A Brief Primer About What Proof Looks Like.

A Brief Primer About What Proof Looks Like. August 26, 2014

It’s gotten almost old dealing with Christians who are convinced they have some kind of proof for their god and for the validity of their religious viewpoints who turn out not to have anything of the sort. From Ray Comfort‘s insistence that bananas “prove” his god’s existence to ignorant zealots who don’t understand big words like irrefutable (and moreover don’t understand big concepts like “you can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible’s ideas”), it seems like I run into a Christian saying this kind of thing just about weekly. So let’s talk a minute here about what proof looks like to someone like me.

The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's e...
The fifth of Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of God’s existence was based on teleology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If all someone has in terms of evidence for a fact-based claim is philosophy and arguments, then that’s not proof. I’ve talked before about my complete disdain for what I’ve come to call “logical Christians” (those Christians who are most drawn to and prone to using such arguments in lieu of actual evidence). I find the mindset utterly toxic, and haven’t seen it produce much more than Christians who think it’s okay to treat people disrespectfully and contemptuously–seriously, I have yet to run into a Christian using this approach who is at all loving. But it’s a mindset we’re going to see more and more often as the religion continues to polarize its adherents and drive off those who are actually loving people.

The entire attitude seems like such a uniquely American phenomenon. Americans don’t trust or like experts very much, and we really like the idea of an underdog coming up with something that totally stumps and amazes even the most learned scholars. Combine that attitude with a style of religious observance that stresses personal revelation and has decoupled itself from any kind of theological training, and you inevitably get Christians who are convinced that they are the first (and maybe the only) people in thousands of years who have actually proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that gods exist, and more to the point their own personal conceptualization of their own religion’s god exists in the form they think it takes–and that they know exactly what it wants and what it hates (spoiler: it always wants what that Christian wants and hates whatever that Christian hates).

It’s important to me therefore to think a little about just what “evidence” looks like and what it does not look like.

Evidence does not take the form of subjective feelings, even very strong feelings.

A Christian’s feelings of religious fervor, while very important to that individual, do not constitute proof that that Christian’s religion makes truthful claims. This is probably one of the hardest ideas for Christians to understand, since their religion is absolutely filled top to bottom with this overwhelming adoration of feelings; I know when I was a fundagelical, I was taught that my feelings validated my religion (though obviously a lack of feelings did not invalidate it, duh). I strongly suspect that teaching continues today.

The problem here is that feelings are really unreliable. We often feel things that turn out to be wrong. We all have had feelings of affection or love that turned out to be faulty, or feelings of certainty about a course of action that turned out to be disastrous. I can name a number of things I had strong feelings about once–including my former religion!–that turned out to be misinformed. The information we have at hand is what informs those feelings, and the information is what we should be looking at–not how that information makes us feel.

Further, every religion fosters similar feelings in its adherents, and quite a few non-religious ideas foster strong feelings. Those feelings don’t make the situation true. Certainty does not equal being correct. You can rest assured that Wiccans feel very strongly about their faith system, as do Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Dr. Who fans have been showing quite a lot of feelings lately with the new show coming out–that doesn’t make Time Lords real. I knew a guy in high school who was very sure he was a Time Lord, speaking of which, but obviously he wasn’t one. The sister of one of my first boyfriends really felt that the singer of Duran Duran loved her, but she’d never even met the guy.

When Christians use their feelings as “proof” of their religious claims, that makes me very leery of the rest of their claims. If they had real evidence, they wouldn’t need to rely on their feelings so much. Same goes for visions, by the way. That doesn’t mean a vision is without value to the person experiencing it, but it does mean that I don’t consider it a factual observation that demonstrates anything credible and objective about the supernatural.

A philosophical argument is not evidence for a factual claim.

When a Christian has only a philosophical argument to back up a belief in religion, then that person has no evidence. But oh, so many Christians adore inventing these contorted arguments that they think are slam-dunk proofs for their religion. Usually these are appeals to ignorance and circular logic–“we don’t know X: therefore Jesus,” or “the Bible says the Bible is true so the Bible must be true because the Bible never lies and the Bible said X and the Bible must be true and and and.” You’d be surprised how long these arguments can run; you can start feeling a lot like you’ve ended up on Time Cube or a 9/11 Truther site by accident.

Philosophy is a valuable exercise for humanity when done responsibly. But Christians use it irresponsibly when they create arguments that don’t line up with or confirm reality. I’m not even sure they really understand what philosophy even is–but debate itself, and the forming of complicated arguments, is quite a cottage industry among fundagelicals. Let one of those Christians go long enough, and eventually you’ll start hearing “but but but how do we even know what ‘truth’ actually even IS?”–sounding for all the world like a stoned college student, as a friend of mine has observed. These contortions are done solely to distance the Christian further and further from any resemblance of objective truthfulness. If they can distort the very concept of truth enough, then their religious views might start sounding reasonable! Tell me again why it is that subjectivity is supposed to be bad to fundagelicals, because that sure sounds like subjectivity to me.

I’ve often seen Christians use what they think is philosophy to avoid engaging with concrete, practical, pragmatic real-world situations–even while denigrating it. If a Christian is using a super-complicated argument to try to argue him- or herself into a real live god, then chances are that person really doesn’t have the first clue how to figure out what is true and what is not. It is safe to say that someone who minces words regarding what “truth” even means is someone who desperately needs every millimeter of wiggle room such contortion provides. I find this maneuvering dishonest and shady. If a religious idea cannot be proven without slicing and dicing common words to allow that idea to survive, then it doesn’t deserve to survive. Surely a god who created the whole universe doesn’t need that kind of dishonesty to demonstrate his existence or his wishes.

Philosophy itself should back up reality and confirm it, not exist as an alternative to it and in lieu of it. An argument should flow from the facts, not try to supplant them or explain away why the facts don’t line up with the claim.

A piece of evidence is observable and it doesn’t matter who is doing the observing.

A Muslim should be able to measure a fact and come up with the same measurement that a Christian comes up with–or an atheist, or a pagan. It’s that simple. Nobody has to buy into Christianity to observe a Christian’s evidence. If a Christian even starts going there, then that’s an indication that Christian doesn’t really have evidence and is admitting that only people with the same biases s/he has could buy into the claim. That’s the exact opposite of evidence.

Evidence for a real-world claim will involve real-world observable facts.

This one really trips up a lot of Christians, but it just means that we match demands for evidence and what forms of evidence are acceptable to the claim being made. If someone is claiming that their god is purely metaphorical or that Hell is just a metaphorical construct (which some Christians do think, and yeah, it baffles me too), then obviously I wouldn’t worry quite so much about physical evidence. But if someone claims, for example, that prayer heals cancer, then you absolutely bet I will require some evidence that the prayers in question actually physically heal cancer in a way that can be testable and observable before I accept that claim. If someone claims that there is some supernatural realm I should fear going to after death if I don’t fall into line with their religion, then that is a claim I will need to see credibly, objectively verified before I’ll take the threat seriously. This condition is true for other things besides religion, obviously; Bigfoot sightings come to mind immediately here–if someone claims that an ape-like hominid exists in the Southern United States, then we need to see some actual real-world proof of that existence before we add Bigfoot exhibits to the Smithsonian.

The more startling the claim, the more numerous and certain the observable facts around it should be.

I’ll just say this: claims don’t get a lot more startling than “a big invisible wizard who always existed made every single thing in the entire cosmos and cares very deeply about where people stick their genitals, but nobody can see him or tell he’s there.” But that’s not to say that Christianity isn’t loaded with others just about as startling. Creationism, incidentally, suffers hugely here; it makes the rather daring claim that the backbone of all of biological and astronomical science is flat-out wrong, but cannot find more observable facts to support that claim than some weak, distorted chicanery about bacteria propellers and whatnot. That’s not exactly compelling.

An honest truth claim will set up conditions for verification–and for falsification.

If a god exists, then what can we observe in the universe around us to demonstrate that god’s existence? If a god does not exist, what differences can we see? I rarely see Christians even going here, and I’m not surprised. One thing that was a real problem for me as a Christian was realizing that I couldn’t think of a single difference between a universe-with-a-god and a universe-lacking-a-god. The universe looked exactly the same either way. Natural processes seemed to govern all of it; a god simply wasn’t necessary for any part of it to exist. And the more I thought about it, the fewer differences I could see between those two universe concepts. For that matter, I never even thought about setting up the opposite premise to examine–the “if a god does not exist” claim. I couldn’t even consider that idea.

If Hell and Heaven existed, then outside of religious texts, subjective feelings, and visions, how did we know they were a credible idea? If souls existed, then why couldn’t we detect them in any way? If our behavior was influenced by something spiritual, then why did human behavior seem to hinge so utterly on our organic brains and hormones and cultural conditioning? If a bodily resurrection was possible and occurred several times in the Bible’s various stories, why had we not had one single verified instance of it happening to anybody (not to mention the truly stupendous healings of lepers and whatnot)? If the Bible was a true history, then why we did we constantly make archaeological finds that refuted its stories?

It gets worse though (at least in my opinion). If communication with a supernatural realm is even possible, then we should be able to test that idea by, well, reliably communicating with that realm–but why haven’t we managed to get even one credible contact with it? If prayer really contacts that realm, then we ought to see something interesting happen when Christians pray, but we really don’t–which indicates that prayer is nothing more than standard-issue magical thinking. For all the posturing and contorting I see Christians doing, though, I don’t see them finding ways to get credible facts into their arguments. The mere existence of a supernatural realm would be the very first piece of evidence Christians would need to have to prove their claims, and I’ve never even seen one try to demonstrate that one. They just take for granted that such a realm exists.

It’s so disappointing to read the myths of the ancient world and think about what the world would look like if those myths were even halfway true, isn’t it? Pillars of fire from the sky, plagues infesting countries, flying prophets, towering angels with swords, worldwide floods, you name it. Nobody had to twist just so, squint just right, and tilt their heads jusssst the right way to see such undeniable evidence back then! But now we’re down to Christians arguing themselves into a god because there is no other way anybody would ever be able to buy into the idea otherwise.

In the end, I’d say this: there really are no compelling arguments I’ve ever heard for Christianity. I’m way past even feeling obligated to listen to every zealot who runs screaming into my line of sight claiming to have one. I’ve given Christianity more than enough of my attention and time; until something striking comes along, I don’t see any need to humor Christians who mistakenly think they have found the first real proof of their religion. I figure they’ve had a couple thousand years. If that’s not good enough, then I’d say it’s time to move on to the next big idea. A god who would condemn me for not earnestly giving my time and attention to every such cry of “wolf!” is not a god worth worshiping, but we knew that already, right?

There is a very good reason why “logical Christians” don’t take all this proof they think they have and do anything official with it; I think they know their ideas wouldn’t survive a peer-review process. They have a much better chance of fooling laypeople than skilled philosophers and scientists. See, it’s a lot easier to pretend to have evidence for a spiritual idea than to actually demonstrate  that evidence. And so far, Christians are content to buy into these false claims. We humans do seem as a group to prefer our smoke-and-mirrors. Reality may seem a pale competition for the fantastical nature of religion.

But I’d rather have reality than tortured “logic.”

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