Critics of religion often complain that it is immune to evidence. They say that religious claims simply don't open themselves up to proof or disproof in the same way that other claims do. Religious believers, they say, would cling on to their delusions no matter how much data was brought to bear against them. In fact-- or so many of these critics go on to claim-- religion holds out special praise and rewards for those who believe without evidence, or in the teeth of counter-evidence. After all, didn't Christ himself say "Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed?"
I think there is certainly a case to be answered here. There may be rare individuals, such as C.S. Lewis, who are dragged kicking and screaming into religious belief against their strongest inclinations. But I think it is true that most religious believers want to believe. They are, to be blunt, prejudiced in favour of God, and in favour of their particular creed.
But is this really so strange? Is there any human being on this earth who is not similarly biased? It is true that there are plenty of people who (as they admit) would like to believe in God, but don't. (I was one of those people myself once; or at least, I thought I was.) Nevertheless, I think even those people would have various pet theories of their own-- perhaps socialism or libertarianism or the dangers of dairy products. And they probably welcome evidence that supports those theories and are suspicious of evidence that doesn't.
(Of course, almost everybody alive has one specific pet theory; the implicit theory that they are somehow special, more insightful, more deserving, especially unfairly treated, and so forth-- and this particular theory is more tenacious than weevils.)
Those who reject religion in favour of a scientific worldview often claim that the existence of God is a hypothesis like any other, and should be treated in the same objective manner. I don't think this is fair. I think it would make more sense to compare theistic belief, not to this or that scientific hypothesis, but to the scientific worldview itself. The corresponding question for those who demand scientific proof is; What would it take you to abandon the scientific worldview? It is obviously conceivable that the most important truths might not be the kind of truths you can prove or disprove in a laboratory. It is at least conceivable that these ultimate truths have been deliberately placed beyond empirical testing. The scientific worldview, at least in its rationalist and anti-religious sense, is in this sense a hypothesis itself.
As I say, I can understand why non-believers sometimes become impatient with believers. It does often seem as though we are having our cake and eating it. Let's say that I pray to find a job during a long spell of unemployment. The next morning I am called to interview for my dream position. I thank God for answering my prayer. But, the sceptic complains, I wouldn't have held it against God if the prayer had apparently gone unanswered. I would have decided that my unemployment was a spiritual testing ground, or something like that. Heads God wins, tails unbelief loses. And isn't this true enough, as far as it goes?
Another example is the famous "criterion of embarrassment" which Christians sometimes apply to Bible criticism. There are undoubtedly passages in the New Testament that are embarrassing to Christians, such as Christ's apparent claim that he would return before one generation had passed. Christians often point out that the very existence of these texts, and their survival through the centuries, shows that the whole Jesus story wasn't one cooked up by the disciples. Because why would the disciples give ammunition to their critics?
At this point, the sceptic throws his hands in the air and says, "You can't have it both ways. You can't leap on evidence when it suits you and then say sacred things are above evidence when it doesn't suit you. You can't jump on Bible verses that seem to contain fulfilled prophecies and then take an unfulfilled prophecy and claim that as support as well. There's just no arguing with you. The deck is rigged from the start."
How to respond, now that I have accepted the prima facie case of the exasperated unbeliever?
One response is that it is ridiculous to expect a settled worldview to be open to revision at every moment. A man or woman's religious faith is usually the result of long experience and reflection. Often it is based upon some insight or event that the believer deems to have been mystical. Why should such a commitment be perpetually tested? What prisoner is permanently in the dock? What friendship is always hanging in the balance?
Another thing I would say is that faith, even faith in the face of apparently hostile evidence, is often seen as a virtue in purely secular contexts. If we go to see a "buddy movie", and we see that one character continues to believe in his friend's honesty and integrity even when the rest of the world has him written off as a villain, we are touched. If we read of an artist who has faith in his own talent in the face of rejection and ridicule, we are inspired. And when we read Anne Frank's famous words, "In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart", we are moved to tears. Who could take such a beautiful sentiment as simply a correct or incorrect evaluation of the available evidence-- a good or bad "call"?
I have to be honest. I don't think anything could shake my belief in God. I don't think any scientific discovery or natural disaster or historical event could make me an atheist. The universe seems too beautiful, too marvellous, too intricate to require no explanation. The existence of consciousness, of man's thirst for the sublime and the transcendent, also seems to point to a Divine Creator. And, yes-- I admit it-- I would be desolate without God.
But I can imagine situations in which my faith in the Catholic Church might be strained or even shattered. I don't for a moment expect such situations to come about, but I can conceive of them.
If Pope Benedict released an encylical tomorrow morning in which he denied that abortion was always a mortal sin, or that Christ's resurrection had been an historical event, or that eternal damnation was not possible, I would cease to be Catholic. Even if the Pope or the magisterium were to change Church doctrine on a non-dogmatic matter-- for instance, the ordination of women-- my faith would be shaken.
I believe the same is true of many thousands, perhaps millions, of Catholics around the globe. The Church's iron refusal to change its message, in the face of all persecution and tyranny and unpopularity, is compelling to us. And I believe this is why-- to use language that some might find offensive or at least ridiculous-- Satan and his angels are constantly pushing at the door of heresy, just as he urged Christ to turn stone into bread.
There are other eventualities that might undermine my Catholic faith. If the canonisation process no longer required a certified miracle-- as John Cornwell, and possibly other liberal Catholics, recommend-- my confidence in the Church would be rather diminished. If the Church ceased to produce saints and martyrs, that too would make me anxious. If there was a spectacular reversal in the miraculous spread of the Church across the world, that would also-- to a lesser extent-- give me pause for thought.
If one of the visionaries that the Church has declared worthy of belief was proven to be a fraud (and I feel dirty even typing those words), that would seriously compromise my Catholic faith.
I don't have the slightest expectation that any of those things will happen. I only mention them to counter this claim, which is so often made, that religious belief is immune to evidence or disproof.
And what if the sceptic says, "Come on, you are making it easy for yourself! You know and I know that none of these things will ever happen!"?
Then I think I would reply: "My friend, I believe that your own words prove that-- deep down inside-- you also have faith."