Years ago now EbonMuse posted a challenge to theists asking them to list the kind of evidence that would convince them that their beliefs about God were false. As part of this challenge he included a number of things that in turn would convince him that the theists’ beliefs were true. Recently Greta Christina and PZ Myers have also posted lists of the evidence and arguments that they believe would convince them that theistic beliefs were true. Well I like to consider myself open minded so I thought I would have a go at creating a list of my own…and man it’s much harder than you would think.
The reason this is such a hard question was highlighted to me recently in a discussion on, of all places, Ray Comfort’s blog. The conversation under way was on whether it is important to provide evidence to back up your claims or not. A particularly unpleasant and aggressive commenter, who goes by the name of Bobby T, was arguing that he saw no reason to present any evidence to support his arguments, as evidence had nothing to do with convincing someone that they were in need of salvation, and that instead we should just pray for a change of heart (Note: He also believes evidence is not required to demonstrate that God exists, mainly because he believes that everyone already knows God exists, and that some of us just pretend he doesn’t so we can carry on sinning). I argued that, without evidence, there would be no reason for me to believe that the claims of the Bible were true, and therefore no reason for me to believe that praying for a change of heart would do anything. I then made the following claim:
If Jesus were to appear to me tonight then that appearance would be the evidence that convinced me it was all true.
Bobby T immediately, and rightly, called me on this, saying:
Now you’re just fibbing. An appearance of Jesus would not convince you. You would find a way to deny it, to explain it away.
I thought about this for a bit and then had to admit he was right, such an appearance probably wouldn’t convince me and, while I wouldn’t put it exactly how Bobby T did, I probably would not find it sufficient evidence to conclude that God exists and the Bible is true etc etc. Now the reason for this is partly my fault and partly the fault of the theists. Basically, I do not think I am capable, and will never be so, of verifying certain theistic claims, and because I am aware of this fact I really can’t think of any amount of evidence that would convince me that those specific claims were true. Let me give you an example.
One of the attributes God is said to have is that of omnipotence, defined by theists as the ability to do anything that is logically possible and that does not go against his nature (and yes if you think about it this definition does make everyone omnipotent, but let’s ignore that for the moment). So imagine the following situation. One day you, me, and everyone else on Earth, suddenly hears a booming voice from the sky. Everyone hears the voice in their own language and everyone fully understands the message it conveys. The voice tells us that it is God and in order to demonstrate this he proceeds to rearrange the stars in the sky to spell out the first verse of Genesis, again somehow recognisable to everyone in their own language. In the days following this event scientists all over the world are able to verify that these things actually happened, that it wasn’t some kind of mass hallucination, and that the stars really did move.
Such an event would convince me of many things. I would be convinced that there were forces out there far more powerful than I could ever imagine. It would convince me that Earth was not the only place in the universe where life can be found. It would convince me that some very powerful being was aware of life on earth, of our different cultures, our languages, and our religions. It would convince me that this being knew enough about me to make sure I heard its voice and saw its words in my language. It might also convince me that the Bible was worth taking more seriously, as the being picked a verse from that book as its chosen method of communication.
What it would not convince me of, and what it could not convince me of, would be that the being was omnipotent.
Nothing in the scenario outlined above requires a being that is capable of doing anything that is logically possible. Yes, it would require a being with incredible power, with abilities far beyond our own understanding, but there is nothing about the powers on display that would logically require that said being be also capable of doing anything that is logically possible. Indeed this is the problem. There is no display of power that could logically lead you to conclude that the being demonstrating those powers was omnipotent. Sure, you could spend all day, every day for the rest of your life getting the being to do everything that you could think of to show its power, and the being could accomplish everything asked of it. But just because you didn’t come up with something it couldn’t do doesn’t mean you can conclude that there is nothing logically possible that it can’t do. Doing so would be a textbook example of the argument from ignorance fallacy. I can’t think of anything this being can’t do, therefore it can do everything. Sorry, but that’s just bad logic.
And the same reasoning applies to one of God’s other claimed attributes, omniscience. What question could you possibly ask that would demonstrate you were talking to an omniscient being? If you ask it something you know the answer to then you have only shown it has as much knowledge as you do. If you ask if something you don’t know, but that you can easily check the answer to, then you have just shown that the being can use Google. If you ask it something no one knows the answer to then you can’t know the answer it gives you is correct, and if you later find out that the answer is correct you have only shown that the being has move knowledge than we do as a species. There simply is nothing you could possibly every ask that would demonstrate omniscience.
(Note: I just want to make it clear that the above argument is against a God who is defined in a very specific way. I am not saying that I could not be convinced that some incredibly powerful being existed, and indeed if a God is defined with specific testable attributes then I could be convinced of that God’s existence. My point is simply that if you are defining God with attributes that could never be demonstrated then a being that claimed to be that specific God could never demonstrate this to be the case. I know this may seem like semantics, but let me put it this way. Let’s say an omniscient, omnipotent God does actually exist, but in this universe other very powerful and very knowledgeable beings also exists that are not God. Two beings appear before you and both claim to be the actual God. How would you go about working out if one or both of them was lying to you? Omniscience and omnipotence are not demonstrable qualities, as such you would have to take on faith any being’s claim that they had this qualities.)
So let’s go back to my original claim. If Jesus were to appear in front of me right now, and I could talk to him, see him perform a miracle or two, and maybe, Doubting Thomas style, see and touch his crucifixion wounds, what would and what wouldn’t this convince me of?
Well first of all I would want to be sure it actually happened, and wasn’t come kind of hallucination or dream. This would probably involve checking that other people saw the same things I did. So let’s just assume that they did, that Jesus appeared to me in a crowd of people and we all saw and heard the same things, what then? Well this would be enough to convince me that something amazing and out of the norm had happened. It would be enough to convince me that someone claiming to be Jesus had appeared, had done amazing things that I couldn’t explain, and had given me rational, logical sounding answers to the many many questions I would no doubt have for him. Let’s take it further. Jesus then takes me and the people with me back in time to 1st century Palestine. Here we are able to witness first hand his birth in a stable, the feeding of the five thousand, the walking on water, and, most importantly, his crucifixion and subsequent rising from the dead and ascension. What would this convince me of? Well it would convince me that many of the foundational claims of Christianity were true. It would convince me that there is something special about this Jesus guy and that, again, maybe I should pay more attention to this Bible thing.
What it would not convince me of, and what it could not convince me of, is that the Christian God is real and that Jesus was his son.
Again there is absolutely nothing in that scenario that would lead logically to the conclusion that an omnipotent, omniscient, timeless, immaterial being exists, let alone that Jesus was his son. If I were to do miracles, die and come back from the dead, would you then accept my claim that I was the son of God? Probably not, because there is nothing about any of those things that could only be explained by a God. Maybe Jesus was an alien making use of technology far beyond our understanding. Is that possible? Well yes, and I would argue far more likely that an omnipotent and omniscient God being responsible. For a start we know that technology exists and we know that there are living things in the universe. As such the leap from things we know to the idea that there is other life in the universe with better technology than us is no where near as big as the leap required to get to God.
The problem, as I said before, is that the God most people believe in has attributes that it would be impossible to demonstrate. Yes it could demonstrate great power, yes it could demonstrate vast knowledge. But it could not demonstrate omnipotence or omniscience, at least not to a finite, limited mind such as mine. But wait a minute, I hear you say, aren’t you putting limits on God there? If he really is omnipotent and omniscient then surely he could come up with some way to let you know these things with 100% certainty? Well you would think so, and indeed this is the argument that presuppositional apologists such as Sye Ten Bruggencate make. Now I have no doubt that such a being could make you believe something with 100% certainty, heck it doesn’t require omnipotence and omniscience to do that, but knowledge is different to simple belief, no matter how strongly held. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I ask this being a simple question, how many stars are there? He comes back with this answer:
Now I can believe that is true, and I can believe it is true with 100% certainty, but do I know that it is true? Do I know that this being counted correctly? Do I have any way what so ever of verifying what it told me? Does the answer even mean anything to me? I mean I can picture what 100 stars would look like, and even 1,000 stars, but 10,000, a millions, a billion stars? Sorry, my mind simply can’t handle numbers like that, I simply cannot conceive of a number as big as the one above, so how can I claim to know that this is the right answer? Now Sye would argue that we could know this with 100% certainty because God is not a liar, and therefore anything he says must be 100% true. But the only evidence we have for this is the alleged word of the being claiming not to be a liar. Again this is yet another claim that it would be impossible to ever verify for sure. One lie will prove he is a liar, but a billion truths don’t prove he is not.
But let’s change direction shall we. As usual I have gone on way longer than I intended. I’ve explained why I don’t think it would be possible to convince me that a God with the properties commonly ascribed to it actually exists, but what would it take to convince me that a particular religion was the right one, or at the very least was more right than all the rest? This is a question I can actually give some clear answers to.
1. A clear unmistakeable message
Some sources state that there are around 30,000 to 50,000 different denominations of Christianity, while others claim the number is actually closer to 50. Either way the answer is most definitely not 1, and regardless of whether it is 50 or 50,000 this means that different groups that call themselves Christians are interpreting the Bible in a different way to other groups that call themselves Christians. If nothing else this shows that the message of the Bible is not completely clear and is open to interpretation.
Any religion that had a message that was completely, 100% clear, so that anyone, regardless of culture, social background, pre-existing beliefs etc who read it would interpret it in exactly the same way, would definitely impress me and would be worthy of serious attention. Which leads on to my next point.
2. The original, unaltered autographs
We do not have the original versions of any Holy Book. Furthermore we know, specially with the Bible, that the version of the text we have now is not an exact copy of the original words. We know that things were added to the Bible and that verses were changed at a later date. In many cases the earliest versions of the text that we have date to hundreds of years after the original was penned…and penned is the operative word here. These documents were copied by hand, often by people who didn’t even know the language they were copying, or who had political or doctrinal reasons to make the text say something it originally didn’t, or who were simply tired and made a mistake. The Bible we have now is the result of the biggest game of Chinese whispers in history. If the Bible is really the inspired word of God I would expect that he would also maintain his words in their original form.
The original versions of a Holy Text that, despite being written on paper, had somehow survived undamaged and unaltered for thousands of years would impress me. If it was impossible, even intentionally, to reproduce the Holy Text incorrectly I would definitely take notice. If it was impossible to damage the originals, or change them, or, when reading aloud from them, claim they said something they didn’t, I would be pretty much convinced that the message they held was special and came from a source beyond mere humans. And on top of all that these texts would need to demonstrate something else as well.
3. Knowledge beyond its time
Theists often claim that their Holy Books contain scientific information that couldn’t possibly have been known at the time and so shows that they were inspired by God. Only they don’t, not in anyway that matters. In most cases the scientific claims they make are just plain wrong, such as the order of creation found in Genesis. In others the claims are incredibly vague and open to interpretations and, arguably, aren’t actually claims in the first place, just post hoc rationalisations of the text once the knowledge has been discovered by science. As for the rest, they are claims that the people of the day could have worked out for themselves, or have just made a lucky guess on and have got right in some very general way. The Bible claiming that the universe had a beginning for example is not evidence that the book was inspired by someone with intimate knowledge of the Big Bang.
I would expect a Holy Book that was genuinely inspired by a God to contain clear, detailed, and completely accurate scientific knowledge that it would genuinely have been impossible for people at the time to know. The exact mass of the Higgs Boson. A detailed description of the germ theory of disease. A way to unite relativity and quantum theory. An evolutionary description of the diversity of life on the planet. All explained in a clear way that could be understood by anyone reading them and that could lead directly to scientific discoveries, once the technology required to make them was developed. A book truly inspired by God would arguably contain this information. It would not contain instructions on how to get rid of mold that included the sacrificing of doves. It would also contain:
4. Demonstrably accurate and specific prophecies
Again Theists often proclaim that that their Holy Books contain accurate and verified prophecies. Only, as with the scientific claims, they really don’t. Instead what they contain are supposed prophecies in one part of the book that are later confirmed in another part of the book by authors who would have been aware of the earlier prophecies and who wanted those prophecies to be confirmed to back up the claims they were making. Or there are verses that aren’t really prophecies, but are taken to be so because they sound vaguely like something that happened in another verse. In both of these cases there is very little objectively verifiable evidence to support the claims that a) the prophecy in question actually was a prophecy, and b) that it was actually fulfilled in the way that it was said to have been fulfilled. Added to that, if the prophecy is vague enough then there are many events that could be interpreted as fulfilling the prophecy, and that’s if people aren’t actively working towards making sure it is fulfilled.
Specific, verifiable prophecies that could only be interpreted in a single way and which could not be arrived at by people working toward fulfilling them would impress me. If a Holy Book contained something along the lines of “and on the tenth day of the fifth month of the year that will be known as two thousand and fifteen, the death of two great suns will appear in the northern sky at the same time. This shall be a sign to the people living in that time that the words of this book are truly from God” and then on the 15th May this year we witnessed two supernovae at the same time in the northern hemisphere, then I would most definitely take notice. But that’s not what we get. Instead we get “and there will be wars and rumours of wars“. Yeah, like there has ever been a time in recorded history when that was not true.
5. A single concept of God
You can argue with the math here, but as a rough estimate there have been around 28,000,000 different God concepts in human history. This is not what I would expect if there really was a God who wanted a relationship with us. It is exactly what I would expect if, either, God really didn’t care about having a relationship with us, or if God did not exist.
A single, unified concept of God, held by both those who did and did not believe in it, would definitely make me believe that there was very likely something to which that concept applied.
I’m going to end my list here. I am sure there are other things I could add if I thought about it some more. My list isn’t exactly original, I’m pretty sure all the items I mentioned appear on the lists I linked to at the start of my post. But the fact other people have come to the same conclusions adds to the argument I think. If there really was an all powerful being who wanted a relationship with people on this planet, then these are the things I would expect to see. As I don’t see any of these things, and the things I do see instead seem to be readily explainable without the need for a God, I find myself concluding that there probably isn’t a God out there in the first place.
So let me end by throwing out the original challenge once again. If you believe in God what would convince you to change your mind, and likewise if you don’t believe what would convince you that you are wrong?