This is the the sixteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.
As with the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within. This post in particular also takes a good deal from Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta"), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume).
In previous posts I've tried to make the strongest case for arguing that we shouldn't believe in God, on the grounds that there isn't enough evidence. There are a number of points that I'd like to make in response. This post will look at how standard responses to skepticism of any sort can enter into this debate, given that the no-evidence argument is very much like the arguments for skepticism (see the end of the last post). I have a few other points to make after considering the responses to skepticism as applied here, and those will follow in the next post.
Evaluating the first premise
Recall the structure of the No-Evidence Argument:
1. It is wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.
2. We don't have (and shouldn't expect ever to have) enough evidence for belief in God.
3. Therefore, we should not believe in God.
I've spent a good deal of time on the second premise two posts ago, and I tried to motivate the first premise in the last post. Now it's time to look at the various ways people try to show that the first premise isn't really motivated after all. Do you need evidence at all? One tactic to respond to the No-Evidence Argument is not to insist that there is enough evidence but to say we simply don't need evidence to believe. These responses parallel the responses to skepticism in an interesting way, since they're just responses to skepticism about God. See the last couple posts for how the argument is basically the same argument with God added in instead of the external world, scientific laws, or whatever else someone might be skeptical about. In some ways the content might mkae all the difference, but the parallel in form means the same form of response might be worth considering.
Pragmatism about belief in God
William James says you can't live a normal life if you follow Clifford, since many beliefs have no evidence (e.g. moral, political views). If you already find yorself believing something on an issue on which you need to take a stance when there are only a few options to choose from and on which there isn't widespread agreement, then there's no reason not to believe it. This is like pragmatism, which doesn't admit to knowledge of God but won't care. It's ok to believe even without any evidence. Maybe we can't help believing. Maybe it's worthwhile for the benefits. Maybe it's morally right (or even morally necessary). Maybe we don't really know but it's ok to say we know, or whether we know varies from context to context, because we might be having religious experiences that we know something about even if it's not knowledge about any reality behind the experiences.
This doesn’t satisfy many theists, since it doesn't ground the belief in reasons, arguments, or reasonableness, but if it's right then it gets theists out of the charge that belief in God is irrational. The effect of value judgments on how we evaluate evidence (which I'll say more about in the next post) fits with Clifford's picture. If your whole view of the world, including what you value, leans one way or the other, why not stick with it? There's no point giving up many of your beliefs over evidence that has an alternate explanation.
Pascal’s pragmatism goes further. Pragmatists normally say it's not irrational to believe, but they won’t say it's rational either. Blaise Pascal offers an argument that he thinks gives rational reasons to believe. If you don't believe, then it's either neutral or infinitely bad. You simply die if you’re right, or you go to hell if you're wrong. If you do believe, it's either neutral or infinitely good. You simply die if you're wrong, or you go to heaven if you're right. So the rational choice is to believe, since it’s better or equal either way.'
Some point out that there may be other options. Maybe God lets everyone go to heaven. At this point in Pascal's writing, he's already given arguments that Christian teachings are the only open option besides atheism (in its traditional, exclusivist form), but since we don't have those in front of us for the sake of just this argument, let's assume he has nothing to say about that. Pascal can still say there are two options. If there's a God who does send some people to hell or if there isn't. Then there are still two options (believe in God or not) with two possibilities (there's a God like that, or there isn't). So the wager still stands.
But maybe there's even an evil God who sends everyone to hell if they believe in God. Pascal doesn't address this problem (to my knowledge), but he could say that this is unlikely given the actual claims we're evaluating -- the claims of actual theists who believe in a God they think has revealed himself through some piece of scripture. So this situation doesn't seem as likely and isn't considered as much a worry as the more likely items in the wager.
The other main objection is that this doesn't seem like a good motivation to believe. It's even hard to say that it would be real belief. Could you just make yourself believe something? Pascal is aware of this charge, and he says people need some reason for investigation, and this is a great reason to look into it. When you look into it openly, you can learn to see things from the believer's perspective, and the world changes around you so you can see God’s hand at work. Then you gain the correct motivation and real belief.
A priori knowledge
John Hawthorne has a different strategy. (This response is in the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within.) He says theists may be able to know a priori, without information from our senses, that God exists, like how I know mathematical truths or the truth that I exist. If we could have a priori knowledge, then belief without evidence would be grounded. Why would we have such knowledge about God? If God does exist and created us, might not God make this knowledge available to genuine seekers? Or maybe all have the ability, but some resist it because of their value systems that include perspectives fundamentally opposed to what theists often believe (see the next post for more on this issue). It's hard to argue against this a priori possibility, but Hawthorne hasn't argued for its truth either. He calls this the “gift of faith”, though ‘faith’ is misleading, since for contemporary Americans (though this isn't true historically) faith is totally ungrounded belief, and this has a grounding since its origin would be God, the most reliable source of all. This would be an ability, not necessarily shared with others, to see truths. Some may know that God exists if God gave them this ability, and those who don't have it (or don't use it) shouldn't claim that others' belief in God is ungrounded. So the no-evidence argument doesn't show that it's irrational to believe in God without evidence.
Reliabilism about God
Alvin Plantinga gives a similar argument that ends up being more based in reliabilism. The reliabilist says we don't need to know or prove that our senses are reliable. They just need to be reliable, and then we can rely on them and end up knowing things. If all it takes to know something is to have a reliable method of arriving at that truth, then the theist has an interesting response to the no-evidence argument. If God exists, and if we can interact with God through trusting God, worship, prayer, study of scripture, following a way of life, and engaging in a community of faith, and that is a reliable method to come to know God, then we could have knowledge that there's a God without having any evidence. If the method is reliable, and the belief is caused through a genuine connection with God, then people know it, even if they can't show that the method is reliable. Then theism may well be perfectly rational, and atheists or agnostics who haven't explored this method aren't in a position to say otherwise.
The "you haven't explored it" issue gets a little more complicated than this, but I'll come back to that in the next post, along with the issue of values affecting how you see others' beliefs on this issue, and I also want to look at the overall standard required for religious belief to see if people who endorse no-evidence sorts of arguments will apply the same criteria consistently to other domains of knowledge. For now, I simply want to observe that there really do seem to be some things a theist can say to defend against the charge that it's irrational to believe in God without evidence. Most of the standard replies to skepticism seem to have versions that apply to skepticism about God. That leaves me thinking the no-evidence argument is pretty poor if the people who endorse it think it shows that no one can have knowledge of God, unless they're willing to admit that hardly anyone has knowledge of anything. This doesn't show that anyone does have knowledge of God. That's not the point. The point is that those who insist that such knowledge is impossible without evidence are making quite a radical claim whose implications they probably haven't explored fully. I'll say a little more about that in the next post, along with the value issue and "you haven't explored it" argument.