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Murray Naish Is it wrong for people to be Christian believers if they cannot provide evidence for their faith?

Alister McGrath says, the general consensus within Christian theology seems to be that, although reason does not bring individuals to faith in God, believers are nonetheless able to give rational reasons for their faith in God. 1 This suggests an immediate problem with the question. For whom might it be 'wrong' for Christians to have faith without evidence? I think it is fair to say that a believer, even if they acknowledge that they do not have objective evidence for their belief, will not say that their belief is wrong. That would be completely irrational. The answer to this question must therefore be argued as though to someone who is not a Christian. In this answer, I am not going to present evidence for the Christian faith. Instead, I will show that it is probably irrational to say that belief in Christian truth-claims must have evidence, while a person holds any truth-claims themselves. So in effect I am removing the Christian from the question: is it wrong to believe if you cannot provide evidence for your belief? It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.2 This famous quote by W.K. Clifford offers a simple summation of the Evidentialist philosophy. It also offers a simple answer to the question at hand: it would be wrong to hold a Christian belief if you had no evidence for your faith. However, both Clifford and Evidentialism are flawed. Let me start with Clifford, as his argument can be dealt with succinctly. The claim he is making is a belief. That is to say, he believes that in order to hold a belief, you must have the evidence to back it up. So where is the evidence for his claim? He has none. The argument expressed in his quote is self-referentially incoherent.3 It nullifies itself. Case closed. Evidentialism as a wider philosophical foundation is a widely held opinion in today's world of science and empiricism. It states that we have a moral duty only to believe that for which we have sufficient evidence. But there are several problems with it, which I shall proceed to outline. In order to assess a belief, one must have other beliefs. By saying that we don't believe one thing, we are implying that we do believe another. The problem comes when one has to assess one's own beliefs. It is impossible to step outside your epistemic base to find an Archimedean point from which to view the world. Therefore, as soon as you place your own beliefs over another's, you fall into a problem, as you cannot provide an objective argument for your own truth-claims. Looking at Evidentialism from a pragmatic point of view, it soon becomes apparent that as human beings we cannot even begin to function without holding a huge amount of unsubstantiated beliefs. The classic example is my belief that the world is real, that you the reader are real, and that I am not just a brain in a vat on Alpha Centauri. Similarly, I believe that the building I am in is not about to collapse, but I have no evidence for it. We also have many beliefs that arise from extrapolating the future from the past. The sun will rise tomorrow. I will not drop dead any time soon. There is no evidence for these claims. A nice anecdote is that of Bertrand Russell's Christmas turkeys. Simply because they have been well fed and looked after in the year leading to Christmas, they would be fully entitled to believe that they will not be slaughtered and cooked all of a sudden. But they will be.

1 McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1994), 129. 2 Clifford, William K. Lectures and Essays, ed. F. Pollock (London: Macmillan, 1879), 186. 3 Torrance, Alan. DI1001: Hand-out: Introduction to Theology Hand-out 2 Problems of God-talk

Murray Naish As evidentialism holds that it is our moral duty only to believe that for which we have sufficient evidence, if we were being immoral every time we believed something without sufficient evidence, we would have a very hard time being good people. So, we have seen that a) we cannot assess beliefs without holding beliefs of our own that we cannot assess and b) we cannot function without holding a huge numbers of unsubstantiated beliefs, which would render us immoral under Evidentialism. There is a final, even more basic problem with Evidentialism. We cannot know anything to be 100% true. Even the most basic precepts of maths have had doubt cast on them. Therefore, no belief can be held fully it is simply a matter of probability. So Evidentialists are bound not to truly believe anything. Lying behind Evidentialism is Foundationalism. And behind Foundationalism was Descartes. He was concerned that we can be wrong about things so often. He wanted an indisputable foundation from which to assess the human condition. He posited that knowledge was like a tree. The trunk was maths, and the branches were the empirical sciences. Maths, however, presupposes sound roots. Descartes wanted to secure these roots. Descartes postulated a malicious demon that would attack whatever he 'knew'. A better analogy today would be brains in vats on Alpha Centauri. Descartes wanted to stop this to find things that he couldn't be misled about. This led to the three most famous words in philosophy - cogito ergo sum. Statements such as I think therefore I am are termed properly basic beliefs. That is, they depend for their justification on something outside the realm of belief. For example, my jumper is brown or I have a headache. I am not inferring these beliefs from any other beliefs they come directly from the evidence itself. Foundationalism says that all other beliefs have to be based on these properly basic beliefs. Recently, some theologians, notably Alvin Platinga and William Alston, have posited that religious belief may be properly basic. religious experience is basic to religious belief in somewhat the way in which sense experience is basic to our beliefs about the physical world. In both cases . . . we form certain beliefs about the subject matter (God, the physical environment) on the basis of experience.4 In this case, claiming that evidence is needed for this belief is incoherent. If our beliefs are brought about by an experience, we cannot provide evidence, and should not need to. It is along the lines of the claim I love my girlfriend/wife/dog. There is no evidence, but most people would believe the statement and not require evidence, save maybe through actions in relation to the claim it could be argued that a proper Christian should also show his love for God (and thereby the validity of his beliefs) through his actions. Of course, the word faith implies a belief that is not completely based on evidence. The question almost answers itself in that respect. However, on top of that I have shown that it is no more wrong for a Christian to hold religious beliefs than it is for any person to hold any beliefs of any sort. Nothing holds a one hundred per cent degree of certainty, and many of our central beliefs fall 4
Alston, William. Is Religious Belief Rational? in The Life of Religion, eds. S. M. Harrison and R. C. Taylor, (Lanham: University Press of America, 1986), 2.

Murray Naish far short of that mark, yet we require no evidence to continue believing them. Furthermore, for a Christian, faith is a relationship, and as such an experience, for which there can be no evidence, making it a basic belief. Now, having said that it is impossible to truly believe anything, I want to highlight the fact that I think the search for evidence and argument is absolutely vital in any discipline, be it academic or simply in regards to life. If we do not strive to understand, we are less than human. A lapse into solipsism does no one any good! I have no so much answered the question as rendered it invalid. No one can legitimately claim that it is wrong for a Christian to believe without providing evidence for his faith. If no one can claim that, then there is no discussion to be had: it cannot be wrong for a Christian to believe without providing evidence for the belief.