When Richard Dawkins was right
The atheist Richard Dawkins and I disagree about quite a few things. He has written a book arguing that people like me are delusional, and I have argued against his ideas in print and on the radio, resulting in some pretty unpleasant comments about me and my book on his website. But in his book A Devil’s Chaplain, he made a comment that pretty much explains in two sentences what I’m aiming at with my contributions to this blog.
‘Next time that somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.’
Good point, Richard. In a world where people believe in all sorts of weird and wonderful things with no evidence whatsoever, it’s extremely important for people to ground their beliefs in evidence, and to articulate those beliefs in a way that makes clear what the evidence actually is.
I mean, lots of people today believe things without any evidence at all. Some people still believe that Elvis is alive, or that the earth is flat. I’m always surprised by how many people believe that you lose 70% of your body heat through your head – this must have been invented by a hat salesman somewhere, because if it were true, it would mean that you would be far warmer on a winter’s day wearing a woolly hat and nothing else, than wearing normal clothes and no hat. A poll for Die Zeit in 2003 reported that 31% of Germans under thirty believed the US government were responsible for 9/11. And so on.
More importantly, there are literally billions of people in the world today, including a lot of religious people, who don’t have any evidence whatsoever for believing in their gods – and in fairness, they don’t claim that they do. If you asked them what kind of evidence there was for belief in astrology, or Hinduism, or Kabbalah, or Sunni Islam, they would look at you as if you were a complete moron (and if you don’t believe me, try it). Oddly, quite a lot of secular people are the same – it’s weird how many people say things like ‘science has disproved God’ (how would that work?) or ‘faith means believing things without any evidence’ or ‘religions are the cause of all wars’, not because there’s any evidence for those things, but just because they’ve heard other people say them. I’m not sure fundamentalism is limited to religious people.
So I think we need evidence for what we believe. And in fact, thinking like this (despite the protestations of some angry atheists) isn’t new. It’s not as if the whole world was blundering on in darkness for thousands of years, until in the eighteenth century some white guys in Europe discovered evidence, and announced to the rest of humanity that we needed to have reasons for what we believed. I know that sounds obvious, but to listen to some people these days, you’d think that’s what happened. In fact, lots of the ancients knew very well that beliefs needed to be grounded in evidence, and that this evidence needed to include public events, and not just private opinions.
That’s why the Hebrew prophet Elijah set up a massive experiment on Mount Carmel, and said, ‘The god who answers by fire – he is God.’ That’s why so many Greek philosophers had no time for popular religion that couldn’t be demonstrated from evidence. That’s why the apostle Paul did not kiss reason goodbye when he proclaimed the Christian message:
‘If the Messiah has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’
These aren’t the sorts of things that fundamentalists tend to say. You only say these things if you are committed to answering the question: “What kind of evidence is there is for that?”
It doesn’t really matter if people hold private opinions, without evidence, about things that don’t affect anyone else, like the amount of heat that escapes from your head. But I don’t think our most important beliefs work that way. I think all views of the world, whether they are religious or not, claim to be accounts of the whole of reality – good and evil, beauty and tragedy, right and wrong, life and death. We live in a world where people disagree about these things, and yet we need to find common ground so we can make laws and discuss global problems and solutions. This means public dialogue is extremely important. And that means we need evidence for what we believe.
So in this blog series, which I’m planning to run with every Wednesday, I’ll attempt to engage with that question: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” I hope you enjoy it.
This post is adapted from Andrew’s article ‘Confessions of a Fundamentalist’, which appeared in Christianity Magazine in 2010.