The scientific method is a tried and tested approach for determining objective truths about the world. It has answered some of the most significant questions about how the world works, and how we came to be here. Of course, science hasn't yet answered all the unknown questions, and it might never be able to.
Some people claim that religion answers the questions that science cannot, and that there are some things (like the existence of the soul, what happens after death, the first cause or the ultimate end of the universe) that can never be answered by science.
Yet who are they to make this claim? In order for an explanation to be an answer, it must be verifiably true, rather than only an assertion. To provide an answer that cannot be verified is only as good as inventing an answer.
I could do that myself – I could invent a myth that explains the origin of time and space, and claim that I answer the questions that science can't. In fact, there are many religions that claim to have the answers, and they can’t all be true. How can anyone determine the truth of such claims? If I wanted to convince any other person, or even to know that what I believed in was true, then there must be justification for that belief. Otherwise, all are as worthless as each other in terms of truth value – they are merely baseless assertions. So, the only way to determine if any such claims have merit is to investigate them in an impartial, unbiased, and thorough way.
In my previous article, A Skeptics' Epistemology, I explained how rational “beliefs” are those supported by justification, which relies on empirical evidence. Can religious claims be supported by evidence, and if not, do they have a leg to stand on?
There are some who believe there is empirical evidence of biblical claims, but these fall flat before the massive amounts of evidence disproving them. The biblical six day creation, while held as literal fact by some believers, has been relegated to parable by many others, including the Catholic church, simply because of the overwhelming scientific consensus of an old Earth. In fact, the evidence supporting it is so well-known and understood by much of the general public that only those who have been subjected to an extremely biased education, from a young age, would doubt them. Support for a literal six day Creation, and other stories from the bible, shrinks every day.
When their burden of proof cannot be met, theists claim that there’s more than just empirical evidence to prove the existence of God. Their fall-back argument is that they know it based on subjective experiences, through their personal relationship with God. This, they say, is a kind of knowing, or gnosis, without physical evidence - the evidence is felt and experienced by the believer alone.
This kind of "evidence", they say, is stronger and more important than empirical evidence. I’ve heard some say that empirical evidence is all circumstantial, as though it’s somehow an inferior kind of evidence. In fact, circumstantial evidence, such as DNA and fingerprint evidence, is often considered to be far more reliable in court than eyewitness accounts.
Subjective religious experiences are also something that a non-believer wouldn't experience.
So why don't we all have these experiences? Why are atheists not all feeling the influence of God and becoming believers? After all, it's for the lack of evidence that we don't believe. If only God would reveal himself to us all, then we skeptics would be able to convert.
Apparently, it's necessary to believe first. Only after accepting God and believing in him does one receive a "revelation" whereby God reveals himself in such a way as cannot possibly be mistaken. Or so they say.
It seems that God doesn't want to prove it to us; he wants us to believe, with no proof, first. There are theists who admit that their faith is supported by circular reasoning, but that it’s necessary to jump into this circle before the evidence is revealed – to take, if you will, the leap of faith. This, of course, is a catch-22 for the rational thinker who expects evidence. Without evidence, we can't believe, and without believing, we won't receive any evidence. It seems as though God just does not want to “save” those who utilise the intelligence he gave them.
In other words, God would want us to believe that he exists, based on an old text (which says nothing prohibiting rape or paedophilia but does promote slavery and genocide, and is scientifically inaccurate), and the unreliable testimony of believers – and this belief is the primary condition (rather than kindness, benevolence, or charity) by which he judges whether or not we go to Heaven or Hell. That a benevolent god would condemn rational thinkers for using critical thinking should be cause enough to question this idea.
We might here have an indication of why some theists choose to believe that there are no such thing as atheists. Rather than be faced with the abovementioned spiteful and petty manner of their God, they would rather deny that atheists don’t somehow know there really is a God – that we are somehow rejecting a God that we all, deep down, know exists, and are therefore self-imposing condemnation, even if we are good people in every other way. But using this line on an atheist, especially one who has never been a believer, is far from convincing.
Some even say, "I am living proof that God exists". Do they really not see the problem with this? To prove something means to demonstrate its certainty to someone else, and unless I was a mind reader, there's no possible way I could know what goes on inside another person's head.
This catch-22 seems to be a similarly curious conundrum to what countless fairy tale characters face, with the (unfortunately) widely proliferated trope “you can only experience magic if you truly believe in magic!” Of course, for fairy tale characters, it isn’t much of a problem because other characters usually demonstrate their magic, which is evidence of its possibility. Unfortunately for us, there's no way to see other people's revelations - we are just supposed to trust them, which is difficult when they seem to be a biased source, and are usually outlandish (should I also trust the fairy believers?).
So as it's not possible for a theist to convince a rational thinker of the validity of these experiences, how can we account for those who say they have had them? After all, there are some trustworthy people who make this claim. What are we to make of those, and could they be wrong about their experiences?
To claim that one has had this revelation from God, one must also believe that there's no possible way that they could be wrong about what they have experienced. This is clearly a paradox - if a person has been shown something that absolutely proves God's existence, how can they know they have not been deceived in some way? For example, even if God appeared and personally spoke to me, I would first have to question my sanity. As convincing as the experience might be, to claim that it's absolutely true, and couldn’t possibly be wrong, is to claim that I couldn't possibly be wrong about what I have experienced.
I have heard theists answer this with “God is infallible”, but by the same poor logic, “I have been given a vision by a perfect, infallible leprechaun, so I couldn’t possibly be wrong” should also work. Of course, to be infallible, a person would have to actually be a god.
Imagine being in a courtroom, on trial for murder. The defence has presented strong empirical evidence showing that you are innocent of the crime, but the jury has decided, before the trial, that you are guilty. When a jury is biased and unreliable, evidence can be misinterpreted, or selectively heard or ignored, as the jury seeks only the evidence confirming its preconception. This doesn’t have to be a conscious choice. The preconceived belief can lead to even a subconsciously biased assessment of the evidence.
The subjective experiences of the religious are similarly unreliable. Just as the biased jury will look at scant evidence and come to a guilty verdict, the believer in fairies sees fairies, the believer in UFOs sees UFOs, and the believer in God sees signs and miracles and the image of Jesus in a mould stain or Mary in a fence post. These may be some of the more extreme examples, but the effect is the same for more mundane situations - seeing god's signature in nature, or feeling god's presence in times of hardship (which is more likely to be a psychological effect than the actual presence of god). Believers in religion look at the world through religion-coloured glasses – it’s no surprise then that they see “evidence” confirming the belief. Wishful thinking has a very powerful psychological effect.
The problem is that there is still no way of knowing if it's true, or if the mind has been deceived. Even if a rational thinker succeeds in believing without prior evidence, and has some kind of revelation, being aware of human tendency to bias would force the question – “am I deceiving myself?” The seed of doubt has been well and truly sown.
The same question must be asked of the believer: “how do you know the experience is real?” A person who cares about the truth of what he/she believes in should be concerned by this. What if you believe with certainty that something is true, when it really isn't true? To maintain that you couldn't possibly be wrong about your experiences speaks not about God's ability to convince you, but of your own ability to be deceived.
“But I’ve seen miracles” – we’ve all heard this before. What were the miracles? Amputated limbs growing back? People recovering from illnesses much faster, or in a much higher number, than the statistical expectation? Of course not – the miracles are invariably things that could happen without divine intervention, such as recovering from an illness that people can recover from, or finding a lost necklace. Miracles should be things that are really impossible, but the believer merely invokes God as an explanation for improbable (or sometimes even probable) events, because they already believe and seek confirmation of their beliefs.
Theists often claim that non-believers could never know these experiences. I don’t think I need to, as I have explained, no matter how real the experiences may seem to the believer, there are strong reasons why they might be false. However, I have never been a believer, so perhaps they have a point?
But wait! – there are atheists who were believers, but who have given up their beliefs. I have spoken with many who know first-hand the seductive power of religious belief, especially when they were raised into it from childhood. They speak of living in a comforting fantasy, and it’s not just a want to believe, but a way of life. To reject the belief system is to give up on many of the things that the believer regards as fundamental to their self-identity. This creates a strong confirmation bias in the believer, and their stories commonly feature the great difficulty of overcoming this tendency to bias.
There are so many religions, and there can only be, at the very most, one true religion. Christians believe that they have had a true revelation from God, such that cannot possibly be wrong. Yet Muslims, Mormons, and believers in fairies, all say the same thing. The believers of countless religions throughout history have affirmed that there was no way they could be possibly wrong about their experiences. How can a person be so certain? And more importantly, how can a person be so confident in his/her own infallibility?
If there was only one god of one religion, surely it wouldn't try to convince people of other religions that they are right about their beliefs too? If subjective experiences were real and a reliable justification for faith, only the believers of the one true religion would have them. This is clearly not the case. Believers who trust in their own subjective experiences would have to dismiss the experiences of all other faiths as delusional, or the product of bias as I have explained, while believing that they alone are incapable of the same fault.
In my previous article I mentioned intercessory prayer (praying to heal the sick or injured – in other words, to ask God to intercede on one’s behalf) – if it was effective, it would be testable, and studies have shown that it has no measurable benefit.
But a prayer may be to ask God for help in other ways, such as giving a person strength when they are facing tough times. Of course this is not something that can be measured or tested, and we can only rely on anecdotes for examples. There may be no way to disprove this phenomenon, but there are some good non-supernatural reasons as to why this might happen. If we consider confirmation bias - the tendency for a person to seek out evidence of what they already believe - the confirmation of God's influence could be seen in even the person's own strength of will. That is, they might be giving credit to the wrong "person". Even if the person did really find some additional inner strength to deal with their hardships, it still doesn't mean there was really a supernatural agent at work - we're all familiar with the placebo effect - and it doesn't mean that this help couldn't have been provided by a different source, such as confidence in medicine. For example, a person didn't believe in God, but had good knowledge of, and consequently trust in, medical science, they might have been better able to deal with their illness psychologically than without it.
There are also the stories of people who had no, or only a weak, belief in God, but when going through a difficult time, turned to God, and found that things improved after that. This might be something I would need to expand on further in another article, but I’ll give a quick answer here. Firstly, it’s still just another example of confirmation-seeking behaviour. When a person is facing tough times, their want for answers and help becomes more of a need. It’s no surprise that people facing hardships seek this kind of help, and help often comes from those with an interest in spreading their own brand of “answers” – there are people from many different religions looking for converts, and those in need are easy targets. The person might be able to get just as much help from a secular counsellor, another kind of community group, or even by joining a sporting club, but these groups aren’t actively seeking out converts. Secondly, the fact that things improve after hardships isn’t too surprising, when the only direction a person has left is up. The person’s situation might have improved even if they didn’t start believing in God, and for many, this probably happens. But without attributing it to miracle, they would have no reason to tell the story, and we just wouldn’t hear about them.
There is also the more simple interpretive aspect - that a believer will see evidence of God wherever they look.
To assign meaning on the basis of apparent purpose or design is a mere argument from incredulity. We might also see the complex symmetrical structure of a snowflake and argue that it must have been individually crafted by magic, because no natural process can manufacture something so intricate. We know, of course, that snowflakes result from physical processes that do occur naturally – so in this there is no contention (although if divine snowflake manufacture was in the bible, it would probably still be controversial). To argue that the universe must have been created because it’s complex, wonderful, and difficult to understand, is just another form of confirmation bias.
People with no preconceived belief in a “creator” look for evidence and try to figure out the answers to these big questions. If there’s not enough evidence, “I don’t know, let’s try to find out” is a more suitable answer than “God did it”. Fortunately, we do have ample evidence leading to viable theories explaining the origin of the universe and evolution of life, none of which need to involve a god. Yet it's most often those with little understanding of science who reject its findings, and instead “see” evidence of God’s hand in nature. Of course, there are still things that science can’t answer, but nobody else can claim to answer them either.
A final note I’ll add is a criticism that I have heard of empirical evidence, and in particular science – which is that because we can only see evidence via sensory input, and must interpret the evidence, it is therefore subjective, and may be as prone to error as any subjective evidence claim made by theists.
The difference is that science aims to be impartial, and in every way remove error and bias, provide testable explanations and predictions that are actually confirmed. Anything that fails these tests is rejected, and anything that passes the tests is accepted, but still subject to continued testing.
On the other hand, religion tends to make no effort to prevent bias. In fact, it’s the opposite – it creates a self-affirming belief system, whereby believers will support and continually affirm the experiences spoken of by their fellow believers. I won’t go into more detail on this here as I intend to write more on it later.
Theists often argue that there are things that exist beyond the reach of science, and only their subjective experiences are true evidence of these phenomena. This is an attempt to elevate these experiences above and beyond the material world, but any perceived religious experience can be explained by cognitive science and psychology, and so they are still well and truly within the jurisdiction of empirical examination.
I’ll close with a question for theists: if you rely on subjective experiences to validate your faith, and it’s important to you that what you believe is actually true, can you be so sure that you are infallible, and able to trust that you are not deceived, while at the same time dismissing the similar experiences of those whose beliefs you find ridiculous?