Faith, Physics & Evidence on Radio 4
‘But where’s your evidence?!’ Whether it’s amidst heated debates over climate change, or the claims and counter-claims of the Leveson inquiry, the cry for evidence is a regular part of our everyday existence. After the dust of a media frenzy has settled, we all understand the need for evidence when making assertions and forming opinions. And yet often when people turn to think about Christianity, they assume that we’re the only ones not talking about evidence. In the realm of ‘religion’, suddenly believing something becomes not about evidence, but about that mysterious substance called ‘faith’. Ever heard a variation of this: ‘that’s easy for you to say, if only I had your faith’?
Given all that, you may find it interesting to have a listen to the latest episode of Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief’ programme, downloadable here. This week host Ernie Rea was dialoguing on whether modern physics leaves any room for God, and his guests were Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a Christian, Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University and a part time Imam, and Dr Mark Vernon, Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London who has degrees in physics, theology and philosophy and who is agnostic.
What I found particularly refreshing was hearing John Lennox, on national radio, highlight that the so-called New Atheists have done a jolly clever thing in convincing the general public that faith is believing where there is no evidence. In doing so they portray science as this great grown-up champion who’s thankfully come along to defeat ‘faith’, wielding his powerful weapon of rationality, and thus finally liberate us from our primitive ways. In their view faith just stands there, blindfolded to the light of reality, looking both feeble and horribly naive. Consequently the media always introduce the debate as ‘faith vs science’, with ‘believers’ being squared against those who ‘believe in science’, as if the two were opposing.
As Lennox tried to make clear, this is a completely false dichotomy. Science is essentially, as far as I understand it, the act of observing the world and trying to come up with explanations based on what we’ve observed. In that sense, it’s neutral. Like the court judge, science sits and listens and watches before then making a judgment call. Therefore surely the real fight is ‘naturalism vs theism’ and the grounds of this battle must always be evidence; does a God-shaped worldview or a God-less worldview best fit the presenting evidence we observe?
As part of the programme it was an unusual treat to hear the testimony of a man who’d moved from a naturalist position to becoming a Christian. However when Rea asked the man what would happen if some theory were to be discovered that ruled out the possibility of a God, he then explained that his own personal experience of God would become the grounds for him continuing to believe. Now, I don’t meant to in any way question that man’s experience of God, and I certainly do think we should be more ready to describe how God is working in us, but it was interesting that this answer was then picked up by Vernon as an example of believers not believing because of evidence but because of subjective experience. It seems to me, in line with what Lennox was explaining, that we’re missing a massive opportunity to demolish an unhelpful stereotype of Christianity, disseminated in part by New Atheism, by not pointing to the evidence for our faith.And that’s not just something John Lennox seeks to do, it was something the first-century Christians sought to do too. For example, at church on Sunday we were looking at the penultimate chapter of John’s account of Jesus’ life, death & resurrection (this could get confusing: I mean the apostle John, not Mr Lennox!). John couldn’t have been clearer about the fact that he understood Christianity to be based on evidence. He wrote:
‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But there are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.‘ (John 20:30-31, NIV)
Clearly John believed that what he witnessed was observable evidence that essentially pointed to a scientific conclusion. This evidence was the life, death and resurrection of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, i.e. stuff that happened in history that real people observed. And the conclusion that John believed this evidence pointed to was that this Jesus is the Christ, i.e. the divine rescuing king from God that the Jewish Scriptures had promised. Consequently Christians should remember the baddie isn’t science; in fact you could say all Christians are scientists, in that we are drawing conclusions based on observable evidence. Every worldview of the world has to take into account the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What do you make of him?
And as John writes, he’s not simply concerned with the true identity of a historical person. His claim had more significance than that: by believing in this person or, to put it in less tainted terms, by putting our trusting upon him, this person brings us life. This is defined elsewhere in John’s account as knowing God himself (John 17:3). In other words, God has acted in his world to do something incredible through Jesus: to allow people to know him. No wonder John wrote it down and sought to communicate it to others. No wonder Christian believers have faithfully ensured this document has been accurately passed down through history over the two thousand years since it was written.
So when Lennox stated that he believed there was a God because of evidence, I longed for Rea to get him to explain: ‘Come on, this man’s claiming he’s got evidence for God, don’t you want to hear him out?! If not because you’re a human being with a mind and a desire to explore, then at least to try and mock him!’ But Rea didn’t push him, and bizarrely (given a ‘serious scientist’ had just claimed to know God!) the conversation simply moved on.
All in all it’s great to hear these issues being discussed in the public domain, albeit in twenty-eight minutes. It did make me wonder why is this a ‘Radio 4 issue’, rather than something you might expect on Radio 1. That’s more an observation of the obvious rather than a criticism of the programmers at BBC: religion and faith just don’t just seem to be often on the table in youth culture. Would that be different if we were more forthcoming with our evidence?
I’d love to hear your thoughts – why not take a moment to comment? Interested in hearing more from Lennox? His books are available here.
“Would that be different if we were more forthcoming with our evidence?”
Show me your evidence, and I’ll follow where it leads. Tell me you believe without showing evidence, and I have no reason to believe you.
Great name – thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think you’re exactly right; why would anyone ‘believe’ if there were no evidence to believe upon. When it comes to Christianity, then I’d point people to the accounts known as the ‘gospels’, found in the New Testament, as the ‘evidence’. They claim to be either eyewitness material, or collections of eyewitness material – have a look at the opening verses of Luke’s gospel, for example. I think you can build a pretty strong case for those documents being treated as reliable eyewitness testimony of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus, from soon after they were written, and likewise a strong case that what we have in our Bibles is what was actually written (i.e. they haven’t been tampered with over time). I think that then leaves you with the question, ‘what do I make of Jesus?’ If the things that are written about him in these documents are true, then that’s huge, and demands a response.
Have you read them?
I have read the Gospels, and the Bible cover to cover.
Here’s my issue…and I hope you’ll take me seriously, because this is meant in complete earnestness.
When we’re dealing with the supernatural claims as put forth in the Gospels, the question we have to ask is this: are written accounts good enough evidence, by themselves to confirm that supernatural events (miracles, rising from the dead, etc) actually took place?
I will skip talking about the fact that there are scientific studies documenting the unreliability of eye-witness testimony, but you should be aware that those studies do exist.
Instead, I ask you to look at the eyewitness testimony of alien abductees. Again, I’m being serious. People who claim to have been abducted by aliens are very consistent with their stories. Sometimes they are abducted in groups, and their testimony backs each other up.
Do we believe these stories, then? No. Because they are only anecdotes. If they backed up their anecdotes with physical evidence, that would be a different story. But anecdotes by themselves are not good enough.
Now, the question is, do we have any reason to treat religious claims from the Gospels any differently from the paranormal claims of alien abductees? Other than preference, I can find no reason.
Anecdotes are evidence. They just aren’t good enough, by themselves, to prove extraordinary claims.
Thanks for your comment – apologies for the delay – and I appreciate your earnestness.
Your question was essentially ‘are written accounts good enough evidence, by themselves to confirm that supernatural events actually took place?’ What stops ‘eyewitnesses’ from being unreliable?
Well I agree with you that eyewitnesses can be unreliable: people get stuff wrong, people are mistaken, people intentionally lie. I’ve never really looked into the eyewitnesses of alien abductees before, I have to say. And that’s interesting about the level of consistency amongst them – and even that they back each other up in groups. As I say I haven’t looked into that.
I’ll say a few reasons why I think we can treat the gospel accounts found in the New Testament as different to these alien accounts, and certainly as different to anecdotes.
– The Bible is rooted in real history and it talks about stuff that’s mixed up with stuff that others also say happened. That is, it’s not talking about stuff that happened in a corner (or a spaceship). It corroborates with other ancient historians in referring to Jesus, such as the Roman historians Pliny and Tacitus, and the Jewish histoiran Josephus.
– They were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, so they could be ridiculed if they were obvious fakes. Most of the NT gospels were written about 35 years after the events they describe – Mark’s account was probably the earliest, mid 60’s. Given that Jesus died in the early 30s, there would have been a whole generation around who had seen Jesus with their own eyes (like the other historians had), and so could have said: “No, it wasn’t like that!”
– The gospel writers made great strains to show that what they were writing was eyewitness material. They don’t intend us to read them as anecdotes. Two of the Gospel writers – Matthew & John – were eyewitnesses themselves, following Jesus. From very early on Mark was known to be an understudy of Peter (one of Jesus’ disciples), effectively writing down Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Luke spells out in the first four verses of his account that he’s gone to great efforts to ensure what he’s writing was based on eyewitness testimony. He says he’s actually tracked down those who were there, and spoken to them. He says he’s writing so that his readers can have certainty about what he’s talking about. That’s not the claim of someone making a passing anecdote. And those are big claims to make if they’re completely untrue.
– What they describe is so interweaved with details about places, times, and names, that it would be a lot easier to shoot down if it wasn’t true. I guess if you’re trying to make stuff up, then you make it quite vague. You certainly don’t name your eyewitnesses and some of the people involved in the stories. And yet that’s what you get when you read the gospel accounts. You don’t do that if you’re deluded. Presumably people would have then spoken to those people, asking them for confirmation. Others would have been at those places when they happened. In fact some of the more recent NT scholarship has focused on the importance of eyewitness testimony in first-century history, pointing out that these are all markers of an accounts’ integrity (see Richard Bauckham, Jesus & the Eyewitnesses).
– So convicted were these eye-witnesses that many of them went on to suffer greatly or die for their faith. Why lie to the extent that you intentionally put yourself in harm’s way? Sure, many people in human history have died for things that are not true, but would you die for what you knew wasn’t true, because you’d invented it?
CS Lewis, a professor of English literature at Oxford, became a Christian after examining the evidence. He was later asked to give an address to the liberal establishment, many of whom had been sceptically attacking the truth of the gospels and suggesting they were ‘myths’. He said to them:
‘People are so clever, they can read between the lines in the bible, but they can’t read the lines’. He went on to point out from his study of literature that the idea that the gospels can be written off as fiction is completely ridiculous – such literature – fiction styling itself as real eyewitness testimony just wasn’t in existence.
All these things together are factors why I believe the gospel accounts should be treated as trustworthy testimony about what actually happened, not anecdotes. Of course I can’t ‘prove’ that to you. That’s not the way we treat evidence – we deduce reasonable conclusions from it. But it’s never scientifically exhaustive. Obviously the subject matter of the evidence is ‘extraordinary’, as you say. I’m aware that asking someone to believe in a God has a lot more implications for us than what your average jury have to deal with. But surely we shouldn’t let that prevent us from treating the gospel writers’ testimony as they intended it to be taken. In fact in lots of other ancient texts we rely on a lot less evidence yet consider them to be true (see below)…
While my following answers may at times seem flippant, I hope you realize that is not my intent.
“The Bible is rooted in real history and it talks about stuff that’s mixed up with stuff that others also say happened.”
This seems no more impressive to me than the fact that the ‘Iliad’ mentions Troy and the city actually existed…or, for that matter, that Spider-Man takes place in New York City.
“It corroborates with other ancient historians in referring to Jesus, such as the Roman historians Pliny and Tacitus, and the Jewish histoiran Josephus. ”
Again, I don’t see how this helps you. Those historians you mention (and I have read them) lived a great deal later than when Jesus was supposed to have lived. On top of that, their writing doesn’t confirm any of the stories written in the gospels. Rather, they seem to point to the existence of Christians and mention what the Christians professed.
“They were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, so they could be ridiculed if they were obvious fakes. ”
Perhaps they were. History is written by the winners…and if nothing else, Christianity is certainly a winner by historical standards. You also have to consider the level of literacy (not terribly high) at the time, as well as what might have been apathy towards a small (at the time) religious sect.
Look at the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. I’m sure people at the time claimed he was a fraud and a faker, but he still has followers.
“The gospel writers made great strains to show that what they were writing was eyewitness material. They don’t intend us to read them as anecdotes.”
This might just be a miscommunication. Eyewitness testimony is an anecdote. And I still see no good reason for an anecdote, whether it is eyewitness or not, to be good enough evidence by itself to proof a supernatural claim. Whether that claim is miracles or aliens.
“You certainly don’t name your eyewitnesses and some of the people involved in the stories. And yet that’s what you get when you read the gospel accounts. ”
That’s what you get from alien abductees as well. But I feel no particular compunction to believe them because of that.
“So convicted were these eye-witnesses that many of them went on to suffer greatly or die for their faith.”
So convicted are suicide bombers about their religion that they willingly kill themselves to do as they believe their god commands.
I’m not saying people didn’t believe, and believe strongly. I just think they were wrong. Wrong in what way…I don’t know. But wrong.
“but would you die for what you knew wasn’t true, because you’d invented it?”
People ‘invent’ things all the time that aren’t true that they still believe. You can delude yourself about things without being insane. Again, I grant that the martyrs almost certainly believed what they said. I just don’t think they were correct about what they believed.
“But surely we shouldn’t let that prevent us from treating the gospel writers’ testimony as they intended it to be taken.”
I’m willing to take them as you believe they were intended to be taken. But that still doesn’t give me any reason to believe their claims were true. Any more than the claims of alien abductees, who I also think believe their own claims.
“In fact in lots of other ancient texts we rely on a lot less evidence yet consider them to be true (see below)…”
But we don’t accept any extraordinary or supernatural claims from those texts. And it’s right that we don’t. I just think we shouldn’t accept the extraordinary or supernatural claims from the Bible either, and treat it just like those other ancient texts.
Thanks a lot – you’re very quick! Give me some time to digest and think how I’d respond 🙂