Burden of proof

My basic argument can be summed up in five words: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  This phrase, popularised by Carl Sagan embodies a concept that has been around for a long time.  David Hume wrote “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”  Marcello Truzzi said “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” Laplace wrote “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”

Most people believe this. We think there is insufficient evidence to accept most religious and paranormal claims. As a Christian I rejected the claims of Islam, Ra, Zeus, scientology as well as the claims of various miraculous or supernatural events, on this basis. When looked at objectively, Christianity suffers the same fate. I looked at this idea in the context of the lack of credibility of the bible as a historical source in an earlier post.

The basic thesis of the atheist is not that we can prove that no god exists. You could have a god that you keep in your purse, for example, and not tell anyone about it. It would be unreasonable to expect me to disprove all those cases. The basic thesis is that the theist has not made a convincing case, and so it is a rejection of logic to believe. 

Cleverly, the bible preempts this argument by telling people that they are to expect to be treated as fools for believing (1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV): “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,”). The bible also says “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1 and 53:1), but this contradiction is resolved by the idea of secret knowledge

which allowed me as a Christian to feel quietly superior to atheists.

The only evidence for the central stories of the bible is the bible itself. The bible does not constitute extraordinary evidence – when you look closely and objectively it’s extraordinary how poorly attested it is. So I reject the claims as surely as I reject those of other religions, tooth fairies etc. If you told me you had a god in your purse, but couldn’t show me any evidence (maybe because your purse god required me to have faith), I would reject those claims too. Is it impossible? No, because anything is possible. But it constitutes insufficient evidence for me to accept it on faith.

I was very clear when I was a Christian. I used to say, “I believe, because I am persuaded by the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and so, kicking and screaming, I am forced to submit.” I was surrounded by a bunch of great Christians too, who were mostly rational and reasonable. In some ways it was like a crowd of people standing by a door and assuring each other that the door was locked. 
    “Have you tried it?” I might have asked. 
    “Yes. Kind of. Someone else tried it and found it to be locked.”
    “Oh, loads of people.”
    “I’d like to try it for myself.”
    “Of course, you must!”
And I thought I would too. So I tried the door, but perhaps too gently. After all, people I knew and trusted had tried it already. And then before I could give it a really good yank, I got distracted by other stuff. When I eventually got around to giving it a proper try, I was astonished by how easily it opened. The objective, historical evidence is simply not there.

For me, this is an end to it.

But talking to other Christians, it is amazing to me how easily they shrug this off. There are a bunch of defense mechanisms that spring up. Ultimately, if you want to believe something, then no amount of rationality can stop it. But there are three basic continuations from here, often used in combination:

  1. I just choose to believe the Bible, rationality be damned.
  2. I believe because I’ve experienced God personally.
  3. The burden of proof is not on the theist, it’s on the atheist.

Of course, when I was a Christian, I used to believe that there was extraordinary evidence, which is another legitimate perspective.  In a previous post I discussed the credibility of the Bible, which undermines this central evidence.  In the next post I discuss how I came to accept the evidence. I would urge you to look deeper into this and decide for yourself how convincing the evidence really is, reading all sides of the argument. I will probably return to this, as it is central to this blog, but in the meantime, let me discuss the other three rationalisations.

1. I just choose to believe the Bible

“It’s easier for me to just believe the bible.” I’ve heard this phrase several times, and it strikes me as intellectually dishonest, but probably supports the view that for some people religion is a crutch that they cling on to regardless of the lack of support. They filter their thinking to avoid cognitive dissonance. I can understand this perspective to some extent – it is difficult to accept a truth that puts you in conflict with your friends and family (believe me I know!). Most people believe what people around them believe. It might be ‘easier’ to have a blind faith, rather than rationally wrestling with the difficulties, but that makes it comforting, not true. Personally I find that I resonate more with the idea that ‘the voice of reason is soft; but it is persistent!’ This may keep some people going for a while, but eventually their faith will erode.

2. I’ve experienced God

I’ve said earlier that it’s very difficult to argue against someone who just feels that it’s all true, because of some personal experience. As I also mentioned earlier, I’ve not heard of an experience that was not more easily explicable as a brain function, that is, a desire to feel some sort of emotional connection perhaps. This kind of thing happens all the time, and we tend to discount these experiences when people claim them in other areas, so we should at least be skeptical of experiences in areas that we may want to believe in. Even your own experiences, if you’ve had them, need to be weighed in the balance against the alternative explanation of some brain function.

There are a number of strong indications that these experiences may not amount to much.  Firstly, the most obvious explanation for the extraordinary breadth of such reported experiences, ranging across multiple faiths and cultures and extending to things like alien abductions, is that they are all man-made experiences, rather than evidence for every weird thing man has ever imagined. I think some people genuinely believe that they’ve had these experiences and others are charlatans, taking advantage of the power or notoriety that relating them gives. This kind of thing also commonly happens in groups, but still manages not to leave behind any convincing evidence.

The second indication is that the theological implications are very negative, and leave you with a very inadequate god. The reason for this is that most people would not claim such experiences, and a very few do. If god were giving such experiences to certain individuals and not to others, and then also saying these others were to expect to receive eternal punishment for being rational, that would be pretty poor justice. Basically it would mean most people were then chosen as ‘vessels of destruction’ (cf Romans 9:22). So god makes me rational, gives me poor evidence of his existence, vouchsafes me no experience of him, and then dishes out eternal punishment because I’m unwilling to make an irrational statement of belief or to believe the incredible stories of the select few to whom he chose to reveal himself directly? And I’m supposed to believe that he’s perfectly just? Christians tend to ask who are we to judge God? Romans 9:22 makes this very point. But this is just another way of saying that you need to repress your inborn sense of morality and justice, and distrust yourself. Trust only God, and specifically the people to whom he entrusted his vision. But that’s simply not good enough.

[I discuss this more in a later post here]

3. Who has the burden of proof?

I’ve heard people argue that the burden of proof is on the atheist, because it’s obvious that god must exist because of our existence. Nowadays, they’ll point to such phenomena as the fine-tuning of the universe, or the improbability of an abiogenesis event.  If someone tries to use science to make this assertion, they are basically making a god of the gaps argument (apologists know that this is philosophically unsound, and claim that their arguments are subtly not god of the gaps arguments, but the subtlety eludes me). Scientifically, it has always been better to say that an unknown is an unknown, worthy of further exploration than it is to assert that the unknown must be god. This has also been known to be true theologically: “Tis a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason, lest time, which brings all things to light, should discover that to be evidently false which we had made scripture to assert.”

There are other issues with this idea. In order for the burden of proof to be on the atheist, the theist position would have to be established already, which is circular reasoning.  The atheist position is that the existence or nonexistence of god cannot be proved. Knocking this down would require a proof of some sort, which theists are unable to provide.

A further problem is that, even if a scientific case for god were established, there is no link between the creation stories (which are extraordinarily dated and small) and our increasing scientific understanding of our origins. No single myth could be supported by this, so we would be none the wiser as to the true nature of god. The various attempts to shoe-horn our modern understanding into, for example, Genesis, are classic examples of pseudo-science, discussed in my previous post.

Philosophically, saying that we need a god to explain the complexity around us is not solving the problem, because god would need to be far more complex than anything that exists in his creation. This is a problem if you think you need a prime mover. On the other hand, science has developed a theory that can explain increasing complexity, which is supported by an extraordinary diversity of evidence in multiple different scientific fields, and which needs no tinkering by god to make it work.

In short, if you have an extraordinary claim (like the claims of the bible), the burden of proof is on you to establish it. The bible itself turns out to have very poor credibility (as I discussed earlier). People’s supposed experiences are just as weakly attested. And the existence of the world is actually an opportunity to engage more deeply in science, not evidence that there’s a god out there who made it all and then tried to hide the fact, but expects you to believe it anyway.