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.

  • Trent Fowler


    This is an interesting take. I remember posing the “what evidence would change your mind” question to you a while back and I’m glad to see it answered. To be honest I’m drifting towards your position as well, as I just can’t imagine what a universe with a disembodied supermind pulling the strings might look like. Put another way, every observation is consistent with divine will, and so it’s something of a useless concept.

    Incidentally, have you ever tackled the ontological argument? While I think the Kalam is probably the most forceful, if still unsuccessful, argument for God’s existence, I have a nagging interest in the ontological argument. It seems like saying that “existence is a great making property” is a baseless assertion, and I don’t think you can define something into existence. But these objections just don’t seem like they are as strong as they could be.

  • Steven Carr

    It is Christian apologists like William Lane Craig who tell us precisely how they would explain away evidence that refuted their beliefs.

    If Craig went back in a time machine and saw that there had been no resurrection, he would explain it away as a trick. actually documents Plantinga’s attempts to quantify the amount of evidence he advises believers to simply ignore.

    ‘There are 10E+13 turps of evil (where the turp is the basic unit of evil).’

    So what? says Plantinga…. So what if there is vast amounts of evidence suggesting that his beliefs are wrong?

    When do atheists document the fact that they would ignore vast amounts of evidence against their beliefs?

  • Gordon

    I asked him to define his god so I could come up with evidence I would accept. He said “the Christian God” as if there are not as many versions of that god as there are christians!

  • JHendrix

    I really like your point about fantasy fiction writers. Give me a few Christians who can pray and cast Cure Moderate Wounds or Summon Monster I. But then, the more I think about it, the more that this should be closer to reality if the believers are correct!

    What kind of evidence would I accept as proof of the Christian god? We could start with driving Christians who ask this question to the nearest zoo, pharmacy, or hospital:

    “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

    Hell, I’m interested in just seeing the existence of some demons for them to drive out, let alone having them actually perform an exorcism.

    Most importantly: Let me see them do something that can’t be done by a non-believer. Their supposed inerrant word of god tells me they should be able to do things that can’t be replicated by unbelievers. Non-believers can speak in tongues with the same verifiability that believers can, so that one doesn’t really work. Poison would though, that’s easily my favorite.

    If they want to complain that the original copies of Mark don’t contain those verses – then it’s a perfect time to point out how unreliable their scriptures are. If the earliest gospel was “enhanced” with miracles after it ended without a clear one, why can they not accept the others were similarly “enhanced”?

    But we can go quite a bit further. We can ask to be given the same courtesy that Thomas was given:

    Thomas was [supposedly] told of miracles by actual eye witnesses, and he did not believe. This was much better than being told by written records of supposed eye witnesses that were compiled decades after the fact, where the actual record of even that we have centuries after the event.
    But Thomas didn’t believe, and the supposedly still living Jesus came on out and showed himself to Thomas, and let him touch the wounds. He materialized out of thin air, into a locked room and did all this.

    Why is Thomas given such amazing signs and we aren’t? Did Thomas and the other disciples have their free will violated by directly witnessing the risen Christ, being able to believe that way? Why can’t we be extended the same courtesy?

    If Jesus is still alive, and the chief desire of god, hell the fucking point of human existence according to Christianity is for us to know god: why isn’t Jesus still walking around today, proclaiming himself?

    Maybe he’s too busy; sitting at the right hand of god must be too comfortable a spot to leave.
    We could go with having the bodies of holy men (and women) being raised to proclaim the glory of Yahweh:

    This could happen once a year or so, and they can all tell us about what it’s like in heaven, testifying to the glory of Jesus and the reality of the afterlife. But apparently only when Jesus died were the people of Jerusalem given such amazingly powerful signs (that weren’t recorded anywhere else besides Matthew).

    Any one of those would be great, I’d believe then. I could, as you say, still deny it if I really wanted to, in spite of those signs. I’d still have the free will to deny it, but I personally wouldn’t.

    • Dan F.

      Most of what you are asking for here has in fact occurred, in front of multiple witness, many times over. I’m not sure what it is about (many) atheists that think well documented history is not sufficient proof but that these sorts of things have to happen just to you. Puzzles me, truly. Is it just egotism?

      • JHendrix

        For any “well documented history” you can cite, I can find equally “well documented history” that attests to similar miracles that testify to the theological claims of other religions, whether it’s Joseph Smith, Mohammed, or Sathya Sai Baba.

        You completely miss the point of the post. What I specifically asked for, was to see it myself, to be extended the same courtesy that Thomas was afforded. The bible says that those signs should accompany those who believe, why can’t Christians drink poison all the time in front of us and live? Why can’t Jesus come talk to me and everyone else in the world if god’s chief aim is for all to know him? Why can’t the righteous dead raise up every so often to talk to us about how awesome heaven is?

        That’s not egoism. I can’t distinguish between “history” that speaks of miracles, and “history” that lies about miracles. So, like Thomas, I need to see it for myself.

        That was the evidence I asked for, that’s what I’d need to believe. You’re rebuking me for answering the question I was asked!

      • Kodie

        well documented warm fuzzies is not sufficient proof

        Fixed. Nobody in the history of requesting evidence has anyone even described anything that sounds like evidence unless they were lying. Are you saying they’re not capable of lying?

      • MountainTiger

        It is rather curious how many Christians seem to think that declaring that something is well documented without providing documentation is somehow persuasive. Surely, if miracles are so well documented, it would be trivial for you to direct the curious to one that you find persuasive?

      • Chris Hallquist

        Oh, that’s interesting. Please tell me more about these miracles which you claim are so well documented.

        That feels like it should be a caption on a Condescending Wonka pic, but feel free to show me your “evidence.” Just don’t expect me to be impressed when it’s no better than the evidence for the claims of Joseph Smith or Sathya Sai Baba.

        Hmmm… maybe I should have just typed “what JHendrix said,” but oh well.

  • J. Quinton

    The problem with capital G “god” is that it is unfalsifiable. Therefore, anything imaginable is evidence for this god. Just like anything imaginable is evidence for other unfalsifiable ideas like Solipsism or the belief the world was created last Thursday. Looking for “evidence for” something is the fundamental problem; evidence against should also be taken into account. If someone can give examples for both, then they have a more respectable idea.

  • ACN

    My DnD group (a band of IRL atheists/agnostics) gets a lot of amusement from thinking about how in a DnD universe, with the usual clerical trappings, it’s basically impossible to be an atheist. How could you actively deny the existence of gods when their clerics wield tremendous divine power, resurrected people can tell you what it was like to hang out on their deities plane, and any wizard with the plane shift + teleport spells can go directly to their favorite deities prescence?+

    By contrast, what do we have to work with in real life? Ambiguous healings that only heal people of ailments that it’s possible for them to be healed from naturally? Statues that ‘bleed’? A deity who can only communicate in the most ambiguous way conceivable?

    It’s bloody absurd when you think about it.

    • Alverant

      In a DnD world the question wouldn’t be “do gods exist”, it would be “are the gods worth worshiping”? You have to wonder about a deity that performs miracles on demand. It makes one wonder who’s really in charge.

      • JHendrix

        In a DnD world, if you don’t worship the deity, daily, and explicitly pray for the spells you want – you don’t get your miracles. It’s almost as if there was a direct relationship between the ability to manifest the powers of your god, and ones direct worship of said deity.

        Further, if ones actions went directly against the will of said deity (or even beliefs: read – alignment) , one doesn’t get to manifest their power anymore.

        So yes, in that world, those deities are worth worshiping, it’s demonstrable why.

        Oddly, this is exactly what the bible tells us all believers should be able to do in Mark 16:17-18.

      • Acn

        Heh heh, a bold point.

        And in many campaign settings there is an open question of who needs who…

  • vinnyjh57

    “If I had strong evidence for the supernatural, I don’t think you would believe it. Therefore, I am justified in believing based on weak evidence.” It’s hard to argue with that logic.

  • Quine

    I got into it with Mr. Longenecker on his Authentic Atheist thread (and have written about that here), and then again on the one where he complained about being “swarmed” and which he subsequently took down.

    The big “G” deity he supports is made of tricks, and that language trick of taking the general term for some nonspecific deity and capitalizing it into monotheism is just one of those tricks (Islam does the same trick in Arabic); I won’t play that game. When I started relating how YHWH started off as a deity comprised of attributes from the Canaanite pantheon, Dwight stopped me and objected to any association with human concocted deities and instead indicated that he was talking about the “basis of all being.” That is where another trick comes in; they give their deities the personhood and attributes of human kings, but turn around and contradict that with nebulous claims of ineffability so you can’t nail it down to any “evidence.”

    He knows the scriptures with the “I am that I am” were redacted to allow that nebulousness long after (i.e. after return from Babylon) YHWH had been worshiped as a deity with the conventional blood sacrifice (moved on from humans) and tribal warfare. The continued yearning for that blood sacrifice is written all over the story that was later concocted to explain the deification of Jesus (common to deify living or recently living persons, in those days). Only later when the tribal religion origins of the pantheon comprising, now, three “persons” did “sophisticated theology” of the early church have to step in and fog things up with the “basis of all being.” Just try nailing that to a door.

    We have solid evidence that life evolved on this planet from simple cells through our animal ancestors to ourselves in billions of years. We have solid evidence that the galaxies got to where we find them through an expansion and cooling process over the last 13.7 billion years. We see no hand of any willful creator in any of that, and we find no discontinuity that indicates any supernatural aspect of humans v. other animals. We live until we die. We all die (so far). The evidence is ours, and the burden of producing evidence to the contrary is theirs; trying to turn the table as if that was somehow logically valid is another trick we need not forebear. Or as Hitchens would sometimes say, “something, up with which, I shall not put!”

  • Kodie

    This is an interesting comment. If you really did ask for a sign from God how do you know that you would be in a psychological and spiritually adept state of being to perceive the sign if it were given? There is ample evidence to suggest that people are only able to see what they expect to see, or have the mental capabilities of seeing. It is very possible that God answered your prayer and gave you a sign, but you were not able (for complex reasons) to perceive it. If you ask the wrong questions you will get the wrong answers.

    He says that he has closed comments, but I made several and they are awaiting moderation. I guess that means since I didn’t see it until after I had read all the comments and replied to several, they won’t show up. Basically he is all about making excuses for being credulous to a non-evident god in a way that he can’t even see how ironic he is. There is “ample evidence” to suggest something like, um, believing what you want to believe, he says, unironically.

    Anyway, I like your blog so far, just started checking it out since you moved to Patheos.

  • Quine

    Here is another one at Patheos that might give you a head-to-desktop reaction (caution advised):

    • JHendrix

      Wow, that is pretty terrible.

      Rather than refute the absurd notion about how secular reasoning can’t account for suffering, I posted an internal critique.

      By his own definition of love, you can’t love if you can’t freely choose to love. But to have free choice is to have the ability to sin. His own definition of god requires that he can not sin. He can’t avoid being perfect, so by his own definition, his god can not love.

      Similarly, if his god was perfect and existed before the material world, why create it? If he was perfect it was for our benefit, not his, yet by Christian theology the vast majority of us are going to hell, a fate worse than non-existence.

  • MNb

    Longenecker doesn’t accept comments anymore, so here I go.

    “what sort of evidence they require”
    I am willing to buy the free will argument, really. I am also willing to accept that the omni-everything god doesn’t want to violate the laws of science. One miracle, the resurrection of Jesus, should be enough already.
    Remember the Japanese tsunami one and a half year ago? With 20 000 victims? Now if the Japanese collectively had been warned by means of a nightmare, that would be convincing. If Joseph Fritzl after locking up his daughter had died from a heart attack after a week, maybe two (enough to give him a fair chance to take the right decision after all), if that five-year old girl had been saved by a cop who got a hunch to take a look, if such things happened on a statistically significant base, yeah, I would accept that.
    But they don’t. Call it empirical dogma, if you like.
    God can use the laws of science to fight evil, without violating the laws of science. He doesn’t. So either he isn’t there or he isn’t worth worshipping.

  • Achrachno

    “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?)”

    It looks that way, if Longnecker is to be taken seriously. Various polls have indicated that the ‘not much interested/actively rejecting’ religion set is the fastest growing growing one in America, and one (Barna?) poll indicated a few years ago that 30% of Americans are completely secular in outlook (even if nominally religious). According to Longnecker, this is now up to 50%. I’d like to believe he knows what he’s talking about, but it’s probably mostly a persecution complex talking. He and his followers seem to think everyone is out to get them and that they’re in danger of either being rounded up or just excluded from public life. They seem to think they’re a small remnant following the one true path and being hated and harassed for their trouble and purity.

  • Achrachno

    Sorry! I see that I accidentally left the “e”out of the middle of Longenecker’s name. You all know who I meant though, right?

  • eric

    In science terms:
    “I have an hypothesis. Now you tell me what it would take to convince you its right.”

    Well, you could start by telling me what novel or unexpected predictions your hypothesis makes. (Don’t bother with a long description about God, just tell me what we will see if he’s real that we wouldn’t see if he wasn’t real). Then you could design an experiment to see if those predictions are true. Then you could run the experiment and publish the results. If your hypothesis make a correct novel prediction, I’ll pay attention. You might not convince me the first time around, but the more times you go through the above sequence and turn out to be right, the more credible I’ll find your hypothesis.

  • Korou

    Awww, I thought that commenter might have been me, but Nick Gotts did a better job.

    I’ve seen Longenecker use that phrase “We’re just chasing our tails now.” It seems to translate as “I lost the argument and don’t want to admit it.”

    By the way, have you seen his latest post on imaginary friends (sorry, Guardian Angels)?

    • Kodie

      Dwight Longenecker sez:

      Thanks for your input. It is difficult to moderate the comments with charity. I have taken a position now to publish comments that are courteous, informed and wishing to discuss. Ones that are off the point, rude and ugly I delete. I hope this will clear things up.

      He’s such a pompous ass that the only response is to write rude things. I find it difficult to be charitable when I comment, so my comments don’t show up.