Evaluating Christopher Hitchens' Assertion in Natural Sciences and Religious Knowledge Systems

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“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. Christopher Hitchens statement implies that a knowledge claim must have an available body of facts or information that indicates that a proposition is true or valid; if it does not have evidence it can be viewed as something unworthy of serious consideration. For example, if someone claims something as being true but can’t prove it, I am within my rights to reject their claim without an argument in return. Evidence is a required, crucial factor of Natural Sciences; it is the backbone of natural science and theories can only be proved with well researched and experimented evidence. However in the area of Religious Knowledge Systems, evidence may not be required as other ways of knowing like faith and intuition are more important. This leads us to questions like ‘how do we decide what constitutes as evidence?’ or ‘to what extent is evidence reliable?’. Hitchens statement can be applied where subjectivity is irrelevant; but where it is relevant other aspects apart from evidence can be used as knowledge.

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Natural Sciences is an area of knowledge that always requires evidence. Without evidence, a claim will be dismissed because it cannot be proved to be true. Science is generally a reliable form of knowledge because it always required evidence. In this case, Hitchens would be correct in saying that anything without evidence can be dismissed because scientific theories always need evidence or proof to show that they are correct. In this case, evidence is relevant to the subject due to the objectivity of this area of knowledge. Experimentation and the scientific method is in favour of Hitchens statement. Throughout history, theories with no evidence have been rejected. For example, the theory of evolution was theorised by Charles Darwin who created a theory with substantial evidence that humans have evolved from other species through survival of the fittest. He had solid evidence which was obtained through fair experimentation to obtain accurate, relevant data. He found evidence that went against what the religious leaders of the time were saying. His evidence was strong and proved, which led people to believe his theory, because it had strong evidence behind it which meant it could not be denied. This displays that solid evidence is required in natural science to prove a theory, else it is dismissed. Another example that proves this are Newtons laws of motion, which we observe and experience every day. The evidence behind the laws of motion are our daily experiences and they can be proved easily due to the forces we experience and use. Newton’s Laws have not been dismissed till date, because the evidence behind it has been shown and justified.

On the contrary, there is a difference between scientific law and scientific theory. Scientific theory is based on observation and is proven but still testable, which means that certain evidence may prove the theory to be wrong. Although evidence is still appreciated, it attempts to explain why something happens; it attempts but doesn’t assert. In this case Hitchens would be incorrect in saying that anything that is asserted with evidence has to be trusted fully, because evidence can change and scientific theories are constantly evolving with new technology being discovered and new evidence being found. Paradigm shifts are constantly occurring. Scientific Knowledge is always adapting and changing and actually evidence is constantly being revealed to be wrong. In some cases, even Natural Science which has empiricist values could be dismissed according to Hitchens statement. For example, the Flat Earth theory was denied after many instances came up where there was evidence that the earth was round. In the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras declared the world was round even though other philosophers remained unconvinced until 330BC when Aristotle proved the idea of a round Earth. However, it took many more centuries before the fear of falling off the edge of the Earth was disproved by explorers such as Christopher Columbus when he set sail around the globe in 1492. This highlights that scientific knowledge is provisional, and even though evidence is provided, it can change drastically over space and time Another example of this is the discovery of urea, where the theory of vitalism was disproved. Vitalism suggested that an organic substance cannot be formed from two inorganic substances and that inorganic substances did not contain the vital source of life. Friedrich Wöhler then disproved the theory of vitalism by accidentally discovering urea. This shows that new evidence can disprove previous theories and that paradigm shifts are constantly occurring.

Religious knowledge systems do not rely on evidence or logic as a way of knowing. Evidence is simply not relevant to this area of knowledge because faith and belief is more important. However, verses from the Torah, Bible or Quran can be used as evidence, because the beliefs in these books are thousands of years old were revealed to man for his guidance. To the people of the time, that was the evidence. In this case, religion cannot be dismissed because it has various scriptures and verses that prove its beliefs. Often these scriptures link to modern theories of science like the expansion of the universe, 'The heaven, we have built it with power. Verily, we are expanding it': this is a verse from the Quran which was revealed thousands of years ago, before the scientific theory was proposed. This shows that religious knowledge systems have evidence and cannot be dismissed and considered unworthy of consideration.

On the other hand, religious knowledge systems have no evidence that god exists. There is no available proof that God exists, which justifies atheism. If there was evidence that God existed, then atheists would not have a justification for dismissing the theory that god exists. However, other factors other than evidence play a major role in Religious Knowledge Systems. In fact, evidence holds little importance. Factors like faith and intuition are more important in RKS because they are the aspects that are relevant to religious knowledge systems. If evidence was relevant then no one would believe in religion. Many people still believe in religion even if facts are used to argue against religion. It is because religion is connected to moral compass in most cases. Religion is generally passed down through generation and society finds it difficult because experiences in the past have taught people that religion is right, so it is implanted into the subconscious. Jared Friedman, a PhD student who co-authored the research, added: 'It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments.' For example, terrorism is justified to certain individuals of religions even though there is no evidence that terrorism is approved of in the religion. As a student who loves and understands science, I still find it very easily to understand my own religion as well as practice it, because my intuition and more importantly faith plays a larger role in my decision making in this area of knowledge.

In conclusion, Hitchens statement is only correct in certain areas of knowledge; where evidence is relevant. In many areas of knowledge like religious knowledge systems evidence is not a factor that is considered when looking at the reliability of that area of knowledge. Other ways of knowing are used. However, in fields like natural sciences, evidence plays a massive role in determining its reliability. In my opinion, I feel that Hitchens’s statement is invalid because not everything requires evidence. Evidence is just substance until it is applied to a certain situation. There are many other factors that play a major role in determining the validity of a real life situation. There are many other ways of knowing, like faith, intuition and imagination. As a student who loves and understands the nature of science as well as believing in a major religion, I feel that Hitchens’s statement cannot be applied to most situations as it suggests that evidence is the only way of knowing when that is not the case. There are also factors that affect evidence, like bias, subjectivity and limitations. This would lead us to questions like would these factors like subjectivity and bias be able to dismiss evidence because of their influence on it? Essentially, Hitchens’s statement may be useful when determining the reliability of a source in terms of the subjects relevance to evidence however, it may be invalid in areas where evidence is simply not required.

Works Cited

  1. Beck, Julie. “This Article Won't Change Your Mind.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Mar. 2017,
  2. CrashCourse. YouTube, YouTube, 4 Apr. 2016

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