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?