It is often assumed that believers or theists, people of faith, believe in God’s existence in spite of evidence to the contrary or that they believe with no supporting evidence. Now, we know what people mean when they make this claim and there is no doubt this may actually describe some person’s faith or belief. However, I have never met one and I’m unaware of any prominent or respected believer (I am narrowing this down to Christianity) presently, or over the last two thousand years, who would describe their view as such.
Putting that aside, as any first year philosophy student can tell us, no one believes anything (I am speaking of serious people reflecting upon serious matters) in spite of the evidence. The truth is they interpret the evidence differently. They “see” it differently. The question should always be, “Why do you interpret or see the evidence that way?” It should never be, “You have no evidence for your beliefs.” And of course, I am putting aside for now the whole other issue of what counts as evidence.
The truth is we interpret or “see” the world through a meta-physical framework, paradigm, world-view, faith, narrative, etc, that causes us to “see” the world, the evidence, in a certain way. These frameworks are built by a consortium of causes and influences. We were all born into a certain family, in a certain place, in a certain time. We were all “educated” a certain way by certain teachers. We were all influenced by certain friends, families, and net-works of communities. We all had certain experiences that influenced us. We all had (have) a unique temperament and personality—we are all bent or shaped a certain way. We all, hopefully most of us, at some point began to reflect, think, and meditate upon what it was we really believed about this thing called existence. We began to question a lot of the “received” wisdom. At some point, we sort of ventured forth and “owned” for ourselves what it was we believed. The truth however is that, even after that process, we have still been shaped and influenced by all those factors I mentioned plus many others. And that is okay. We can still be our own person with our own take on things even as we know we are, indeed, our mother or father’s son or daughter. The fruit, as they say, does not fall (for good of bad) far from the tree. In fact, knowing this can cause us to strive to be more objective, not less. It can cause us to question ourselves and be humble in our own beliefs, knowing that we are, in fact, biased in many ways. It is the person who cannot see the faith-based and (situated in time/context) community based foundation (or non-foundation) to his beliefs who should worry us. These are the TRUE BELIEVERS, the fundamentalists, and we find them in both their secular (Dawkins) and religious (Falwell) counterparts.
Related to this fact of always being situated is the matter that these frame-works/narratives are ultimately faith-based. It is not as if we were robotic empirical detectives from birth up to say 20 or so, just objectively analyzing the evidence, and then “poof” based upon that dispassionate investigation, “I believe such and such…” That is simply not reality. The truth is that from the time we could even begin to think about and contemplate our world—all those influences were in play. They are always already a part of our evidence gathering and precede all else simply as a matter of nature. Of course these frame-works evolve and change. There is a double-side to all this. New information, new experiences, can open us to new paradigms (narratives), which can then help us “see” the same evidence in a new light, thus leading to a change in our minds. It is an interactive process. We are always bumping up against reality, but we can only “see” that reality differently through a different narrative or paradigm and sometimes that “bumping” leads to a new narrative. Did reality change? No. But my mind did. Thus, in a way, reality did change. A paradox but one we are all familiar with. It’s called growing up. If we are old enough we have all experienced that moment when, perhaps visiting a house we lived in when we were very young, and we noticed that it is much smaller than we remembered. Did the house dimensions change? No. Our perspective changed. We “see” it differently now. That is why the ridiculous mantra of “just show me the evidence” becomes so tiring. Besides missing the point, what it really reflects is the fear of changing one’s mind. It provides a safe place as it were from growing up. When we hear from the atheist, “Show me the evidence,” its origin is in the same sort of fear animating the religious fundamentalist who cries, “Show it to me in the Bible.” The atheist has his view of the evidence, which he believes is “sacred” to an extent; we must view it the same way he does—just as the religious fundamentalist believes we must view the Bible or other sacred scripture the same way he does.
The other area this plea for “evidence” falls flat is in the very nature of the matter being discussed. One cannot apply the guide of empiricism to questions or matters that simply fall outside its pay-grade. If we are planning a trip to the moon, then yes, empiricism is the way to proceed. But if we are plumbing the depths of those questions regarding existence itself, purpose, God’s existence, the good, the true, and the beautiful, life’s meaning, love, and so on (in fact, the only matters that anyone truly cares about), then empiricism may play a minor role but it is in way over its head as to the understanding of these types of questions or in their resolution. When a person tells us he has been searching for God only to find nothing (no evidence) and we find out he was searching for a being similar to Big-Foot or Santa Claus, what can we do but shake our heads in embarrassment. Empiricism has a way of reducing grown adults into immature children.
Anyway, let us have none of this nonsense that some only consider the evidence while others follow their faith in spite of the evidence. Believing something by faith does not equal believing without evidence or in spite of the evidence. Faith (or the grand narrative/ story of the world we believe) is simply the way we choose to “see” or interpret the evidence. In this sense, everyone is a “believer” in something. Philosophical naturalism/atheism/materialism/scientism is a faith (narrative) like any other. The only way it differs from other faiths is that it masquerades as something else; it cries “We have the only truth!” which is the cornerstone of every type of fundamentalism. They interpret and “see” the evidence the only way they can, given their presuppositions. But we all see and interpret (existence/the world/our experiences) the same evidence. This essay brings out some of these points. A snippet:
This is the first ever scientific paper to identify what we now speak of as the “Big Bang.” The term however was not Lemaitre’s, but came from Fred Hoyle, who used it as a term of derision.
Hoyle was a constant opponent of the notion of the Big Bang, because he disliked its metaphysical implications- Hoyle was an atheist and to him the notion of a Big Bang implied the existence of a creator, God.
Together with two other physicists, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, Hoyle developed a theory of a “steady state” universe in which new matter was continuously created to fill in the gaps formed through the expanding universe.
Of course, there was no empirical evidence for this theory, just the need to avoid the metaphysical implications of Lemaitre’s account. Both Hoyle and Gold maintained their opposition to the Big Bang, while the rest of the scientific community had long moved to Lemaitre’s position, simply because of the overwhelming evidence for its correctness. There are now no serious competitors to Lemaitre’s scientific position.
What is important in this vignette is that it was the man of faith, a Jesuit priest, who provided the theoretical account that matched the empirical evidence, while it was the atheist who resisted that account because of his ideological commitment to atheism, developing an alternative account with no empirical basis, and holding on to it well after conclusive evidence had convinced most in the field of his error.
This is not a story of atheistic and scientific reason slaying the irrational man of faith, but quite the opposite. Hoyle’s atheism blinded him to the evidence and caused him to reject the scientific advance made by Lemaitre.
Many commentators have indeed suggested that Lemaitre’s faith made him more open to the possibility of a universe with a finite existence, and hence more open to follow where good theory and mounting evidence took him.