Evidence Explained (or, Why Apologetics Fail)

Webster’s defines “evidence” as – : something which shows that something else exists or is true, : a visible sign of something, : material that is presented to a court of law to help find the truth about something.  To put things in more scientific terms, evidence is that which can be demonstrated, tested, verified, and falsified.

This would seem to be a pretty straight forward idea, and to most people about most things, it is.  However, a strange thing happens when people hold to ideas which can’t be demonstrated to be true with evidence.  Suddenly the definition of what constitutes “evidence” changes or broadens to encompass any arguments or claims they can muster that seem to lend credibility to their position.  This widened criteriaa, however, is only applicable to their own strongly held belief and does not extend to beliefs that other people hold that they disagree with.  More on this later.

Apologetics is defined as – reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.  Bible.org gives the simpler definition as “the defense of the Christian faith”.

When I was a Christian, I was big into apologetics, and spent many hours reading books and watching debates from such notable personalities as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and others.  After becoming more familiar with the philosophy of critical thinking, logical fallacies, and the scientific method, I soon realized that there was something strangely missing from all apologetic works, both novice and professional: evidence.  Demonstrable, verifiable, empirical evidence.  Despite the common Christian claim that there is an abundance of evidence for their beliefs, I soon realized that this evidence is strangely absent from any work of apologetics I had ever come across.  What I did see over and over where justifications being substituted and passed of as “evidence”.  That’s what I want to talk about here; common apologetic tactics which are not “evidence” and should not be taken as such.

Arguments

Several years ago I served on a  jury.  Before the trial started the judge went over the rules and guidelines for how we determine a verdict.  One of the points that he made was that the opening and closing statements could not be used in out determination of a verdict.  There’s a very good reason for this – arguments (or argumentation), no mater how compelling, well thought out, or convincing, are not evidence. 

Apologists love their arguments.  The Cosmological Argument, Argument from Morality, Argument from Design, Ontological Argument, Pascals Wager, etc.  There are some problems with this however.

First, arguments can be used to show the plausibility of almost anything.  I’ve heard very convincing arguments for the existence of Bigfoot and the Yeti.  I’ve watched documentaries on how aliens are the only explanation for the how the pyramids of Egypt were built.  Many people are convinced that Hitler escaped Berlin at the end of WWII.  Does this mean that Bigfoot is real, Hitler is alive, or that aliens are responsible for one of the great wonders of the Earth?  Of course not.  Yet this same logic applies to apologetics – just because you can come up with a convincing argument for the existence of something does not mean it is “proof” of its existence.

Second, if arguments are not evidence, then fallacious arguments are even less so.  I’ve yet to encounter an apologist give an argument that wasn’t some form of a logical fallacy.   To use the example listed above, the Cosmological Argument is a classic “God of the Gaps” fallacy as is the Argument from Morality.  The Argument from Design suffers from many fallacies, most notably the Weak Analogy fallacy.   The Ontological Argument is a form of Circular Reasoning and Pascals Wager is an example of Begging the Question.  If anyone can find me a work of apologetics that doesn’t contain logical fallacies, I’ll buy you dinner.

Anecdotes/Personal Testimony

Christians love their personal testimonies.  Whether it’s at church, on social media, at music festivals, or in personal conversations, every Christian has a story about how God answered some prayer,  worked in their lives, or performed a miracle.  For many people, these personal experiences are the main reason for their belief in God.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Christian claim,”I’ve experienced him working in my life” as their “evidence” of God’s existence…

Personal experiences and anecdotes are not evidence, no matter how real or convincing they may seem to people.  There are several reasons for this.

First, when people use anecdotes as evidence, they are usually committing a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (post hoc for short).  The Latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this,” and it occurs whenever an argument takes the following form:

  • X happened before Y
  • Therefore, X caused Y

The reason that post hoc arguments are invalid should be obvious: the fact that Y happened after X does not mean that X caused Y.

Anytime someone claims that God answered a prayer, they are committing a post hoc fallacy.  When someone gives an emotional testimony about how they were an addict, criminal, all around shitty person, and then God miraculously changed their lives, they make the mistake of assuming that since they got better after accepting Jesus into their lives, that it was Jesus who changed them around.

Second, if one is going to admit anecdotes as evidence, then you have to admit all personal stories as equally credible.  That means that the personal stories of Muslims is proof of Allah, anecdotes by Scientologists are proof that their religion is true, and thousands of accounts of alien encounters are proof of aliens.  It is not hard to find very convincing stories by very credible witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens.  These people are so convinced of this that they are able to pass polygraph tests when questioned about their encounters.  Is this hard evidence that aliens are visiting earth and kidnapping people?  Most theists would say no, yet they would like to claim that their own stories are “evidence” of God’s existence.  This double standard is known as special pleading –  applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification.  You can’t attempt to argue that your experiences constitute as evidence and then try to discredit the experiences of other believers who disagree with you.

Lastly, anecdotes that affirm a position often ignore anecdotal evidence that contradicts the same position.  Theists can claim that prayer works only by ignoring all the times that it didn’t work.  You can claim that God got you out of addiction, but what about all the people who also reached out to God and are still addicts?  This is confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view points, and subsequently ignore information that goes against them, both positive and negative.

Luciano Gonzalez over at Patheos sums it up nicely:

“Your experiences are AT BEST reasons for you to believe. They are not (or at least they shouldn’t be) compelling evidence for other people that you want to convince you are right. If you are arguing that your experiences are compelling evidence, I want to know what separates your experiences from the experiences of others that somehow their experiences are not as convincing as yours, or are somehow inferior to yours in such a way that you know your experiences are true while knowing or believing that theirs are not (in cases when you share your experiences with people who disagree with you).”

*(For a more in-depth look at why anecdotes aren’t evidence, check out this article over at The Logic of Science blog)

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The Supernatural/Miracles

In a recent debate between Matt Dillahunty and Blake Giunta on the topic of the Resurrection of Jesus, Guinta made the argument that the most plausible explanation for the testimonies found in the Bible, and other sources of people encountering Jesus after his death, was that he had miraculously risen from the dead after three days.  He claims that the actual, physical resurrection is the only plausible explanation for how so many people could have had such similar and lucid encounters.  Remember how we talked earlier about alien abductions?

Miracles, by definition, are a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, thus making them supernatural.  David Hume characterized them as “a transgression of the law of nature” and were thereforethe least likely event possible“.  Yet, miracles abound in apologetics.  In fact, much of the foundation of the Christian faith, such as the Resurrection, prayer, and the divine inspiration of scripture, depend on the supernatural being a very real and active agent in this world.  Contrary to what many apologists think, science can test supernatural claims, and since the scientific revolution four centuries ago, we have learned that there is no supernatural realm.  Natural explanations have been found for that which was previously thought to have supernatural origins in every case that it has been studied.

Occam’s Razor states that when there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better.  Another way of saying it is; the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.  When it comes to the “evidence” produced by apologists for the existence of God, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always going to be more likely than a supernatural one.  Back to the debate mentioned earlier, when it comes to an explanation for all the witnesses who claim to have seen Jesus after he arose, there are many natural explanations – mass hallucinations, shared psychotic disorder, groupthink, legendary accretion, mistaken identity, false memories, etc.  No matter how implausible some of these explanations may be, they are far more plausible than the supernatural explanation of a bodily resurrection.  You cannot claim that the most likely explanation is the least likely event possible; a miracle.

One final note, the use of the supernatural by apologetics is another good example of special pleading.  If you are going to accept that the supernatural is real then you must also accept the supernatural claims made by other religions.

Awe and Wonder

“The evidence for God is all around us.  Just go outside and look around!”  Sadly, his kind of thinking abounds within Christianity –   people believing that the natural world is somehow evidence for their particular god-claims.  The Bible claims that God reveals himself through nature (Rom 1:20) and many take that to heart.  When asked for evidence of God, some have claimed that He  is “self-evident” in nature and that is all the “proof” they need.

This is similar to what we discussed above about anecdotes.  Personal experiences, including awe and wonder, are not evidence.  They are nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain that give some of us a pleasurable sensation when enjoying nature.  I say “some” because this is not universal.  Not everyone has the same feelings or experiences when being outdoors.

Also, the thing about nature is that it is natural and we have natural explanations for why it’s there, where it came from, etc.  No supernatural explanation needed.  A neighbor said to me the other day, “How can people look up at the stars and not believe in a God?”  My answer was, “Study cosmology”.  This isn’t to say that there can’t be mystery in the universe, but you don’t get to fill in your ignorance of the natural world with “God” and then credit that as evidence.

A common logical fallacy that falls under this category is an appeal to emotions – the use emotion in place of reason in order to attempt to win the argument.  This happens when someone attempts to manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.  This one is easy to spot; anytime someone makes of “feeling God in their heart”, or knowing that “the Holy Spirit is at work”, or feeling some sort of positive emotion and correlating them to a deity.

Absence of Evidence

This one presents itself in a couple of ways.  The most obvious is the classic argument from ignorance – when a proposition is considered true from the fact that it is not known to be false.  It’s common for people to argue that since you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, then he likely exists.  This line of reasoning could be used to support almost any claim: aliens, vampires, fairies, other gods, or a teapot orbiting the sun.  Ignorance about something says nothing about its existence or non-existence.

Another common argument is that, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.  The basic idea being that we can’t be sure something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it yet.  First of all; this isn’t entirely correct.  But more importantly, most situations which make very specific claims can test for evidence.  In these cases, a lack of evidence is evidence of absence.  Put simply – the absence of evidence, when evidence should be present, is evidence of absence.

Apologists often claim the “historical reliability of the Bible” as evidence for their God.  Yet, we’ve seen over and over that when evidence for very specific events, such as the Exodus and Israels’ forty years of wandering are investigated, no historical or archaeological can be found.  It is therefore more likely that these events never took place.  Many apologists would like to claim that just because evidence hasn’t been found, that these events could still have taken place, and we just haven’t found the evidence yet.  This is not rational thinking.  As Matt Dillahunty is fond of saying, “The time to believe in something is after evidence presents itself, not before.”  This goes for aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, and deities.  It’s completely reasonable to lack a belief in something as extraordinary as a deity if you know of no evidence to support such a claim being reflective of reality.  It is unreasonable to lack extraordinary evidence and still have an extraordinary belief.

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People will go to great lengths to justify unsubstantiated beliefs.  When these beliefs are challenged, things like “evidence” and “proof” suddenly take on a different meaning than they would in a normal, day-to-day, situation.  A good rule of thumb when debating an apologist is this – would this kind of reasoning hold up in a court of law or a science lab?  If not, then they are likely trying to substitute something else for real evidence, and have no solid case.  And as Hitchens famously said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  

Hope this was helpful.  Thanks for reading.

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