A lot has been said in recent months/years by Christian defender's of the faith on this matter, so I will not go into great philosophical depth here. If you want to hear a good exchange on the topic, I suggest listening to a recent debate between Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew that you can find on the "Unbelievable" podcast. In this space, I simply want to offer a challenge and a few thoughts. Here is the challenge:
I challenge you to choose to believe something for which there is literally NO evidence.
You can come up with your own example, but suppose I challenged you to believe that there was a pink elephant in your bedroom. Could you do it?
I don't think you could. In fact, I don't think we choose what we believe at all. I think we believe things that we find compelling, and we don't find things compelling without some reason or evidence. There are a lot of underlying factors involved in shaping what we find compelling, some of which may not even be within our control. Nevertheless, we are unlikely to be compelled to believe something for which we find absolutely no evidence. Beyond the initial question of belief, there is the question of human will. If we do in fact find evidence for a particular belief compelling, but that belief has certain life-altering consequences, we then have to choose whether or not we will accept or reject the ramifications of such a belief. Suppose I said you have to believe me that you can jump off the top of the Empire State building and live. You would want some good evidence in order to believe that statement. But even if I provide that evidence (show you the giant inflatable bag that will catch you, attach you to a cord that ensures you don't drift away from the building, and even give you a small parachute), you are still going to have to decide whether or not you accept the ramifications associated with stepping off the ledge.
But going back to the challenge. Let's suppose you want to try. In attempt to rise to this challenge, you will likely do one of three things. First, you might ask me, "Is there a pink elephant in my bedroom? Did you pull some elaborate prank?" If I said "yes," and you generally consider me to be trustworthy, and I am known for doing huge pranks involving painted circus animals, then you might be able to believe it. But then you would have the evidence of my trustworthy testimony. Second, you might try to come up with reasons that, though it doesn't seem true, it actually is. But if any of these becomes compelling to you, it will be because you were able to construct a trail of evidence where you previously did not see one. Maybe there is a dent in the floorboard near the bedroom door, or you heard a strange thumping sound, or the house shook in a strange way. Maybe then you could believe it (though I seriously doubt it). But again, that wouldn't be believing with NO evidence. The third option is to simply pretend that it is true, even though you know it isn't. Maybe if you pretend for long enough, then you will believe it. There are psychological studies that would support that possibility. But that could go both ways. Those who suppress a belief for long enough might eventually come to disbelieve it. And the real question is: what would motivate a person, who is mentally stable, and knows that something is false, to engage in self-deception (which may or may not work), in order to believe something for which there is no evidence? If they know it is false, then there is no benefit to forced belief. However, it seems perfectly reasonable to think that someone might engage in self-deception in order to avoid the ramifications of a particular belief. To revisit the example above, even if you had great evidence supporting the claim that you could jump off the Empire State building and live, you might still be absolutely terrified of heights and refuse to jump (like I probably would).
Someone will likely say, "This challenge is nonsense. No one is saying that a rational adult person could just choose to believe in pink elephants. Religious people prey on ignorant people and small children. That is just sick and twisted. If you tell a child or an unintelligent person that there is a man in the sky who watches what they do, they will believe you even though there is no evidence." But is that a coherent objection? Has no intelligent, adult person ever come to believe that Christianity is true? What about someone like Antony Flew, the famous 20th century atheist philosopher? Flew became a Deist later in life because he was convinced by the evidence for intelligent design. Beyond that, I think such a claim seriously underestimates children and people who aren't highly educated. For instance, when I was a child, I believed in Santa Claus. There is no evidence for his existence, right? So why did I believe in him? Because my parents told me that he was real. I trusted them and believed their testimony. My two year old son doesn't believe that Mickey Mouse is real. Why? Because we haven't ever told him either way. I asked him the other day, "Is Mickey real?" He smiled and said, "No, Mickey just on the T.V." He figured that out on his own. So, my point is that even in ignorance or as a child, people don't believe in the complete absence of evidence. Maybe they believe based on evidence that seems compelling but turns out to be faulty (like with Santa Claus). And I suspect that is what atheists are really trying to get at with this objection. They want to say "I don't think there is any good evidence." But that is a subjective claim. Anyone can say "I don't think X is good evidence," and no one can really argue with them. Okay, fine, you don't think it is good, but I do. What now? However, claims like "there is no evidence," and/or "religious people believe something for which there is no evidence" are objective--either true or false. I have already explained why I think it is nonsense to say that religious people (or any people) believe something for which there is absolutely no evidence. So I think the real issue is whether or not the purported evidence actually points to the truth. It is more insulting than insightful to say "religious people just choose to believe stuff for which there is no evidence." It would be more productive to examine the evidence on which they base their beliefs and demonstrate why it is faulty.
Beyond the evidence, it comes down to whether or not one is willing to accept the ramifications of the evidence. I have asked many of my atheist friends the following question: "If you were certain that Christianity was true, would you worship the God of Christianity?" 100% of them have unequivocally said "no." Why? Because they reject the ramifications of Christian truth claims, regardless of whether or not it is true. Here is a dirty little secret: I love reading insightful criticisms of the evidences offered for God/Christianity. I look forward to visiting the blog/twitter/facebook of skeptics who are more interested in the truth than slinging mud. Why? Because I am interested in the truth. But it can be very tedious to engage people who just want to hurl insults and/or who claim to be all about evidence but would reject Christianity even if they were convinced it was true. Oh yeh, and that cuts both ways. As Christians we need to be careful not to come off as though we are totally uninterested in truth and just want things our way. That is how a great number of people perceive us.