What evidentialism is not

by Lydia McGrew

I often identify myself as an evidentialist in the realm of religious knowledge. I find, however, that there are some misconceptions floating about as to what evidentialism is or entails. Herewith, some hopefully useful clarifications.

1) Evidentialism is not the position that emotions are only for people who are stupid.

Evidentialism should not be confused with a Spock-like philosophy that feelings and emotions are to be scorned and avoided. Rather, our personal relationship with Jesus Christ should be based on facts and evidence. We can trust Jesus because we have reason to do so. This gives us the freedom to commit ourselves emotionally and psychologically to God.

The problem arises when one bases one’s beliefs upon one’s emotions. That ordering leaves one vulnerable to emotional and other arational appeals from other religions. It also leaves one vulnerable to losing one’s faith when the emotions are no longer there. Get it in the right order, and then connect the prose and the passion. That’s what Christianity is all about.

An analogy from marriage may help: We can rightly be vulnerable with our spouses because we have good reason to trust our spouses. Vulnerability and emotion are very important in a good marriage. It would, on the other hand, be extremely foolish to “gin up” trust in a spouse or prospective spouse by making oneself vulnerable and thereby prompting emotions of total commitment that have no rational basis.

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2) Evidentialism is not the position that only extremely intelligent people can have good reasons for believing Christianity to be true.

I want to linger on this point a bit so as to drive it home. Because those of us who are into such esoteric fields as probability theory and analytic philosophy tend to discuss and analyze arguments for Christianity in those terms, we can easily either get the impression or give the impression that a Christian who doesn’t think of the arguments in those terms has no evidence. That is incorrect. For example, a person can be seeing the force of such internal signs of verisimilitude as undesigned coincidences without being able to give a probabilistic analysis of them. There is a tremendous amount of tacit reasoning that takes place and that is not irrational because it is inexplicit. “Grandma,” the hypothetical unintellectual, sweet lady at your church, may be seeing a lot more about the credibility of the gospel narratives than she has ever articulated explicitly.

Something similar could be said about the argument from design, which struck Whittaker Chambers non-philosophically but powerfully, in an “all at once” fashion, when he was looking at his little girl’s ear as she sat in her high chair.

The same is true of other arguments as well. Indeed, the argument for a First Cause is supposed to work via some fairly powerful a priori intuitions, and there is no reason to believe that a non-philosopher cannot be accessing the intuition (e.g.) that nothing comes from nothing even if he cannot discuss it in philosophical terms.

It is all too easy to assume that ordinary Christians in the pew have no evidence favoring Christianity, but this is an exaggeration. It probably arises out of philosophers’ and apologists’ own own involvement in researching every detail in depth. There’s nothing wrong at all with being detail-minded, and it’s good for some people to do that additional research, but it does not follow that everyone who has not done so is operating sans evidence…

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What evidentialism is not (What’s Wrong with the World)