Where Does the Burden of Proof Lie?


Elvis

I came across this blog posts in my search for new atheist blogs: https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/where-is-the-burden-of-proof-christianity-or-atheism/. In this post, Humblesmith discusses the burden of proof.
According to Humblesmith, atheists say “Since I am the only reasonable person here, the burden of proof lies with you theists” when discussing who has the burden of proof. While I don’t doubt that there are some atheists who believe this, this is not the standard atheist argument. The reason that atheists say that Christians have the burden of proof is because Christians assert that they know God exists. It’s that assertion that makes it so that Christians have the burden of proof. Likewise, an atheist would have the burden of proof to show that there is no god if they were to say “I know there are no gods.” Since very few atheists are willing to say that, the burden of proof is not on us.
Humblesmith then claims that the Christian response is “I readily welcome the burden of proof for my views, for there are proofs for God’s existence and evidence that the Bible is true. But you have a burden of proof also. Are you making a claim that your view is true? If so, you are making a truth claim and have a burden of proof for your idea.” I think someone is wearing their rose-coloured goggles. It seems to me that the response in this case is generally “no, you have the burden of proof!” Again, the burden of proof depends on what’s being claimed, not on who’s speaking. Yes, atheists believe we are right, but that is not what determines whether we have the burden of proof. The burden of proof means that a claim must shown to be true or the opposite will be assumed. It seems to be assumed that this means that either Christians prove God or no God exists, or that atheists prove that there are no gods or gods exist. But that is not what the burden of proof suggests. Think innocent until proven guilty. It’s the persecutions job to prove the guilt of the defendant. This is because of innocent until proven guilty. However, if the persecutor does not show that the person is guilty, the person is not found innocent: they are found not guilty. So if a Christian claims that God exists, they must provide evidence to show that they are right. If they fail to do so, that doesn’t mean that God can be found to not exist. It means that the Christian is found unable to believe that God exists. Rather than seeing it in terms of atheism vs. Christianity, look at it in terms of gnosticism vs. agnosticism. If you say that you don’t know, they you don’t have to prove that you know. But if you say that you know, then you have to prove that you know. I don’t know that God doesn’t exist, so why should I prove that there is no God?
Humblesmith goes on to say that atheists then argue “No, atheism is a-theism, a lack of belief. Since I make no truth claim, I have to prove nothing. I merely have no belief. Since you believe something, only you have to prove something, not me.” Again, it’s not about belief, it’s about knowledge. If you claim to know that God exists, you must show evidence before I can be expected to believe that you are right. If you tell me that you don’t know, how can I demand proof of your knowledge?
Humblesmith then states of the Christian perspective “If you do not believe God exists, then you must hold to naturalism, which is the view that the only things that exist are natural, such as matter and energy.” Um…no. Atheism is the belief that gods don’t exist, not the belief that only the natural exists. There are plenty of atheists who believe in ghosts and magic. But, even if you were right, what does this have to do with the burden of proof?
Humblesmith then says that the atheist claims “Yes, of course. I am logical, and naturalism is the only logical position. Only matter and energy exist.” Could you be any more obvious that you’re creating caricature?
Humblesmith goes on to say “You then have a burden of proof to show that naturalism is true.” Again, if they were to say that they know that only matterand energy exists, then yes, they wuld have the burden of proof. Luckily they the evidence that we have found matter and energy but have not found anything supernatural. However, you’re moving the goal posts: you were talking about whether gods exist, not whether anything exists outside of matter and energy.
The atheist apparently then says “No, silly Christian. The natural world is just there, as Bertrand Russel said. It does not need an explanation. But I do not believe in God, so you have a burden of proof for showing God exists.” Is it bad that I’m picturing a cartoon superhero giving the “Now, evildoer…” speech? Anyway, when exactly did the creation of the universe come into this conversation? They were talking about the existence of gods. Then they were talking about whether or not something other than energy and matter (matter is energy, fyi) exists. Now they’re talking about the creation of the universe. These are completely different topics. This conversation makes no sense.
The Christian then says “I am an a-naturalist. I have a lack of belief in naturalism, and the burden of proof on you is to show that naturalism is the correct viewpoint. As an a-naturalist, I merely disbelieve that the natural world is all there is. I do not have to prove anything, but you have to prove your point.” This would be a ridiculous thing to say. You merely disbelieve that the natural world is there at all? The natural world is not invisible. It does not somehow interact with our universe while not being a part of our universe. Gods apparently do. So while you can’t point down and say “look: God, you’re standing on him,” I can point down and say “look: the natural world. You’re standing on it. And living in it.” See the difference?
The atheist then says “Well, I….uh….it just exists.” Because at this point no atheist would turn to physics. Personally, being as I’m no scientist, I’d just direct you to some physics resources. Again, it’s not my job to provide evidence for what I don’t know about, and I’m no expert on the universe.
The Christian then says “While you are at it, please explain the existence of things such as mathematics and justice, since they are neither matter nor energy.” At this point, you’re just being an asshole to be an asshole. However, both math and justice are concepts that can be explained in terms of brain function. So they can actually be summed up to energy.
This atheist, however, responds “You’re a fundamentalist and an idiot. And Christians are hypocrites. And your dog is ugly.” Hay now, it’s not the dogs fault you don’t like his owner.
The Christian then claims “It seems that I have a great deal of rational explanation for my belief, but you have ducked your responsibility. You merely try to focus on the reasons for my viewpoint, but by your own admission, offer no good reason to say that your position is true. I will continue to hold that God exists and the Bible is true.” Really? You have rational explanations? What are they? Because so far you haven’t given any of them. You’ve simply demanded evidence of the atheist. You can say that the atheist has no good evidence, because clearly they didn’t, but you cannot then claim that you have evidence without providing it.

burden-of-proof-chart-1 used in anthony trial

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17 responses to “Where Does the Burden of Proof Lie?

  • brianbalke

    How would you respond to a statement from a theist that a focus on objective, material evidence preconditioned you to an impoverished experience of reality that divorced you from god? In other words, that you have chosen, of your own free will, to do without that resource?
    From a Christian perspective, that is actually the choice that was made in “Eden”: rather than following the dictates of god, humanity chose to figure out how to make things work on our own. This inevitably becomes a moral quest (Am I the measure of “what works”, or must I include others in the evaluation function? The “Knowledge of Good and Evil” is about recognizing that narcissism is not viable.). So the atheist is left to prove that humanity can be moral on its own.
    So who are you going to put up against Martin Luther King, Jr? Nelson Mandella? Ghandi? Simply pointing out that religion is not a prophylactic to sociopathy is insufficient argument. Nothing is a prophylactic to sociopathy.
    My own personal experience is that the god of the avatars of our great religions, the god of love, is an essential element in creating, empowering, and sustaining moral action. If you choose not to have that same experience, who is it that is in the wrong?

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Why should I prove that you don’t need god to be moral when that was never the point of my post? I made a completely different post on that issue a while ago. Why is it my job to prove to you that I can in fact be good without god when it is the theist side claiming that I cannot be good? It is their claim, so it is their job to prove their claim correct.
      I never chose to be an atheist. I simply cannot believe that gods exist. I have no reason to believe that they exist. If I had chosen to be an atheist, then I could choose right now to be a theist. I can’t do that. It’s not a choice that I have available to me. I don’t feel as though I am lacking in any way. I am a moral person. I have a good life. I have love and happiness. I’m better off then most. So what resource does my atheism leave me without, other than a belief in gods? Why does that belief matter if I’m in no way negatively affected for not having it?
      How do you define this god of love? Is your definition such that you could cross out the “god of” part and still have the same answer? What evidence do you have that this god exists? Why should a god be necessary for love to exist?

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      • brianbalke

        Oh, Hessian: it is the “I” in your reply that makes my heart break. I put it this way in a letter to a Cardinal once: the presence of the Divine is proven only if there are things that we can do together that we cannot imagine doing as separate individuals. There is this kind of trust that comes into the air when I am in worship. It dissolves the barriers between me and the people around me. It allows me to see into their hearts without obstruction, and thus to make sound choices regarding the gifts we exchange.

        This happens rarely except in worship. In other contexts, when I try to open my heart to people in this way, they walk all over it with hob-nailed boots. Why? I can’t tell you for certain, but they often look afraid to me.

        It is this fundamental issue of trust that Descartes struggled with. While his proposition (God) is clearly an assertion of faith without philosophical merit, it is not unique in human experience.

        Obviously I am not the kind of person to subscribe to external religious authority. I believe that every individual must trust the lessons of their own heart. But the constancy of holy experience throughout human cultures and eras suggests to me that, unless we wish to dismiss all of our forbears as lacking in any power of ratiocination (which I have found untenable from my reading of ancient philosophy) – well, I for one found that I have to give a certain weight to their testimony. What I discovered was that many of the “less rational” parts of ancient discourse became understandable when I removed my prejudice regarding the existence of consciousness independent of the body (which, BTW, is upheld by a lot of modern testimony from people of all stripes). It was that, ultimately, that motivated me to TRY faith.

        But, ultimately, I was simply returning your challenge. Why should I have to prove my God to you? Does it really make a difference why we act morally, so long as we act morally? If you act morally from reason and empathy, that’s good. If I assert that my reason and empathy is supplemented by the agency of the Holy Spirit, what’s wrong with that?

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        • hessianwithteeth

          To start off by answering your final question, either of us care if you happen to want claim your empathy and morality are in part derived from the Holy Spirit. We would probably say that is not the sort of explanation we would accept, but we are not going to push you to prove your god or your faith or whatever is driving you just because of that. What gets us annoyed is how many Christian folk tend to apply that the only place morality comes from is the bible and the Christian God. They are trying enforce a belief set on others by asserting that they have the only answer. So it should be no surprise that we’d demand evidence or at the very least a coherent reason.

          If you’re not such a person then we aren’t worried about you. Like how we have no concern about many religious people. We might argue about the semantics, and the reasons why you hold onto beliefs, but we are not so concerned about unobtrusive beliefs that we wish to stomp them out. Though that does stop us from questioning them when aired in public.

          I don’t see why the use of “I” in Hessian’s post bothers you so much, maybe it’s because you think is has something to do with feelings of isolation. I can assure you that it’s is not a statement born of feeling of isolation, but the stark truth that it is in generally a good idea when talking about your ideas from your personal standpoint. It’s a good idea not to make assumptions for how others think, or drag them along with out asking.

          Besides it isn’t Hessians role to defend people arguments for them. The burden of proof is on those making the claim. Period. Full Stop.

          As to your definition of divine. Fine if you want to define it that way cool, but I call it one of the ultimate expressions of humanities social structures. Our ability to work past ourselves and for each other and our children ahead of us. Collaboration is one of the reasons if not the main reason we are so successful. I don’t think there is anything supernatural about it, but I’m not going to concern myself Convinsing you otherwise.

          As to this happening rarely outside of worship, perhaps, I never have experienced it in worship. Though feeling of transcendence are common in people through the world, but this is not really evidence of anything except people getting those transcendent feelings. and even those feeling are not always an enlightening as people think. Though they do tend to bring people together.

          As for how people behavior towards you and your perception towards them I couldn’t say. I don’t know what you’re trying to do or how your trying to do it. Like for example if you run up to someone speaking in tongues. Ya, you’re going to get some concerned looks that’s for sure, but I don’t know what your even trying to do so I couldn’t honestly say anything about it other than there are a times and a places for such discussions. Perhaps your problem is your a bit more open then people are use to or your approach is some how unsettling.

          “It is this fundamental issue of trust that Descartes struggled with. While his proposition (God) is clearly an assertion of faith without philosophical merit, it is not unique in human experience.”
          Yes it is certainly normal for humans to make baseless assertions for a wide variety of reasons. It happens on facebook all the time. Humans are great at heuristics, but that good hard logic is something most of us are not geared towards.

          Yes both Hessian and I understand that the mind set of people from the past are different and that our biases in few way match those of any given group throughout history, but I’m not about to give testimony from an old heavily translated tome a free pass because people same similar thing about faith and giving up ones reasoning faculties for the pursuit of the divine. If it had worked so well then why has most progress of human history occurred we started disregarding such ideals. Not a foolproof argument I’m aware, but a counter point none the less.

          I am fully capable of respecting the people in history and their achievements without respecting their ideas for anything more than stepping stones. Descartes and Aristotle are excellent examples of this. Particularly Aristotle who was so close to having come up with the ideas we hold true today, but then missed the mark by quite a distance. Even though he was basically wrong about everything. Aristotle is still worth learning about and understanding.

          Withteeth

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    • equippedcat

      Theory is great. However, observation is not without merit. I know a lot of atheists, and hardly any of them do things which hurt other people. Do they do things which God disapproves of? Perhaps, but that is their choice, and it is up to God to deal with it, isn’t it?

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      • brianbalke

        Hmm. Sounds like neither of us is willing to claim the consequences of nationalism and communism: you know, the 100 million people killed by Hitler, Mao and Stalin. How would you distinguish them from atheists?
        I believe that any system of identification is philosophically impoverished. It leads us into camps that cause us to reject each others’ testimony regarding our experience of life. I tried to answer this at everdeepening.org (not my blog site, which is “.com”) with this proposition: “Morality is found in any system of values that expands the domain in which love is expressed.” It has been helpful to me in recognizing and defanging Christian extremism.

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        • equippedcat

          Certainly, those people were hideous. I don’t think they were hideous because they were atheists. They were hideous because that is the way they were. Weren’t there a few hideous people in the church during the Spanish Inquisition? How about during the troubles in Ireland? How about the Taliban (they are not atheists)? Wouldn’t it seem to be observably true that not all atheists are without the base standards of morals, and that it appears that some theists are without the standards which God imposes on them?

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  • makagutu

    The atheist can say he knows there is no god by showing that the definitions given of god so far are incoherent or that the talk of god is meaningless. He can further argue that arguments for god have been shown to be inadequate and this justifies the belief there is no god.

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  • armondikov

    Humblesmith does bash a straw-man repeatedly over the head, but they do show one interesting thing – that you can, if you phrase it right, declare a belief to be positive or negative. Specifically I’m saying with their “a-naturalist” argument. While they do conflate belief and knowledge here, I would have taken a different track with addressing this one.

    Instead, I would assert I *do* have the “belief” that there is no God. Belief is binary, since I don’t spend 1% of my time in church to reflect my 99% certainty I’m right. I can draw a ring around all the things I believe exist, and all the things I believe don’t exist, which by default includes the implicit non-beliefs. If you look at it abstractly, then the distinction between a mere “lack of” belief and the assertion of “I don’t believe it exists” merges into the same thing.

    That would shift the burden of proof onto me as an atheist, certainly, but I’m okay with that. Because I can show that the belief is consistent with observation. If someone describes the characteristics of their god to me, I can see whether it matches up with expectation or not. If the all-powerful god will heal you if you pray hard enough, then that should be testable. If the all-powerful god once flooded the world, then that’s testable too. If the all-powerful, all-knowing god in fact has no interaction in the world for some mysterious reason because it’s “super” natural, then it’s too badly defined an idea. But either way, the null hypothesis of “no intelligent entity is controlling the universe from outside it” is more compatible with observation. The atheist carrying the null hypothesis here has a burden of proof, but it’s a significantly lower burden than anyone proclaiming a highly specific, highly improbable deity. You can’t disprove every single conceivable (and inconceivable) god with 100.0000…% certainty, but you don’t *have* to. You just have to demonstrate that the world operating without any of that stuff is a significantly more probable and consistent reality than any highly specific supernatural belief.

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  • Your Moderate Mama

    I liked this post… the banter back and forth pretty much sums up the discussions I heard in college between professors and Christian students. (I kept my mouth shut and tried to learn from both sides and both side just ended up pissed… which was a bit entertaining for my young-self 😉 )

    In my journey of understanding Atheism could you expand or direct me to a post about (I don’t know if you do) Atheist believing in ghost and magic? I have never heard this. I don’t personally believe in ghost but obviously I believe in the spiritual.

    Thanks HTeeth!

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    • equippedcat

      I would be very surprised if a (strong, explicit, Gnostic) atheist believed in ghosts or magic, as some of the evidence they have to support their beliefs would seem to be applicable in these cases. A (weak, implicit, Agnostic) atheist might have such beliefs.

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  • equippedcat

    Is the concept of burden of “proof” even applicable to beliefs about God, which are not provable by their very nature? “Evidence” is a bit better; and sometimes the best that can be managed are “reasons”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hessianwithteeth

      It’s applicable to knowledge claims. If you say you know something, then you should be able to prove it. If you can’t prove it, then you can’t say that you know.

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      • equippedcat

        I can agree with that. Not sure that it applies to belief claims though.

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      • brianbalke

        If I recall correctly, Foucault’s proposition was that knowledge was proven only by demonstrations of power. So it comes down to: does my understanding of the Divine enable me to do things that I couldn’t do without it? I personally believe this to be true, because I lived as a person without faith for forty years. When I finally accepted faith, a lot of really wonderful and magical things began to happen in my life.

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  • sarcasticgoat

    Atheists can’t be made to prove a negative claim, it’s absurd, and not logical…….Captain Kirk.

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