Figuring out what reality is really like is not a game whose rules have to be fair

Shortly after moving to Patheos, I noticed the blog of Dwight Longenecker, with a post about how the presidential race is neck and neck because half the country believes in God and half doesn’t. (I wonder, did Romney’s “47%” remarks cause people to become atheists?) I didn’t have time to comment at the time, but I resolved to keep an eye on him, because I knew there would be more amusing things to come in the future.

I was reminded of Longenecker today when I saw JT reporting that Longenecker deleted a couple posts at his blog, including, it looks like, one that would’ve made good fodder for a post of my own. No matter. He left up a post with the title “Evidence? What Evidence?” When a believer says something like that, you just know it’s going to be good (not in a good way). Here we go:

The most frequently asked question by atheists who come to this blog is “What evidence do you have for the existence of God?” My reply is always to ask what sort of evidence they require, but not one of them has ever given me a straight answer.

The comments end up being a hoot, because several atheists show up to answer Longenecker’s question, and he responds with accusations of the form, “oh, if that actually happened you’d just explain it away.” Longenecker insists he was asking an honest question, but it becomes clear this was all just a set-up to accuse atheists of being closed-minded meanies, something one commenter repeatedly calls him out on.

But let me give my own answer anyway: it all depends on what you mean by “god.” If you just mean a very powerful supernatural being, it’s trivial to imagine a world where we do have very good evidence of the supernatural. Authors of fantasy fiction do it all the time. If anything, it’s harder to tell a story where the evidence is genuinely ambiguous.

But if you’re talking about capital-G God, all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving, then the answer is one that won’t make believers happy: it’s hard for me to imagine even wildly hypothetical situations where I’d think there was good evidence for that claim. You’d have to somehow convince me that an all-powerful, loving God might very well allow a five year old girl to be raped, beaten, and strangled to death, and I have no idea how you’d do that. Discovering I’ve been living in a computer simulation might help, I dunno.

I say this with the caveat that if a believer thinks they’ve got evidence that doesn’t fit what I imagine good evidence for a god might look like, I don’t want to rule it out absolutely before looking at it. I reject the cosmological and ontological arguments mainly because the versions of those arguments I’ve looked at have consistently sucked, not because I’m committed to some empiricist dogma that no arguments in that style can possibly be good.

At one point Longenecker complains that he could give evidence in the form of miracles (among other things), but won’t bother because atheists wouldn’t accept that as good enough. And he’s right, we wouldn’t, because his evidence for these alleged miracles would suck. But Longenecked thinks this is somehow a problem. He seems to think that atheists are under an obligation to set our standards of evidence low enough to give believers a fighting chance.

But it’s not a problem, and we’re under no such obligation. Let me give an analogy: given that there are no double-blind controlled studies providing evidence that homeopathy works, skeptics of homeopathy aren’t obliged to lower the bar and start oohing and aahing about “I took a homeopathic treatment and I think I felt better” anecdotes.

Similarly, how weak the evidence for the supernatural is, skeptics are under no obligation to lower their standards of evidence to the point where they might be impressed by “my friend, who I’m sure wouldn’t lie to me, swears he saw a demon while doing missionary work in China” stories.

Life is not fair, and that goes double for the business of figuring out what reality is really like. Sometimes, the evidence is just one-sided. When that happens, the side that actually bases their view on the evidence is under no obligation to alter their standards of evidence to give the other side a chance.

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