Eye has not seen, ear has not heard

Thanks all for your comments on last week’s post on attempts to sanitize the liturgy. As always, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu. The highlighted comment from last week comes from David Wagner:

So, lectionary-editing authorities: knock off the bowdlerizing. “He’s not a tame lion.” Bring it on. Those who can’t stand it will go get themselves a nice, polite Unitarian god made in their own image, or no god at all.

This week’s question turns on a frequently heard criticism of atheism and atheistic claims. Many theists maintain that we inflate the standard of evidence for religious claims, to the point where no supernatural claim has a prayer of passing the test. In fairness to my religious friends, it is true that, when we’ve discussed our standards of evidence, mine have been a lot more stringent, particularly in the case of eyewitness evidence.

When I was still in middle school, I read a book that crucially shaped my skeptical worldview. Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer is a chronicle of perversions of justice. The authors are leaders of The Innoncence Project, an organization that helps exonerate the wrongfully convicted through the use of DNA evidence.

Some of the case studies in the book are the result of prosecutorial misconduct, but what is truly striking is how many are the result of honest mistakes by eyewitnesses. Some errors are the result of stress and confusion, some are the result of the very human desire to make recollection fit a coherent narrative, to the point where we don’t even know we are twisting the facts, and some are the result of a terror that no one will be convicted and that a crime will go unpunished.

After reading the book, it was difficult for me to take any truth claim seriously that relied entirely on the uncorroborated recollections of eyewitnesses. The obvious result is that I am nearly impossible to convince of supernatural claims on the basis of experiential or anecdotal evidence.

But my skepticism is not limited to claims of the miraculous. If I were to serve on the jury of a capital trial, I would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to vote to sentence anyone to the death penalty. Aside from the objections I have to the death penalty on moral level, I remain doubtful that most kinds of evidence mustered in these cases carry sufficient certainty to justify ending someone’s life.

I end up usually assigning different standards of evidence to claims based on the extent to which the claim appears reasonable (a claim that a person has committed murder is usually more plausible than a claim for the existence of aliens at Area 51 or that one small splinter sect is the only representative of God’s will on earth) and the stakes I assign to the outcome of the claim (witness testimony to the existence of a two-faced kitten will not require me to radically alter my life in the way that proof of the existence of God might).

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Claims with great moral consequence don’t require my credulity but do require me to give what evidence there is a fair hearing.


So, atheists, skeptics and anyone else who cares to chime in:

How does your skepticism play a role in your day to day life?
How do you decide what kinds of claims require extraordinary evidence?
How do we decide which expert to trust to decide questions if our own understanding is not sufficient to verify their rulings?

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  • BTW – I am new to your blog and had to look up RCIA:You might want to make it easier for your reader to learn what this means. Also, does your boyfriend read this blog?"The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (often abbreviated RCIA) is the process through which interested adults and older children are gradually introduced to the Roman Catholic faith and way of life.

  • NFQ

    I'm an atheist and skeptic but I've never been the biggest fan of this "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" bit. I think claims require evidence. To pre-judge some claims as "too extraordinary" and demand double or triple evidence for them seems a little weird.On the other hand, I heard an example recently used to describe when one would invoke this principle (I forget where, unfortunately, but I'm sure this is a common one), and that example made sense to me — I think it's really just about how we define "evidence." If you asserted to me that you drive a Honda, I'd probably believe you with ultimately very little in the way of supporting evidence — a photo (which could be faked), your registration card (which could also be faked), your car keys (which could be someone else's). The thing is, I have plenty of evidence from my regular life that people often drive Hondas. If you were to claim that you drive a flying saucer, I would require a whole lot more evidence — because "it is an extraordinary claim," meaning that I lack other evidence to support this as a possibility in the first place. I think I'd be requiring the same level of total evidence in each case, but it would feel like a lot more to you if you were claiming to own a flying saucer (because more of the burden is on you).

  • @Sabio LantzTo be honest, I'm pretty dissatisfied with that as a tagline. I'm still looking for a pithy way to express that I'm an atheist who studies and argues about religion. Any suggestions are exceedingly welcome!@NFQI think that's a good way to put it. Quotidian claims like driving a particular type of car have all the evidence of everyday experience suggesting this is a claim similar to other verified claims. "Extraordinary" claims have no framework that we know of that tallies with the rest of our experience, so there's a evidence gap even before you go to the videotape.I was following some links from Sabio's profile, and I've found an interesting post at The Warfare is Mental approaching this question from a theistic perspective.I am still interested in trying to pull this question past the same old a/theist split and talk about how skeptical we should be in our day to day lives, not just in argument with 'the enemy.'

  • As I wrote on The Warfare is Mental(TWIM), I think the phrase, "Higher stake claims demand higher levels of evidence." But I think NFQ's qualifiers are excellent. In fact, I am going back to challenge TWIM further.@ Leah:With your title, your tagline is already constrained. Let me brainstorm outloud:"Dating a Catholic but virulently Atheist""Debating Religion while loving a Catholic""Immersed in Christian Culture but Excitedly Atheist!"just some ideas, hope that helps.

  • NFQ

    Thanks, guys. After I wrote that I was kind of worried it was rambly and incoherent; I'm glad some sort of intelligent point got across. :)I've been pondering some combination of your first and third question for a while as well. As a scientist I am often frustrated by the public's distrust for science (at least in many parts of the US). It's important to convey the lesson that just because a so-called expert says something, you shouldn't necessarily believe it (see: Dr. Oz, et al.) — but at the same time, people who've spent their life becoming experts in something deserve some credit for it. We shouldn't listen to Jenny McCarthy on vaccines instead of an experienced researcher with an MD/PhD. And we can't all be experts in everything, so we can't expect to verify everybody's claims personally.I think the most important thing is probably to communicate an appreciation for the methods of science, and more generally of evidence-gathering. Most of the time, even if you can't check the claims in particular, you can get some sense of how and to what degree an individual gathers and considers evidence when forming their opinions.

  • I'm starting fresh here (i.e. not in response to previous comments).There are reasons — and I see no reason that popular religious faith is the main one, though it may be in the mix — why we have the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for criminal cases. It puts a fat thumb on the scale for the defense, and it's supposed to.It doesn't always work. In some of the child abuse prosecututions of the 1980s, esp in Mass., juries accepted as proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" allegations from children that were physically impossible, such as childcare workers turning into clowns, molesting the children in unspeakable ways, re-transforming into normal people, and delivering the children back to their parents in perfect health, all this within the space of a Sunday morning service.Did that happen b/c those juries were full of Christians? Would the prosecution, which has the same right as the defense to screen out jurors for bias, have allowed them, in cases where defendants were themselves church workers?Let me get at this another way. I'm sure you know that frank atheists and frank agnostics are outnumbered today, by far, by people whose line is "I'm not religious, but I'm very spiritual…."Those are the ones I'd bung off my jury in a jiffy if I were working defense-side. Their credulity is an limitless as their creed is undefined. Chesterton nailed it: "When people stop believing in God, they'll believe anything." If I were a defense attorney, give me any day a juror reading the Bible or saying the rosary, over one consulting crystals. With the former, at least there are known contours to what they believe. Re the Bible-reader, I'm assuming it's a "regular" Bible and not some freaky-ass "interpretation." Prophecy geeks are as bad as crystal-gazers, from the p.o.v. of this (hypothetical) crusty old defense attorney.Next: re Catholicism

  • I've just ragged on New Agers and pop-Protestants, but what about pop-Catholicism? Well, consider the Catholic Church and "private revelations," such as Lourdes and Fatims. Before I was a Catholic I found it paradoxical that the Church, qua institution, was always initially skeptical towards the claims of such visionaries. (In fact, of all claimed visions, only a tiny fraction have been labelled by the Church as "worthy of belief," and none have ever been held to be dogmatically to be believed, and none every will be, since it's bedrock with us that new public revelation closed with the death of the last apostle.)Only later did the blindingly obvious dawn on me. ("Hasn't changed much, has he.") When you're the custodian of supernatural truth, the proper place for the thumb is on the scale of judicious skepticism, not whoo-whee credulity. Authoritative compilations such as the Catechism (whether 1992 or Trent), or Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, or the like, are the end-product of a lot of debate and analysis. I'm not sure how Protestants think the Holy Spirit works (for Pentecostals, direct inspiration and dancing on tables seem to come into it), but for the Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit aids BUT DOES NOT REPLACE scholarship and thought.So when a French farmer's daughter (Lourdes) or a trio of under-age shepherds (Fatima) comes to the local bishop and says they've seen such-and-such and the Lady said so-and-so, their next step will NOT be the Church-sponsored lecture-circuit. Pop-Catholic lit is full of books in which the local bishop and his regional colleagues are the "heavies" in these stories. Of course they're skeptical: they're doing their JOBS.(As for Medjugorje: every local bishop there since that whole circus started has rejected it. In the '80s the CDF banned organized pilgrimages there, tho' no one seems to have noticed. Now a high-level theological commission has been formed to evaluate the thing, and I'm quite confident it will find it to be horse-dookey.)Next: a comment on secular courtroom evidence.

  • Having worked over the years with cops, the law of constitutionalized criminal procedure, and colleagues who teach evidence law, I've reached a few conclusions:1. Cops do heroic deeds.2. They also lie, both to suspects (and everyone they talk to is a suspect), and in court, under oath.3. Jurors always believe cops.4. Eye-witness evidence is unreliable in the extreme. Victims will associate with the crime any face they see in its general vicinity and SWEAR on a stack of bibles and their mother's graves that that's the perp. This has been demonstrated in cases where e.g. the accusation fell on a plainclothes detective who arrived to investigate, and the victim shouted "That's him" b/c he was the first non-uniformed person she saw after the crime. In another case an innocent spent years in prison for rape b/c he was a smalltime actor and a commercial in which he starred had been on the teevee while the rape occurred: naturally the victime associated his face with the rape. Eye-wtiness testimony? Might as well consult Tarot cards5. Much-derided "mere" circumstantial evidence is rock-solid by comparison. DNA tests, after all, are "circumstantial."Now, it seems to be that all the above can be equally well grokked by Christians and by others. In fact, a lot of it comes from a colleague at Regent, Prof. Jim Duane, whose (scary) lecture on "Why You Should Never Talk to the Police" can be seen on YouTube. So much, I'd say, for Christian credulity in forensic matters.One more note about DNA evidence,in which I'm a believer: just as it is blessedly exonerating many innocent convicts, it also has the potential to make future convictions more reliable, and to ratify, retroactively, convictions that were once considered shaky (e.g. Roger Keith Coleman).

  • Tangential note about miracles that you probably already understand:Faith does not come from the miraculous, the miraculous comes from faith.Have you read the Brothers Karamazov yet? If you haven't I won't spoil it for you, but the relevant section is in Book Seven.

  • To support fiction with fiction is a tough argument.

  • Still haven't read it yet, Tristyn, though you may be pleased to hear that The Master and Margarita is on the disorderly pile next to my bed.@Sabio, I don't think there's anything wrong with communicating the coherency or implications of a philosophical position through fiction. Plato certainly did it in The Republic. And for those of us who are not philosophers, novels and other writings are closer to a common language for discussion that philosophy jargon.

  • @ LeahI am sure you are right. But I am leery of people mixing up fact with fiction — our brains do that so easily. Take, for example, romance novels. How many people grow up thinking they can find relationships like the books say.Or take "Star Trek" — which I was a big fan. How many folks expect the same magic from our medicine — our tricorders should just be able to figure out what is wrong.

  • The acquisition of fact is simple and dull and conveys relatively little. Rhetoric is not deception. I will be generous and amend that to say, rhetoric is not /necessarily/ deception. But that is so fundamental that it can't really be argued out online, in my opinion. I do think that the aesthetic conveys truth much better than does, say, syllogism.

  • @David Wagner"Eye-wtiness testimony? Might as well consult Tarot cards"A recent BBC TV series, "Eyewitness" set up an experiment with volunteers who witnessed some staged "crimes" and who were then interviewed (by Manchester Police) for eyewitness testimony. It was pretty scary how hopelessly wrong some of these witnesses were, and yet despite this the police interviewing team managed to piece together an accurate account of what actually occurred.But if there had been only a single eyewitness I shudder to speculate what conclusions the police would have arrived at.