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Is there room for religious experience when discussing evidence for God?


Erik Strandness reflects upon Jonathan McLatchie and Jonathan Pearce’s intensely technical debate about evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, and invites us to pause and consider whether the more personal, experiential dimensions have an equally important role to play.

Unbelievable? recently featured a lively discussion between Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie (JM) and Atheist blogger Jonathan Pearce (JP) concerning the ‘prior probabilities’ involved in miracle claims and the evidence for the resurrection. While the debate addressed many specific miracles, I found the most interesting part of the show to be the discussion about the difficulties Christians and Atheists encounter when they try to find neutral common ground upon which to build their cases such that evidence is allowed to speak for itself.

Psychology or Science

Pearce appropriately opened his case against miracles by pointing out that before we assess the validity of the arguments, we need to acknowledge the preconceived notions or “priors” that we bring to the table because they will significantly impact the value we attach to the evidence. He suggested that because of our “priors” these discussions tend to be exercises in psychology rather than data analysis, and that miracles cannot be dispassionately evaluated until both sides recognize the influence of their respective worldviews. Pearce explained the situation this way:

When we say extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, what we’re really saying are that claims that are out of the ordinary for me require evidence that is out of the ordinary for me… How come I have the same access to the same evidence as JM has, and I have exactly the same access to exactly the same rational arguments as JM does, that we end up with different conclusions? That’s because of psychology. We are…actually arguing about why our background knowledges, why our worldviews are different

I agree with Pearce that our response to evidential arguments is heavily influenced by our metaphysical starting point. Since atheism and Christianity represent such diametrically opposed worldviews, is it possible to achieve a meeting of the minds?

Raise a Glass

Pearce offered the helpful analogy of glasses of liquid filled to different heights as barometers of evidential relevance. When it comes to miracles, a Christians glass may already be substantially filled with “priors” such that even a small amount of evidence makes it appear quite full. The Atheist, on the other hand, begins with an essentially empty glass whose volume remains largely unchanged even when additional evidence is poured in. The Christian believes that he or she has a cup welling up to eternal life, while the atheist remains thirsty until his or her glass is topped off with a generous pour of the extraordinary.


For the sake of harmony, we would all like to raise our glass and offer an evidential toast. The problem is that while the Christians are eager to clink cups because their cup runneth over, the atheists hesitate because they feel like no one bothered to fill their glasses. Is it possible that Christians are so drunk on their 100-proof living water that they are unwilling to consider the thirst of the unbeliever? Or is it because atheists have become materialist teetotalers who object to the spiritual content of certain epistemological libations?

“What are we bringing to the table and how can we meet in such a way that we start understanding each other and start having a benchmark for how we arrive at our worldviews and background knowledge?” (Jonathan Pearce)


One of the pressures of academic medicine is to publish or perish. This demand has flooded the scientific literature with a plethora of clinical studies that suggest potential treatment regimens but are too small to have any statistical power. To make sense of all this data, physicians utilize a tool called meta-analysis which combines smaller studies together into a larger whole in order to generate enough statistical power to definitively pass judgment on particular treatment strategies. I think this is a very important concept to embrace when we evaluate conflicting ideas because nowadays everybody has an anecdote and a graph to support their viewpoint. These viewpoints, however, are meaningless until they achieve the power of a meta-analysis or metanarrative. McLatchie made this point by suggesting that the case for Christianity is cumulative. He acknowledged that pieces of individual evidence alone are inadequate to make his case, but when pooled together achieve a convincing metaphysical power.

“The way that I would tend to make a case for things like the resurrection and other aspects of the Christian faith is as a cumulative argument where no one piece of the individual evidence is sufficient to establish and justify the conclusion but (they are when) taken cumulatively because the evidence is multiplied together.”

The presocratic philosophers individually implicated earth, air, fire, and water as the first principles of ultimate reality but their successors eventually had to sit down on the ground, warm themselves around a campfire, take a deep breath and offer a cool cup of evidential water in order to get everyone to see the big picture. We need to be very careful when we extract pieces from the whole and declare that we have found the answer to life, the universe and everything, Therefore, if we want to arrive at the truth, we need to be open to new knowledge languages and incorporate them into our worldview lexicon because in the end truth is not established by yelling louder but by becoming epistemologically multilingual.

Knowledge Languages

In the early 1990’s, Gary D. Chapman wrote a popular book, The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, which proposed that people give and receive love in one of five basic ways. He suggested that a thorough understanding of our personal love language, and that of our mate, was crucial to a strong, loving relationship. I believe epistemology can be viewed in a similar fashion. We each have our own “knowledge language” with which we process and disseminate information, and just as we give and receive love in different ways, we also give and receive knowledge in different ways. We need humbly accept the fact that just because we have different “knowledge languages” doesn’t mean we speak with forked tongues.

I would argue that the five basic languages of knowledge are rationalism, empiricism, authority, intuition, and mystery. If we want to effectively engage one another then we need to be respectful of one another’s dialect because when we limit ourselves to our own personal knowledge language we cut ourselves off from true “knowing.” The late atheist philosopher Antony Flew became a deist later in life primarily because of arguments from intelligent design. Francis Collins, former director of the NIH, became a Christian based largely on the moral argument put forth by C.S. Lewis. In each case these men made their ultimate decisions about God based on data acquired from areas outside their professional expertise. God became a possibility once they opened themselves up to a different knowledge language. I would therefore argue that our problem isn’t factionalism but fluency. Einstein expressed this sentiment quite nicely.

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.” (Albert Einstein)

Epistemological Pentecost

Maybe what we need is an epistemological Pentecost where the scientist, philosopher, and mystic hear one another in their native tongue.

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? (Acts 2:3-8)

While our atheist friends may recoil at the thought of tongues of fire maybe we can at least settle for a Rosetta stone with which we can graciously translate our unique dialects into a lingua franca. 

Loving God with All Our Languages

People come to Christ in a variety of ways, and once converted, begin a lifelong journey of accumulating knowledge about their newfound faith. We need to be aware of our own epistemological prejudices, as well as those of our target audience because the questions they come to us with won’t be our questions, and the answers they seek won’t be our answers. So, when confronted with doubt we need to remember that one apologetic size does not fit all.

If we want to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength then we also need to understand the language of each. If we only focus on one, then we won’t give our whole being to that relationship. If we just love God with our heart, all we will value is His embrace. If we just love God with our soul, we will only be grateful for our personality. If we just love God with our intellect, our relationship will just be a mind game. And if we just love God with our strength, then our faith will be nothing but fortitude.

Small World

Materialism limits every explanation to collocating atoms, yet most humans believe that a ghost haunts the biological machine. If an unmoved mover doesn’t move you, if the beautiful doesn’t stir you, if the good doesn’t inspire you, and if the true doesn’t cause you to think right about the world, then you are missing the power of the transcendentals, those things that exist outside of materiality. It dawned on me that one of the reasons I am so sad for materialists is because by cutting out the supernatural realm their world becomes so small. It seems strange that most people effortlessly expand their lives to incorporate the spiritual, yet the materialist works has to work even harder to keep themselves locked in a biochemical box.

“How much larger would your life be if yourself could become smaller in it. ” (GK Chesterton)

Miracle of the Mundane

We argue about the truth of miracles but then astonishingly forget that the regularities of the universe are themselves miracles. The fine tuning of the universe, the DNA information processing system, and the nanotechnology found in the cell are astonishing, yet we take them for granted, and instead expend all our energy arguing about a resurrection. Materialist scientists deal with the miraculous daily and then stunningly deny miracles. Even atheist Francis Crick, the discoverer of the molecular structure and information carrying capacity of DNA, was impressed.

“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” (Francis Crick)

Sadly, to protect their materialistic inclinations, these scientists invoke random chance and multiverses, as if winning the life lottery with such astronomically bad odds is somehow less of a miracle. To put us on the defensive they set the miracle bar very high and demand extraordinary evidence. Merriam-Webster defines extraordinary as going beyond what is usual, regular, or customary which sounds a lot like the supernatural, yet they deny the plausibility of the very evidence they demand. They want corroboration in another language but then reject it as babble.

Dollop of Mystery

I have lived most of my life with a divided allegiance. I embraced what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould termed, non-overlapping magisteria, where science and faith are allocated to different realms which have very little to say to one another because they speak different languages. I tried to be fluent in both, but never considered that they might be dialects of a larger lingua Dei, language of God. I began to realize that my scientific desire for rational and empirical knowledge built a nice solid temple in which God could dwell, but without mystical knowledge I had no vocabulary for worship. I could know things about God, but that knowledge was incapable of giving me the “peace that passes all understanding.”

I still struggle with being an observer of God rather than a participator, and like the theologian in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce, I am often more interested in theorizing about God than experiencing him. However, the words the “white spirit” spoke to that theologian assures me that in heaven my evidential cup will not only be full to the brim but will be topped off with a tasty dollop of mystery.

You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched” (C.S. Lewis – The Great Divorce)

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.

Watch the discussion between Jonathan McLatchie & Jonathan Pearce

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