Catechesis in Contemporary Culture: Evidentialism

Authored by Brian Pizzalato in Issue #32.2 of The Sower

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In attempting to discuss matters of faith I am sure that many catechists teaching the faith have had an interaction something like this:

‘There is a God.’

‘Prove it.’

‘There is life after death.’

‘Prove it.’

‘Jesus is God.’

‘Prove it.’

‘The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus.’

‘Prove it.’

‘Prove it’ normally means that the person is seeking evidence for the claims of faith. They want the claims to be shown as reasonable. And this, of course, is important. We can and should present the arguments and evidence to support the claims of the faith.

However, there are certain people we encounter who have a philosophical predisposition to object to any and all of the claims of faith. One line of thinking which would argue that faith is not reasonable is known as ‘evidentialism’.

What is evidentialism?

The most well-know philosopher who held this position is William K. Clifford. Clifford, in his article, The Ethics of Belief,[i] begins by telling a story about a ship-owner who knew that his ship was old and needed repairs. He had doubts that the vessel was seaworthy. But he decides to set sail and ‘acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly seaworthy…and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.’[ii]

From this example Clifford concludes: ‘It has been judged wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.’[iii] He believes that we have a duty to all to question what we might believe. Not only this, he also claims that because of this duty it is sinful to believe anything without what he calls ‘sufficient evidence.’

Clifford also speaks about the weight of authority and the testimony of others. He thinks we must have ground for trusting the person’s truthfulness, knowledge, and judgment. He thinks most people rely on only one or two of the three, but all three must be considered. Regarding something like divine revelation, Clifford says, ‘This testimony rests on the most awful of foundations, the revelation of heaven itself.’[iv]

As catechists we can come across this way of thinking. It therefore affects the way we catechize. If someone wants hard scientific evidence that there is a God, that he became man, and that this God-man is fully present in the Blessed Sacrament, we will be unable to give it to them. First and foremost this is because it is not in the realm of science.

Further, we believe based on the authority of the one revealing, namely God. According to Clifford this is the ‘most awful of foundations.’ We, of course, know that that this is the most firm of foundations. God can neither deceive, nor speak lies.

Responding to evidentialism

Let us consider a few ways we might respond.

First, the evidentialist seeks to be reasonable, but we can show evidentialism itself to be unreasonable! On its own terms evidentialism is unreasonable. There is insufficient evidence that we should accept evidentialism. It is not scientifically provable the evidentialism is correct, since evidentialism is an idea and not available to the five senses. I cannot see, touch, taste, smell, or hear evidentialism!

Clifford emphasizes the need to deal with doubt. However, is there any overwhelming, scientific, observable evidence to show that there should be no doubt whatsoever in order to believe something? If so, there would be belief in very few things, even within the sciences. One could even doubt that the earth revolves around the sun. Perhaps my vision is impaired. Maybe the instruments that have been used to discover this are faulty. It could be that the scientists on whose word one takes this to be true are unreliable - and perhaps liars. Clifford’s position on the basis of his own criteria, then, seems to be unreasonable.

One might also consider the whole area of accepting propositions that have to do with history. We all accept historical evidence. But historical propositions elude any strict demonstration such as in a mathematical proof. In matters of history we all assent to various propositions of a historical nature, yet it looks as though they go beyond what the evidence entitles us to.

Additionally, attempting a strict adherence to evidentialism would develop in the person a certain neurotic tendency. Let’s say you come to the first thing proposed for one’s belief.  Well, you must see all the evidence, weigh that evidence, and consider any and every doubt that you might have. Then, perhaps, you come to believe it - but suppose some further doubt arise. You must now weigh all the evidence again in light of this doubt that you had not previously considered.

If one really had to do this with everything proposed for belief one would quite quickly grow mad! One would remain caught, unable to move on or to act upon a belief until all doubt was banished. Alternatively, one might simply disregard the proposition as not being worthy of belief because one was tired of wrestling with it. This process would lead to not believing things that are true simply because one was sick and tired of going over the evidence, seeking to have no doubt.  The only route out would be a pragmatic one – in other words, ‘I’ll act as though it were true because it’s more useful to do so’. We have already seen in this series the severe deficiencies of pragmatism.


[i] Clifford, William K., ‘Ethics of Belief Debate,’ The Ethics of Belief (originally published 1877. Currently available from Prometheus Books 1999).

[ii] Ibid., p.19.

[iii] Ibid., p.22.

[iv] Ibid., p.26.

This article is originally found on page 41 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact

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