A recent post on Pharyngula (worth reading) has me thinking about standards of evidence. So many theist/atheist conversations could be truncated if the two parties declared at the outset exactly what is required for them to accept any given claim as “true.” Unspoken assumptions about these standards end up frustrating both sides of the debate.
For example, I often hear something along these lines: “You are never going to be able to get the kind of scientific proof for God that you’re demanding.” The term “scientific” in these conversations subtly invokes the “non-overlapping magisteria” concept, implying that the atheist is locked into a laboratorial philosophic naturalism that prevents him/her from considering the possibility of something that by definition cannot be known.
Yet how can anyone–theist or atheist–claim that a god cannot be known or claim that there will never be a rational reason for believing that a god exists? If we agree on what “existence” means (and I really think we can), it is absurd to claim that a god–by definition–cannot be known. To do so would require the exact kind of knowledge about this god and its nature that is being called “impossible.” If a god exists, I maintain hope that we could actually find out. So far, there’s just no good reason to think that one exists.
And this leads to the second misunderstanding inherent in the question above: that rational inquiry (or “science”) is necessarily unable to discover some things about the universe. Science isn’t just something you do in the laboratory in a vain attempt to put god under the microscope. Science is an approach to life and reality that cares about distinguishing between true claims and false ones. When you do something as simple as looking for a candy bar that a friend told you was on your desk, you are using the scientific method to determine whether or not the statement is accurate.
My standards of evidence are simple: anything that exists has to make its case for existing. This does not preclude the existence of God, wind, computers, or fairies. I am not committed to philosophical naturalism, and I don’t know many atheists who are. And, as I said above, it is absurd (and internally contradictory) to say that a god can never be known by rational inquiry. But what cannot be rationally accepted as evidence of a god (or anything) are isolated appeals to ignorance, arguments from personal incredulity, or incoherent emotional testimonials that continually move the target back when questioned, rendering the claims unfalsifiable. If those are the standards of evidence you require to accept a claim as true, you should be a member of every religion, past and present.
Proper standards of evidence are found in a coherent epistemology. There will be multiple ways to explain anything, no matter how absurd the claim. True claims will stand up to rational inquiry, and the most reasonable of the varied explanations is the one that must be awarded the label of truth. Is there any better way of distinguishing between fact and fantasy?