Sometimes I read comment debates between atheists and Christians. It's less fruitful than one would hope. Every time, it devolves into an epistemic debate -- where they argue, not about the facts, but how strong a proof a person should need.
The atheist position is, "I disbelieve unless I am given very strong evidence for belief." The Christian one is, "I believe unless it is categorically proven false." Then they fight with each other about what the proper level of evidence needed really is.
The trouble is, as long as the question is in any way uncertain, there is no solution to this debate. There is no categorical proof available. That's sort of the point of religion -- it's about spiritual realities which you can't see or touch. And the human mind is not capable of easily grasping probabilities. Ignorance is something it has a lot of trouble with. It is not really possible to be 20% sure of something. How do you act when you are 20% sure? To deal with this reality, you round down to nothing, usually, but you could round up if you really wanted to. When I look at the weather forecast, I generally think of any lowish chance of rain (like 30%) as "not going to rain" and any highish chance (like 70%) as "going to rain." Only at a really ambiguous number (like 50%) will I admit that I actually don't know.
So the real question between atheists and Christians is, which way do we round? If we are 20% sure Jesus rose from the dead, should we act like it's true, or false?
Christians make the argument that they want to believe anyway, because of the benefits of belief, because the possible reward (heaven) is so high, and because they don't want to take the risk of disbelieving if it's true and perhaps going to hell. (Now some people don't say that -- they say they wish it weren't true because being a Christian is hard. But that means this argument doesn't work for them, and they should require more proof than the one who wants to believe.)
It seems to me that complete certainty is not possible in our current situation. Therefore, depending on how you round, you could go either way.
The trouble, for the religious side, is where to place the epistemic bar so that you can believe all the truths of the Christian religion and none of the things that you don't want to believe. That is, you have to come up with a standard of proof that Jesus' resurrection passes, but the resurrection of Proteus fails. You want to set the bar so that the sun dancing at Fatima passes and the sun dancing at Medjugorje fails. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have to be credible witnesses, but not Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard.
For the atheist side, the problem is that they come up with a standard of proof that wouldn't allow them to believe in, say, Hannibal. Hannibal has no contemporary attestation either. On the other hand, no self-respecting historian really does believe the odd bits of the Hannibal story -- miracles, prophecies, and so forth. It's not well-attested enough for that, and anyway the existence of the supernatural is usually taken as negative evidence in a text -- I sure discount that stuff when I read history. And historical figures like Alexander the Great, Pontius Pilate, Socrates, and so forth do have multiple independent contemporary sources about them -- including critical ones.
The reality, which no one seems willing to face, is that historical "truth" is really no better than an educated guess. This link says it very well (I recommend the whole thing): "The historian's 'truths' are
derived from analytical evaluations of an object called 'sources'
rather than an object called 'the actual past.'" The past itself is not available; all we have is what is written down.
So we could have an amount of proof which isn't really good evidence of anything. Jesus lived among mostly uneducated people in a place that wasn't the center of literacy. It is quite credible that he should live his entire life without anyone writing a contemporary letter about him, without having become the subject of a satire by one of his enemies, without having been mentioned by Philo of Alexandria or Pliny the Elder. It is entirely unsurprising for the new founder of a religion to be noticed exclusively by the members of his own religion during his lifetime. Who else cared enough to write?
On the other hand, it is also entirely credible that a new religion could be founded on a falsehood -- most religions have to have been, if only one can be true! It's credible that, within the fervent atmosphere of a new religion, myths could spring up and be encoded in sacred books within a very short time. Regnum Christi had a little book called Perspectives on a Foundation which would seem like a credible source. It was written by Legionaries, within the lifespan of the founder, from primary sources (mostly the founder himself). But it was pretty much total fiction from beginning to end. I, as a member of that movement, had no way of knowing it wasn't true and no reason not to believe it. There's no popular rebuttal published, because only movement members cared about it! All of us would normally discount anything said about L. Ron Hubbard by Scientologists, anything a Mormon told us about Joseph Smith, and anything Muslims say about Muhammad. We know that their faith and zeal prevents them from being skeptical and objective. When you take that standard and apply it to the sources about Jesus, the whole New Testament is suspect and you are down to two references to him in the historical record -- neither of which is very informative.
And we know that, a few short centuries after the birth of Christ, zealous Christians deliberately destroyed all anti-Christian writings they could find, as well as heretical material like the gnostic Gospels. So who knows. maybe there was good evidence against the Resurrection that no longer survives.
Honestly I find both stories credible, and neither case rock-solid.
So, given that, what do you go with? Like I said, you can't actually be 30% sure Jesus rose from the dead, because the mind doesn't work that way. And how can you be 30% of a Christian? "I don't know" gives no guidance about your life choices.
There are two possible answers. Round up is what religion demands. Take a small amount of certainty and round it up to total certainty. Eschew doubt. When someone asks you if you believe, don't say "maybe," say "yes," even though you aren't sure at all.
The other option is round down, to say that without good evidence you will not believe. That's what you would do if someone told you 9/11 was an inside job, or that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, or that you live inside the Matrix. You would say, "Interesting theory, but you haven't proved it yet. I'm not going to change the way I live until I'm sure." But then you have to go on in your life, wondering if there is a more out there, a beautiful reality which you are missing out on.
There's just one thing that gets me: if God is real, if Jesus saves, if the main concern of Jesus is to get us to believe in him, why would he leave us in a state like this, where our entire salvation hinges on a rounding error? You would think he would be very careful to make it clear. While it's credible on a natural level for there to be as little evidence as there is, if the whole thing is of supernatural origin, it would have been quite simple for God to make sure we had better sources. Why didn't he?
The best answer I've heard to this is that God doesn't leave it to the historical facts. He inspires each individual separately, giving us our own evidence for belief. If you pray to him, he will give the gift of faith, or a miracle, or a fantastic coincidence -- something that lets you be really sure it's true. After that, it's up to you -- believe or not, having been given exactly the evidence that you need. The only flaw to this is that it has not happened to me.
As a result, the only possibilities I can think of are as follows:
1. Christianity is false.
2. Christianity is true, but it's a Calvinist version, and I am predestined to hell.
3. Christianity is true, but God is waiting till a better time in my life to reveal it to me. A correlate is that he's okay with my not believing now.
4. Christianity is true, but God knows it would be harmful to me personally. He knows I'm obsessively conscientious and will make myself miserable trying to follow it all. So he withholds proof so that I will not feel pressured to live that way. He thinks I'll live better without knowing about him, and then he can clear it all up with me in heaven.
Can you think of any more? Anyway, that answers that objection. The one answer I won't accept is, "Because God wanted to give us the chance to believe without evidence," because God also didn't give us evidence that it was a good thing to believe without evidence.
Emotions might be a substitute for certainty. If you feel God is out there, that could be enough. But it seems to me this conclusion has two correlates: first, when you stop feeling God is out there, you should stop believing; and second, if your interior sense of God conflicts with something organized religion tells you, you should go with your feeling, since it's your ultimate source of belief in the first place. Sure enough, there's plenty of religious people who believe in this way.
There is no real answer to the question, "Where should you put the epistemic bar?" That is, what is the point at which you stop rounding down and start rounding up -- what amount of proof is enough to go ahead and assume it's true. It comes down to a choice -- and that's why believing or disbelieving is almost always a choice. If something is proven, you have no choice but to believe it. I can't believe the sky is green. But if there's any doubt at all, any wiggle room for disbelief, you can always make that choice. That is why Christians say that if atheists wanted to, they could choose to believe (just set the bar lower!) and atheists say Christians are choosing to believe what they do because they prefer it (because they could always set the bar higher).
However, is one choice better than another? Scientific thought suggests 50% is a good level. If you are more sure than unsure, you should believe while leaving an open mind in case you learn more information. If you're less sure than unsure, you should disbelieve. And you should always be aware of the possibility that you are wrong. Science has no room for "faith," because the very definition of faith is taking insufficient evidence -- something that doesn't lead to unavoidable certainty -- and treating it as if you were sure.
In fact, I can't think of a single area outside of religion where this is a good decision. When I chose not to vaccinate my kids, it was with the understanding that I wasn't sure it was the right choice, I should keep an open mind to further information, and reassess as appropriate. (I'm thinking it's probably about time to give at least Marko a few shots, by the way.) When I was convinced by the evidence for evolution, I kept in my mind that it's not a sure thing and I shouldn't act like it is, even though the evidence is pretty good. With religion, we are urged to take any evidence, even if it's not at all close to overwhelming, and stop considering other possibilities as soon as we have it.
If the common ground between atheists and Christians in this argument is "you should use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things," I think the atheists win. Christians do not actually use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things, and if they did, they would be excessively credulous and much too stubborn about changing their minds when they were wrong.
But is it really agreed? What do you think? On what grounds can religious truth require a lower epistemic bar than other things? The potential rewards are huge, yes, but so are the costs. Religion requires of us many things that are painful and difficult, and sometimes it requires things which would be seen as immoral from outside its perspective. And what if one religion is true, and it's not the one you're currently in? Surely in that case you are obliged to keep looking.
Is there a level of evidence at which it is the right choice to switch from rounding down to rounding up, and if so, where is it?