Oversimplification. The unbeliever, and the New Atheist in particular, thrive on it. The situation is no different when it comes to the strong demands for “evidence” in the context of apologetic debate. “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence” was the plea Bertrand Russell planned to use when he came face to face with God. I suspect it did not go over well.
Yet the loudest non-Christian voices among us continue to parrot Russell’s silly sentiment. It has even been given a name. The “evidentialist objection.” It is quite frequently captured in the contention that Christians should immediately provide skeptics with “evidence” for the existence of God. The assumption behind this alleged concern is that no one should believe anything without evidence. To quote philosopher W.K. Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” That is a marvelously strong claim. What reason does one have for thinking it true?
Probably none. In fact it is rather embarrassing that the quote need be provided, for it has been dealt with extensively in epistemology texts for some time now as a woefully inadequate requirement for rational belief. However, the principle is still hidden behind many unbelieving objections to the Christian faith. So it will not hurt to once again more closely examine the principle, and the argument it most often appears in, from a number of different angles.
The evidentialist objection might be stated as follows:
One cannot rationally believe something without evidence.
There is no evidence for the claim that God exists.
Therefore, one cannot rationally believe that God exists.
The objection can take many different forms. This is only one of them. Nevertheless, the points included in the following section should provide plenty of insight into how to best respond to an argument like the one above.
Rather than oversimplifying the task of answering the evidentialist objection a series of questions should be asked of the unbeliever in hopes of highlighting the following concerns.
1. Nature of Evidence
What is the nature of evidence that the unbeliever has in mind? Ask what sort of evidence it would take for the non-Christian to begin to believe that God exists. Often the unbeliever has not given this question very much thought at all. Or if he or she has, then the answer is rather arbitrary. Perhaps one unbeliever wants God to write a message in the sky, while another wants God to turn his or her computer desk into a monkey. And why should God submit Himself to either of these silly requests? Unbelievers are to come to God on His terms and not their own.
2. Self-Refuting Evidentialism
A self-refuting statement is a statement with a self-referential problem. A self-refuting statement not only refers to itself, but actually proves itself false! Remember Clifford’s claim that, “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”Clifford’s claim can be labeled with a “C,” so that C = “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Now, why should anyone believe C? Or more to the point, what evidence is there for believing that C is true at all? The claim is certainly not self-evident, and it is difficult to imagine what sort of evidence might be offered in its favor. So according to the requirements of C, C must be rejected. And that is something like the aforementioned idea of a self-refuting statement. God has implanted beliefs in human beings that are not obtained in virtue of evidentialism.
3. Universal Negative
A universal is something that is absolutely true at all times and places. It is notoriously difficult to demonstrate a universal negative (the claim that one “cannot prove a universal negative” is itself a universal negative which cannot be proven). But one might be able to prove that there are no square-circles. Likewise, one might prove that there is no elephant in the room. Given the logical impossibility of square-circles, and given the extremely limited context wherein one proclaims the pachydermian preclusion, it is safe to say that some universal negatives are demonstrable. Yet evidence for the existence of God is strikingly different, because evidence for God would be neither logically impossible nor limited to the context of individual, finite experience. In short, one cannot discredit every possible shred of evidence for the existence of God since one cannot so much as even examine every possible shred in one’s lifetime. According to Scripture, there is not only some evidence for the existence and nature of God, but the evidence is abundant and plain.
Evidence does not interpret itself. The presuppositions people bring to evidences ensure that those evidences are interpreted in a particular way. So, for example, someone who rejects “global warming” might believe that since the water and air temperatures have significantly cooled that the earth is obviously not getting any hotter. Someone who accepts global warming might counter that this is because the polar icecaps are melting. Perhaps someone more skilled in the sciences will come along and set both of the aforementioned characters straight! The point is that the background, experiences, evidences, inclinations, and the like that a person brings to the evidence actually serve to affect how one views the evidence. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, but happens repeatedly to different people at various times and places. It is impossible to jettison one’s presuppositions from an honest evaluation of the evidence, for those presuppositions constitute the very framework whereby one examines said evidence. The unbeliever has a deep hatred for the things of God, and hence he or she will strive to interpret any potential evidence for the existence of God through this spiritual, moral, and intellectual framework that is thoroughly ravaged by sin.
Truth be known, there are all sorts of beliefs that the unbeliever accepts on his or her own and apart from evidence anyway. For example, most people accept that other minds exist, yet there is zero evidence that this is the case. The same is true with respect to the principle of the uniformity of nature, or the premise that things will tend to go on the way that they have in the past. Such beliefs are just taken for granted, and are assumed to be rational, but they do not admit of any evidence in favor of their acceptance. So the unbeliever is a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to demanding evidence for the existence of God. Knowing God is every bit as basic as knowing oneself.
Probably most discussions between believer and unbeliever can be resolved by quickly stepping through this issue of so-called “evidence.” The nature of that evidence is very rarely ever discussed, the evidentialism underlying the shrill demands for evidence is fatally problematic, the assertion that there is no evidence for the existence of God impossible to substantiate, evidences are interpreted in light of presuppositions, and there are many common, basic beliefs that people hold without evidence anyway.
Merely giving into the unbeliever’s request for evidence without taking the considerations above into account is detrimental to one’s apologetic. There have been volumes written about Christian theistic evidences, but dumping them all on the unbeliever will blind him or her to the big picture. There are substantial problems for the evidentialist objection, and these should be pointed out before attempting to move the discussion forward with an allegedly evidentialist unbeliever. By all means be clear and have your evidences at the ready, but never give in to the temptation to oversimplify the matter.