The burden of proof is a term used in debates that indicates who has to prove a claim that’s been put forth. As RationalWiki puts it, the burden of proof is the obligation that somebody presenting a new or remarkable idea has to provide evidence to support it. It is not anybody’s responsibility to disprove the claim itself, but rather it is the responsibility of the person making the claim to demonstrate that the claim is credible.
One of the hardest things I learned after deconverting was that Christians–not non-Christians–carry the burden of proof of Christianity’s claims. I’m going to warn you right now: I’m not the Camel with Hammers, and my take on this question is probably going to be a little more prosaic than that of someone with formal education in logic and philosophy. But if someone can get into Christianity without either, then surely an ex-Christian lacking the same can fumble toward a common-sense understanding of the idea of “burden of proof.”
I’m relatively new to such nuances. The whole concept was completely alien to me back then. Don’t get me wrong–I tried not to make claims I wasn’t certain were true. But when I did make claims that I thought were true–as I frequently did, as you can imagine–I didn’t expect to be challenged on them. I don’t think anybody, even the atheists I knew, ever did challenge me on a single claim I made around them but rather worked to disprove the ones I had made to them, and it didn’t even occur to me that this wasn’t how things should work. I don’t think I even learned the phrase “burden of proof” with regard to religion (or for that matter anything supernatural or conspiracy-related) until I was years away from any churches. It was the late 80s and early 90s, and you know, in so many ways it really was a different time.
It’s not like I didn’t understand the general concept. I just wasn’t used to applying it to religion. I don’t think I was unique there. I’d venture to guess that even Christians who completely reject their burden of proof for religious claims accept the idea eagerly when they are accused of crimes, because that’s the basis of our entire criminal justice system–that people don’t have to prove their innocence. Delve into that idea deeper, though, and you see why: that the justice system itself is making the initial claim that an accused person is guilty, so the justice system bears the burden of proving that claim beyond reasonable doubt. The justice system itself must prove the accused was in the right place at the right time and couldn’t have been anywhere else; that the accused had the motivation to do whatever it was, the ability, and the opportunity; that the accused and nobody else actually did the deed, whatever it was. Even the protestation “I am innocent of this crime” is not a claim that requires the claimant to prove anything but rather a reaction to the initial claim–even then the initial claim, “You did this crime,” is what requires evidence and what shoulders the entire burden of proof. The person accused doesn’t have to shoulder even a bit of proving his or her innocence, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
A recent court case in the news, the trial over the unfortunate and tragic death of Trayvon Martin, has gotten a lot of people very upset (me among them) but there is still a burden of proof for these cases, and if the prosecution just couldn’t establish enough evidence either through poor arguments or simple lack of evidence to meet that burden in the eyes of a jury operating under the laws in their state/country, situations like these are what happen. I am not saying I’m cool with the trial, more like I realize I wasn’t there in the courtroom, that I don’t know exactly what happened in the trial, and I don’t know exactly what laws bound the jury to decide as they did. But I feel safe saying that whatever the burden of proof involved, the prosecution didn’t get there. That’s the price we pay for living in a society that knows that this burden is a necessary evil for avoiding the conviction of innocent people–that sometimes the guilty will get away with crimes and sometimes justice won’t be done and sometimes you’ll never know if someone bad got away with murder or if that person was even bad at all, but that overall this is the system that seems to work best to prevent the punishing of the innocent. If you’re ever accused of a crime, you will cling to that concept like the life-saving raft that it is.
When a Christian tells me that his or her god died for my sins, my immediate reaction nowadays is “Prove it.” When Christians tell me that their god answers prayer or that I’m going to their religion’s hell for not believing in their god, I want to know if there are any credible pieces of evidence for how they know that. There’s a whole cascade of assumptions crying out for proof in statements like these, and that cascade (failure) begins with “show objective, credible, verified evidence that any god at all, anywhere in the world at any time in history, has ever existed.”
It’s laughably ridiculous to see Christians insist that non-believers bear their rightful burden of proof by saying that we are making a claim that their god doesn’t exist so we must prove that non-existence to them. As one pastor wrote to an atheist, “I believe an equally important burden of proof lies open for the atheist to prove God’s non-existence.” This attitude is painfully common; a comment over on CNN’s Belief Blog parrots it: “Sorry, it is their burden of proof, because they said so loudly He does not exist.” And this guy thinks that both atheists and Christians share the burden of proof regarding Christianity at different times. Oh, and here’s a bonus video of Christopher Hitchens hitch-slapping a pastor who explicitly and overtly shoves his rightful burden of proof onto non-Christians when asked to make “a case for God.” (Oh Hitch…. you are missed, you are missed, you are missed.)
The trait all of these Christians share is that they’re all completely wrong about who owns that burden.
The burden belongs to Christians, 100%, completely, without reservation, without question, and without doubt because they are the ones making the initial truth claim and they are the ones demanding that non-Christians accept this claim and conform to their religious ideas.
The person making the initial claim is the person who gets to prove that claim. In this case, Christians (like all evangelist religious folk who want to convert others) are making a whole series of positive initial claims: there is a god. There is a god fitting my particular worldview. My god has set up a cosmology requiring belief and punishing non-belief. My god cares deeply about whether or not people believe in him/her/it. There’s a way to know what this god thinks and wants of us. There is a document that communicates this god’s desires and threats accurately and reliably. And anybody who says otherwise must come up with some reason why none of these things are true. So there, you can almost hear them saying.
Meanwhile, we non-believers are sitting back and watching Christians make their claims. We’re evaluating those claims on the basis of the evidence provided with them. We’re not making any claim at all beyond summarizing how compelling we found the evidence we got. (BTW, there is also that whole “proving a negative” thing, which infidels.org covers very neatly and which raised some points I hadn’t even thought of before writing this piece.)
The problem is, though, most of us non-Christians have spent so long either steeped in religion or dealing with religious people that it can be really hard to tease out fallacies like shifted burdens of proof. I don’t know about you, but I spent a lifetime around people who thought it was totally obvious and self-evident that the Christian god existed and who consequently acted–and act–like rejection of their claim is like rejecting the idea that the sky is blue or that humans are carbon-based lifeforms. When I was a Christian, the idea that it’s not actually self-evident at all that the Christian god–or any god–exists was quite challenging to me. It really felt like people saying that were saying something absurd like “it’s not self-evident that the earth is mostly round” or “it’s not self-evident that humans can feel love.” I know now that I was quite wrong about my then-god being “self-evident,” but I certainly can’t blame Christians today for getting their dander up about being challenged there.
One way of getting away from entrenched terminology is to substitute a totally absurd word (like “unicorns”) for the religious words in a claim. That’s why, when I say “there are no unicorns,” I am not making a claim but reacting to the evidence provided thus far for the existence of unicorns. It’s not required that I provide evidence to prove the negative of non-unicorn existence. If I were going to take on that burden, I’d be running around disproving every crackpot theory in the world, wouldn’t I? And not even Christians do that. In the same fashion, when I say “the Christian god cannot possibly exist,” I’m not making a claim but summarizing what evidence has come before me up till now. The phrase is not a positive assertion at all–it’s more like a reaction. Consider it shorthand for “I’ve seen no credible evidence supporting the existence of the Christian god/unicorns/leprechauns/Bigfoot.”
Demanding I come up with my own evidence for the non-existence of a particular supernatural entity is not the same as coming up with real evidence for that entity’s existence, in my opinion, either. At best all I’m succeeding in doing is showing that no evidence thus far supports the idea, which–while completely true and factual–isn’t the same at all, and at worst if I fail to conjure up such evidence, all I’m demonstrating is what amounts to an argument from ignorance–if I don’t know or can’t prove that a god exists, that god could still exist; I haven’t proven anything either way really. Actual evidence is not a fancy apologetics argument or an equation that looks spiffy. It’s physical evidence like miracles, answered prayers, a holy book that (if claimed to be infallible, objectively true, and the product of a deity that wants desperately to be loved) contains only objective truths and no falsehoods and which is clearly understandable.
When a Christian tells me that his/her particular take on a particular god is true, then that’s a specific truth claim that we can assess very easily. It’s the same for unicorns, really; “well, it might be true” is a pretty weak statement for someone following a god who made the entire universe and can shoot pillars of flame from the sky and create human beings out of dirt but who’s suddenly gone rather coy and quiet in the last 1800 years. Could there be a being fitting the Christian conceptualization of their god? Sure, the same as there might one day turn out to be unicorns. An argument from ignorance doesn’t mean that whatever’s being argued as true is false, necessarily. But until evidence pops up, I see no reason to convert to a religion on such a basis. We’ve got to go with what’s most likely to be true based on what objective evidence we have.
And because there’s no physical evidence for a god’s existence, there’s not going to be a way anybody can prove that god’s non-existence except to state the obvious by saying “Well, there sure isn’t any evidence there.” And that isn’t quite the same thing as evidence showing non-existence. There could still be a god, just one with no evidence for his/her/its existence. We just wouldn’t know what such a being looks like, or what powers it would have, or how to contact it, or how to know what it wants, if it even does want anything at all, from humans. If I haven’t got a single clue what a god can do or what it wants from me, that’s not functionally different from there not being a god at all. Christians still would need to demonstrate how they know their god exists, how they know what their god wants of us, and how they know how to contact their god. So we’re back to square one, because no Christian has ever demonstrated any of these things in a credible manner. They’re making a wild guess and hoping they’re right, and that’s not good enough for me because literally every religion’s adherents are doing the same exact thing.
I object to this unspoken and ludicrous assumption on the part of Christians that every single bizarre claim they make has to be treated as gold and given a special pass, and that non-believers have to stop everything and run around in circles to assess every one of their claims no matter how insane those claims sound.
So hey, how ’bout we start skating the other direction right now: unless really compelling physical evidence for the Bible’s claims comes to light, considering that every one of their claims has turned out to be way less than credible for the last 2000 years, I’m not going to worry about them. They’ve had 2000 years to find something–anything–that holds up to objective scrutiny, and nothing so far has. Not even once. Not even a little. And it’s downright ballsy for them to demand I go to effort and work to unravel the lies and untruths that Christianity presents to its followers. I’ve got a better idea. Christians are welcome to present their credible, objective, verified physical evidence to me whenever they finally find some. I’ll assess it and decide how compelling it is and go from there.
Until then, I’m going to treat their claims exactly and precisely the same as I treat the claims of Bigfoot enthusiasts, little girls who believe in unicorns, and ghost hunters and for the same reason. Well, I’d be nicer to the little girls about it. I love unicorns even now. If I had my way my place would look like that woman’s in Dodgeball except with way more cats. But still, I don’t go around claiming they’re real and demanding people put out bowls of honey and granola for the unicorns every night or face eternal goring by the holy horn of the Supreme Unicorn Stallion.
The funny part is that Christians should not even need or care about proof, and sometimes they realize it in this weird dysfunctional way. Their religion is ludicrous. The Bible’s various authors took considerable pride in believing utter nonsense for no good reason. But in this modern day, we’re not quite as comfortable with that idea. So proof we must have and good reason we must see–even Christians! It’s all terribly convenient–when they think they have evidence, it’s all EVIDENCE PROOF VALID ZOMG LOOKITTHIS, but when that evidence inevitably and inexorably gets debunked and discredited, they get to draw back sullenly and mutter about how sad it is that people need proof of their religion before they’ll take it seriously and take pride in not needing silly things like “evidence” to form their beliefs. Can’t lose for winning.
The more of us there are refusing to let bad apologetics slide, it seems to me the faster a Christian might wonder just why he or she is involved in such a horribly irrational religion. “By what objective means do you know that?” is a simple but powerful phrase (make sure you let the Christian know you won’t be accepting circular arguments, because rest assured you’re going to get one if you’re not specific, and probably even then but at least you warned ’em). Above all, know where the burden rests, and do not let yourself be tricked or bullied into accepting a burden that isn’t actually yours. It’s a distraction tactic like a lot of the other dishonest, ignorant, and/or deceptive bits of manipulation toxic Christians try around non-Christians.
I wish I could ask Christians to please decide what they want. They can either be okay with a religion with no credible proof whatsoever that conflicts completely with reality and take comfort in what good spiritual lessons and guidance they can glean from their barbaric source book while trying to keep up with the march of human progress, which I’d actually be fine with; we all believe silly things in our own ways and if a Christian finds meaning or comfort in Christianity and isn’t bothering anybody, that’s none of my business. Or they can keep insisting that their religion has credible evidence when it doesn’t, and indulge in simple logical fallacies like circular arguments and misplaced burden of proof, a tactic which is guaranteed to drive rational people further and further away from their degenerate form of religion as well as set themselves up for the cruel and unnecessary dilemma I’ve described before (accept reality and lose your faith, or reject reality to embrace your faith). But this half-assing it isn’t working anymore. We know Christianity hasn’t got proof for its claims, and Christians can’t keep insisting it does (or demanding we disprove their claims in absence of this proof) and hope to remain relevant in modern society.
Basically, I don’t know and neither does anybody else. And I’m not going to shoulder the burden of proving every single wild guess that comes along. Christians make the claim, so they get to prove it. I’m not obligated to do a damned thing except look at their evidence. And if any Christians have absolutely objective, credible, verified evidence for their religion, they need to get on the stick and get that proof out to the world, because it’d be the very first such evidence their religion’s ever had in its entire existence and centuries’ worth of theologians are eagerly awaiting, as are millions of non-believers.
Next up, we’re going to talk about how to assess evidence and how much I want to see before I consider changing my stance on things. Your mileage may vary, for sure, but I’m going to talk about that famous quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Why do skeptics say that? What does it mean? And how “extraordinary” are we talking?
If you’re not reading Oglaf already, then here’s your link (warning: sex, nudity, language, and constant gaming references). For some reason this particular strip reminded me of Westboro Baptist Church and that famous Cthulhu “Chick” tract, Who Will Be Eaten First?. Hey, I already warned you that I love Chick tracts. I’m not ashamed of my love.