What good evidence for the supernatural would look like

This post was written for my series on science and religion, and incorporates material from previous posts as well as the current draft of chapter seven of the book.

Believers sometimes ask atheists what evidence would convince them that God exists. My answer to this question depends on what you mean by “God.” If you’re talking about capital-G God, all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving, my answer won’t make believers happy: it’s frankly very 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 (see previous chapter), and I have no idea how you’d do that. I suppose finding out my entire life up to this point has been a dream could help (though that would itself seem like a dick move on any hypothetical god’s part).

But if you ask me what evidence could convince me to believe in a small-g god, defined as just 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.

(Note that as I describe examples of possible evidence below, that does not mean I’d refuse to consider any other alleged evidence. In future chapters, I’ll be dealing with a number of standard arguments for the existence of God on their own terms.)

Take the story of Moses in the Bible. In Exodus 4:1-8, God gives Moses the ability to turn his staff into a snake and back again at will, as well as the less well known (and grosser) ability to turn his hand leprous and back at will. If God sent us such a prophet today, it would be fairly easy to document his powers beyond a reasonable doubt.

Believers often respond to suggestions like this by insisting that skeptics who claim they’d accept such evidence wouldn’t really accept it. How they think they know this, I have no idea. It is true that some people would, quite reasonably, suspect trickery, but you could do tests to rule this out. There are a number people would be happy to help design such a test, and able to design it well.

For example, James Randi is a former stage magician who’s used his expertise to expose a number of frauds, including Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, who use trickery to fake having supernatural powers. The James Randi Educational Foundation, which Randi founded, offers a million dollar prize for anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled test conditions. Winning this prize would be an ideal way for a modern-day Moses to give the world clear evidence of his powers.

Or: a couple years ago evangelical scholar Craig Keener put out a two-volume work titled Miraclesmostly a compilation of modern-day miracle stories from various sources. At one point, he cites a story from a book by Pat Robertson in which, supposedly, “a leg severed beneath the knee grew back” (p. 747). Keener suggests this is evidence that skeptics who complain that stories of miraculous healing never include regrown limbs are secretly just closed-minded.

But wait a minute. If such a thing really happened, couldn’t an intelligent group of witnesses could get the story reported in every major news outlet in the world? Document that the body part was missing, document that it was regrown shortly thereafter, and you barely need witnesses to the actual regrowing. This would avoid a number of common problems with claims of miraculous healings, such as the possibility of a coincidence or that the doctors made a mistake.

Keener tries to explain the lack of medical documentation for alleged miraculous healings by proposing that God has seen fit to mainly work healing miracles in the context of missionary efforts in the Third World, and that makes them difficult to document (see i.e. p. 662, 704-705). Unfortunately, a world where miracles only happen under circumstances where they can’t be documented well looks suspiciously like a world where miracles don’t happen at all.

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