I recently joined the RCIA team at our local parish. Each Sunday we meet with the candidates and catechumens to discuss a specific topic on The Faith and review the Sunday readings. The Gospel after Easter was about doubting Thomas (JN 20 :19-31), which led us to a discussion about “proof”.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” – John 20:20
A lot can be said about proof from a philosophical or metaphysical standpoint. For example, it can be argued that we can’t prove much (if anything) absolutely.
Example: Imagine that last night, while you slept, you were abducted by aliens who placed your brain into an alien super computer. This computer/device can input the correct electrochemical impulses into your brain to precisely simulate the physical world you know. You think you are reading the American Catholic right now, but it is actually the aliens inputting the data. This might sound irrational, but if you stop and think about it, there would be no way of proving that this artificial reality is false. If all the physical data you have is only virtual data being continuously streamed into your brain, you would have no outside system to use as a relevant basis of comparison.
We did not waste a lot of time on thought experiments during the RCIA session, but we did note two thought-provoking things about people and “proof”.
Life without Proof:
In the gospel, Thomas lays down the conditions for his faith, and people do this today. Skeptics (atheists/agnostics) ask for proof. This is nothing new; but what is interesting is that people (including skeptics) believe and do things without proof all the time. And they are not small things, like saying I believe today will be a good day, they are big things…
– If two people are engaged to be married, do they have proof that things will work out 10 or 20 years from now? They don’t, but proceed anyway without proof. We might say it’s a leap of faith.
– If one believes that abortion is a fundamental human right, do they live out that conviction based on proof? Could they name the scientist that proved it? If this is not a question for science, then from a materialistic standpoint what evidence can be offered that is not just opinion?
– Are your parents really your parents? Suppose you have no access to a birth certificate or DNA test and you don’t even look like them. Your parents say they are your real biological parents, but you’d have no proof. This relates to why/how we believe things about history. More often than not, the past we know is just based on what other people tell us.
– Even in our judicial system we say things like “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” and no doubt that defining “reasonable doubt” can leave us doubtful.
The Proof Police:
What would it take to convince you? In matters of faith, a skeptic may insist on scientific or clear sensory evidence as Thomas did in the gospel, but when reminded that we live life without proof in so many important ways, skeptics then become self-proclaimed authorities on proof from my experience.
When posed with questions like the ones noted above, especially on marriage and abortion, people will give reasons that are sufficient for them (proof-enough). They lay down the conditions for what they believe, similar to what Thomas did so long ago. One person’s condition may be different from another’s, so in effect it becomes something subjective, like opinion. But proof should be objective; should it not? At least that’s my biased opinion. 😉
As is often the case, we Catholics or Christians are given the burden of proof and put on trial for our faith so-to-speak, so try to turn the tables if you are ever in that position and put the skeptic on the witness stand. If the Judeo-Christian belief system & values should be dismissed by society as irrational due to lack of proof, the skeptics should also dismiss their own belief system & values for the same reason.
The obstacles to faith are not really about proof. Even the hardest heart can be made to understand that in a sense we all… “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7); it’s part of the human condition. Once this is understood, we can then begin to explore how well someone’s “faith” harmonizes with reason, but in the final analysis can we expect everyone on this side of the veil to be convinced by reason alone? Scripture gives a hint. “…neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)
At the same time we should”…Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15)