Faith: reflecting on evidence

There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.

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Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

“ … true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.

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Additional notes

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More on the “isolation problem”

God is never “out” of the natural world. In the Old Testament we see Him being more or less explicit in His interaction with the Jewish people, but He is always present throughout the universe. What I’m really referring to is the sort of experiment which could, even in principle, attempt to “detect” God’s existence: if He is everywhere, there is nothing to compare our results against. He is not so much “outside of the natural realm” as pervasive throughout the natural realm.

We can observe evidence of times when God has explicitly interacted with humanity specifically because that type of interaction is less frequent. Jesus’ time on Earth is an extreme example of this: God sent His son precisely once, so this is an event quite distinct from the rest of human history.

What is less clearly distinguishable by scientific means is His sustaining presence throughout the universe: the laws of nature and physics that we observe appear to be universal, so we do not have isolated incidents where God is more or less explicitly involved in these fields.

We must also recognise the different tools that are used between what can broadly be classified as the “experimental” sciences (eg. physics, chemistry) and the “historical” sciences (eg. archaeology, cosmology, evolutionary biology). The kind of evidence that I am talking about with regards to the “isolation problem” is specifically that which would be deduced from the experimental sciences, which rely on repeatability and experimental controls. Because of the reliance on experimental technique, they are not well-suited to detect something which cannot be isolated. The tools of the historical sciences, in contrast, are better equipped to deal with one-off occurrences, and thus the historical incidents of God’s explicit intervention into human history provide evidence that is consistent with those fields.

Miracles present a very useful example of mis-matched tools. We would love to apply the tools of physics and chemistry to such miracles as the transformation of water into wine, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes: however, the experimental sciences are not suited to explore these incidents. We can use historical accounts from witnesses, textual criticism, etc. to try and deduce whether the events are likely to have actually happened. We can play around experimentally in the lab (or even just from theory) and conclude that we have no idea how such a thing could be possible. But we cannot use chemistry to explore how a particular miracle occurred on that particular historic occasion.

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Sin, submission and Russell’s teapot (from Bob Powell)

Bob Powell wrote a great article on Bertrand Russell’s teapot and evidence for God over at Fallen and Flawed. The passage below is from that essay, and details three reasons why we don’t see more explicit evidence of God:

1. Sin
People are fallen and flawed and have willfully and purposefully closed their eyes toward God. We do this because we are proud, licentious, and wicked people in desperate need of a savior.

A crystal clear example of this is atheist Thomas Nagel saying, ” I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers… It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want a universe like that.”

Could a mindset like that cause him to knowingly or not close his eyes to evidence for God?

2. Demands for unreasonable types of evidence.
God could better prove His existence by painting a vibrant picture of Jesus in a different color Snuggie up in the clouds every Sunday from 11 to noon.

Or maybe he could cause frogs to say John 3:16 instead of “ribbit”.

Whatever the demand the implication is that God has a moral obligation to people to make Himself more clearly–even ridiculously!–evident because then more people would believe in God and avoid hell.

This leads us to the last reason.

3. Humble versus forced submission to God.
God doesn’t desire that people merely acknowledge His reality but that they have a redemptive, meaningful, ongoing relationship with Him. He wants to be every bit of our Lord and Father–not just our acknowledged reality.

Would cloudy Snuggie clad saviors and talking frogs lead more people to this type of relationship? Maybe, but I doubt it. We are still bent toward evil and incapable of doing good on our own.

It might just lead to more people like the demons who acknowledge Him but refuse to submit to his authority.

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This essay is an updated and expanded version of an older post. The original article (with comments) can be found here.

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