Thursday, December 16, 2010

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

I received an email from a visitor to my website recently. The young man informed me that he had actually taken the opposite journey that I have in my life. He had been raised in a fairly non-religious home, but in his adult life had come to embrace Calvinism as the truth about God. We agreed to have a back and forth discussion, debate if you will, over this issue. Perhaps we could learn something from each other.

I sent my initial communication and, in due time, he responded with a lengthy discussion about his position. I was immediately struck by some of the language and tone of his thoughts and comments. That familiar flavor of profound distaste, visceral hatred for the "evil" elements in the world peppered his conversation. It demonstrated once again that to define the line between my father's natural inclination toward cruelty and hatred and the support for that way of thinking that comes from Calvinism, is no small challenge.

When I finished reading his material for the first time, I had the thought that I should write back to him and change the direction of our discussion immediately or we would devolve into an ineffective dialog pretty quickly. but then I went back and started reading it again. Soon I was immersed in challenging various arguments and assumptions. Hours later I sent him an extensive response. But there was a niggling doubt tucked in the back of my mind. It wasn't long before he wrote back, irritated that several of my early comments didn't seem to address the specific point he had raised. Fair enough.

I went back and reread his thoughts and my responses again. Soon it occurred to me that I should have acted on my initial instinct to begin with. So I wrote him back and apologized. Well, I'll just let you read my response to him, because it really gets to the point I wanted to make. I have made some changes to the actual content to protect his privacy and clarify my position better:

"...I was thinking about the comments you made in your last email. That several of my responses didn't make sense in context. I apologize. Let me try to explain so we have a better chance going forward.

As I was reading your initial arguments I found myself, again and again, thinking that your position only made sense if certain assumptions were made. From there I narrowed it down to realizing that I couldn't really accept the lions share of your position simply because it was based on the foundational assumption that the Bible is what it claims to be...the inerrant word of the Christian God. Many of the challenges I made encompass that issue. It would probably have been a much better idea for us to address the underlying assumptions first before we got into one interpretation of the Bible versus another.

I know that topic was addressed to some degree in your first salvo, but not nearly to the extent that it needs to be if we're to ever discover a common ground to debate. If you're interested, I would suggest that we address that question first. What evidence do you have that the Bible is the word of God, other then the Bible. Why should we base our notion of eternal consequences on this book?

Let me throw one more thought in here to give you more insight into my position. We hold certain beliefs within us about all sorts of things. The evidence for those beliefs are stronger in some cases and weaker in others. As well, in the context of our lives, the nature of the various beliefs are more important in some instances then others. We will never arrive at absolute certainty about all these various beliefs we hold, but I hold that the more important the belief ie, the more significance that belief has in the choices and actions we make in life, the closer we must come to having empirical justification for holding it. For example, if I believe that aliens are here on earth but don't really change the way I think or live to accommodate that belief, then it's really not that important that I pursue the "truth" of that belief to far. If I believe Bigfoot is possible, whether I can demonstrate it isn't too important since my belief doesn't extend beyond the thoughts in my head.

On the other hand, if I believe that aliens are here and they have certain plans that threaten my life, it is incumbent on me to pursue and settle the objective truth of that belief before I uproot my family and move to a cave in Montana. I'm sure you understand my argument.

Applying that idea to the question of God and theology, I can't make sense of accepting the "truth" of the Bible without overwhelming empirical evidence. After all, these issues tend to color every single aspect of our lives, both temporal and eternal. Especially in the case of my family, and the particular theology that they embrace. The same theology that you embrace.

This quote by Carl Sagen speaks to the heart of this issue: "What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

The prevailing evidence for God, any God, doesn't even try to reach that threshold. It's not enough to say that certain things can't be known except by faith. It isn't sufficient to raise the Jobian argument that the pot can't question the potter. Especially in light of the fact that so much of the evidence in support of God DOES try to conform to reason and logic. Paul was one of the greatest rhetoriticians (if that's even a word) that ever lived. The very fact that every argument for God ultimately ends with an assertion like Martin Luther's, "My dear Erasmus, your thoughts of God are too human" proves that such a position is ultimately untenable. It begs the argument, if I'm incapable of comprehending God, then so are you.

So what we're left with is nothing more then yours or my "moral certainty" that we just know something is true. And that's fine, so long as we don't try to order our lives around such a weakly supported belief.

Suffice it to say that the more I contemplate these issues, the more certain I am that any dogmatic position in life is ultimately untenable and potentially dangerous. Believe what you will, but the more a belief informs your words and deeds, the more it should be held to the rigors of Sagen's tenet: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.


Blogger chiguy1550 said...

So what we're left with is nothing more then yours or my "moral certainty" that we just know something is true. And that's fine, so long as we don't try to order our lives around such a weakly supported belief.

So what we're left with is nothing more then yours or my "moral certainty" that we just know something is true. And that's fine, so long as YOU don't try to order MY LIFE around such a weakly supported belief.

December 20, 2010 at 12:31 AM  
Blogger Nate Phelps said...

Fair enough chiguy. But, if you're going to shun the idea of imposing beliefs on others, organized religion is not the best ally to have.

December 20, 2010 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Knitman said...

Hi Nate - I admire that you took the time to write back to him. I admit to feeling anger that he dared write to you as it was clear he was only doing so to 'save' you. Or rather that was my take. I have people do this to me all the time. They truly think I have met the wrong Xians but if I know them, I will know God.
I am a failure at protecting myself from getting that 'out of control crazy' feeling when I have too much contact with religionists. It really bothers me that it can still have this effect upon my all these later.

December 20, 2010 at 6:29 PM  
Blogger grasshopper said...

I appreciate this post because it confirms that I'm not crazy for abandoning the faith I was raised with. However, after attempting to have conversations with my parents about what the bible really says about homosexuality, I'm convinced that Christians are incapable of reasoning through their indoctrination. I'm curious.... have you ever found a reasoned debate with a christian to be fruitful at all? Or do you partake for the sheer pleasure of it?

December 28, 2010 at 6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a gentleman once said, 'understand that the holy books of any religion (take your pick) are written primarily for FAITH, and not empirical, sceintific fact. So, believe in the 'spirit' of religion, but don't necessarily look to it for empirical, scientific fact."
Nate, what do you think of that quote?

December 28, 2010 at 9:47 AM  
Anonymous bil_ said...

"Fair enough chiguy. But, if you're going to shun the idea of imposing beliefs on others, organized religion is not the best ally to have."

I'm with chiguy here: the only failure I see in your well-thought-out comments is the non-starter of the principle which you apply to others at the end. Obviously you order your life around something. Is there really nothing you do from faith? Everything in your life is proven? That's a tall order. Banning "unprovable" systems of faith is your own standard ascribing to what YOU have come to hold faith in: only things you can prove. Applying this standard to others holds the same failure you claim against Xians: intolerance for alternative possibilities. Help me understand the difference.

December 29, 2010 at 2:02 AM  
Anonymous bil_ said...

A quick follow up to my comments above. To be honest this post was my first exposure to your thoughts and life (my obsession to skip the history and get to the "here and now" I suppose). Since then I have read both the article about your childhood (linked from your website) as well as "The Uncomfortable Grayness of Life" (which was--in fact--the original way I found my way to your site).

I am shocked by your story. I (like many others, I'm sure) have had some direct interaction with one of Fred's protests, but to read your story, and have it affirm some of my gut concerns about where such hatred comes from, still shocks and saddens me. I also know you don't deserve my pity--because to come as far as you have proves your courage instead. Your story has earned my respect and wonder. I'm amazed how far you have come.

Just to offer a bit of self-disclosure, my story is similar to yours in that I was born into a religious family, I became an outspoken atheist at the age of 18. After more than a decade of finding no challengers who could persuade me otherwise, I encountered God in such a way as to become--once again (or more likely for the first time)--a believer. I do not share this with you as a normative pattern, or even as something your future holds, but just as a reference to another life in--and out--of faith. I appreciate you sharing your story, and wish you all the best. As far as where all this ends--who knows?--neither of us have reached the end yet (of our lives or anything else!). I'm glad to have stopped by.

December 29, 2010 at 9:43 PM  
Blogger redneckgirl1 said...


I say you are spot on with your arguments. If society was more acceptant of homosexuals there would be less suicides and attempts, with that said if all humans are suposedly God's creatures than why are the churches not more acceptant of the homosexuals?? I think they need to practice what they preach.
I am an atheist and I think all humans have the right to life, love and the pursuit of happiness what ever that may be, isn't it our Constitutional RIGHT?? Live and let live no matter your race, color, creed or monitary standing. Kudos

January 12, 2011 at 8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, bil and chiguy: Are you saying then that because we must trust that the mechanic who fixed our car did the job right, we must then trust the preacher who says that if we allow ourselves to be cremated after death we're going to miss out on the afterlife?

What about the preacher who says we must hate gays? Or women? Or (as the Mormons officially taught until very recently) Jews or African-Americans?

When we drive into the auto shop, there are usually things we can use (such as plaques, certificates, or perhaps our own previous experiences) to see whether the trust we have in the shop is justified. When we go to the doctor for treatment of illness, we can ask for proofs of the validity of the diagnosis and even get a second opinion from another doctor.

But what do religious authorities offer as proof of the reality of the bedrock supernatural claims of their belief system?

February 11, 2011 at 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Different anonymous said...

To continue what the previous anonymous said, the professions of doctors and mechanics are supposedly based on science - both theory and practice - and therefore independently verifiable. That basically allows them to be held both morally and legally accountable over the practice of their profession, which also gives them a more selfish incentive to do the right thing even if their morals don't match yours.
That's what faith - religious or otherwise - by definition lacks: verifiability on any level.

February 14, 2011 at 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Nate Phelps said...

@bil: First, I haven't argued for banning unprovable systems and I am absolutely subject to belief in ideas without clear and convincing evidence. But when I discover that I hold a belief without sufficient evidence, or new evidence comes to light, I abandon it.

Your contention that my beliefs are equally based on faith doesn't make any sense to me. Are you suggesting that my faith in empirical evidence is the equivalent of faith based

Also, I hope my argument doesn't suggest intolerance for other positions. I've only attempted to give a clear argument for why I don't accept THE biggest contention in the world that is based on faith.

You and chiguy seem to suggest that by making my case, I'm some how insisting that everyone see things my way. Certainly not. Remember, this was a part of an ongoing debate where he makes his argument and I make mine.

So I'm left with my fundamental argument still unassailed: The best basis for a belief system is empirical evidence, especially a belief system that profoundly colors every aspect of your life.

February 16, 2011 at 7:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nate, this is as succinct and clear explanation off a humanist/atheist stance as I've ever read. Do you mind if I use it in my next encounter with Xians of the obnoxious kind?

Yet Another Anonymous Commenter

March 7, 2011 at 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...explanation OF a humanist/atheist stance...

Yet Another Anonymous Commenter

March 7, 2011 at 10:40 PM  
Blogger geoffrobinson said...

Mr. Phelps, I spoke with you on the phone today on the radio.

What I definitely would like to say to you, as a Calvinist, is that you feel a natural repulsion towards the position because of your background, not necessarily because Calvinism isn't true. And if I were in your place, I would probably feel the same way.

You were raised, and I'm saying this without the ability to know the situation fully or read the human heart, by some people who held some true beliefs but were themselves unregenerate. And they can be seen to be unregenerate because they hate other Christians, other people in general, show no love, etc., etc.

But I care much more of the gospel than I care for Calvinism. And I don't know exactly what your positions or beliefs are. If I had your background, I would probably run as far from religion as I could. But I would love to give defenses of the Bible, Jesus, His Resurrection, etc. And then secondarily things like Calvinism.

I would never expect to convince you given your background. But I would hope it wasn't me that was convincing you. Feel free to email me.

March 14, 2011 at 10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You were raised, . . . by some people who held some true beliefs but were themselves unregenerate. And they can be seen to be unregenerate because they hate other Christians, other people in general, show no love, etc., etc."

This is a profound and true statement.

March 31, 2011 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

I know this is an old post, but I want to disagree with your premise.

Extraordinary claims don't require more proof than ordinary ones. If you asked me to prove that John Doe walked into 7-11 and bought a cup of coffee, I would need the same amount of proof as if you asked me to prove that John Doe walked into 7-11 and shot the clerk.

The fact that the matter under consideration is much more extraordinary in the second case doesn't mean that the standards of proof should be more rigorous. If you ask me to prove John Doe bought a cup of coffee -- really *prove* it -- then I'd need to get the security tapes, the receipts, maybe get inventory of the cup of coffee, look in his wallet for a receipt and in his car for a discarded coffee cup.

In other words, the standards of proof should always be equally high. Scientists who are trying to prove the existence of antiprotons are working for the same level of proof as scientists who are trying to prove that premature infants grow better if they're held skin-to-skin with their mothers. Or if I want to prove that vitamin C helps fight off the common cold, I need the same kinds of stringent proof as if I try to prove this rock I found in my back yard used to belong to a dinosaur.

Your example about aliens doesn't work because when you believe the matter is of no import, then there's no attempt to prove it at all -- you let the matter go. :-) But proof is proof. There's no such thing as extraordinary proof.

April 15, 2011 at 7:08 PM  
Anonymous Rikki Hughes said...

I was born into a family with very little religious background, and I have almost no religious training, but have recently begun reading the Bible in order to better understand the world that so many of my friends and neighbors occupy. I'm struck, in my ignorance probably, that the Bible has some great philosophical ideas for living peacefully in a society of un-related people, people who have no blood-ties or familial responsibilities to each other. This was, perhaps, the basis for which societies were built, as we crept out of tribalism and into larger towns and cities, rubbing shoulders with people who we might have automatically warred with previously.
My point here is that the Bible has suffered from too much parsing. Rather than using it as a book with some great ideas, it has become something to be torn apart and stitched back together again in an infinite variety of ways, each more "truthful" than the last. The simple fact the the Bible argues and disagrees with itself should free all Christians to openly and confidently read it with an open and questioning mind.

June 4, 2011 at 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Rikki Hughes said...

Im re-reading my last post, and realize that I made a huge leap from a very small idea in the first paragraph to a very large idea in the last paragraph, so let me try again.
The Bible has great ideas about living peacefully with lots of people from different cultures, etc. These ideas helped us create villages, then cities, economic centers that attracted people from all over the world. Look at the Ten Commandments and you will see the rules for getting along with neighbors whom you have no relation to. This sounds like a small thing, but it had to be instrumental in the creation of modern society. You might point to Hammurabi's code, but the Commandments are an easy-to-understand, easy-to-remember, distillation.
Does this sound simplistic? I hope not. We still struggle with the pressures of living in the society we have built for ourselves, and the Bible is still relevant. I only object to people who obsessively dissect every word and phrase for meaning upon meaning. The very people who claim to revile "interpretation" of the Bible seem to do the most of it.

June 4, 2011 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I like this line and agree with it more every day, "Suffice it to say that the more I contemplate these issues, the more certain I am that any dogmatic position in life is ultimately untenable and potentially dangerous. "


July 20, 2011 at 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I couldn't really accept the lions share of your position simply because it was based on the foundational assumption that the Bible is what it claims to be...the inerrant word of the Christian God."

Yes this is the very point I never get when Christians try and convert me. Why should I base my life around this book when there are many others (The Koran, Bhagavad Gita, Khordeh Avesta) that claim absolute truth? Without actual evidence all of these and the Bible are nothing more than old stories from more ignorant times.

July 21, 2011 at 5:25 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Hard to imagine anything like this. I wonder if Fred phelps had any clue how abominable he is. There is nothing good about it. If there ever were a hell it would be full of people just like him. Good for you Nate.

October 19, 2011 at 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think that's way off. In the case of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", the extraordinary claims are any thing that is not known to happen in the real world. It's not an extraordinary claim if the claim is that someone shot someone else. It is an extraordinary claim if someone's claiming to have a ray-gun from outer space that shoot invisible death rays. In that case, the extraordinary evidence is the actual ray gun, it is the only thing that actually proves that it exists.

October 20, 2011 at 10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anonymous said
you should believe in the bible because the bible is the only book that has a savior.

December 18, 2011 at 4:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Nate,

In short, the extraordinary evidence for the truth of the Calvinist religion is an exegetically sound, systematic and coherent theology of the whole Bible, that fits very well with what we know about the world. It would be highly improbable that such a theology could exist without it also being true. Such a theology exists. Therefore, it is highly probable that it is true.

January 15, 2012 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger ZekeCDN said...

@Rikki: With all due respect, please reread the Ten Commandments and take note of how few of them actually pertain to the peaceful development of society. Only three of them (the prohibitions against murder, theft and perjury) have found their way into the modern legal systems of civilized peoples. 

The first four are chiefly concerned with Yahweh's ego (i.e. He must be your only God and wishes to be worshiped and respected thusly). Nothing there in aid of community formation or peaceful foreign relations. Two of the others (listen to your parents and don't cheat on your spouse) relate to family dynamics, not the community. And finally, although the prohibition against envy could arguably contribute to social peace, envy doesn't begin to compare as a social ill with other issues like rape and other forms of violence – slavery, oppression, child abuse, etc.— ALL of which were completely IGNORED! 

But the important thing to note is that the three prohibitions that have survived in our modern legal systems are all rules of conduct that existed well prior to Christianity (or even Judaism). Human beings had been living in societies, from villages up to nation states, for several millennia before any of the Abrahamic religions. Our species never would have made it until the Biblical times if we'd been running around killing our neighbours ALL the time. 

No, the a few good bits in the Ten Commandments – along with the Bible's best moral statement, the Golden Rule – were moral standards that predated all of these prophets. And then, as today, they're not exclusive to nations that adhere to Old Testament religions. These four values are far more universal than that.

The Ten Commandments is no magical list, no perfect distillation of justice, as its fans would have you believe. On the basis of its omissions alone it is clearly a product of man and not divine inspiration. 

March 19, 2012 at 1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jane and Anonymous,
I think both of you are confusing "proof" with "evidence." There is no such thing as Proof in science, even for things like gravity. Newton's laws were extremely well supported by evidence until radiation was discovered, and radiation was evidence that contradicted Newton's laws. They are still regarded as "true," but no longer universal; they only apply in some situations and not in others. Einstein's work and quantum mechanics will suffer the same fate, perhaps soon.

Jane, courts never "prove" that so-and-so did the crime, they only decide whether the evidence is sufficient to convict or not, and the evidenciary standards for murder are much higher than those for shoplifting (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence).

The Sagan quote Nate mentions above uses the word "evidence" rather than "proof" for a reason. There is no proof (OK, maybe in Math, but not in Science or Law). Anonymous 48

April 18, 2012 at 3:36 PM  

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