We received a letter from a viewer asking about how some theists interpret evidence. In his view, it appeared some people don’t care about evidence, and I agree. I also note that this is nothing limited to theists. But in my reply, I noted that it’s important to know whether someone cares about evidence before you expend too much time correcting factual or informational errors presented to you by the other party. In his last reply, he added this:
"The question to ask the faithful is, how would you distinguish the difference between faith in something true and faith in something false without evidence?"
This reminded me of the question I have often asked, "How does a theist know the god he believes in is moral, if he asserts that humans are not able to judge his god’s actions when they appear to be wrong?"
But it also put me in mind of a recent conversation I had over the holiday. A theist asserted that it's not reasonable for people to assert there is/is no god, since there's no way to prove or disprove it. It’s an old, tired, and well-rebutted refrain, but, somehow, it never seems to lose steam. The interesting thing about this particular exchange is that the theist rebutted herself in short order.
I replied, "Of course we can prove if a thing exists. It's like Big Foot. First we have to have a clear definition of what it is we are claiming exists: a great ape. Then we define how it manifests—in this case, where this thing can be discovered: North American woodlands. Then we go looking for a great ape in the North American woodlands. If it's there, eventually the evidence to demonstrate it exists should become available—and when it does, we can say it exists.”
To this she replied, "But what if you don't find any evidence?"
To which I replied, "Well, then I would wonder why these people were asserting that a great ape lives in the North American woodlands."
And here is where it got interesting. AE viewers will understand, probably, my take on Big Foot. You will grasp that my question was along the lines of the Dragon in my Garage: Without any manifestation—there is no rational reason for someone to assert something is there.
However, this theist took it as a statement of my own assertion that I accept something must be there, otherwise, people wouldn't have asserted there was something there. She thought I was presenting the theist fallacy, the argument from popularity. "If lots of people assert it is true, it must be true."
But her reply was priceless: "Well, in ancient Greece, there were lots of things people claimed lived in the world that I'm pretty sure don't exist." And "pretty sure" was put forward with a chuckle—in the same way we might assert we’re pretty sure that W.C. Fields wouldn’t turn down a drink. It was a positive statement that "people assert all sorts of nonexistent things exist—like satyrs, winged-horses, and wood nymphs of the ancient Greeks."
Of course, the beauty of this is that she just asserted that she accepts these things don't exist—despite the fact that nobody has ever "proved" they don't exist. And wasn't her initial statement that this was an ignorant position for someone to hold?
To frame it in terms of the initial query from the viewer mail: "How does this theist distinguish between the thing that doesn't exist and the thing that exists but manifests in exactly the same way as the thing that doesn't exist?" Obviously, she feels confident she has reasonable basis upon which to reject some of these claims of existence of supernatural beings, while she accepts other such claims—but, without being able to "disprove" either, how does she differentiate? And further, why would she criticize the atheist for a more consistent application of a standard she clearly uses herself: In the absence of a conclusive demonstration of existence, it's reasonable to dismiss inconclusive evidence and unsupported claims, and assert your disbelief (of Greek supernatural beings)—even if you can't or haven't "disproved" the claim.
I wish I would have thought more quickly. This particular theist doesn’t believe in the existence of ghosts. Ghosts would have been far more appropriate to the dialogue in this case, as it is something far more people believe in than Big Foot, and for which much “evidence” and “testimony” is, and has been, presented from eye-witnesses and "researchers" in paranormal fields. And yet, she has asserted to me on numerous occasions that she understands such things do not exist.
I still don't know how she differentiates.