In October of 2019, the Pew Research Center released the results of its latest survey on religion in America. In the last ten years, the percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped 12 points, to 65%. The number of people who describe themselves as “nones” (not affiliated with any religion) has grown from 39 million to 68 million. And now less than half of American adults attend church at least once a month.
The reasons for these changes to the religious landscape are complex, but at least part of the problem is a credibility issue. The church is made up of people, and we people sometimes say and do things that drive others away. And the culture around us increasingly finds religion curious or irrelevant (or even harmful). Science, and the way it is presented in popular media, also has chipped away at the credibility of religious belief. Does it still make sense to believe in God in our science-saturated world today?
Last month The Christian Post published an extensive series called “Leaving Christianity,” which detailed the accounts of several people who left the church and summarized the reasons given by many more people who have deconverted. The series begins with Luke Douglas’s story, which is worth reading because it is so typical of those we hear: a) he grew up with a particular view of science tightly wedded to his faith; b) he discovered that view of science to be demonstrably wrong; c) so he abandoned his faith, not thinking there are any other options for reconciling science with serious faith.
After these first-hand accounts of deconversion, The Christian Post asked several Christian authors, pastors, and academics to respond to the questions the deconverted gave for leaving the faith. Among these were questions about evolution (see this section from BioLogos Advisory Council member, April Cordero), sin and hell, violence in the Old Testament, and why God allows suffering. I was asked to respond to the question, “Is there any evidence for the existence of God? I need real, testable evidence.”
I don’t answer that question the way everyone does. Some people think you can straightforwardly produce theological conclusions from scientific data. I think it is more complex than that. So my answer gets into the philosophical weeds a bit. But I’m a philosopher, and that’s what we do! Difficult questions often demand difficult answers. If you’re into that sort of thing, read on.
“Is there any evidence for the existence of God? I need real, testable evidence.”
That is a reasonable question, but we have been fundamentally misled by the success of scientific investigation into thinking the tools of science are the best way to answer any question. If God were just another physical object within the world that we wanted to know whether it exists—like Bigfoot, Atlantis, or phlogiston—then the demand for “real, testable evidence” would be appropriate. And then we ought to base our beliefs on the results of such tests. But God is not one physical object among other things in the world. God transcends our world and experience, and hence lies outside the purview of scientific investigation.
This can be tricky to understand, and there are several common ways of trying to explain it. One way is to say that God does not exist in the way other things might exist, but rather God IS existence itself. We might think of it like this (which is inspired by one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time, Thomas Aquinas): say you’re looking at a couple of people playing pool, and one of them strikes the cue ball, which strikes another ball, sinking it into the corner pocket. We could focus on the chain of causes: one thing happens, then another, then another. Play the entire sequence of causes backward and eventually you’d have to come to a first cause—something that started the chain of causes, but which itself is uncaused. Some people find this line of reasoning persuasive, and claim there had to be a god-like being to start everything up, otherwise we have an infinite regress of causes. But all that does is get you a “first domino.” It says nothing about whether that first cause is still around today or has any bearing on our lives. And it wasn’t the point Aquinas was making.
Instead of looking at the pool table and asking the scientific questions “how” or “when,” ask instead the question “why?” Why does the billiard ball exist? Aquinas would say the billiard ball only exists because there is a game of billiards. The game is the ball’s “ground of being.” If there were no game of billiards, there would be no billiard ball. And then the game itself exists only because of something else, namely the people who invented it. And these people only exist because their being also derives from something else. The existence of all these things depends on something else. So again, we get an infinite regress. There must be something that stops this chain of dependencies, and that is God who is being itself, not derived from or dependent on anything else. Aquinas said, “All beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation” (Summa Theologica I.44.1).
That is not scientifically testable evidence for the existence of God. Rather, it aims to show that there must be something beyond the realm in which science applies, something which makes possible all of our experience. In that sense, God is not just the first domino that started the chain of causes, but God continues to sustain all things as the ground of their existence.
This is an abstract argument, and not what the questioner was looking for. But I think it shows that question itself makes a category mistake—it’s like asking “What color is Thursday?” Thursday is not the kind of thing that has a color; God is not a thing that (possibly) exists in the realm describable by science. Instead, God is what makes that realm of things possible in the first place.
Now, this is not at all to say that our experience is irrelevant to our beliefs about God. But what it does is flip the order of the relationship, between our experiences and our belief in God. Many people, like those asking the original question, seem to think that our experiences ought to serve as the ground for belief in God. If that’s the case and it’s as straightforward as that, it is curious, at least, that not everyone comes to the same conclusion. I’m suggesting instead that it works the other way: that God serves as the ground for how we experience things. This means that we interpret our experience in light of belief in God.
Think of interpreting as “seeing as” rather than merely “seeing that.” For example, two people might look through the same microscope and see very different things. One person might just see a bunch of blobs, while a trained professional might see that same visual data “as” cancer cells because she has been trained to see things that way.
This also applies to broader experience. The book of James in the New Testament begins with, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3). James is reminding his audience that we can see difficulties “as” something more than just awful things with no purpose, because of other things we know. Furthermore, I look at the story of Jesus, and I see it “as” the story of God becoming flesh, showing us how to live, dying for our sins, and resurrecting from death to eternal life. That is an interpretation of the evidence, to be sure, and not everyone interprets the evidence in the same way. But the evidence can reasonably be interpreted that way.
This approach accords very well with what C.S. Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else” (from “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory). God is the light by which we see and make sense of other things. The more things which are seen in that light and make sense, the more plausible is the belief I bring to that experience.
So, God is not an object to be tested or experimented on. Rather, God is the ground of all being and existence. And when I look at the world in the light of Christian theism, it helps to make sense of my experience. That is not testable, scientific, evidence that forces me to believe. But it does provide support that my beliefs are reasonable.