Are Religious Beliefs Based on Evidence?

I was reading my Google Reader yesterday morning and came across this article by Ophelia Benson. I really appreciate atheists’ work to keep religious believers honest in what they believe. I appreciate that they call out sloppy arguments and show us that we believe too easily those things which are not supported by any evidence at all such as UFO abductions, ghosts, etc. (never mind that I find both fun and interesting) However, I must take some small issue with her statement here:

Scientific explanations of the universe are not just coherent, they are also based on evidence. Religious beliefs are not based on evidence. Makes a difference!

Benson makes a good point that we shouldn’t be biasing emotions and feelings about what we want to believe over our intellectual faculties and discerning what’s true, even though someone surely could argue that emotions/intuitions/faith can be reliable sources of information. If they couldn’t be, then no one would make decisions about love, marriage, fleeing a bad relationship, sensing dangerous people, etc. However, to then go on and assert that religious beliefs are not based on evidence is also an over-generalization. There is evidence that Christians came into existence because of the preaching of a man named Jesus and a Jew named Saul. There is evidence that this movement changed the world for good and ill. I’ve met people, who I respect greatly, who are or were radically changed by their beliefs and I consider that good evidence of something. I can’t name it, but it’s evidence to me. It may not meet Benson’s standards of scientific verifiability, but it is evidence. I think the problem is that maybe the believer’s threshold of evidence is lower but they do rely on some evidence on which to base their faith. It’s just not first hand evidence.

Look, I’m not trying to be an apologist here for any religion, but ordinary people make decisions all the time based on second-hand evidence. Someone tells us to stay away from the corner of Monroe and V. Parkway because the traffic is awful. Hearsay, yes, but we heed it.  Can we go check it out? Sure we can, but we don’t always check out every bit of information someone gives us. It’s not possible. If it’s possible we have that option. Some would consider not checking all evidence lazy. But we can’t verify every single thing presented to us as fact. No one can.  We make a decision about what we’ve heard or read and we act on it. A doctor may tell us that if we go where others are sick we have a chance of picking up whatever bug they have. So we avoid it even though we neither see the virus nor do we know if these people are indeed sick with anything.  We decide to act on this knowledge or we don’t.

While I do not condone believing without evidence of ANY kind, I cannot say there is no evidence of religious beliefs at all and I don’t think Benson can either. Sure she can say what she wants, but I find it a weak argument; just as weak as someone saying that they can’t prove God doesn’t exist. Peter Enns writes about this very well in the article Benson quotes. And even the part she quotes to pick apart is the part that makes sense to me. Enns wrote:

To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else….

I don’t believe, as Benson does, that Enns is saying that Easterners aren’t logical. To me, what he’s saying is that we, in the Western world, have derided intuition and emotion and excluded them as legitimate means of knowing.  The East and their religions have not done such a thing. For them religion is experiential and part of the world. We on the other hand have separated out everything that we can’t objectify in a rational, critical manner.

My argument is that these are people I admire who have faith yet have kept all of their critical thinking faculties. I also work with people who are highly educated, who struggle with faith, and who believe, not all in the same way of course, but they believe. For me, this is evidence that God or something exists and that people believe in this something to enhance their lives and that millions of people, rightly or wrongly, believe that they interact with a supernatural element that provides some kind of guidance, comfort, or vision. I don’t believe in the bible, but I read it as a testimony about other peoples’ faith down through the centuries, just as I would any other written record of someone’s experience.

This kind of personal experience has also proven to me that evidence comes in many forms. I may hate the institutional straight-jacket that Christianity has become. I may hate bibliolatry and all that passes for critical thinking in religious circles. I may rail at clergy who take advantage of people because of their position of authority and I most assuredly abhor anyone who uses religion as a tool of violence or stamp of approval for their hideous rage, but deep down I cannot ever deny that there is something out there in the universe that defies scientific knowledge; something that weaves itself into the warp and weft of this world so intimately that living our very lives is a sacramental act. My threshold of believable evidence may be lower than Benson’s but for me it’s evidence nonetheless.


13 thoughts on “Are Religious Beliefs Based on Evidence?

  1. First I basically agree with you *and* find the subject of Faith, Evidence, Religion, and Myth to be completely fascinating and often misunderstood.

    I also want to give a few points to preface this: 1. I will state that in the Science vs. Religion debate has always seemed pointless to me as they do or explain two different areas of life. Religion functions via Myth to explain “how the world works” on a different level than the empirical evidence of Science.

    My blog is in the “website” but the entry is here:

    2. The exact definition of Faith often eludes me. I’m not sure I believe that people have Faith without evidence of some kind, but I that seems to challenge the definition. . I think.

    3. I do not think people do things or believe things without reason and thus while sometimes the reason is as shaky as “someone told me to do this” or “this is bad because he said so” there is at least some reason to believe that person or thing is an authority on the subject.

    So back to the nature of evidence. I think there are different kinds of evidence and there are some kinds of evidence that can not be accurately measured but does not make it any less true or useful. As you said with emotions (or pain): We make relationship decisions and much more than that based on it. Also they are the kind of information you can’t very well tell someone they don’t have. There are indicators, but ultimately we have no way to tell how angry, in love, or in pain someone is. Even if you cite brain activity, at our current level of science it is still no more than correlation. Of course I tend toward that argument with science eventually anyway: most “facts” are just standards and systems we can convince people to have a consensus on. That’s probably digressing from this discussion however.

    I would say most divine or spiritual experiences follow this model. When people see or feel evidence of the divine, how can we tell them they didn’t experience it, or that their judgement of their experience is wrong? We can point out that there may be other interpretations, but we don’t know what they feel. Not being able to quantify intuition, emotions and such experiences does not make them unimportant or uninformative.

    I believe that people form their beliefs about the world they live in, and yes even atheists have these and do this, based more on stories, Myth, visceral feelings around events, and “evidence” they might have trouble quantifying and describing more than they do numbers and measurements and so called “facts”.

    Physics might tell you how a black hole works or why the sun doesn’t burn our planet to a crisp but it won’t tell you how to treat your family and loved ones or enemies. You don’t need religion to do that but I’m not sure I believe anyone who says their morals are entirely empirically evidence and “science” based. If they come close to that then they are probably sociopaths and even they they are probably not quantifying their observations scientifically.

    So the big question for me is: Can you have faith without evidence? Or is it just a belief without good evidence? Or is everything *really* eventually taken on faith due to our lack of ability to get past our personal mind filter (we might be in a very extended dream for all we know).

    • Bryan, ooo you bad, bad man! Introducing Inception comments here. 😀 It could all be a dream. We don’t know. We think that what we see is real but there is evidence that people can believe themselves well or heal themselves of this or that. So who’s to say? To answer your question, “Can you have faith without evidence?” Sure you can, but I would wonder why you would want to. Most people believe things on the testimony of others and by thinking they see things like ghosts or UFOs. Like you say, who’s to say they didn’t see those things? We may not base our beliefs on things we have no evidence for, but boy does that anger atheists. They want to know why we would believe something without evidence. I would say for the benefit it gives us or the benefit we believe goes to society through us. What say you?

  2. I think I agree that there is benefit in believing in something because you decide to and not strictly because you found proof of it to be true but I that’s because I believe the equation works both ways. I think people always find evidence for what they believe in, and tend to believe in what they find evidence for. And again this begs the question of what do you count as evidence? Also how do you define faith?

    • Now if I could define those things, I guess we’d all quit arguing about it. According to scientists, evidence is supposed to be falsifiable, in other words, you should be able to set up an experiment that could falsify your assertion. So, since God is non-falsifiable, then we are not supposed to believe it. There are however, many things that we can’t experiment on, such as emotions and intuitions. As for what faith is, I think there’s a difference between belief and faith. I should probably say that my post should have said people can believe with a low threshold of evidence, but faith on the other hand is like love. It’s a feeling that only the person feeling it can define. But I’d say the chief component of faith is a relationship between beings. Those with faith believe they are transacting between themselves and God or a deity. They believe that there is an exchange of some kind. God says believe in me and we believe and at some point we step into faith. Now I don’t claim to be speaking to all Christians. Some have faith without belief in doctrine, dogma, etc. where I tend to fall. But some also believe in God and don’t have much faith. I’ve also at times fallen into that category, but for me those are the fundamentalists who have no compassion or empathy. They are rigid in beliefs and have no faith in God’s compassion. I realize this is long and convoluted, but I think this characterizes what I believe. I don’t believe in institutional dogma, but I have faith in something bigger than the universe that holds it all together. Make any sense?

      • I haven’t read the following comments yet, but just to make sure I understand what you wrote here: You are defining Faith as a belief in something or someone producing a future action. Faith in someone’s compassion means you believe they will act compassionately in the future. The difference I’m seeing between Faith and belief is that Belief is something you believe to be currently true while faith is something that you believe will continue to be true the future. Does that make sense?

        • Ummm. I think what I mean is that belief in something requires evidence. I can’t prove God is there so I don’t believe it at times, however, I have faith that something is there. I don’t see faith and belief as the same things. Belief is more certain. Faith is more numinous and spiritual. So I guess, in future, defining the terms is a good idea. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to separate the two things but for me it works. I cannot prove a deity exists, however I find that others’ experiences are compelling evidence for me. I find that my own experiences are compelling evidence. Others may not find this so. Atheists would not accept my criteria for evidence. Their threshold may be higher than mine. That’s fine. But I have faith that there is a supernatural empathetic Being that we call God who may or may not interact as intimately with the universe as we think, but I have faith it does in part. Now, does that make any sense? 😀

          • I just looked up the definition of the word Faith just out of curiosity.
            The idea of Trust seemed really important and you are right in that it is a belief without proof. On the other hand it also seems to be a type of belief. I like the idea of Trust being in there. I think that’s why I was thinking of the future because at any point that something is not currently being proven, you can say that you have to trust that what you believe about it is still true. That might also apply to anything you *can’t* prove as opposed to anything that just isn’t proven *yet*.

            I of course think you can’t *prove* much. . .

          • I like that too. Yes, that’s it I think. I trust that what I have faith in might become evident someday or will prove itself to me down the road. Maybe it’s a light form of Pascal’s wager but I am not swayed by hellfire arguments. Any deity I believe in is compassionate, loving, and certainly far superior to it’s worshipers in mercy. This I have faith in. If that turns out not to be true, proven of course, then I will stop having faith or hope that it’s so. In the meantime, believers are driving me nuts!!

  3. Thanks both. I’m not sure if my thoughts on those two kinds of evidence add anything to the discussion, but the scientific approach relies on proving some generalisable truth. Empirical evidence theoretically produces “knowledge” which is transferrable. Gravity or the laws of electro-magnetism can be shown pretty convincingly to apply to all of us – all of us in this solar system at least. A whole other physical legal jurisdiction might obtain elsewhere in the universe, and this intriguing possibility is called “Science Fiction” precisely because we can’t prove it. Now the zebra in the back yard might be undeniably true to the person who saw it, heard it, smelt it ETC. The only difference between these two kinds of evidence is that one is transferable and the other is not. The arrogance of some scientists is to elevate their kind of evidence to the status of the only show in town. I’ve had many conversations with those for whom a remark like: “Well of course that’s only anecdotal isn’t it”, is perceived to be the Coup De Grace. Whereas, as you both say, people take life changing decisions based on other kinds of input all the time. Those who believe in the absolute primacy of empirical evidence might also pause to consider that yesterday’s scientific certainty can be completely overturned by some new evidence, or at least it may be reduced to a good try, an approximation, like the impact of Einstein on Newtonian physics.
    “For what we know, we know in part.” The scientific approach is not so infallible that it can treat the convictions of others with arch disdain.

    Faith is just another kind of experience. Tell me about the zebra, and I will rejoice with you if you’re glad to have seen it. But don’t expect me to put up a zebra proof fence around my vegetable patch purely on the strength of your testimony.

    • LOL. Yes, I agree with that. If believing a zebra is there is harmless, why bother disproving it to the one who believes it. However some religious nuts are not harmless and indeed produce much harm. I wouldn’t spend my time disproving their beliefs as much as I would spending time enacting laws that will forever keep them from harming me or anyone else around me.

      • “I wouldn’t spend my time disproving their beliefs as
        much as I would spending time enacting laws that will forever keep them from harming me or anyone else around me.”

        Absolutely; tolerance has to be reciprocal, and the legal systems under which we live have to be broadly consensual, in outline at least, if not in every detail.

        If I’m doing someone else the courtesy of listening to their beliefs, in order to better understand them, they have to do the same for me. I won’t accept their right to impose restrictions or precepts on me to which I’m fundamentally opposed. If the Divine wants me to do something, it has to tell me, not someone else. Democracy will involve some horse trading (or zebra trading), but mutually accepted restrictions have to be worthwhile overall, and, to that extent, voluntarily acceptable.

  4. I am so tired that I can’t say anything more than I ❤ this post. I want to say more, and something intelligent, but I need sleep. So I will just say well done.

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