Can Religion be Based on Evidence?

The other day I was at a physics colloquium in which the speaker was discussing a claim that a certain sort of crystal could cause small amounts of fusion. One experimenter had claimed to see the effect, but the speaker resolved to test it again--on television. He played the clip from the TV show, in which he informed the readers that (check source) "Science is based on repeatable, testable experiments. That's what makes it different from religion." Off-hand remarks like this, routinely delivered from the pulpit by eminent, obviously intelligent authorities, probably do more to convince people that religion is irrational than any explicit philosophical argument could do. After all, arguments can be discussed and criticized--in other words, they can be checked. This statement, on the other hand (despite the fact that it ostensibly takes the side of critical thinking) has clearly not been checked.

The (implicit) implications of the statement are 1) that all sensible people know that religion is wrong because it is not based on evidence; 2) Science on the contrary, is based on evidence; 3) the way to know the difference between evidence and non-evidence-based disciplines is repeatable experiments. If the speaker had bothered to think it through this far, though, he might have noticed that there are many evidence-based subjects which do not admit of repeatable experiments.

The most obvious example I can think of is History. Historical events only happened once; they cannot be repeated. Primarily we know about historical events because of the writings of those who were contemporary to those events (for historians of the recent past, the primary sources may also include oral testimony). Preferably the historian works with firsthand eyewitness accounts, but normally the historian must settle for secondhand accounts written by the historians and observers of that period. These written accounts may be supplemented by archaeological evidence; which starts to touch the fringes of what might be called Science. However, the archaeological evidence can normally only confirm very large-scale events like the occupation of a region by an empire, or the rule of some king. If you want to know who said what to whom, or who killed whom and why, the evidence for these events comes almost entirely from written documents.

Written documents are finite in number: for any particular historical event there are only so many documents recording it. The historians cannot "repeat" the experiment by calling for a new set of eyewitnesses to e.g. the assassination of Julius Caesar. They are usually stuck with the data set they have (though sometimes there are unexpected new finds). Of course, although the data is unrepeatable, the historian's analysis can be repeated. Anyone else is free to look again at the primary sources (assuming they are published) and come to their own conclusion. (This kind of repeatability, however, applies to every kind of scholarship, including in the Religious Studies department.) Historical knowledge can be obtained only to the extent that the historian trusts his primary sources.

And yet, no one goes around saying that History is bunk because History is not Science. No one would ever say that, because it would not fit properly into the meta-narrative of secular rationalism. Rationalists need History, if for nothing else, as something to vaguely gesture at when trying to force all religions into the mold of either the Witch Doctor (animists postulating demons to explain crop failures), or the Inquisition (dogmatic ecclesiastics trying to suppress right-thinking empiricists). More importantly though, it is simply obvious that History is an evidence based discipline.

Another example that could be cited is Law, specifically judicial factfinding by a judge or jury. Here again, the primary form of evidence is (written or oral) testimony, although supplementary forensic evidence may be important as well. Although our law courts are far from perfect, no one could say that they are not based on evidence.

So what is the moral of this story? Although it might be nice if scientists could be relied upon to act as intellectual leaders championing critical thought in all areas of life, a scientist forfeits that respect when their pronouncements are based on the prevailing intellectual culture rather than on independent critical thinking. Another moral, of course, is that one cannot simply assume that there is no valid evidence for religious claims apart from repeatable experimentation, since after all, History takes this form.

And in fact, if one looks, much of the evidence for religious claims takes exactly the same form as History, because in fact, it is History (i.e. documents from the past purporting to say what has happened). I refer to the numerous historical documents in which it is claimed that events have occurred by supernatural agency, which are not possible by normal natural means. In other words, claims of miracles.

One might object that miracles should not be accepted, even when they appear in Historical texts, because Science has shown that miracles do not happen. This claim, however, makes no sense. You can only rule out a claim by experiment if the claim is contradicted by that experiment. Now most religions do not claim that miracles are an every day event. Rather, they are claimed to be an exception to the usual course of nature, as a result of the intervention of God granted to a few privileged people. It is true that e.g. dead people do not normally come to life again. I think it is a little strange to call this fact a discovery of Science; I cannot myself recall any great experiments on this topic, and I suspect that people actually knew that most people stay dead long before the Scientific Revolution; surely even the founders of religions were acquainted with this fact!

The skeptic might take a broader view and say, it used to be that there were all kinds of unexplored regions in our knowledge, but now we know enough about physics and chemistry to have a reasonably complete understanding of the dynamics of matter (even if a complete theory of physics does not yet exist).

There are a variety of different views of the supernatural held by different religions; many religions either do not accept, or do not place any great importance in, claims of miracles (e.g. most sects of Buddhism). Mohammed repeatedly stated that the only "miracle" he would provide to prove the authenticity of his teachings was the beauty of the Koran, and challenged his opponents to produce other verses like it. (Though Mohammed's disciples did make a few claims after his death that he had nonetheless performed miracles.) But for Christianity, miracles are critical. Jesus is purported to have performed numerous miracles including healing the blind and the lame, restoring the dead, multiplying bread, and walking on water. Most importantly for Christian theology, he is supposed to have risen from the dead himself, acquiring by this means a new mode of life which he promises to also give to those who believe in him.

Now what is one to make of claims like this? One possible attitude to take is that the claims are so silly that no respectable person could believe them, no matter how great the amount of evidence. (Unless perhaps the evidence were so great that no one could really doubt it: e.g. God appearing visibly in the sky and speaking to everyone every decade or so, striking trees with lightening upon request, or at least ensuring that modern day miraculous occurrences are a regular feature on CNN, rather than being confined to overcredulous Catholics, Pentecostals, and missionaries to Third World nations).

But why are these claims silly? Is it because you have a visceral sense that such things simply cannot happen? Others have a visceral sense of God's love, but this is hardly regarded as proper evidence by rationalists. Normally, rejecting serious claims without examining the evidence is simply a sign of bias. Nor is it fair to construct an entire worldview of naturalistic materialism based on the presupposition that miracles do not happen, and then say that anything that doesn't fit well into this worldview should be regarded with grave suspicion as an "extraordinary claim". That would be circular. What claims are or are not extraordinary depends on the worldview you already possess. If the task is to construct a worldview on the basis of evidence, than one of those worldviews cannot be appealed to in order to make the other ones look ridiculous.

Nor is God really so extraordinary a hypothesis as all that? Quite a few, perhaps a majority, of people on the planet have had some sort of religious experience or another. True, these people have wildly divergent interpretations of what these experiences mean. Some interpret them as insights into the connectedness of life, but some experience it as a deity speaking to them. They may go on to invent all sorts of fanciful conjectures about the nature of the experience, but the experience itself is surprisingly common, perhaps even hardwired into our brain. Even atheists--and I offer this merely on the limited sample of people I have talked to--seem to me to mostly differ based on how they interpret (and whether they believe) these experiences, not on whether they have them. Such experiences may not be the strongest possible argument, but they should at least be strong enough to balance an inarticulate distaste against all religious hypotheses.

Now do not get me wrong here: I am not making an "Argument from Religious Experience" in the sense that I claim that religious experiences can be used to prove with certainty that some, or any, religion is correct. Rather I am simply saying that there are multiple possible interpretations of this phenomenon, both religious and irreligious, and that the religious ones ought not to be disregarded a priori. If a person experiences God speaking to them (as I have), it is certainly possible to doubt afterwards whether this is really occurring. There are possible atheistic explanations. But what seems clear enough is that the experience superficially suggests the existence of God. It is not as though God were an arbitrary hypothesis imposed on one's experiences, instead God is a natural interpretation of certain experiences. It therefore seems like it should be a hypothesis which is allowed to be "on the table", within the realm of rational discourse. And if there were a God who causes religious experiences, I cannot see how we could rule out a priori that this God would be able to perform miracles as well.

One could also try to show that miracles are unreasonable by some sort of philosophical argument; either (like Hume) targeting the idea of miracles themselves, or perhaps targeting the underlying religious claims which the miracle is supposed to support (the most popular example here being the Argument from Evil). But of course, Philosophy isn't based on repeatable experiments either. In fact, it seems to me that generally speaking, Philosophy ranks third after Science and History in its ability to conclusively demonstrate propositions. (Although of course, the Philosophy of Science and History is implicitly required in order to know what Science and History are themselves capable of.)

Philosophy as applied to Religion goes by the name of Theology. On a number of occasions I have heard scientists mock other scientist's beliefs (such as string theory) by calling them "theological". What they mean to insinuate is that the beliefs in question are based on dubious a priori speculation about they way things seemingly ought to be, without a sufficiently close connection to actual empirical data. This of course is another example of the prejudice with which I began my essay. But let me call for consistency here. If the human mind is capable of great insight into the structure of metaphysics by means of armchair philosophical reasoning, then Theology is a valid form of reasoning. Let the religious folks present their Cosmological, Ethical, and Teleological Arguments (and also I suppose the patently nonsense Ontological Argument) while the atheists retort with various forms of the Argument from Evil, and perhaps some claims that the properties ascribed to God are logically inconsistent. We can have that fight if you want.

But, some may say, all of this theological speculation is bogus. Have we not learned from philosophies of the past, that the unaided mind is weak and untrustworthy? Speculative reasoning comes to all manner of absurd conclusions when operating on the basis of armchair reasoning alone. Without empirical correction, it is almost certain to go astray. Fine then! By all means, base your beliefs on the empirical evidence instead! But then you must not adopt a criterion whereby secular rationalism is allowed to use Theology to trump Empiricism, while mocking Religion for doing the same thing.

What is the alternative to deciding whether religion is right or wrong through philosophical speculation? The alternative is to look at the documents with an open mind, using the principles of History to try to inquire into their reliability, without any severe a priori prejudice towards claims of the supernatural. I do not mean that a mild skepticism towards supernatural events is uncalled for. After all religions do make specific claims regarding the existence of unusual entities and events, and it is fair to say that they must make a decent case in order to be believed. What is not fair is to pretend to do a historical analysis while in fact setting the bar so high that no amount of historical evidence could clear that bar.

A little over 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar was assassinated. The actual assassination was witnessed only by Roman Senators, but there several historians who describe the event. Counting only those who were alive at the time, I was able to find about five or six mentions of the event, although only a couple go into significant detail. And of course, the assassination affected the ongoing institutions of Roman governance. I regard this as extremely convincing evidence that the assassination really occurred. In fact, I would go further and say that anyone who disbelieves in Caesar's assassination is delusional. It could only be untrue if there were a highly implausible conspiracy to conceal the true facts from us. This is an example of a strong historical case, about as well supported as one has any right to expect an ancient historical event to be.

A few decades after that, the disciples of Jesus claimed to have seen him rise from the dead and appear to separate groups of up to 500 individuals, on at least ten occasions, giving "many convincing proofs" that he was alive, by offering visual, auditory, and tactile support for his state of life. Since they also claimed he was capable of appearing and disappearing instantaneously, it would be hard to explain this in naturalistic terms.

Some people say, that is circular reasoning because I am relying on the authority of the Bible itself to prove these claims! Not so. It would be circular to appeal to the religious authority of a religious text in order to establish that religion is true. I do not deny that some Christian apologists have the annoying habit of simply citing scripture texts at nonbelievers, as though they were oblivious to the fact that their audience does not start out by believing the Bible. But as applied here, the objection misses the point. I am not asking you to assume that the Bible has any divine authority. I am simply asking you to treat it just like any other ancient historical text, and decide whether or not to believe it on the basis of it being claimed testimony. Since the New Testament is actually a compilation of different sources by different authors, it is actually a number of separate documents claiming these events occurred. Five of the New Testament authors (Matthew, John, Peter, James, and Paul) are among the claimed eyewitnesses, while the rest are second-hand sources, based on the testimony of others. Some of the eyewitnesses described, such as Thomas and Paul, were skeptical or hostile before being converted by seeing Jesus. There is also good evidence (including outside the New Testament) that most of these people, after lives of self-denial and poverty, were tortured to death for making this claim. Yet they made it all the same.

Reading these texts, I find that they report these events, not as a mythic cosmic drama filled with stylized superheros (as in e.g. Homer or the Epic of Gilgamesh), but as a soberminded factual narrative filled with mundane corroborating details of person, place and happenstance, with bystanders that act plausibly and sometimes oppositionally. They include, not just those events that support their story, but also the sayings of Jesus that might at first sight seem to contradict their theological claims (such as his cry of forsakenness on the cross). It is clear that the events are being put forward as factual historical claims, not as an inspiring work of fiction. The only reasonable atheistic alternative explanation, I think, is that it was a conspiracy to lie, adopted by a diverse group of claimants and upheld for decades without internal dissent under the strongest possible motives to recant. Yet it is difficult for me to believe that the custodians of the intensely strict ethical system of Jesus would be able to lie, and so convincingly, about these events.

It seems abundantly clear to me that if the claims in question concerned ordinary natural events, everyone would believe it, everyone except a few cranks of the sort that write books saying things like 9/11 was really planned by the American government, or that somebody else besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The evidence is approximately as good as the assassination of Julius Caesar, though perhaps Caesar has a slight edge. Recall though, that Julius Casesar's assassination is about as good as ancient historical evidence can get. If you won't accept this level of historical evidence for a claim that challenges your worldview, you are crippling the ability to learn anything really important about the world from History. Even so, no one can stop you from putting your hands over your eyes and your fingers in your ears.

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