Asking the Right Questions
"Is there evidence that God exists?" This is a question that is asked thousands of times a day and is probably answered just as frequently. However, I think the question itself deserves a bit of attention. Too often, Christian apologists rush to debate the evidence for God's existence without considering the question that prompted the discussion in the first place. In this essay, I'd like to very briefly consider this question and ask what it actually means. If we don't understand the question, there is not much hope of us answering it effectively. And if we don't ask the right questions, the answers provided will do us little good.
Let me consider four different ways in which we can ask the question: "is there evidence that God exists?"
First, we can ask the question "is there evidence that God exists?" in a purely rhetorical sense. Asked in this way, the question is actually an assertion that there is no evidence for God. But to make an assertion is to renounce skepticism, at least with regards to the issue of evidence. In that case, why ask a question at all? I would suggest that it is far better to make the decidedly indicative statement "There is no evidence for God" than to risk giving a false impression of real doubt.
Second, we could ask the same question but mean far more than what is explicitly stated. When we ask whether there is evidence for God's existence, we might actually be saying "Can you compel me to believe in God's existence?" If this is the real question, then the answer is no. Or, more correctly, the answer is "I hope not." I am not sure that anything short of physical violence really counts as "compulsion." And if that's the case, then I doubt any Christian apologist in the world desires to "compel" belief in God in this sense. What most skeptics mean when they talk about compulsion is probably something more along the lines of "Can you provide evidence so convincing that any rational person would be incapable of rejecting it?"
Here again, the answer is no because of the issue of presuppositions. Every one of us has presuppositions that are held logically prior to any evidence. For instance, if I presuppose that the natural world is all that exists, then I can be strictly rational and logical and yet will be completely unable to recognize evidence for the super-natural. For a strict naturalist, even the most wildly improbable event can be met -quite calmly and rationally- with the comment "There must be a natural explanation for this." I would not dismiss such a person as "irrational"; yet their presuppositions will prevent them from considering certain types of evidence or even recognizing that certain types of evidence exist at all.
Aside from these issues, I think we need to consider the motivation for this form of the question. After all, when I ask a waitress at a restaurant the way to the bathroom, I rarely demand that the evidence for the directions be so convincing that any rational person would be incapable of rejecting it. Or if someone compliments me on an essay I wrote, I rarely demand that they support their statement with evidence "irrefutable to any sane individual." It seems that there are two factors at play here. The first is the oft-repeated mantra that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." While that is part of the answer, I am not sure that it is the only answer. After all, if I arrive at lecture one day and one of my classmates tells me that the class is cancelled because the professor won the Nobel prize, that is surely an extraordinary claim. Yet I wonder how many of us would be skeptical enough to demand rigorous documentation from the Nobel committee before heading home to watch television. I think the far more important issue in our skepticism has to do with the impact of certain truth claims on our lives. We tend to require a much lower threshold of proof for beliefs which please us than for beliefs which threaten our comfort or entertainment. It probably wouldn't take much to convince us that chocolate and red wine are good for our hearts. It probably would take a lot more to convince us that an austere diet of stale bread and lima beans is the only way to long-term health.
A third form of the question does not actually demand compelling proof because it realizes the difficulties associated with our predispositions, preferences, and presuppositions, from which no human being can ultimately escape. Instead, we could ask the question "Is there evidence that God exists?" and we could mean "Is it reasonable to think that God exists?" In other words, are there pieces of evidence from which I could reasonably conclude that God exists even if the evidence is not completely conclusive and utterly compelling? This is where the work of the apologist begins because the answer is yes. There is an abundance of evidence. I would even say that there is overwhelming evidence that God exists. When we ask the right questions, we begin to find answers, perhaps more answers than we would like. Although no evidence will be -or can possibly be- strong enough to overturn our basic, fundamental presuppositions, I think there are arguments that would give pause to even the hardest-nosed atheist. As C.S. Lewis said, even in his days as an atheist, there were times when religion looked uncomfortably plausible. So I do encourage everyone to ask the question "Is it reasonable to think that God exists?" and to search for resources that will help you answer that question. If you email me, I will even send you a book that might help you.
However, before I end, I want to suggest one last question that is the most important of all. Yet it is amazing that we do not ask it more often. Perhaps it escapes us for its childlike simplicity and naivete. The question is: "Does God exist?" When we ask this question, we're not asking "Can you make me believe that God exists?" or "Is there enough evidence to convince a completely unbiased, neutral observer that God exists?" or "Will I be thought intellectually respectable if I believe that God exists?" We're asking that most basic of questions in a way that a four-year-old might ask it, desiring to know the truth of the matter and not looking beyond truth to weigh implications, preferences, and objections. For all its simplicity, I would argue that this is the question that most needs asking and answering. If I am dying of cancer and my doctor tells me that he can cure me, I do not ask whether he can prove to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that his cure is effective. I do not ask whether all my friends will think me a fool for trusting him. I only ask whether he is telling the truth.
In our search for God, where we start will often determine where we end. If you search for God only to show yourself that He is not there, then you will not find Him. If you ask grand theological questions only to show yourself what a spiritual person you are, then you'll never obtain answers. But if you seek him like a starving man seeks for bread or a thirsting man seeks for water, then the Bible is filled to the brim with promises that you will find Him. Or more correctly, that He will find you.
"For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." - Luke 11:10
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.