In part 1, we looked at a couple of arguments from popular Christian apologists with a deceptive view of the burden of proof. Let’s look at two different definitions of “burden of proof.” As with the different definitions of “faith,” Christians cloud the issue for their benefit, perhaps knowingly. It helps to see these definitions and know when they’re being used.
Burden of proof definition #1
First, it can be the concept taken from a criminal trial. Here, we begin with a presumption of innocence for the accused. The prosecution can’t present merely an argument as compelling as that from the defense; they must overcome it to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Returning to the Christians’ argument (see part 1), this beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden is what the supernaturalist has. We start that debate with the assumption of a natural explanation because we have no good evidence of any supernatural causes of anything. Wallace would love to have parity for his God hypothesis, but it doesn’t work that way. Naturalism is the default, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Imagine someone thinking, “I have no idea for the answer to this problem. I’ll just put down . . . I dunno, 7. Well, that’s either right or wrong, so that gives me a 50/50 chance. I like those odds!” A child can be forgiven for that analysis, but we have higher standards for adults.
Take the Purple People of Pluto as an example of something that none of us have any particular interest in. Do we start with parity? Could anyone legitimately demand that you either prove that they don’t exist or adjust your reality to accept the Purple People of Pluto? Of course not. The default is no Pluto people (or unicorns or fairies or Bigfoot) and no supernatural. Any alternative argument that moves us off this default must be quite compelling.
Burden of proof definition #2
But apologists wants to ignore that definition. There is another, and that was what Koukl and Wallace were referring to. If I make a claim, I need to be prepared to defend it. This is where we enter the messy realm of rhetorical tricks and debate tactics, which was Koukl’s concern with his “Professor’s Ploy.”
Wallace is technically correct that if the atheist says, “There’s no God” (or the resurrection didn’t happen or the supernatural birth story came from other cultures or whatever), the Christian is within their rights to insist that the atheist defend that position. This is what Koukl was arguing. This puts the Christian in the role of attacker, trying to pick apart your argument, and Koukl likes that situation. You must defend a position and they don’t, assuming the Christian hasn’t yet declared a position (and Koukl is careful to advise that they avoid that).
A little debate advice
Speaking for myself, I usually don’t mind being in that position. I’m happy to argue that the evidence points to a conclusion. I never argue that I can prove anything; I simply claim that the preponderance of evidence points to the naturalist position, like claiming that the preponderance of evidence says that unicorns don’t exist.
The only debating point I want to make is for atheists to realize that they start with the high ground. They are arguing the default position. The burden of proof in any religious discussion is on the theist. If you want to give up that advantage and declare your own position that you must defend, that’s fine, but do it deliberately, not accidentally. In fact, if you inadvertently realize that you overstated your position (for example, saying “There is no God” rather than “I see no good evidence for God”) and your Christian antagonist is giving you the Koukl treatment by asking all the questions and demanding answers, you can always apologize for clumsily stating your position and restate it in a non-dogmatic fashion to return the burden of proof to the Christian.
I think I’ve found the secret behind the strategy. That’s in part 3.
any arguments against Christianity.
All we need to do is ask the Christians
to provide evidence to their claims.
Until they are able to do that,
their entire belief system can be dismissed as nonsense.
— commenter C_Alan_Nault
Image from Rob Oo, CC license