How to Consider the Evidence for Theism by David Glass

This is an excellent article by David Glass, author of Atheism’s New Clothes. Thanks to Saints and Skeptics for this article.

By David Glass

In popular atheism belief in God is often portrayed as an irrational belief to be ridiculed rather than a serious viewpoint to be evaluated. The impression is given that theism is just too crazy a belief to be taken seriously and as a result God is placed in the same category as the Tooth Fairy and Mother Goose. Some who would not put in quite such stark terms nevertheless believe that God’s existence is far too improbable to merit thoughtful consideration. Theism is not viewed as a credible hypothesis.

When evaluating any hypothesis, whether scientific, personal, historical, religious or whatever, at least two factors come into play. The first is the plausibility of the hypothesis to begin with and the second is the ability of the hypothesis to account for relevant evidence. It can be difficult to consider the evidence for God when some atheists insist that theism is so implausible that detailed consideration of the evidence is unnecessary. As an example, consider how Richard Dawkins deals with the fine-tuning of physical constants and other features of the universe which are just right for life. Does the fine-tuning constitute evidence for God? Not according to Dawkins. While he is not overly impressed with some of the naturalistic explanations on the table, such as appeals to a multiverse, he still rules out God. Why? Because God is so improbable to begin with that he cannot be considered as an explanation for fine-tuning.

Is there any good reason to think that God’s existence is so implausible that it can be effectively ruled out without further consideration? Or to put in terms of probability, is there any good reason to think that the prior probability (i.e. the probability before relevant evidence is taken into account) of God’s existence is so incredibly low that it cannot be treated as a credible hypothesis?

Dawkins has provided an argument based on organized complexity to support this view, but his argument fails for multiple reasons, the most obvious of which is that there is no good reason to think that God would possess the kind of organized complexity required for Dawkins’ argument to work [1]. Many atheists who are not committed to Dawkins’ argument nevertheless have a strong intuition that his conclusion is right even if his argument is invalid. That is, they simply find theism too strange to be taken seriously. Obviously, such an intuition does not constitute an argument and, just as obviously, an argument is needed since many people do not share this intuition.

At one level, that’s all that needs to be said. In the absence of a decent argument, there is no good reason to think that theism is extremely implausible. But can we go further and give some positive reasons for believing that it is not at all implausible? Here I want to suggest a number of factors.

1. If God exists, he would not simply be one more object in the universe. As the Creator of the universe, God would be the most important being that exists. God would provide the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe itself, for the order within it and for human observers. To make an analogy with science, theism would be more like a fundamental theory that helped make sense of the universe rather than a claim that there is a planet orbiting a distant star which has no bearing on the rest of our beliefs[2]. Richard Dawkins seems to agree with this point. He writes:

…a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.[3]

2. Theism appeals to a kind of explanation we are familiar with – personal (agent) explanation – and so it relates to one of the two main kinds of explanation (personal and scientific). Scientific explanations deal with impersonal objects and laws of nature; we observe and measure how some events regularly follow others. We then use our knowledge of those regularities to explain some state of affairs; we discover how previous events produced other events by means of natural laws. However, when we try to explain the actions of another person, or group of persons, we use agent explanations.

Now, of course, events in a person’s brain can cause them to act. However, in an agent explanation the person is active, not passive. The person assesses his desires and beliefs and then chooses to act. So a person must have a power to choose in an agent explanation. In contrast to event causation, agent causation is a causal chain that begins with an agent bringing about an event for a purpose.

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