Evidence and belief in the God debate

A passage in Paul Chamberlain’s  Why People Don’t Believe (Baker, 2011) struck me. Chamberlain is discussing atheist Richard Dawkins’ attack on Richard Swinburne’s suggestion that too much evidence for God might be a bad thing:

Swinburne’s offending statement was made during a discussion about the existence of God when he was asked how much evidence exists for theism. His answer, as we noted earlier in this book, was that “there is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God’s existence, and too much might not be good for us.”[114] Dawkins is dumbfounded by this statement. Too much evidence might not be good for us! How can too much evidence for anything be bad—especially for a claim as momentous as that God exists?

… In Dawkins’s words, “If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could ‘fill the world with super-miracles.’ ” No wonder then that he is astounded that anyone would claim that the very thing that could settle the matter, namely more evidence, might not be good for us. (118-119)

Chamberlain goes on to explain Swinburne’s point by putting forward the idea that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ and overwhelming evidence would remove this freedom.

This passage struck me because I think it is not only one of the stronger objections to theism, but also gets to the heart of the debate between belief and unbelief.

Some observations:

1. Unbelief in the New Testament does not seem to have much to do with evidence. Is it really evidence which holds Thomas back from believing Jesus is risen from the dead? From his perspective it is, but from the writer of John, it seems to be Thomas’s own attitude. I find it easy to understand unbelief in terms of the rich young ruler who has kept the law, but will not give away his riches and follow Jesus. Of course, it’s not an issue of evidence or even belief at all; it’s an issue of commitment and sacrifice. If the reason most people were not Christians was because they were not willing to give up things and follow Jesus, then it would make sense to me. Jesus’ demands are huge; his path is narrow. As an idealistic twentysomething against the world, I used to understand unbelief in this way, as essentially an issue of people’s unwillingness to pay the cost of discipleship. Yet this is not the way many unbelievers would depict their unbelief; many of them genuinely find it hard to believe in God’s existence. (Not a problem encountered in first century Palestine.) And then there is the related issue that the church in general has made it very easy to follow Jesus, and not expected that much sacrifice of Christians. Could this, paradoxically, have made it harder to believe by making Christianity weaker and compromised?

2. The suggestion that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ is a speculative but logical response to the fact that belief in God is no longer obvious to the Western mind. It is a good attempt to answer the problem, but it has an obvious hole for me: for people in previous centuries, there was not this same freedom to choose whether to believe in God. Before the Enlightenment, the existence of God was obvious; there was no sense of people having to make the choice whether or not to believe. It was assumed. Of course, throughout history, many different gods were believed in, and we see in the New Testament a ‘freedom’ of people hearing the gospel to believe in the particular God revealed in Jesus Christ or not. One thing in common between the New Testament and today is that belief in the Christian God usually seemed to take some leap of faith. (But what about Saul/Paul? He seemed to have been overwhelmed by God. He didn’t have any problem believing in God, of course. It was more the question of what God was up to.)

3. We read in the gospels that for those with hardened hearts, it didn’t matter what miracles they saw, what evidence they were given – they would not accept that Jesus was of God. To what extent is this analogous to people who will not believe in God today? For one thing, very few unbelievers today have seen miracles. For another, the point never was an abstract belief like ‘God exists’. Yet these are different times, and the existence of God is a first and necessary hurdle for so many people.

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