Friday, 19 August 2011

Assessing The Evidence

Slowly but surely I was beginning to feel like I had a better handle on the evidence that exists, both for and against the empirical claims of Christianity.  It was at this point that my journey took a turn; shifting from the purely investigatory, to the (primarily) analytical.  How is one to assess all of this competing evidence?  Let's say I have one piece of "evidence" for Christianity and one piece of "evidence" against, do they automatically just cancel each other out?  Or, are some types of evidence "better" than others? 

The more I thought about it I had to admit that, yes, some types of evidence are in fact superior to other types of evidence.

In this post I'd like to discuss two common types of "evidence", both of which are cited frequently, for Christianity, and tell you why I came to the conclusion that neither of them is very strong in the final analysis.  Those two types of evidence are personal experience and hearsay.  Let me explain...

1) Personal Experience

Christians will often tout their own "personal relationship with Jesus" as compelling evidence in favour of Christianity.  Listen to this (now infamous) quote from Christian apologist William Lane Craig..."should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa" (from his book Reasonable Faith).  Do you hear what he's saying here?  To state it another (more blunt) way, if hard evidence suggests that Christianity may be untrue, don't fret about it, because you still KNOW Christianity is the truth thanks to what Jesus tells you inside your heart!  Is this something a truly open minded person would say?

There are multiple problems with this line of thinking...firstly, everyone has a "personal experience", so who is to say that the personal experience of the Christian is superior to the personal experience of ALL others?  Does that sound even just a tad unreasonable to you?  (*** should)  What about the "personal experience" of those in other religions?  How about the Mormon who gets a "burning in the bosom" (yes, that's really what they call it) telling him or her that the book of Mormon is true?  Or even the atheist, who seeks God but doesn't find Him; is their "personal experience" equally legitimate?  If not, than how do you justify the double standard?  I now believe that many of the "personal experiences" Christians have with God/Jesus can be attributed strictly to the emotional life anyway.  This is something I plan to expound upon (and defend) later, but I did write a little about it already right here.

As bad as this is, there is yet another major problem with using the personal experience of Christians as "evidence" for Christianity...every Christian has a different "personal experience"!  Think about it.  We have literally thousands of Christian denominations (tens of thousands, in fact), most of which are divided because of theological differences.  If Jesus really were speaking within the heart of each Christian believer, as millions of people sincerely believe Him to be doing, than why can't Christians come to an agreement on these matters?  Does God not care about the unity of His "body"?  Actually, if the Bible is "God's word", than he cares a great deal..."I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17: 20-24, NIV)

Here's my tough as this may be to admit to yourself, your personal experience (of anything) is not good "evidence" for the truth of...well, anything!  If others can be fooled, even deluded or brainwashed, than you can too.  Or, do you think you're just smarter than everyone else?  We can all relate to having that strong feeling of inner certainty (just "knowing" that a particular belief or opinion is real and true)...but the problem is it's just that, a feeling, and nothing more.

2) Hearsay

A quick online google search produces these two definitions for the word hearsay...

a) Unverified information heard or received from another; rumor.
b) Law evidence based on the reports of others rather than the personal knowledge of a witness and therefore generally not admissible as testimony.

I can almost hear you asking, what in the world does hearsay have to do with the truth or falsehood of Christianity??  Well, as we have already discovered, the Bible's Gospel accounts were written decades after Jesus' supposed resurrection (and it was only later that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were attached to these writings).  So, how did the Gospel writers, whoever they were, know so much about Jesus' life and his alleged miracles?  They knew it because of "oral tradition"...the stories, about Jesus, that were passing from person to person to person to person to person.  (These stories were also growing in the telling, as I discussed last time

Here's the problem, we have an English word for this sort of knowledge...we call it hearsay.  Does anyone, today, consider hearsay to be "good" evidence?  Not at all.  In fact the exact opposite is the case.  Hearsay is so widely recognized as "bad" evidence, we won't even allow it to be used in our criminal courts (generally speaking).  Even eyewitness testimony itself is quite flawed, in fact. Numerous scientific studies have shown that eyewitnesses disagree, even on very important parts of the story, and many innocent prisoners (convicted, in part, based on eyewitness testimony) have later been released thanks to the hard science of DNA (DNA, now there's an example of "good" evidence!).

Let me re-iterate, the evidence we have for Jesus, in the New Testament, falls formally into the category of hearsay.  If you don't believe me, just look again at the two definitions for hearsay, above.

Remember, the Gospels are also our best evidence for Jesus.  How can you be confident in what they say, about Him, if they are based on hearsay (and were written in an age of wildly superstitious people)?

Christian apologists have a particular way of responding to this sort of argumentation (and I am eager to dig into it) but, in the interests of keeping this post from getting any longer than it already is, I'll have to do so next time around.

How do you feel about these two lines of "evidence"...are they "good", "bad", or something else?


  1. I'm in agreement with you on point 1 and couldn't have written it better myself. However, on point 2, it's a stretch to say hearsay is so bad that it isn't even allowed in our court of law as evidence. In fact, there are nearly 30 exceptions to the hearsay rule. Additionally, you have to distinguish between common law and civil law, as hearsay restrictions are more relaxed in civil law systems.

    Another point I would make is just because something is hearsay doesn't make it not true. Courts have strict rules of evidence because the stakes are very high. If you're in court, it's usually because someone is trying to deprive you of your life, your liberty, or your money. The restrictions on hearsay in these cases would be appropriate.

    So, in terms of hearsay evidence, I don't think it is "bad" and it is certainly used in our court systems under specific exceptions. However, like in our legal systems, I do think it should be subjected to certain tests and exceptions in order to improve its reliability as evidence.

  2. Hi David,

    It's good to hear from you again. Based on your feedback I added the words "generally speaking" to the end of my line re: use of hearsay in the courts.

    Your other point is also valid...yes, I agree, "just because something is hearsay doesn't make it not true". The Gospel accounts of miracles could still be true, there's no doubt about it...but I think my basic point still stands, in that hearsay (and eyeywitness testimony, to a somewhat lesser degree) is not "good" evidence, even when it is true.

    And, of course, subjecting the evidence about Jesus to "certain tests and exceptions" is problematic (if not impossible) 2000 years after the fact.

    If God knew that we would one day come to regard "hearsay" as "bad" evidence, than why did he make the Gospels depend so heavily on it? And then He (supposedly) hung the destiny of our eternal souls on believing in the Gospel's fantastic miracle claims? (In an age where miracle claims were commonplace since the people were superstitious to the core) Does this give you any pause? It certainly did for me.

  3. Hi David,

    Above you say, "Courts have strict rules of evidence because the stakes are very high. If you're in court, it's usually because someone is trying to deprive you of your life, your liberty, or your money. The restrictions on hearsay in these cases would be appropriate."

    This doesn't help make your point, but I think helps Respectful Atheist's case! What could be more "high stakes" then the existence of your eternal, immortal soul?

    I too am a former Christian, raised in the church my whole life, who no longer believes and I was ALWAYS taught that there was nothing more important than saving souls from eternal damnation! You can't have it both ways, it's either very important or it's not and if it IS the most important decision anyone can make (to follow Christ), then I think it should be weighed that way with all evidence available!

  4. In addition to the inclusion of "generally speaking" I have also changed the phrase "courts of law" to read "criminal courts" instead.

    I don't think any of this diminishes the thrust of my argument.

    And, remember, exceptions to the rule are still exceptions (that's why we call them exceptions).

  5. In general, the point I was trying to make is that there are restrictions on hearsay evidence for good reasons; however, it is still admissible as evidence in many circumstances (nearly 30 exceptions). Secondly, just because it is hearsay doesn't make it not true.

    I'm still very early in my research as you will notice on my blog. At this point, however, I have far more concerns with possible discrepancies in the attributes of God, the problem of evil, the problem of suffering, the problem of hell (i.e. eternal punishment for finite sins committed during our lifetime), etc. These seem to me to be far more problematic and ultimately more influential on my final decision than any concerns I might have over hearsay evidence.

    Finally, RA, this was more of a minor objection for me. So far, your background, journey, and thought process align with mine far more than it differs. Your a year or so ahead of me in your research, so we might end up with very similar beliefs, but perhaps for different reasons. (However, if I had to classify myself right now, I would say agnosticism and more likely deism seem to me to be the more plausible world views).

  6. Yes, there are "good reasons" to restrict hearsay evidence, I agree, but I guess I'm just having trouble seeing how this weakens my argument at all (I think, if anything, it supports it). I understand about the numerous exceptions etc., and I appreciate you pointing them out.

    I hear what you're saying re: the "minor objection" thing, we all interact differently with the issues involved, and at different points in our journey. I am only just beginning to tell my story, and I'm trying to keep it chronological, so I'll for sure be getting into things like the problem of evil/suffering etc. later on.

    Your approach seems much more organized and systematic than mine was (probably because I had no idea I was even on a "journey", when it started, and I certainly never dreamed it would end in a "de-conversion"!).

  7. Just getting caught up on your posts. So far I'm in 100% agreence with everything you have said and your story and my husbands are very similar. I look forward to reading your next post.

  8. Thanks "Agnosticswife", I appreciate you playing catch up and I look forward to hearing your comments!