I had hoped to write “Thoughts on Immigration, Part 2” today, but I worked last night and I missed the early bus, so I’m really tired. Instead, I hope you enjoy this first part in my series on the evidence for the existence of God.
What can be evident about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse. Romans 1:19-20
Is there any evidence for the existence of God? Yes.
It’s become common for some atheists to insist that there’s no evidence for God’s existence. They claim that any argument or evidence theists have put forth over the preceding centuries for the existence of God have been sufficiently answered by the advances of human knowledge, especially in the sciences. Remarkably, some even claim that they don’t have to address such evidence, because any evidence for God’s existence is intrinsically inadequate. This is basically arguing that God doesn’t exist because God doesn’t exist. On his “Pharyngula” blog, biology professor P. Z. Myers insists, “There is no god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let’s stop pretending that the believers have a shot at persuading us” (October 9, 2010). Steve Zara, custodian of the “Ask the Atheist” blog, wrote the following in a guest column for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, entitled, “There can be no evidence for god,” July 30, 2011: “We [atheists] should make it clear that all arguments that lead to gods are wrong because they lead to gods! God is a singular mistake, a philosophical division by zero, a point at which the respectability of arguments breaks down. God is out of the question, the ultimate wrong answer.” But, this is nothing more than a propaganda ploy, a slogan to support the claim that theists rely entirely on blind faith, whereas atheists rely entirely on rational thought. It’s not enough to simply insist that there’s no evidence for God’s existence. To be credible, atheists must address the evidence that theists put forth for God’s existence. Dismissing such evidence out of hand is a poor attempt to shut down the conversation rather than contribute to it.
The strategy today among many new atheists is one of aggressive hostility. They’re not merely a-theists, but anti-theists, for they see faith not merely as the misguided superstitions of individuals, but as a force that’s generally harmful and destructive to the human condition. Faith, and especially its practical embodiment, religion, must not simply be dismissed as foolish and erroneous, but must be actively opposed as dangerous and pernicious. “I think religion is the most dangerous and divisive ideology that we have ever produced. It is also the only ideology that is systematically protected from criticism, both from within and without,” said Sam Harris (that second sentence is interesting, considering the money Harris has made selling books criticizing religion). In his magnum opus, God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens allows that he wouldn’t prevent believers from practicing their religion, though he doubts believers would grant him the same courtesy: “As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different way planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.” (emphasis in original). Hitchens apparently convinced himself that believers were as consumed with thinking about how to get rid of him as he was thinking about how to discredit them.
Faith in God is claimed by others to be the holding on to childish or even vulgar superstitions. In his December, 2014 Salon.com article, “Religion’s smart people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith,” author John G. Messerly points out that really smart people rarely believe in God. Messerly claims that only 14% of professional philosophers and an even smaller 7% of scientists believe in God, though he fails to address the question of why he regards such people as smarter than others, or if intelligence correlates with common sense. Indeed, in her three-part series for the Skeptic website, “Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational” (July, 2015), Barbara Drescher, former professor of quantitative and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge, writes, “[Intelligence] is an important component of rational thought, too. But it is not the same thing as rationality and, without rationality we don’t make the kinds of choices that solve real problems.” Intelligence is not the same as rationality. To be sure, really smart people can do really stupid things and come to really stupid conclusions. This hardly stops Messerly, however, who concludes that there are simply no reasons to believe in God, and those who do, do so without evidence. Apparently, simply stating this makes it so, since Messerly never bothers to address the evidence believers present for God’s existence. Messerly writes, “Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk. If religious beliefs are just vulgar superstitions, then we are basing our lives on delusions, and who would want to do that? Why is all this important?,” Messerly asks, eager to explain why it’s necessary that humanity abandon faith in God. “Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.” Beyond wondering why Messerly writes of humanity in the third person, as if he somehow stood outside the tribe, I’m forced to wonder in what world Messerly resides. To suggest that religious believers, especially those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, fail to face the world as it is, or have failed to contribute to making it better, is a genuinely remarkably obtuse statement, considering the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition versus the history of atheistic regimes. It may be useful for atheists to redact history to the point where everything the Judeo-Christian tradition contributed over the course of the centuries was torture, violence, intolerance and horror, but the historical record as it stands will not allow this conclusion. Hospitals, parochial schools, colleges and universities, charities that serve the poor – all of this is to be dismissed out of hand, or twisted in a way that they represent only another opportunity for religion to oppress the masses. As well, dismissing the horrors of atheistic Communism, or the anti-Christian campaigns of National Socialism and Fascism may serve their agenda, but history has a way of not staying settled, even as the obscurantists try as hard as they might.
Another common strategy for atheists arguing the horrors of faith is to reduce all religions to the common denominator of belief in God or gods. Whether one is a member of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or a believer in Zeus and the gods of Olympus, makes no matter. One is simply as ridiculous as the other. Also, whether a religious tradition has contributed much to the advancement of human progress and education, or employs its doctrines and mores to oppress certain members of society depending on creed, gender, social status, etc… again, matters not. All religions are equally morally corrupt and the propagandists of moral horrors and human backwardness. Finally, whether one’s religious tradition has made historical gains in moral refinement and adaptation, or contributed to the moral progress of the human community matters not. All religions are corrupt and bear the responsibility for every immoral act ever committed by any member of any era. In fact, the supposed moral progress religion has contributed to society (abolition of slavery, Civil Rights, labor reform, etc…) can’t legitimately be credited to religion at all, but is the result of humanity maturing away from faith and toward a more humanistic philosophy. This is all rubbish, of course, but it’s useful rubbish for those whose agenda is to discredit all people of faith, regardless of their tradition and the contributions of their tradition. All religion is corrupt, and all religions equally so. All people of faith are delusional and must be encouraged to “leave their childhood” and abandon such “vulgar superstitions”.
Still another tack employed by today’s aggressive atheists is the notion that religious faith is a mental disorder. “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly,” Richard Dawkins contends, “that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” The philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, “The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight – that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must be turned into a symbol of something less concrete or abandoned altogether” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 18, emphasis added). It seems that believers in God suffer from mental illness or delusion. Why, then, should their arguments for the existence of God be taken seriously? Rather, any attempt to dispute the evidence for the existence of God is to take faith and religion seriously. This can’t be done. Theism must be opposed as irrational and insidious, as the “moral hazard,” Steve Zara calls it in the same column cited above. Sam Harris put it most succinctly, and most chillingly, when he wrote, “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it might be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Well, at least he said might. Presumably the verdict is still out. I hope Harris isn’t on the jury.
But opposition to the idea of considering evidence for the existence of God doesn’t come only from atheists. There’s also a long and unfortunate tradition among some Christians that relying on or looking to evidence for God’s existence, either in philosophy or in Creation, evinces a lack of faith. We shouldn’t be concerned about supporting our faith in God with evidence from philosophical arguments, or even from the world He created. Rather, our faith should be a pure, simple faith in God and in the revelation He has given us. To look for evidence for God’s existence, then, is contrary to faith. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?” Tertullian, the second century theologian, asked rhetorically. Athens, the capital of philosophy, and the Academy, the champion of human studies, has nothing to offer the Church, Tertullian claimed, because the Church relies solely on faith. Philosophical arguments, and even evidence from Creation, are unnecessary. Faith in God’s revelation is all we need. Only a small minority of Christians have held this view, however, and the Catholic Church has never subscribed to it. The Catholic Church has a centuries-old tradition of philosophical reasoning on the question, and of seeing in both human experience and in the physical world that God has created evidence for His existence. This is a favor God has granted us as a support for our faith. In writing of idolaters and those who reject the glory of God, St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse…” (Romans 1:19-20). St. Paul certainly held that the existence of God could be known through His Creation and that, because of this, those who deny His existence or refuse to extend to Him the worship He deserves have no excuse for doing so.
For most people, though, including most atheists, the question isn’t whether or not there’s any evidence for God’s existence, for there’s an abundance of evidence. The question is whether or not the evidence is convincing.
When atheists claim that there’s no evidence for God, they almost always mean that there’s no scientific evidence for God’s existence. By this is usually meant that there’s no evidence of God’s existence that can be tested or measured according to the scientific method. The scientific method, first established in the 17th century and since continually revised, includes a number of steps by which physical phenomena can be tested and measured in order to gain knowledge, or correct past misinformation, about the natural world. These steps are:
Question – a question to be answered based on research in a field of knowledge.
Hypothesis – a conjecture or explanation that can be tested.
Prediction – a prediction of how the testing of the hypothesis will play out.
Experiment – a test to determine whether the hypothesis is correct.
Analysis – assessment of the data to determine whether the testing did, indeed, turn out as predicted so that the hypothesis can be accepted (or rejected if it didn’t turn out as predicted).
In addition to these five steps, the scientific community expects certain things of experiments before it will place confidence in either accepting or rejecting a hypothesis. These are:
Replication – an experiment ought to be reproducible, with the same outcome.
Peer Review – the experiment is reviewed by (hopefully) experts who aren’t invested one way or the other in the outcome, to catch any mistakes in the original experiment.
Data Recording and Sharing – the data along every step of the process should have been recorded, and that date and results shared, usually by means of publication in a peer reviewed journal.
Critics accuse those who demand evidence of God’s existence that can be measured by the scientific method of scientism, that is, the tendency to reduce all legitimate knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. Adherents of scientism, if you will, insist that if science can’t get to the bottom of something, then it’s not real. Believers, as well as historians, attorneys, and many scientists other than physicists, will argue that there are a great many different kinds of evidence than that provided by the scientific method. Our judicial system relies on evidence that isn’t always physical evidence, so it can’t always be tested or measured, though it may be corroborated by physical or other types of evidence. Testimonial evidence, the oral statements of witnesses, is held in high regard by our courts, as is documentary evidence. Statistical evidence is used to support the probability of events, or the superiority of one position over another. Even circumstantial evidence has its place when little other evidence can be found.
The notion that the only knowledge in which we can have any confidence is knowledge attained by the scientific method is, first of all, a poor attempt to define the terms of the argument too narrowly and, second, clearly false. I don’t need to use the scientific method to know that my mother’s maiden name was Grant, that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, that I’m allergic to poison ivy, that the Moon orbits the Earth, that Michelangelo sculpted the Pieta, that the oldest confirmed human archeological site in the Western Hemisphere is at Pedra Furada in Brazil, that Mount Everest is taller than K2, that the number of babies born in the local hospital in any given year will roughly equal 50% girls and 50% boys, or that the Great Smoky Mountains are the habitat for one of the largest varieties of plant and animal life in the world. All of these facts can be known by methodologies other than the scientific method: oral testimony, documentary evidence, personal experience, carbon dating, mathematical measurement, statistical evidence, or simple observation and comparison. Furthermore, the scientific method is completely useless in attaining or confirming whole chunks of knowledge and information accessible to humans. What is the distance in miles between Austin, TX and Knoxville, TN? What is the number one selling song in the pop-rock era? How did the Bantu come to dominate sub-Sahara Africa? What characteristics apply in assigning a painting to the Romantic versus the Impressionist period? What cultural/historical determiners contributed to the adoption of the Germanic language family by inhabitants of the English Isles? What is the recipe for angel food cake?
Can the scientific method be useful in measuring the effects of God on the world? If a miraculous healing is claimed, can science be useful in verifying the healing? Can scientific inquiry verify that the universe had a beginning, or the cosmological constants that so often mystify adherents of the anthropic principle? Of course! But, this is far from the notion of science proving or disproving the existence of God Himself, or of finding proof of God by way of the scientific method. Eric Metaxas, Evangelical author, in a Christmas 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Science increasingly makes the case for God,” argues that the odds for the emergence of life in the universe, as suggested by current scientific knowledge, are so small that the existence of life cannot otherwise be explained except to conclude for the existence of God. Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, writing for The Catholic Thing website, insists that Metaxas has it all wrong. “God is not a scientific hypothesis,” Beckwith claims. The evidence from science that seemingly points to God today may tomorrow be overcome by further scientific research that explains the rise of life in a purely naturalistic way. What then? Does God suddenly not exist because science has filled the God of this gap? Nonsense! The late professor of physics and astronomy, Victor Stenger, made exactly the same mistake Metaxas makes, only from the opposite direction. Because Stenger could find no measurable evidence for God’s existence, he concluded God did not exist. Stenger was a materialist who expected that everything that exists could be shown to exist by measurable testing. Apparently, even the “immaterial soul” was subject to such measurement (God, the Failed Hypothesis, p. 84). Simply put, we won’t find God with the scientific method because God isn’t a being, just one reality among many. Rather, God is Being. God is Existence. What’s more, God exists outside the created order. How could it be possible to measure a Being Whose existence is outside Creation? Beckwith is correct in saying that philosophy is the place to start all inquiry into natural theology.
At the same time, this doesn’t entirely preclude the evidence from observation, which comes closest to Metaxas’ thesis. Beckwith himself acknowledges that the contingency of the universe is a strong argument for God’s existence. Yet, we understand the universe to be contingent at least partly by virtue of our observation of it. The so-called “fine-tuning” argument (that life in the universe is possible only because certain universal fundamental physical constants fall within a narrow range and the most infinitesimal change in any one constant would make life impossible) is not proof for the existence of God. Nevertheless, it’s evidence that the emergence of life in the universe is so remarkable that one may legitimately wonder at the likelihood of a Creator. There is a difference between evidence and proof. Evidence doesn’t always rise to the level of proof, but that hardly discredits it. Such evidence may still provide substantial support for concluding in favor of God’s existence. Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, former president of Gonzaga University and current president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith, demonstrates the role both science and philosophy play in our search for evidence for God in his excellent book, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.
In considering whether or not it’s possible to prove the existence of God, Peter Kreeft, Boston College professor of philosophy and convert to Catholicism, offers some guidelines. First, there’s the question of whether a thing exists or not, and the fact that something can exist without our knowing it. Second, there’s the question of whether or not we know that something exists, and the fact that, in order for us to have knowledge of its existence, it must truly exist. Third, there’s the question of whether or not we have a reason or reasons for our knowledge of the existence of something, and the fact that our reason or reasons won’t necessarily convince others of our knowledge. Fourth, there’s the question of whether our reason or reasons for our knowledge rise to the level of proof. Kreeft claims that most reasons don’t rise to the level of proof. Most reasons, he says, amount more to probabilities. In other words, while they may provide substantial support for our knowledge, they don’t rise to the level of proof. For example, we know that the plane in which we travel may crash at any time, but the experience of the pilot and the statistical evidence pointing to the overall safety of air travel recommends to us that the likelihood of crashing is very remote. As a result, we get on the plane. The experience of the pilot and the statistics on airplane crashes are not reasons that prove our plane won’t crash, but they provide substantial confidence so that we’re willing to get on. Finally, if our reason or reasons rise to the level of proof, there’s the question of whether it’s a scientific proof. Can it be demonstrated by the scientific method of testing and measurement? Kreeft holds that philosophical proofs can rise to the level of proofs, but they aren’t scientific proofs, and they need not be. There are other proofs besides scientific proofs, just as there’s other evidence besides scientific, or physical evidence. I would add that evidence that rises only to the level of probability may nevertheless provide sufficient support to hold a particular position, and may offer a reasonable basis for our actions in the real world. The example of getting on the plane is only one. Most of the evidence in this book will rise only to the level of probability. Yet, such evidence can still provide significant support for our conclusion for the existence of God, and justification for our acting in this world in a way that wouldn’t make sense if God doesn’t exist.
There are two kinds of evidence for God’s existence that will be considered in these articles: philosophical and empirical. Philosophical evidence is more what we call arguments, and there’s a long philosophical tradition of considering arguments both for and against the existence of God. These arguments don’t provide evidence that can be experienced or observed, but reasonable conclusions, given what we know about the universe and ourselves. Some philosophical arguments for God’s existence are stronger than others. Some have inspired very good and serious counter-arguments, while others have better resisted the onslaught of critics. Philosophical arguments raise genuine questions about the existence of God and the meaning of the universe, about why there is something rather than nothing and, in particular, why do we exist, is there a purpose for our human lives, and even each human life? Whether or not God exists matters because it impacts matters central to the human condition: the identity and dignity of human beings, morality, ultimate purpose, etc…
What I call empirical evidence can be divided into the evidence from experience and the evidence from observation. Human experience has been a powerful force in bringing people to faith in God: witnessed miracles, lives transformed, the encounter with beauty, etc… These can’t simply be discounted as the delusions or coincidences of gullible minds, for the experience of God goes back to the beginning of humans, and faith in a higher power is near universal. To discount this experience is to discount the experience of the great majority of the human community throughout history. To dismiss the human experience of God over the millennia is to dismiss a great deal of what has made us human in the first place. Observational evidence, obviously, is collected by our observance of the world around us. The sciences of cosmology and physics continue to provide more and more information about our universe. Does this information support the existence of God? Many think it does, and I’ll discuss why they think so.
Before I begin, just as I considered the limits of the scientific method, it’s essential that readers understand the limits of what philosophy, experience and observation can tell us about God. Basically, we can know that God exists, and we can know certain attributes of God. That’s about it. But, that’s something! Ralph McInerny, in his notes on Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for God’s existence written in Summa contra Gentiles, says, “From the perspective of the faith, the truths about God that the Philosopher [Aristotle] achieves must look thin and meager. None the less they attest to the reach of the human mind” (Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 243). One of the criticisms of this approach is that those who present philosophical arguments or empirical evidence for God insist that it must be the God of Christians to which the evidence points. This is a misunderstanding. The God of Christians can be known only by revelation, not by philosophy or the empirical evidence seen in the created order. Yes, in my own mind, my human experience comes most closely to manifesting the existence of my God, since it’s undoubtedly my God to Whom I pray. But, there’s much about the human experience of God that’s universal and the Catholic Church, for one, recognizes as genuine, if incomplete, the truth of God present in non-Catholic and even non-Christian religious traditions. For his part, St. Thomas Aquinas never claimed that the God whose existence is demonstrated in his famous “Five Ways” is the Christian God. It’s impossible for reason to demonstrate the existence of the Christian God, of the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s impossible for philosophical arguments or evidence from Creation to demonstrate the divinity of Christ, His redemptive mission, or His now sitting at the right hand of the Father. These are matters of faith, not philosophy, experience or observation. It’s equally impossible, however, for philosophy or empirical evidence to disprove these doctrines. Faith is what we believe about the God Whose existence reason demonstrates.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.