In The Non-Existence of God, Nicholas Everitt says, “the right way for the open-minded enquirer to approach the question of God’s existence is to look for grounds or reasons or evidence for thinking that God does exist, then to do the same for thinking that he does not exist, and finally to perform a metaphorical subtraction of one from the other. This will then yield the net grounds, or the grounds all-things-considered, for believing that God does or does not exist.”
One thing that humans are highly prone to do regarding matters of cognitive and emotional importance is to form a view, often before considering the evidence, and then backfill that conclusion with reasons, evidence, and arguments that corroborate it. That is, it is quite common for us to form our important beliefs in precisely the opposite manner that Everitt suggests. We believe, then we gather our evidence. We leave off before seriously considering evidence that would disconfirm the cherished view. When we do encounter negative evidence, we scrutinize it with abnormal levels of skepticism and hold it to inconsistently high levels of proof. We take a liberal and forgiving view of the sources of evidence that support the conclusions we favor. We have a powerful disposition towards confirmation of conclusions that we arrived at before we considered the evidence. We blur and sift the evidence in our favor by confusing the difference between propositions that support a favored conclusion with ones that are merely consistent with it.
But that’s all reasoning backwards from the conclusion to satisfy your gut. That’s enslaving reason to the passions. Atheists in particular loudly and proudly proclaim that they are the reasonable ones, they follow the evidence, they live by rationality, not by superstition and myth. But the real acid test here is whether we’re willing to ride the boat of reason to whatever shores it takes us to. Reason doesn’t lock onto atheism. There have been far more careful, reasonable, and very smart people in history who believed than who did not. What if in the end reason really does indicate that there is a God? Will we accept that conclusion? Or will we find a way to avoid the implication?
The only problem with Everitt’s passage the suggestion that once one has performed this investigation and metaphorical subtraction, then the matter can be settled. But what science has taught us is how to resist the temptation to settle on any answers, even ones we think are decided. The most important lesson we can learn from science is how to actively and perpetually seek out disconfirming evidence.
Lots of believers and non-believers go to the experts who favor their view, who agree with them, to get corroboration for what they already think is true. And when that outspoken and articulate champion of your view presents it in a pithy, clear, powerful, or insightful way, we feel vindicated. But we’ve got to resist the urge to seek out backfill for the conclusions we want to draw. We need to openly and honestly confront contrary views, not for the purpose of refuting them or scoring rhetorical points, but in order to give them long and serious consideration, and give them credit where credit is due. It’s more important to know the truth than to feel vindicated. It’s more important to consider every available source than to draw a premature and tilted conclusion.
The question is, how hard have we tried to understand the opposite viewpoint? How much serious consideration have we given to the counter-evidence?