Is It Wrong to Believe Without Evidence
How should Christians respond to athiests who claim “it is wrong … to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”?
by Paul Copan
The late Christopher Hitchens — one of the infamous “new atheists” — made this claim: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” If you have had conversations with atheists about belief in God, this view — known as “strong evidentialism” — probably sounds familiar. In fact, if you hang around skeptics and freethinkers long enough, chances are you will hear about William K. Clifford’s essay, “The Ethics of Belief.” In it, he claims: “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1
Clifford gives the example of a shipowner who contemplates whether his rickety ship is sufficiently seaworthy to transport passengers across the ocean. He does not want to pay the cost of repairs or delay the voyage. So the owner suppresses these concerns and works up a “sincere and comfortable conviction” that the ship would arrive safely at its destination. He sells tickets to the passengers and bids them bon voyage. The ship tragically sinks, sending all those on board to their watery grave — and the shipowner quietly collects the insurance money, because a ship going down in mid-ocean has no tales to tell. Clifford (who himself had experienced a shipwreck) asserts that the shipowner has the passengers’ blood on his hands because of his negligence. He failed to investigate the evidence for the vessel’s seaworthiness and could have averted this disaster by delaying the journey to make the necessary repairs. The lesson? All such decisions based on insufficient evidence are wrong — “always, everywhere, and for anyone.”
What supporting reasons does Clifford give for his claim? Well, for starters, if we do not follow his advice, we will be easily duped— like those who check the dictionary after someone tells him that the word gullible is not in it. Another reason he gives is that society will sink back into savagery because people are blindly following superstitions and traditions instead of reason and evidence.
How should we respond to Clifford and Hitchens? I will look first at some problems with their demand for evidence at every turn. Then I will try to put the legitimate concern for evidence into proper perspective.
Problems With Insisting on Evidence for Every Claim
In my summer 2013 column2, I mentioned that atheists, theists, and ornery agnostics make a claim to know something. The atheist claims to know God does not exist; the theist claims He does; and the ornery agnostic says, “I don’t know if God exists — and you can’t know either.” Yet all of these are knowledge claims, and stand in need of justification or support in the marketplace of ideas. The atheist should not think he or she is off the hook by saying, “God does not exist” — end of story. How does he know that God does not exist? What are his specific reasons? The atheist might say, “The arguments for God’s existence do not work.” Well, which ones? Maybe the arguments hehas heard really are notall that good, and perhaps there are better ones to consider. And what level of proof is he insisting on? Is he looking for mathematical certainty or is he content with strong, plausible reasons? Furthermore, even if it turns out that the arguments for God’s existence do not “work” (though there’s plenty of good reason to reject this notion),3 this stillwould not show that God does not exist. After all, it is logically possible that God exists without our being able to produce good reasons. So maybe the atheist needs to rethink his or her rejection of God.
Are we saying that reasons and evidence are not important, that we never need it? Not at all. What Galileo saw through his telescope gave empirical support — evidence — for Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Science is an attempted objective study of the natural world, so scientists rightly seek empirical evidence — evidence that fellow-scientists can test and verify — to help explain what is going on in nature. Yes, evidence has its place. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, including a witness list of persons who readers could consult to confirm they saw Jesus alive after His death. And Jesus regularly performed signs so people will believe (John 20:30,31). The question is, Do all claims need evidence?
Let’s go back to Clifford’s (and Hitchens’) claim about the necessity of evidence for any claim we make. The problem is not with evidence; it’s with the notion that we need to require evidence for every belief. Let’s look at four key problems.
The first is the pragmatism problem.Clifford’s own statement is only a pragmatic one — that is, the statement is not necessarily true at all. He tells us that, if we do not follow his advice, there will be negative consequences: we will sink back into savagery. But this is not evidence for the truth of Clifford’s belief. We are only told that bad things will happen to us and to society if we do not believe based on evidence. Not being very democratic in his politics, Plato advocated a “noble lie” by which a ruler could control people. The ruler’s belief is false; but, hey, people will fall into line. Right? This illustrates how results do not determine the truth of a belief.4
Second is the regress problem. Let’s say you believe the earth is round. Hitchens would insist that a person can answer the question: “What is the evidence for that belief?” You might offer various evidences based on personal observations — how ships disappear on the watery horizon without falling off the earth or how you have crisscrossed the globe many times; you might appeal to pictures of the earth taken by astronauts or to the geometry of lunar eclipses. Is that the end of the discussion? No. All along the way you are making claims or assumptions that these evidences are reliable. If you follow Hitchens and Clifford to the letter, you will need not only evidence to support Claim A (“The earth is round”) with evidence — call it Claim B (“The pictures taken from space show a round earth”). You would need evidence for Claim B — call it Claim C (“The pictures are accurate and were not doctored or photoshopped”). But even with these evidences upon evidences, you are still making other assumptions — that your senses are reliable and that the world isn’t an illusion. Do those assumptions need evidence as well? We could go on offering evidence for evidence for evidence, and we would never be able to know anything since there is always more supporting evidence to consider. The demand for evidence for every claim leads to a vicious infinite regress, making knowledge impossible.
Third is the incoherence problem. What is the evidence for the belief that all beliefs require evidence? In fact, in Clifford’s own essay, he never gives evidence for his own position. He only tells us that bad things will happen. Clifford’s belief that every belief requires evidence is self-referentially incoherent. That is, by referring to itself, the claim becomes incoherent. What evidence can you give that all beliefs require evidence? This is like saying, “If you cannot prove something scientifically, you cannot know it.” This prompts us to ask: “How do you knowthis? How can you scientifically prove that all beliefs must be scientifically provable?”
Likewise, the philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) insisted that knowledge required belief based on what is self-evident (e.g., “I have a headache”), incorrigible (i.e., it can’t be doubted), and evident to the senses (e.g., seeing the book you are holding in your hands). The problem with his criteria for belief is that it is not self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. That is, the criteria cannot live up to their own standards.
This does not mean that if I do not have evidence for my beliefs, they are therefore irrational. My memory belief that I had oatmeal and raisins for breakfast last week is quite rational. But it certainly is not self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. Why think that I need evidence to know what I had for breakfast last week?
Fourth is the principled-disagreement problem. What happens when we have honest, principled, reasonable people who may disagree about certain beliefs? What if they come down on opposite sides of the debate regarding, say, capital punishment? Both sides may give fairly respectable reasons for holding to one viewpoint over another. In the face of this disagreement, what is to be done? Do we insist that persons on either side are somehow irrational or even immoral? That’s hard to see. Clifford’s principle does not really help us very much on such points.
Putting Evidence Into Perspective
Evidence is important and valuable. When someone says, “Green Martians exist,” we would want to know on what evidence he is asserting this. But we recognize that insisting on evidence has its limits. So we should try to understand beliefs and evidence correctly. Consider the following points.
First, we should understand properly basic beliefs. These are beliefs that arise out of our experience and we have no reason to doubt them. And we do not need further evidence for them. They are fundamental and basic, and to ask for more evidence becomes just plain silly. For example, I have fairly firm memory beliefs from childhood — memories that, for my six siblings, have slipped through the sieve of time. But if I were to try to offer evidence for them beyond my mere memory, I do not know how I would do this. Yes, you could doubt what I say and it’s logically possible I could be wrong, but many of these memories are so clear as if they happened last year or last month. We typically take such beliefs for granted without evidence.
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga argued in his book God and Other Minds that we take for granted that other minds exist — without evidence.5 This is part of our fundamental experience in everyday life. We assume other minds exist in our daily interactions — a basic belief beyond which we cannot go to offer any more basic evidence. It is like knowing I presently have a headache or that I am now typing on my laptop computer. To deny something so basic would call into question my basic mental function.
Second, we should remember that we commonly assume properly functioning minds without evidence. Whether one is a serious skeptic or a rigid demander of evidence, in each case that person will take for granted that his mind is functioning correctly. He believes — without needing evidence — that he can trust his mind, that he is not being systematically deceived. We believe or trust without evidence that our minds are generally reliable.
Third, we believe much based on authority, and we would know precious little if we had to check out the claims of recognized authorities. We take many of our beliefs — whether from parents or the scientific community or television documentaries —on authority without doing further checking of the evidence. One very practical reason for this is that we do not have the time to check out all the claims we believe. We trust the authority of others checking out the evidence directly: we believe historians are telling us the truth that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; we trust scientists who tell us the universe is expanding or that certain microscopic germs are responsible for a particular disease; we do not doubt anthropology or religion textbooks when they tell us that the inhabitants of the Maldive Islands are Muslims. If we had to investigate or seek evidence ourselves for all the things we read in books or see on the Internet, we would not know a whole lot. Clifford’s demand seems quite unreasonable.
Fourth, many atheists and skeptics use a double standard when insisting on evidence for religious truth-claims but seem to have little evidence-based support for their own particular philosophical perspectives — or just whatever they may claim to know.6 Many are quick to insist on virtual 100 percent certainty about others’ beliefs, but they allow their own beliefs a lot of wiggle room. After all, do we not believe many things on the basis of the authority of others? It is very reasonable to follow a credible authority in the area of science or linguistics or ancient history. We often take these authorities as reasonable and find little to dispute because we simply cannot become experts in every arena of knowledge.
Fifth, belief in God can be properly basic, without needing further evidence to be rational. Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God is just like belief that the universe is more than 15 minutes old or belief that other minds exist. That is, we can rationally believe all of these things without evidence. If we are designed to know and love God, then belief in God would be properly basic and rational. For example, I may come to believe in God because I have an overwhelming sense of God’s presence or of God’s forgiveness and grace. These beliefs arise from my own experience, and I have no reason to deny them — or think these are inadequate without supporting evidence.
Of course, if we are in public debate or conversations with non-Christians, we should be prepared to respond to basic objections to the Christian faith as well as defend the Christian faith in the arena of ideas. We should be prepared to give reasons for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15) — to tell others why we are Christians rather than Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists. But, contrary to Clifford and Hitchens, this does not mean that evidence is required for every belief we have.
1. W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” Contemporary Review 29 (Dec. 1876-May 1877). This is available at http://www.uta.edu/philosophy/faculty/burgess-jackson/Clifford.pdf. Accessed December 5, 2012.
2. Paul Copan, “Atheism and the Burden of Proof” Enrichment journal 18, no. 3, 2013.
3. For a sophisticated treatment of arguments for God’s existence, see William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, eds.,The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009). For a more accessible treatment, see three edited volumes by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, published by B&H Academic: Passionate Conviction; Contending With Christianity’s Critics; and Come Let Us Reason.
4. Some comments in this essay are taken from Jay Wood,Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1998), 107-8; Peter van Inwagen, “It Is Wrong, Always, Everywhere, and for Anyone, To Believe Anything Upon Insufficient Evidence.” Available at URL: http://comp.uark.edu/~senor/wrong.html. Accessed December 5, 2012.
5. Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967).
6. Peter van Inwagen, “Quam Dilecta,” in Thomas V. Morris, ed., God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 46.