No evidence for God?
Skeptics often claim that there’s ‘no evidence for God’. It’s actually quite a radical claim. How should we respond to it? D. from Australia writes:
To whom it may concern,
My name is D. and I am writing to you today as I have been really blessed by the ministry of CMI and would like your assistance. I have a friend who grew up in church but I personally wouldn’t say was a true believer as he has now turned from the faith and claims that there is no evidence for God. Him and I had a recent conversation and part of the conversation was surrounding evidence of a change in kind regarding evolution, for example a dog turning into a whale (that may be a poor example but I hope it makes sense). He was suggesting that there are examples and evidences of this however I was suggesting to him that there are not any examples and evidences today, of a change in kind. He suggested that I am misinformed and provided me with this video.1
Are you able to help me with this and maybe recommend a resource for me to gain further information?
Also, I would love some advice on how to talk to him. He would argue that there is simply no evidence that there is a God that exists. How would you suggest I respond to him? Is there a resource I can send him?
Looking forward to your response.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
Fossil horse ‘series’: evidence of evolution?
In response to the Dawkins video, fossils are arranged in diagrams like this are presented as a series of snapshots between one type of creature and another. This article is a good starting point: Are Maiacetus, Indohyus, and Dorudon missing links? This one goes into more depth: Walking whales, nested hierarchies, and chimeras: do they exist? And this article presents a general case for why fossils are not great evidence for evolution: Is the fossil record ‘overwhelming evidence for evolution’?
No evidence for God?
The ‘no evidence for God’ claim, though, is an interesting one. It often works to frame the discussion in such a way that only we have a burden of proof. It allows the unbeliever the comfortable position of the skeptic: they get to poke holes in our case without ever having to make a case for anything themselves. This however sets up a false dilemma: either we can convince them that God exists, or our faith in God isn’t reasonable. But there’s practically always a way to doubt any argument for God (or practically any argument for any philosophically interesting conclusion, for that matter) that’s not obviously wrong to all rational people. Plus, skeptics regularly demand airtight arguments practically anyone would have to accept before they would believe in God (Agnosticism). As such, we almost certainly won’t convince them. But then that supposedly means that our faith in God isn’t reasonable. The game is rigged from the start. Heads, the skeptic wins; tails, we lose.
How can we counteract it? First, we don’t have to prove God’s existence to the point of convincing a trenchant skeptic like this to be rational in believing in God. First, there’s a big difference between knowing that God is real and showing that God is real. For instance, I know how chocolate tastes to me, but I can’t really show others how it tastes to me. Does my inability to show how it tastes to me undermine my ability to know how it tastes to me? Of course not. Likewise, someone showing us that God is real through publicly accessible evidence and arguments is only one way to know that God is real. And it may not even be the best way to know. We may have reason to think God is there that isn’t publicly accessible, such as a person’s own experience with God. That probably won’t be much help in convincing others that God is real, but it can still be rightly convincing to that person.
Moreover, a trenchant skeptic is not the picture of objectivity. Take your friend, for instance. He’s not a blank slate; he left the church. In other words, he was a convert to his skepticism. Converts can easily feel like they were ‘duped’ by their former ideology, and manifest powerful anger and disgust towards it as a result. Do you ever wonder why skeptics in the West tend to direct hatred toward Christianity more than any other religion? They’re reacting to what they rejected. Most of them came out of the church, not the synagogue, mosque, or temple. Does this sound like cold, dispassionate reason? No. Does it sound human? Yeah. Of course, converts to Christianity do it too. But the point is that skeptics are just as susceptible to the same biases, failures, and foibles as the rest of us. But if so, why think their views are correct, especially if we find some arguments for God convincing even after considering the best objections to them? We’re not irrational for disagreeing with them. Sane and smart people can disagree rationally about such things. Thus, there’s no guarantee that there’s something wrong in us just because a skeptic won’t accept an argument we find convincing. So, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, since you failed to convince someone that God is there, your faith is somehow faulty.
How to respond
So, then: how should you respond to your friend? (For some general advice on how to handle these sorts of discussions, please see Anyone for tennis? and Why not? And why? What follows will be focused specifically on the ‘no evidence for God’ idea.) Don’t play his game. Flip the script. Instead of you presenting a case for God, make him present what he thinks a case for God should look like. The simplest way to do this is to ask him: ‘What sort of evidence would you expect God to give?’ After all, absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if we’re lacking evidence we’d expect God to leave behind. But, for me, there’s more than enough evidence for God to convince me that He’s there (Philosophical arguments for God). I don’t need any more convincing. Why does the skeptic?
Don’t be surprised if he gets cagey at this point, trying to avoid giving some sort of evidence that would convince him. Many skeptics will say things like, ‘Well, none of the arguments I’ve seen convince me.’ Or he may just continue to demand that you convince him. But if he does this, don’t let him off the hook. Hold his feet to the fire. Say something like: ‘Well, if I don’t know what would convince you, why should I bother trying? How do I know that anything I might say wouldn’t just fall on deaf ears?’
You want him to give you something concrete. But, failing that, your goal is to make him feel the irresponsible dogmatism of his skepticism. If skeptics hate anything, it’s looking like a gullible dogmatist. After all, that’s (supposedly) the very thing they escaped in leaving the church, right? Hopefully, he will feel the sting, and then give you something concrete: something he would accept as evidence for God. Or he might say: ‘I’m not sure right now. I need to think about it.’ Either response is really good. If he does the latter, happily give him all the time he needs, even if it means you have to pick up the conversation at another time. (And don’t keep bugging him for a response to you! You don’t want to come off as pushy; that plays into the ‘religious’ stereotype. Let him come back to you.)
But if he continues avoiding the question, walk away. It’s a waste of time trying to engage with him, because he either doesn’t want to be convinced, or doesn’t think he ever could be. But even if he does this, don’t despair; it may sow a seed of doubt in him about the reasonableness of his extreme skepticism. Instead, pray.
But if he gives you something concrete, then play the skeptic. Show that even the case he expects would convince him has the same sort of holes he thinks exist in more standard cases for God.
For instance: many skeptics will say things like: ‘Well, if I saw an amputee healed in response to prayer, that would convince me.’ Respond with: ‘Really? How do you know God would’ve done it?’ ‘The prayer’, they’ll respond. Your response: ‘That could just be a coincidence. Besides, it’s just a one-off event. What if it never gets repeated? That doesn’t sound scientific. Plus, how do you know something other than God didn’t step in to heal the amputee? Maybe aliens did it! At least we know aliens can exist, since we exist. But God? You’re just linking events that have no demonstrable link and labelling it with ‘God did it’ to cover for your lack of a scientific explanation.’ This sort of a response is a real stinger because it’s exactly how most skeptics respond to cosmological and design arguments for God.
Some of them might say, ‘Well, if God appeared to me right here and said, “Here I am, believe in me!” then I would.’ To this you could respond: ‘So, you’d bow the knee at a vision that may very well just be a dream? How would you know for sure you didn’t hallucinate?’
Some might say, ‘If the stars read “God exists. Worship him”, I would believe.’ Response: ‘That would only be useful to people who knew the language the message was written in. Nevertheless, how do you know the stars don’t say that in a language you’ve never encountered? At any rate, why not other beings that want to deceive us? It’s not something we could say that only God could do, so why should we trust a message in the sky with practically no context? Besides, why should you expect God to arrange the stars just to sate your curiosity about his existence? Is that really reasonable to expect of God? Are we the centre of his universe?’
Doubting his doubts
And remember—with such responses, you’re not trying to show that God doesn’t exist. Rather, you’re trying to show that we can always come up with reasons to doubt that will sound plausible to someone, no matter what evidence is put forward. And if they say, ‘Well, that’s what would convince me.’ Respond with: ‘So what? You can’t guarantee that it would convince every rational person. You didn’t say, “There’s no evidence for God that convinces me”; you said, “There’s no evidence for God”, period. If all you’re aiming to do is convince yourself, how can anyone else be sure that you’re really looking for the truth? And this isn’t just about trusting you. This is also about whether you’re even competent to look for the truth about God.’
At this point, they might start saying things like, ‘Well, all I can do is look at the evidence and do my best to figure out the truth. You have to do that for yourself, too.’ At which point you can respond with: ‘Exactly! That’s all I’m trying to do, too. But I genuinely think that things like the following are best explained by the existence of God (click on the links for a detailed explanation of each).
- The universe had a beginning.
- The universe exists rather than nothing at all.
- The universe is fine-tuned for life.
- Morals are real.
- Living things exhibit ingenious design.
- Humans are capable of reason.
‘I see those things and more as evidence for God. I’m not saying that other explanations can’t be offered, or even that smart and sane people can’t disagree with me. Maybe you don’t find these to be conclusive proofs, but it’s a gross overstatement to say that they don’t qualify as evidence. Furthermore, when I look at them as honestly and critically as I can, I still think God is the best explanation for them. But when you say, ‘there’s no evidence for God’, you seem to imply I’m less than rational and/or honest when I say that. Is that fair?’
After all, that’s the real effect of this ‘no evidence for God’ claim. If they hold it consistently, they have to admit that you’re essentially irrational just for being a theist. But hopefully, by this point, he’s felt the unjustified dogmatism of his view, and walked it back a bit to admit that theists aren’t necessarily failing to reason properly when they believe in God. If you manage to do that, then you’ve won a huge victory. And that might be a good place to end the discussion for the time being. People often need time to process these sorts of things, so bombarding them with everything in our arsenal all at once is just unhelpful. For a start, he’s probably not ready to hear most of it with an open mind. Rather, we try to deal with the person where they are, and try to nudge them a little bit in the right direction.
But, if he’s really committed to his view, he may bite the bullet on this right to your face. He may admit that he has to conclude that you’re irrational for believing in God. If he pushes that far, then there’s one last thing that may help him to walk back his dogmatism: a bigger atheistic brain than his who disagrees with him. Here’s a quote from atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy where he says that theists can be rational in their theism, even though he thinks we’re wrong:
“I am very firmly of the belief that there are no supernatural entities of any kind; a fortiori, I am very firmly of the belief that there are no orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. I am also pretty firmly of the belief that, even by quite strict standards, those who believe in the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods need not thereby manifest some kind of failure of rationality.”2
Here’s a ‘translation’: ‘I’m very confident there are no supernatural beings. I’m even more confident God doesn’t exist. But I’m also pretty confident theists aren’t necessarily irrational just for believing in God.’
Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University in Australia (equivalent to the rank of Distinguished Professor in most American universities) and is widely considered to be one of the foremost philosophers of religion in the world. If he can grant that theists aren’t necessarily irrational just for believing in God, then your friend should be able to as well. If he still won’t, then you should ask him: why should I trust your opinion on the reasonableness of belief in God over perhaps the foremost atheistic expert on these questions in the world? Even if he can’t see you as anything but irrational, it’ll be very hard for him to say that you have to agree with him rather than Oppy without looking like an arrogant fool. Which, again, may sow just a sliver of doubt in his extreme skepticism.
As you can see, there are myriad ways to attack this sort of topic. And no doubt there are possible responses I haven’t covered here. But the point is to focus on his position, not yours. Ask him questions of his position. React to his position. This is about him, not you. You want him thinking about (and questioning) where he is, not where you are. Apologetics is largely a reactive discipline; it addresses people where they’re at and seeks to move them toward (or strengthen them in, for believers) a rationally justified commitment to Christ.
As for resources, see especially Agnosticism and Atheism; Philosophical arguments for God (especially the opening section) is also useful. The Creation Answers Book, chapter 1: Does God exist? has an introductory treatment of some of the evidence for God. For more articles, see our Atheism and God Q and A pages. Our books Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels and Christianity for Skeptics will also be useful.
Creation Ministries International