start smoking in the first place, given all the evidence they have of how harmful it is. It is clear that factors other than rational consideration of the evidence lead one to begin smoking, and then keep smoking.

I agree that God's existence is not scientifically demonstrated. My point was that even if it was, people would likely find ways to ignore it, just as creationists for example find ways to ignore the evidence for evolution. I think this qualifies the 'not enough evidence' protest quite a bit. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man comes to mind. The rich man insists that if someone were to rise from the dead, his family would believe and repent. Abraham, however, replies that if they did not pay attention to the evidence they did have (Moses and the Prophets), they wouldn't be persuaded by someone rising from the dead either.
The point is a lot more complex. The atheist assertion the evidence isn't good enough is based entirely upon their refusal to accept the perimeters of evidence that theists accept. We have two different worlds going.

Atheists think about the Question of God as just adding a fact to the universe. It's just one more thin, scinece is the only form of knowledge, if there is no absolute scientific proof so strong they can't argue whit it then it's not proved and it's worth thinking about because the only form knowledge has to be absolute and obvious. They want to be totally and utterly forced to believe by the power of absolute proof.

God is not just adding a fact to the universe. The God embedded universe is not just a universe exactly like the atheists except it has God in it. It's a universe where subjective human experience is the only form of human experience, where science is not the only form of knowledge, where inner life counts too.

I've made posts here before on the issue that God doesn't want to be obvious. God wants you to search for him because that's the only way to internalize the truth of the good.

The smoking analogy is not satisfying to me but I can see how it is apt in many ways. The addiction aspect doesn't quite fit because some smokers want to quite and just can't. But atheists are socialized into a cultural construct through which they are, for want of a better term, "brain washed (socialized) by an ideology. The problem it's not analogous to addiction because they don't want to quite.

It is analogs to smokers who don't want to quite. Atheists don't' want to believe. Some struggle with belief and maybe they do half want to believe, but their would be belief is conditional upon finding the truth but only if they get it their way meaning, so totally proved they can't argue with it.

That is a trick of sin nature because it's an excuse not to view the good evidence (of which there is a ton) in a positive light. That is the glass half empty syndrome.

God is obvious to anyone who is willing to accept the search and truly diligently searches. Because belief in God is actually a realization about one's own relationship to being.
Erich Oliphant said…
I think the analogy here is not especially valid. First, as has been admitted there's a mountain of scientifically validated evidence for the harmful effects of smoking. For this analogy to have legs one would expect similar evidence for god.

In addition, I don't think the point about smokers themselves holds as I don't think you see too many smokers who make claims contrary to the evidence (eg. that smoking is ultimately bad for your health). Rather, it's I accept that evidence but I enjoy (or am mildly addicted,etc ) smoking. The equivalent would be an atheist saying "oh I know there's plenty of validated scientific evidence for god, but I enjoy my disbelief". In fact, when you think about it. How would that even work?

To claim that people wouldn't believe despite the evidence in the absence of such evidence isn't really borne out here as again, smokers by and large are not making claims contrary to the evidence.

To the refrain re: the 'different' evidence for God, as soon as one can demonstrate how the evidence for god can't be confused with one's imagination, self-delusion, etc, perhaps one could make a case.

Similar claims are made regarding aliens, alternative medicine and of course, religions other than the one you happen to believe in ...

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