When I mentioned this incident to the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, he laughed and said, "It's hard to believe those guys were really that naïve." Hitchens understood right away that the Soviets were looking for God in all the wrong places. They were still captive to the medieval picture of heaven "up there" and hell "way down below" and earth somewhere in the middle. But for many centuries now religious believers have asserted that God and heaven can only be found in realms that transcend the universe. Imagine poor Hamlet running around the castle saying, "I've looked everywhere, and I can't find Shakespeare. I'm forced to conclude that Shakespeare does not exist."
In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger writes that the issue of life after death is a scientific question. The problem, however, is that "no claimed connection with a hereafter has ever been verified…in controlled scientific experiments." Biologist Francis Crick writes that if religious believers "really believe in a life after death, why do they not conduct sound experiments to establish it?"
The answer to Crick's question is that most religious believers probably don't care whether their belief in the afterlife meets scientific tests; they don't believe in it on that basis. As practicing scientists, one might have expected that Crick or Stenger would suggest some experiments that could help decide the issue. If the claim that "there is life after death" is a scientific hypothesis, then it seems reckless to reject it without even attempting an empirical refutation. Even so Crick and Stenger do reject it, causing me to wonder if these gentlemen routinely adopt opinions in the absence of facts.
Such a criticism is a bit unfair, however, because as many atheists realize, there are no controlled empirical experiments that can resolve the issue one way or the other. Consequently atheists seek to affirm the rationality of their position by taking a different route. They appeal to an argument offered in the late nineteenth century by William Clifford. In a famous essay, "The Ethics of Belief," Clifford argued that "it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."
Clifford offered the example of a ship-owner ship putting a ship to sea without performing the necessary safety checks; he wished the passengers well, but when the ship sank, he calmly collected the insurance money. The ship owner had no regrets, since he didn't know the ship was unsafe. Clifford's point is that the man was a scoundrel. He should have known! He had no right to declare the ship seaworthy without collecting all the evidence. Clifford's conclusion is that we should believe as true only propositions that come with sufficient proof; we should reject as false those that don't. This position can be summed up in the popular atheist slogan, "The absence of evidence is evidence of absence."
Clifford's principle seems praiseworthy for its heroic attachment to truth, but nevertheless there is something deeply wrong with it. Specifically, it confuses "what is known by a given person under the circumstances" with "what is or is not the case." Imagine a fellow living in ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C. As far as he can determine, using all the experience and evidence at his disposal, there are only three continents on the planet, no other planets in the galaxy, and only a handful of stars in the universe. What does this tell us about the actual number of continents, planets or stars in existence? Absolutely nothing. It only tells us that ancient Greeks had very limited information at their disposal.
As a second example, consider efforts on the part of contemporary scientists to find out if there is life on other planets. So far scientists have found nothing. Should we all, therefore, refuse to believe that there is life on other planets on the grounds that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence? Clearly this is premature. The absence of evidence may indicate only that we haven't figured out how to locate what we are looking for. "Not found" is not the same thing as "found not to exist."
These examples show the limitations of the "absence of evidence" principle, but the issue of life after death poses an even deeper problem. To see this, let me offer an analogy between life after death and having a large sum of money in a Swiss bank account. Imagine if I asked you whether or not I have such an account. You declare your firm belief that I do not. As evidence, you cite the fact that you have never seen me go the bank. Moreover, you have observed me shopping and notice that as I spend money my wallet gets thinner. You infer that at some point my wallet will be empty and I will be broke. So clearly I don't have a bank account.
Then I ask you, do you have access to the bank's internal records? You do not. Have you ever been to the bank? You have not; in fact, you have never been to Switzerland. Have you organized 24 hour surveillance of the bank in question so that if I did go there, you would be notified? Of course not. Obviously we can conclude from these facts that you have arrived at a most unreasonable conclusion. In reality you have far too little information to decide one way or another whether I have a bank account. And this is precisely the situation facing the atheist with regard to the afterlife. On the basis of the available facts, not only does the atheist not know what happens after death, he cannot possibly know. The absence of evidence is evidence of nothing.