Absence of evidence

A common argument used by atheists is known as the argument by absence of evidence. In a nutshell, it is: absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The first problem is it can be applied to other things often held dear by athiests. A certain relative of mine doesn’t accept evolution; big bang; creation, or anything removed from solid provable human experience, by the same argument. The thing here is, gravity and magnetic fields, although they are invisible, can be examined over and over and the assumption that they are factual is objective. Things like the existence of a deity, or evolution, are based on evidence, that can be interpreted in different ways. The atheists solution to any evidence for God is that since it can be interpreted, it isn’t evidence, consistency would require they reject evolution, and any cosmological model, since these are based on interpretable data. Any form of theoretical science would have to go too, since the evidence for these branches of science is interpretable. I could merely say that there is no evidence for evolution, since people just interpret the evidence as if evolution is true. This may indeed be the case, but it’s still evidence.

The problems don’t end here. Since the beginning of higher criticism of the Bible, the argument has proven to fail. There was no evidence outside of the Bible for Belshazzar, from Daniel, or the Hittites. Archaeology, in time, proved that these existed, similar criticisms have been levelled at other aspects of the Bible, and many have been later verified. The coelacanth was ruled out as extinct, because there was no record of it in the geological column for about 65 million years, but they are not extinct. It is evident that absence of evidence, is absence of evidence, nothing else. The fact that this argument has been tested and proved invalid begs the question, “why use it at all?”

I commonly receive the come back that I rule out Thor; Ra; Mithra or other deitys for this reason. This is simply a misguided attempt to put an atheist thought process into a theistic mind, and is thus a straw man argument, and for that reason alone is invalid. The assumption that there is a supernatural requires that believers in a Judeo-Christian God, must also believe in the devil; angels and fallen angels or demons. So, while many have for a long time accepted that Baal was a demon, Milton’s Paradise Lost, although fiction, reflected that belief, the existence of Baal wasn’t in question, but rather his status. While the atheist claims an absence of evidence for the existence of the supernatural, the theist accepts it. Generally the acceptance of one religion over another will be based not in a belief that no evidence exists, for the other religion, but rather in what evidence, or what interpretation of the evidence, the particular person finds more compelling.

I would accept an atheist rejecting theism on the grounds that s/he found the evidence for atheism was more compelling than the evidence for theism. The problem with that is that the evidence for the non-existence of something would be non-existent, since something that doesn’t exist wouldn’t leave evidence that it never existed. I doubt anybody would reject atheism on the grounds of absence of evidence, so perhaps it’s about time atheists started being consistent and dropped the whole absence of evidence argument.

For atheist readers, can you improve on this argument, or point out where I’ve gone wrong. For those who accept any sort of a deity, what do you base your belief on, evidence; faith; subjective experience, or perhaps something else? I would be interested to see what compels different people to choose one belief system over another.

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12 thoughts on “Absence of evidence”

  1. Simply put, god, unicorns and Thor… you call it a strawman, but I’ll say they are all in the same category with an equal ammount of evidence – in this case none.

    I think you miss the point on atheism it’s not a belief. Evidence is not required, it’s the subsequent lack of evidence that leads one to dismiss something. If someone doesn’t pitch up for a party, you don’t simply believe that they were there, you look around, you see that they aren’t there and accept that fact.

    From what I can gather you need to believe in something, which is fair enough. But you don’t believe in atheism (that’s right, it’s not a religion) but rather you don’t believe is anything else. Subsequently, like it or not, the LACK of evidence is just that lacking… and like the non-party goer in the example above, subsequently each of the named examples are dismissed.

    1. You seem to miss the point, the argument you’ve just made is invalid, there is evidence, which you don’t accept, is I were to cite Daniel 7 as a prophecy that continued well after the compilation of the Bible, you’d say it’s just interpretation, but could you give me any evidence for evolution that isn’t interpretable?

      My argument is that rejecting that there is evidence is a cop out that avoids having to explain what the evidence that people who believe, actually would mean. If there really was no evidence, no one would believe. The rejection of evidence seems to be primarily based on the source, if you don’t like the source, then you reject the evidence.

  2. Citing the bible of proof of the bible… well by that reasoning, Hogwarts is true because it’s found in the Harry Potter series.

    It’s hardly a cop out to claim that you can’t reference yourself as a source when proving yourself true. Regardless if true or not, surely you can agree with that? Logcially speaking one would require validation from other sources.

    1. You’ve outdone yourself here, two bad arguments in one. I didn’t use the Bible to prove the Bible, it, and many other sources provide evidence, whether you like it or not, of peoples experiences with the supernatural. so that was a straw man, the faulty analogy should be obvious, you can’t compare something that is supposed to be taken seriously to something that was intended as pure fiction. By your reasoning, I can’t use the records of Neferhotep as evidence that he existed, since there is no other evidence, no tomb was ever found. Gee, I could actually argue that many historical figures never existed on the grounds that there is no evidence beyond ancient documents. The difference is that people actually still have experiences of the supernatural.

  3. Actually to follow on that point, if you’re going to make claims and refer to a self as source and reference for a self, how about the others?

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jcpa2.htm

    What about all the life events shared by Osiris, Dionysus and Jesus. Now which was mentioned first? So was Jesus just replicating previous events to be considered a god as this would appear to “qualify” him as such? What about Nostradamus and his predictions, was he the second coming?

    If anything, Genesis would suggest that the god Zeus and his cronies would actually fit the bill. Multiple gods, one sorta main guy and all his friends (but still classified gods or godly as in similar in every way to Zeus but that he was consider team captain, or leader for some reason). Which actually causes a problem… not a single god? If you’re going to simply call Thor, Ra or Mithra a demon or fallen angel, you’re also still refusing to accept that they could be a god. Simply implying that some may think that they are a god is the same as some simply thinking Jesus was a god. That’s just condecending and actually a work around the fact that you’re refusing to entertain the thought for a moment because to you that’s just not possible… why?

    1. Your first paragraph makes no sense.

      I love this, “What about all the life events shared by Osiris, Dionysus and Jesus” argument. What about all the differences? what about the facts that every source that uses this argument plays fast and loose with the facts? What about the fact that prophecies of Christ existed from antiquity, and could have been mimicked?

      Your source:

      God was his father. This was believed to be literally true in the case of Osiris-Dionysus; their God came to earth and engaged in sexual intercourse with a human.

      Wikipedia:

      Osiris is at times considered the oldest son of the Earth god Geb,[1] and the sky goddess Nut

      I have yet to find a reliable source that references Semele (Dionysus’ mother) as a virgin. She may have been a virgin prior to meeting Zeus, but her impregnation by Zeus was ordinary copulation, so, she wasn”t a virgin when she conceive. Like I said, fast and loose with the facts.

      I can’t find reliable sources for the birth location, in a cowshed, for either of these. I can’t find reliable reference for the Star that prophesied either of their coming. So it would seem that the only real similarities in birth are that Dionysus and Horus (Osiris’ son) had miraculous births.

      Your source:

      At a marriage ceremony, he performed the miracle of converting water into wine.

      Wikipedia:

      Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.

      Admittedly, Wick does believe their are “notable comparisons between the two.” How would this have proved Jesus to be superior, if Dionysus had done the same. Lets be fair here, your source clearly is making stuff up, or borrowing from Massey; Acharia S or Malik Jabbar, all of whom have been thoroughly debunked.

      Apart from the fact that this falls into the same category that the evolutionary argument by similarity falls into, remember circular reasoning or is it worse. if you don’t think so, the enthymeme is “they are similar, therefore the later comes from the former.” How do complete the syllogism? But to start with, “ideas that stem from each other are similar,” and you end up affirming the consequent. If i was to go into all the comparative mythology arguments, i would have to devote more than one post to it, but i think I’ve made my point, most of the similarities have been made up in modernity, and the argument isn’t logical, but I’ll go a step further, an agnostic who believes in the idea that there are manypaths to reach the same destination could argue thatthe similarities are evidence of the existence of deity, I actually used that argument prior to my conversion, but it certainly doesn’t help an atheist.

      If you’re going to simply call Thor, Ra or Mithra a demon or fallen angel, you’re also still refusing to accept that they could be a god. Simply implying that some may think that they are a god is the same as some simply thinking Jesus was a god. That’s just condecending and actually a work around the fact that you’re refusing to entertain the thought for a moment because to you that’s just not possible… why?

      Nice assumption, I have entertained that they could be representations of God, and on a par with Christ, but examination of the evidence available resulted in me coming to the conclusion that the Biblical account is more compelling than other accounts. Perhaps you should get your facts right prior to telling me about what I do.

      1. So what you’re saying is… lack of evidence can be used to prove anything?

        What about the difference recorded in the gospels?

        Just retellings of other tales?

        There is enough suggested to think that all of the mentioned characters could be the same fable told over and again. I’m sorry but your lack of evidence to suggest that a lack of evidence isn’t not a lack of proof really does go round and if anything proves that Thor IS a god… because lack of evidence isn’t enough to discredit him.

        “I have entertained that they could be representations of God, and on a par with Christ, but examination of the evidence available resulted in me coming to the conclusion that the Biblical account is more compelling than other accounts”
        100% correct… but I find none compelling due to lack of evidence, you’re doing the same to all the others… You’re just chosing one over another… which as I’ve said before is fair enough. But due to the lack of evidence of other gods, you find them less compelling.

        Fair enough to have faith, but don’t tell me that the lack of evidence supports something. And using a source to prove itself doesn’t work either.

      2. So what you’re saying is… lack of evidence can be used to prove anything?

        Nice straw man. I’m saying you can’t ignore evidence and then claim there is none.

        Mark and Luke were recording from accounts of eyewitnesses, just like most historians, the fact that they were probably relying on different eyewitnesses, means they were highly unlikely to give the same account. Matthew most likely used Marks format but used his own memories, and, again, wew expect [people to represent things differently, because people remember things differently. John wrote the last gospel, and had probably read the others, so in all likelyhood, he included information that he remembered that he felt was important and hadn’t yet been recorded in writing. No detective expects to have a group of witnesses to give exactly the same account, if the gospels were all the same, it would actually attest to the falsehood of the accounts, and you wouldn’t accept it, so by using this argument, you are acknowledging that you aren’t willing to accept the gospels either way.

        There is enough suggested to think that all of the mentioned characters could be the same fable told over and again. I’m sorry but your lack of evidence to suggest that a lack of evidence isn’t not a lack of proof really does go round and if anything proves that Thor IS a god… because lack of evidence isn’t enough to discredit him.

        The operative word being could, of course, as far as the source you quoted, and I’ve seen far better arguments that that, there aren’t that many similarities. The real question really is, how many differences would there need to be for you to accepts that it isn’t the same fable? Since you will accept very few similarities to show that it is the same fable. this, of course, doesn’t alter the fact that the similarity argument is still illogical. I’m saying evidence for the Bible acts as proof against Thor being a god, not against his existence, so your argument is still very poor.

        You have now changed both your, and my arguments, I feel that there is evidence for Thor’s existence, but i feel there is evidence against him too, so I’m not arguing from a perspective of lack of evidence, but rather one of comparable evidence. You’ve now made your argument one of lack, which could simply be less, of evidence, rather than a complete absence, at least this is what you would be doing if you are comparing what you are saying about a deity in general, to what I’m saying about Thor, am i to accept that the constant use of Thor is an acknowledgment that you accept there is evidence for the existence of a, or some, deity/ies?

        Fair enough to have faith, but don’t tell me that the lack of evidence supports something. And using a source to prove itself doesn’t work either.

        I haven’t said lack of evidence supports something, in fact the opposite, I’ve said it supports nothing, not even the atheists claim. I’ve constantly stated that peoples experiences are evidence, and haven’t ever quoted a source to prove itself. The Bible can be supported by real world evidence, and it, and many other sources support the idea of supernatural activity. You, aren’t arguing against the existence of the supernatural here, or the existence of any god, just the Judeo-Christian God, even if you won this argument, it wouldn’t put atheism into a position of certainty. If an athiest wants to argue that there are no gods, the argument needs to go a little further than arguing there isn’t a Biblical God. by me saying “and many other sources, which ‘ve said more than once, I’m acknowledging that sources outside the Bible attest to the supernatural, it just comes down to whether I accept the interprettions, not the evidence, in those accounts.

  4. “I haven’t said lack of evidence supports something, in fact the opposite, I’ve said it supports nothing…”

    So lack of evidence… says, that it’s nothing 😉

    “And many other sources” support the idea of supernatural activity. Um… and many sources support intelligent alien life. I dismiss that entirely for the same reason, if you’re making a claim, then as the saying goes, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

    All you’ve managed to state is that you can have enough people make an unsubstantiated claim, a few blanks and suddenly it must be (possibly) true. I’m saying the opposite. No evidence voids your claim untill you can offer something a little stronger.

    1. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

      So by your standards, big bang, never happened, neither did evolution, the theory of relativity can go out to, and dark matter, which we don’t need now that we’ve rejected big bang.

      All you’ve managed to state is that you can have enough people make an unsubstantiated claim, a few blanks and suddenly it must be (possibly) true. I’m saying the opposite. No evidence voids your claim untill you can offer something a little stronger.

      you mean we really can reject evolution, or can you provide me with something a little stronger.

      More evidence: Mathematically, it is infinitely improbable that the universe was an accident. there is no compelling evidence to support the idea that life just happens, of course by the standards you apply to God, there is no evidence at all for abiogenesis, no pictures remember. 😉 There is no evidence against the existence of a supernatural, which makes it more likely than theories like evolution which have evidence against them. The existence of a God is logically sound, evidence for evolution is often not, so by all reason, the existence of God is a stronger hypothesis.

      Your analogy for aliens is a faulty analogy, aliens are generally described as naturalistic beings, therefore they should be open to naturalistic inquiry, the supernatural is by it’s very nature not open to natural inquiry, so it like the argument by similarity is illogical. 😀

      1. Pics or it didn’t happen… I’m still open to the fact that the Big Bang didn’t happen 😉 As stated a few times before, I’m simply saying that many believe that to be the best idea at this time. I’ve never claimed that it simply is. So… um… straw man thingie comes to mind. 😉

        moving on…

        Evolution… again, this is not a counter point to god. This is a seperate issue, as I’ve claimed many times before. Simply one being right and the other being wrong is a poor standard with which to measure something. Something about your straw man again…

        moving on…

        Actually as abiogenisis can be replicated (to a degree) in a lab… um… there are pictures… so (under the right conditions) um… yup, it’s possible. With the number of stars and estimated planets, that would seem to be mathematically possible, if not probable.

        Aliens… there are pictures… those that can’t be explained… that’s actually more plausible than your god at this time in point.

        Please note that the first two points in this post have nothing to do with god. I’ve never claimed that the big bang or evolution disprove god. So… that straw man… leave it at the door. 😀

        k thanx bye!

      2. Pics or it didn’t happen… I’m still open to the fact that the Big Bang didn’t happen

        Yes, but you’re also open to the idea that it did happen, even without the pics, so this is a double standard, since you are ruling out that the supernatural may exist for the “no pics” reason. The same applies to evolution, this still shows the inconsistency in your approach, you will accept interpretable evidence for evolution, and big bang, but expect conclusive proof for the supernatural. there is no straw man in my argument, since i didn’t say you used it as proof against the God, simply that you accept it’s plausibility without proof, thus proving one of the key points in the post, the argument shows that those who use it are often inconsistent. So, you invented your own straw man to try to create the illusion that i was using one. Really? Is that the best you have?

        Aliens, are still a faulty analogy, they aren’t supposed to be supernatural. But let us examine your idea anyway, there are apparently pictures of aliens that cannot be explained, sure, there are also events that cannot be explained that point to the supernatural, so by your reasoning, tose events are evidence, however week you may call that evidence, it’s still evidence.

        Abiogenesis doesn’t have degrees, either life, or no life, really, that’s week. It also doesn’t matter how many stars you have, probability doesn’t have a memory, so it’s still highly improbable. Besides, the probability against all those stars just happening is minute. Of course the odds of all the stars just appearing there is better than the odds that gravity and at least five other values, according to Rees, were just right for them to actually be there under the natural conditions of the universe, the odds against those are infinite. Like I said, mathematical evidence for the supernatural, however weak you may view that evidence, it’s still evidence.

        So is the best you have, a straw man, a faulty analogy and poor maths coupled with the idea that making RNA is the same as making life?

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