What is the evidence for God? And should we believe in God even if there is no evidence?
The argument against God from evidence is based on a set of philosophical assumptions about the universe sometimes called Naturalism. And naturalists far from being particularly hard nosed and scientific can, if not well-versed in philosophy, employ circular logic to make their arguments.
Philosophy is a field where there is rarely one right answer. Rather, you have logically consistent frameworks that can be measured against one another and compared for their beneficial features. And ultimately, each individual must choose a framework or risk being logically inconsistent in their views. All rational inquiry from science to historical analysis depends on the philosophical stance of the person or group doing the inquiring. A person whose philosophy does not include anything beyond what they consider “natural” will explain all events in terms of natural causes. Thus, in order to find evidence for God you must be open to the possibility that such evidence exists, i.e., that not all events have natural causes. Otherwise, you are begging the question.
The first claim of the naturalists is that there is no evidence for God and therefore God’s existence is an unproved hypothesis so that agnosticism is the only rational stance. Evidence, I will define as data that can support a claim through the application of logic. Science typically prefers this data to come from experiment and to be repeatable, but we live in a world where some things just aren’t repeatable such as historical events. The origin of life and the origin of the universe are examples from the natural world. Repeatability is a luxury that hard sciences enjoy but is not a requirement, and assuming that the existence of God must be held to the standard of evidence of a law of physics ignores all the disciplines of science and rational inquiry that do not share that luxury.
So what constitutes data?
Data can be observed in the world through the senses. It can be recorded, such as in historical documents. It can also be self-evident premises such as “all human beings are mortal” or “the universe exists” or “a set is a collection of things”.
This is a point of view that is more expansive than the typical scientific definition of data, but a necessary one. Many moral and philosophical questions like what is right and wrong and what constitutes knowledge or truth are lacking any hard physical evidence for them. Indeed, the very existence of science itself has no evidence to back it up. It is a set of self-evident premises that we use to discover knowledge. Thus, to subject every claim to a supposedly scientific litmus test is self-contradictory and irrational.
Aquinas and others have given us a number of arguments in favor of the existence of God from philosophical premises. For example, there is the cosmological argument that says that everything that exists is caused by something, yet there must be a “first” thing that causes itself. That must be God. This causation does not necessarily need to be a sequence of events, as in one thing causing another thing to happen. Rather, it refers to causation in terms of providing the necessary conditions for something to exist within space and time.
Few deny the need for a prime cause. The argument is over what that prime cause is.
Naturalists contend that the universe or multiverse can be the prime cause. I think this is just semantics. The argument cannot go so far as to say anything about God, after all. It simply says there must be a primal cause.
There are other arguments that suggest that the universe, as an inanimate material cosmos, cannot be the prime cause. The cause must be a conscious thinking Being. For example, the existence of absolute morality, absolute logic, absolute any thing that is immaterial, requires a Mind that decides what is absolute. If you deny a conscious prime cause, then you are saying that all these things, including the logic upon which your arguments are based, are relative, byproducts of evolution.
This fully materialist point of view is self-consistent but completely at odds with how humans think about the world. It opens the door to horrific abuse if morality is relative, as in a social contract. For example, it enables one to imagine a world where anything, rape, murder, even genocide, is morally acceptable provided that society deems it so. You cannot object to another society’s moral standards because there is no absolute standard. Naturalists, however, must accept this point of view in order to be logically consistent.
Going from philosophical arguments to physical evidence, I think it is dangerous to connect scientific theories to the existence of God. Claims either that the Big Bang proves the existence of God or the lack of a beginning to the universe disproves God are both mistakes. They appeal to analogy with scripture or primitive prime mover arguments that require a beginning of time, but there isn’t clear evidence that the universe truly began with the Big Bang, that time had a beginning, or that such statements make sense in what could be a multi-dimensional multiverse.
For physical evidence of God, especially the Christian God, we have to turn to miracles. C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles is a fantastic perspective on them and absolutely worth reading for an accessible treatment of how to approach them philosophically. But briefly, I will summarize my take on them.
There are numerous claims of miracles, with the most prominent being the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. St. Paul rightly identifies this event as central to the Christian faith:
[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.1 Corinthians 15:14 NET
He doesn’t mean be Atheists of course but, basically, go back to waiting for the Messiah.
Miracles are historical events. They are inherently unrepeatable. Thus, what data we can glean from them is based on the accounts of those who witnessed them. The disciples of Christ who witnessed him risen from the dead were driven to start this movement which eventually became Christianity. Something clearly happened that made them believe this after their leader had been crucified, something very different than what had happened to the disciples of all the other “messiahs” the Romans killed. This is important if you accept the mere possibility of miracles because it suggests that indeed those who claimed to witness the risen Christ actually did.
Several miracles are mentioned in the New Testament performed either by Jesus or his apostles, and they are usually paired with a preaching of the Gospel and subsequent conversion of some and rejection by others. The miracles are clearly some kind of evidence of God’s favor or intention. Some of the miracles come with the fulfillment of prophecies or visions and are intended to direct God’s servants, such as the vision St. Peter had before the conversion of Cornelius in Acts. Some, such as healings, appear to be intended to supply evidence to people of God’s favor being with the person doing the healing. Whether you accept these or not, it is clear that the NT writers understood that seeing is believing. The Gospel story of St. “Doubting” Thomas who demanded to see the resurrected Christ before he would believe is a clear example of this understanding.
If the NT writers believed miracles are a form of God supplying evidence, it is clear that Christianity itself is not anti but pro-evidence. They were not, however, bound, like scientists, to the requirement of evidence as Jesus said to Thomas,
Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.John 20:29 NET
By context, this line applies strictly to the resurrection and Lordship of the living Christ at issue for Thomas, however, and not every claim of the miraculous.
Through the ages there have been quite a few accounts of miracles. It is hard to sift through those accounts that are part of a culture of superstition and those that may be genuine. Thus, one must make a personal value judgement on whether to accept them and which ones. Yet if you are a naturalist, you will reject them out of hand because your philosophy does not include them. If your philosophy is open to the possibility of miracles, you may find that some of these accounts are credible.
Besides miracles and self-evident premises, we have subjective data. This is data that comes from our own personal experience of the world. It is also not subject to scientific inquiry, not because it is not repeatable, but because it is not objectively communicable. Science has made quite a bit of headway in turning people’s subjective statements into understanding the nature of human consciousness. Yet, this subjective experience itself may constitute evidence for God. The reason is because our small consciousnesses, which appear within a material universe and are tied to our bodies, imply the possibility of a greater consciousness. In a universe where all physically possible things can happen over infinite time, there must be greater and greater minds than ours. The greatest of these is God. Hence, our own limited and imperfect experience of the universe implies an unlimited and perfect experience of the universe.
This is basically the “ontological” argument of St. Anselm.
There are a few other arguments but my point is that there is evidence for God. It just doesn’t look like hard scientific evidence.
The next question is whether we should believe in God without any evidence. Since I just pointed out that there is evidence for God, I have to be more specific as to what I mean. For that, I turn to the philosopher Betrand Russell’s teapot analogy.
Russell’s argument goes like this:
I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.
Russell’s teapot analogy fails on the philosophical basis that there is, actually, evidence for God simply from the existence of certain concepts like existence, rationality, morality, causality, and the universe itself. Nothing depends on the teapot, but everything depends on God.
In fairness, however, Russell may only be referring to the Christian conception of God versus those held by other religions. That is, Russell is saying that there is no way to distinguish by evidence between the various claims on God that different religions have. This is a valid point.
Many solve this conundrum by asserting that many paths lead to the God whom we, by philosophical arguments, infer must exist. Even C. S. Lewis dabbled in this belief system in his Narnia novel, The Last Battle, where Aslan saves a man who thought he was worshiping another (evil) god but was actually doing good deeds in Aslan’s name.
This idea is increasingly popular in our multicultural world but from a Christian perspective rejects the very premise of Christ’s mission to save people through Himself and the Spirit.
The singular pathway to salvation is, however, problematic when it comes to small children, uncontacted people, or people who lived before Christ. Does God make exceptions for them or provide an alternative way to Christ? Perhaps so. The church has struggled with this question for centuries with a variety of answers from condemnation to Hell of all those who are not baptized believers to universal salvation, even for humanity’s worst offenders.
I think that we can, however, assert that a perfect God offers both perfect justice and perfect mercy. We don’t need to worry that a person will be unjustly condemned or not be offered a chance at salvation. The problem is rather before those who have been offered the gospel but have not yet come to accept it.
For them, the story of doubting Thomas suggests that, if they ask for evidence, they may get it.