The Cost to Skepticism

“I simply need proof for God. But you have not adequately given it to me.”

This is a message I get from some folks when they learn I am a Christian. I will even hear it from some people when I’m not even speaking to them. Perhaps I’ve retweeted someone else online, and out of the blue I will suddenly be hit by anonymous demands for proof. Proof for what? Proof that Christianity is true, that God exists.

Skeptical people can sometimes (not always) be outspoken. And I usually appreciate the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. Personally, I think a healthy skepticism is a very positive thing in life. I think it helps us stay grounded, encouraging us to take a careful and thoughtful approach to important matters in life. As I seek to give people reasons for the truth of Christianity – engaging with the thoughtful skeptic is often helpful because it reminds me not to overstate the case that I am making to them. It’s a good counterbalance for me as a Christian case maker. So – I value the thoughtful skeptic.

However – I think there are some fundamental epistemological problems facing the hard line (sometimes called Cartesian) skeptic. What is a hard line skeptic? Well, I’ll define it as someone who demands absolute (or tautological) certainty about a subject. Here’s an example. Imagine I am wrestling with whether or not to make a career change in my life. Also, let’s say I take a hard line skeptical approach to this process. In that case, I am going to need to be absolutely certain of the correct course of action before deciding to take it. That means – 100% certainty. There must be no aspects of the issue – or my decision-making processes – that are unknown to me. And my understanding of the issues must be absolute. There must be no unknowns at all. Does that sound like a high bar to reach when changing jobs? Yup. Ever managed it? Nope.

Here’s the problem for the skeptic. We can only be tautologically certain about a very few minor things in life. Does a triangle have three sides? Is a divide by zero undefined in mathematics? Is there no upper limit to the set of prime numbers? These sorts of issues can be known with absolute certainty. The answer is yes in all three cases. They probably aren’t very important to my life right now though. Yet – the skeptic can find tautological certainty here. But what about elsewhere in their lives? I just don’t think certainty is possible. There’s no way to be absolutely certain about the ethical, aesthetic, political, business, religious, and relational issues we face. These are way too complicated. The hard line skeptic’s bar of absolute certainty can be met in the math textbook, but not in their daily life outside of the classroom.

That’s a problem. But, it’s not the skeptic’s biggest problem.

Let’s now think about the skeptical person who is demanding absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. The person who is constantly saying, “you have not given me enough. I want PROOF!” The biggest problem is – his position is completely self-refuting. It is a position that undermines itself. You see, because we cannot be 100% certain about very much in life (outside of math, for example) that means the skeptic cannot be 100% certain of his/her own skepticism. Yet their position dictates that – to have knowledge – they MUST know something absolutely, at 100%. Consequently, because they themselves cannot meet their own demand for knowledge, this means they cannot even be certain of their own skepticism! This is a fundamental epistemological problem that, if they are thinking rationally, would lead them to abandon their hard line skepticism and trade it in for a less hard line approach to take instead (more about that later).

When the skeptic fires demands (or sometimes even polite requests) for “proof of the existence of God,” I used to say to myself, “oh dear. I must try harder to give them proof.” Now I do not say that to myself. It’s not that I don’t care about the skeptic, because I do care. Rather – I have come to know two things. First – that they are using a standard on me that they cannot sustain for their own skepticism. So – I’m not impressed by their demand one bit. And second – they are asking me for something I simply do not need to do. The Christian is not required to give proof of the existence of God. Rather, they are to give “reasons for the hope they have.”[1]

In their book “How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology,” Dew and Foreman make some really helpful observations about the hard line skeptic’s dilemma.

1 – There are good reasons to think we do know things about the world, even though we do not know everything 100%. Sure, our senses can be fooled. But people have used their sense and mental faculties to perform open heart surgery, to fly to the moon, and to drive to the shops.[2] We can reasonably say we know, even though we don’t know everything. Right?

2 – The tautological, hard-line skeptic’s bar for knowledge is just too high for every subject in life, including whether or not God exists and whether Christianity is true. If we persist with this skepticism, we will find that the number of beliefs we can hold in our lives will be seriously undermined. How can we know something scientifically, historically, or morally if we require absolute proof?[3] That epistemological bar leaves us in a place where we don’t really know anything. It robs us. And that’s not helpful, and its actually wrong (as I pointed out above).

3 – The things we CAN know with absolute certainty are pretty unimportant (e.g. a triangle has 3 sides). The important stuff in life tends to be the stuff I lack absolute certainty for. The issues that really impact me (e.g. what is my destiny in life, what are human beings, is there a God) are issues that we will never fully understand. There will always be an element of doubt here somewhere.[4] But – as I’ve said already – having doubts about something does not disqualify me from claiming that I know something in that area.

4 – It is the nature of the subject in question that determines how we come to know it. If we are thinking about an apple, then our five senses are going to be sufficient to get to know an apple pretty well. However, if the subject is God, then there are many many factors in play here that make this subject different from an apple. So – we need to adjust our expectation about the level to which we can know God, compared to an apple.[5] If the angry skeptic demands, “give me proof,” then I would be tempted to reply, “God’s not an apple, you know.” There may be very good reasons why God does NOT make himself as obvious as an apple in your fruit bowl. Reasons that confer respect by God on the skeptic themselves. But those reasons will have to wait for another blog.

Conclusion

Hard-line skepticism of the kind I’ve described just isn’t tenable. It is harmful to us if we adopt it as a stance toward Christianity (and everything else in life). So – what stance could we adopt instead? Well – actually, it is not a different stance at all. It’s the stance we take on everything else in life (whether we realise it or not).

We could take an inductive approach to deciding whether we can claim to have come to know something about God and Christianity. It’s like this. “In a good inductive argument, the truth of the premises provides some degree of support for the truth of the conclusion.”[6] This is the most rational approach to take in our lives. And we probably do it in other areas without thinking about it. We don’t try to reach 100% certainty before taking a decision. We gather evidence, and then decide what level of support for the issue at hand is given by the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, we are likely to go with it.

So – my answer to the charge “give me proof of God,” is to say something like this. It’s not proof you need. What you are looking for is evidence, of rational arguments pointing towards Christian theism. You need to assess the evidence that is right in front of you in a careful way. And then – decide whether there is enough support for you to make a choice. It’s no good demanding absolute proof, when large amounts of evidence are right there in front of you.

Hey – I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I cannot say that I am 100% convinced of the truth of Christianity. But – I am generally convinced based on my personal experience of God’s work in my life, and of my assessment of the historical evidence, and the wider evidence for God in the world. Is that proof? Not that would satisfy an irrational, persisting, cartesian skeptic. But it is a position that is considered, is rational, and is based on experience and argument. And those things seem to me to be a good foundation for saying – “I know God exists, and his name is Jesus.”


[1] 1 Peter 3:15.

[2] James K. Dew JR and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2014), 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Inductive Logic, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, revised March 19th, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-inductive/.