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“Evidentialism” and Belief in God

One of the turning points of my Christian life was when I began researching A-Shot-of-Faith-to-the-Headevidences for the validity and rationality of the Christian faith. Evidences for the existence of God, the authenticity of Scripture, the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ abound. Thus, one of my apologetic approaches has always been to “look at the evidence.”

Mitch Stokes, in his book A Shot of Faith to the Head, challenges that approach and questions the strength of evidentialism for proving ANY belief system.

Both theists and non-theists employ evidentialism.

  • Theists claim the evidence points to God.
  • Non-theists say the evidence point to NO God.

In the first section of Stokes’ book, Belief in God is Irrational, the author seeks to dismantle the premise that evidentialism is a rational, sustainable approach to validating any belief system. His central objection is something like this:

Evidentialism requires evidence that it is true, making its reasoning circular.

Take the atheist who believes that scientific evidence proves there is no God. They begin with an assumption that scientific evidence is all you need to prove or disprove God, which assumes both something about the nature of God and the reliability of science. Incorporate into this the fact that relying on sensory data (as the scientific method does) assumes that our senses are always trustworthy. So we end up relying on sensory data to prove that relying on sensory data is rational.

There cannot be scientific evidence that proves that relying on scientific evidence is rational. This is circular reasoning and logically self-defeating.

Stokes then points out that people believe all kinds of things without sufficient evidence. I don’t know for certain that the earth revolves around the sun. In fact, from my standpoint, it looks like just the opposite! I have formed this belief — even though it goes against my immediate physical senses — based on a number of factors, some of which I have no personal evidence for. Which means…

All beliefs come by way of testimony. Stokes writes,

Faith — in the general sense of believing something by way of testimony — is the foundation of everything we believe.

We trust our parents, our teachers, historians, doctors, scientists, etc. There are NO beliefs you have developed in which you did not rely on the testimony of someone else. Our understanding of science, health, history, human relationships, biology, love, religion, food, and technology (just to name a few) all require second-hand information. We trust our sources.

The question is: Is this rational?

Then there’s those beliefs that completely ignore the evidence and prove to be true. Like the person who’s told by their doctor that they have six months to live. But they refuse to believe this. Because of their rosy outlook and cheery disposition (a genetic tendency which the MD may have overlooked), they believe against the facts. Against the evidence. And lo and behold, six years later they are still kicking around Planet Earth.

So was their belief rational?

No. Thank God. No.

All of our beliefs are combinations of sifting evidences, sensory input, believing testimony, measuring against personal experience, and pure survival. No belief can validate itself by pointing exclusively to any of these. The atheist’s belief that belief in God is irrational, is itself a belief, formed by a combination of environmental stimuli, scientific data, personal experience, and peer influence. Likewise, the Christian who believes in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is relying on historians, archeological evidence, Christian apologists and pastors, Sunday school, Scripture, and its claim of eyewitness testimony.

Point being: There is no irrefutable evidence for or against God. There are only “clues.”

What remains is the respondent’s faith.

Anyway, Stokes’ book has challenged me to rethink my potential over-reliance upon evidentialism. Simply producing evidence for or against God cannot persuade someone to believe. Furthermore, the belief that evidence ALONE can prove a given belief is circular. Yes, evidentialism can be useful to defend our faith and strengthen our faith. But, ultimately, salvation requires something… Non-circular.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas January 23, 2013, 7:54 AM

    You have my brain going in circles at the moment, but I think I get what you are saying.

    I’ve tried to convince people of the truth of Christianity via evidence, because I do believe there is a lot of it, more evidence for the Christian God than any other, however, those discussions always seem to end up at the same place: faith. To get to God we have to take that leap of faith, there’s no way around it.

  • David Tuggy January 23, 2013, 11:02 AM

    I have always appreciated Chesterton’s take on this. At the risk of misrepresenting to some degree, let me summarize: All reasoning is ultimately circular. That doesn’t make it all equal. Insane (or less sane) reasonings can be recognized by their being limited to a smaller circle. More sane reasonings are those whose circle is big enough to include the others. It is sanity that comprehends insanity, and not viceversa.

    This leaves plenty of room for evidentialism. Evidence for Christ’s Resurrection, or for design in Creation, fits seamlessly into the big circle of my theism. So does every bit of evidence I have ever heard advanced by anti-theists. A lot of things that also fit in very well in theism don’t fit well if at all in most anti-theistic circles. (Chesterton mentions the difficulty of asking a friend to please pass the butter.)

  • Melissa Ortega January 23, 2013, 12:17 PM

    This is why, as G.K.Chesterton suggests, Poets do not go mad, but chess players do…

  • Bob Avey January 23, 2013, 4:09 PM

    I believe in God, rational or not. So I believe God could prove his existence at any time, if he wanted to. However, in my opinion, faith is an important concept to God.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 23, 2013, 4:55 PM

    That there are NO beliefs without testimony is a vastly overstated idea. I learned all I needed to know about gravity early on in life.

  • Jay DiNitto January 23, 2013, 6:23 PM

    I’ve probably said it before on here, Mike, but I believe belief in god to be a presupposition, not a conclusion we reach based on evidence. Evidence can remove barriers to accepting the presupposition but the belief itself doesn’t come from the evidence. In that way it can be said that belief (or non-belief) in god is a-rational. It might be more accurate to call it pre-rational, in that we accept it before the rationalizing starts.

    For instance, my memory (memory being one of the ways we know things) tells me that yesterday at around 4 PM I blew my nose. No one else saw (or heard) me do it so people can believe I blew my nose only on my authority, another legitimate way of knowing things. This is possible if they trust me, don’t think I have a reason to lie, is a reasonable action to take, etc.

    However, if they doubt me for some reason I can present material evidence: the used tissue in the trash, the fact that I’ve been blowing my nose often lately…indicating that it’s not unusual for me to do it, demonstrating that it’s not out of character for me or that I stand to gain from lying about it.

    All of these may remove barriers to this nose blowing belief but they aren’t conclusive. They can all reasonably be falsified evidences, but that is up to the determinations of the individual. All of those reasons could exist *without* me blowing my nose at 4 PM yesterday, so in the end all other people have my authority *only* as a basis for their belief, nothing else.

    So in that case, some things are pre-rational but very reasonable to believe. Belief in supernatural things can follow suit in a similar fashion.

  • Andy Decker January 27, 2013, 7:24 AM

    Isn’t evidentialism just another name for existentialism? Hebrews 11:1 defines faith. Seeing isn’t believing, believing is believing… and all that.

  • Landa January 29, 2013, 12:40 PM

    I hope you don’t mind me posting here. I do so with humility and respect for your beliefs. I would like to comment for the sake of argument if you will approve it.

    While all beliefs may “come by way of testimony,” all testimonies are not equal. There is a fundamental difference between religious testimonies and scientific testimonies. The difference being that scientific testimonies are testable and independently verifiable. The more times a “testimony” is verified, the more on which it can be relied.

    Faith, and the “testimonies” based on faith, are only called upon when there is no evidence to support one’s beliefs. No one calls upon faith to explain Earth’s orbit around the sun because science has fully explained that phenomenon. It is my view that God (like faith) is only called upon to explain things we don’t understand (like a person living 6 years after being given 6 months to live). When science can fully explain why the person went into remission that will be one less thing for God to do and one less thing to assign to faith.

    Lastly, in your post you say “there is no irrefutable evidence for or against God.” While I agree with this statement, it does not tell the whole story. There may not be irrefutable evidence against God, but there is a mountain of evidence that makes God unnecessary.

    It’s getting late so I’ll stop here. Thank you for allowing me to represent the atheists. 🙂





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