What Constitutes Evidence for God?
By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | June 2, 2018
Are angels hovering over East Jordan? Looking at the recent photo captured by the security camera of East Jordan’s Fire Chief, Glen Thorman, one would think so. The pictures, snapped in the dark of night by a motion-triggered security camera at Thormon’s home, clearly show what appears to be an angel hovering over the chief’s pickup truck! Could there be any better evidence for God than a photograph of one of God’s messengers?
Hold up! Though even the most devout atheist would have to admit the pictures show something looking like an angel, could it be something else? Yes. Some suggest it might be a moth hovering close to the camera, creating the heavenly image. I have to admit — while I really want it to be an angel, it could be a moth.
If even a photo of an “angel” can’t answer the question of God’s existence once and for all, what would constitute evidence for God? Many things: life, creation, love … . In addition to “outward signs,” evidence — at least according to Merriam-Webster — can include the testimony of “one who bears witness.” God offers both.
The Bible is filled with “outward signs.” They are called theophanies. They include miracles and other signs of God’s existence. Countless believers, including witnesses to the theophanies, have given testimony to their truth. The evidence is overwhelming — but there are those who question the evidence. They want absolute proof.
Even in science and law, we know absolute proof doesn’t exist. The same is true for theology. There is overwhelming evidence for the existence of God, though absolute proof of God’s existence eludes us.
Is there a God? Yes. Some people cannot see God; some people refuse to see God. The rest of us must take God on faith, which is how God would have it.
“For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes … But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:15-16)
The “angel” in the security camera is evidence of the tendency in the human mind to see and believe what one desires to be true. It is another Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich. The witness of those inclined to see such miracles no more constitutes evidence than does the original moth, or cheese sandwich. Theophanies, such as the talking burning bush described in the book of Exodus, are 2,600-year-old, passed-down tales of cheese sandwiches.
I and other atheists do not demand absolute proof as Bill states; we are aware of limits on certainty. I would, however, be swayed by meaningful, convergent evidence sufficient to support even cautious tentative belief. If I encounter such evidence, I will alter my view, because I desire above all else to understand what is true to the degree I am able.
Many religious stories present magical-seeming events as occurring in the physical world (parting seas, raising the dead, a person turning into salt, etc.). A present-day perspective and ordinary standards of evidence are sufficient to identify these as mythologies from an earlier time.
Religious people often maintain a faith by deemphasizing those parts of religion that conflict with the rules of nature. They focus instead on a dearly held sense that there is a divine power with which they can personally connect. In other words, the determining evidence for God is the believer’s inner experience.
Is inner experience a valid way to gain understanding about reality? Is truth proportional to the intensity of that inner voice?
Our evolved brains are not efficient truth-detecting machines. They are excessively quick to see patterns, to attribute agency to random events, and to emotionally commit to the imperfect conceptions we construct of the world. Mental frameworks that emerge in the mind and shape perceptions vary between individuals and cultures. The deeply felt “reality” of one Christian may not align with that of another, and may be utterly incompatible with the beliefs of a devout Hindu. Inner experience is a product of inherited tendencies in thinking that interact with individual circumstances; we err in interpreting it as a direct connection to universal truth.
The movie Mystery Men is a story of a group of wanna-be superheroes. Invisible Boy’s power is the ability to become invisible — but it only works when no one is looking. If something is “real” to the experiencer but not tangible or accessible to others, how is it distinguishable from imagination?
It is a constant challenge in life to discern what is real from all the notions that emerge from our individual and collective imaginations. Inquiry is a more effective tool here than intuition. We need also to recognize and compensate for the errant tendencies of our evolved brains. If we apply sufficient care and skepticism when seeking to understand the universe, then we have a chance of appreciating it as it really is.
Once again, I have to admit Scott is right. Scott asks, “If something is ‘real’ to the experiencer but not tangible or accessible to others, how is it distinguishable from imagination?” But what does this have to do with the existence of God? God is accessible to anyone. The evidence? Millions of people have experienced God’s presence — more than would claim they haven’t. So it would seem, using Scott’s logic of “accessibility to others,” the atheists are the ones imagining things. Like children who cover their eyes and pretend no one can see them, atheists close their eyes to the evidence of God and pretend God doesn’t exist. But like the children with their eyes covered, all this proves is they can’t see God, not that God can’t see them. Yes, we need inquiry and intuition, reason and revelation. People of faith are willing to look at all the evidence.
Scott and Bill agree the atheist and theist come to different conceptions of the world at least partially because of genuine differences in what they regard as meaningful evidence.