Why We Need Evidence
“Just believing” isn’t good enough
Christian apologetics has, at best, a mixed record in response to critics insisting that the religion’s claims require evidence before they can be accepted.
Tim Keller, author of The Reason for God (one of the most prominent apologetics books of today), asserts flat-out in his book that evidence is unnecessary:
We should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair.
He goes on to challenge the validity of rationalism (the view that reason is the best test of knowledge):
[Rationalism] can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that you should only accept things with empirical proof? You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief.
Meanwhile, Dr. John Marriott, whose book The Anatomy of Deconversion explores why people leave the faith and what should be done to keep people in it, echoes the sentiment. He openly encourages doubting believers to “doubt their evidentialist presuppositions” (i.e. place less importance on hard evidence). The use of reason as a measure of truth, he says, presupposes that reason is a legitimate method for obtaining truth, making the use of reason itself logically invalid.
Nor does the Bible itself have a great outlook about critical thinking. While Luke 10:27’s command to “Love the Lord your God… with all of your mind” is used to portray Christianity as intellectually friendly, others dismiss the need for reason or logic with Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”
To be fair, many Christians do believe that the evidence favors their side — it’s likely that even most of them do. However, the downplaying of the importance of reason and evidence surfaces often enough in Christian/secularist exchanges that it’s worth addressing.
Hank Green of the YouTube channel Crash Course perfectly captures why we need evidence for any of our beliefs, in his segment from “Crash Course: Philosophy” that explores pragmatic belief (and Pascal’s Wager, in particular):
“…If we can leap to God… we could leap to particular beliefs about God, like that He wants us to deny rights to certain kinds of people… or kill them.
These beliefs aren’t representative of the views of most theists, but the problem is: if you’re giving up on reasons and evidence, all beliefs are philosophically equal.
We count on evidence and justification to help us adjudicate between beliefs, to decide what we value. If you throw that out, and fall back on faith alone, the sum of your religious arguments is going to end up being, “I have faith in the things I choose to have faith in.” And in that case, no one can tell anyone else that their belief is wrong, or dangerous, or unjustified.” [emphases mine]
Exactly. Reason and evidence are vital in determining which views hold up to what we observe in reality, and which ones don’t. Apologists who downplay (or even dismiss) the need for evidence in favor of personal experience contribute to the very sort of relativism (i.e. “my truth” vs. “your truth’) which I was repeatedly taught in church that Christianity opposes — being on the side of objective truth and all.
Let’s also talk about apologists’ charge that reason can’t be valid in determining truth, because it presupposes reason as a legitimate tool. Philosopher and YouTube content creator Kane B has an answer to this in his video “Why Use Reason?” (This is pretty deep stuff, so I’ll do my best to summarize the point. Just stay with me, please!)
Basically, Kane makes a distinction between circular reasoning when it comes to premises as opposed to rules. Premise-circularity is what people typically call the “begging the question” fallacy, where an argument’s conclusion is included in one of the premises — that is, you’re guaranteed to reach the conclusion that is assumed by the premise. (Example: “I believe the Bible is infallible because the Bible says it is.”) This weakens the argument’s conclusion because we shouldn’t accept the premise until it’s actually established.
But Kane also describes a different kind, one that is also recognized in philosophy: rule-circularity. This occurs when an argument made about a rule actually utilizes the rule itself.
To cut to the chase: rule-circularity does not necessarily discredit an argument, because the conclusion is not pre-supposed in any premises, nor is the argument guaranteed to come out in support of the rule. Kane’s best example is that someone could conceivably make a logical argument that concludes reason as unreliable, despite obviously using tools of reason to make the argument. (To be fair, this is apparently a topic of debate among philosophers. Though — let’s be honest — anything is, for philosophers.)
Whichever worldviews or religious traditions we hold to, we need to be open to holding them up to the microscope and seeing if the available evidence supports keeping them. The views that hold up the strongest will provide us the information needed to make the best possible choices in moving forward as a species.