We started with a couple of arguments from popular Christian apologists with an evasive approach to the burden of proof in part 1.
Reevaluating the strategy
Returning to apologist Greg Koukl’s “Professor’s Ploy” in part 1, note that he wasn’t making a claim of parity. He wasn’t saying, “My God hypothesis is in the running just as much as a naturalistic explanation, and I demand a seat in this debate as an equal.” That would be bold enough. No, he was going further by taking the role of the Socratic questioner, assuming that he was right and guiding the student (the professor, in his example) through a pre-planned series of questions to a predetermined conclusion.
To the extent that Koukl’s goal is to help inexperienced Christians ease into the intimidating world of public speaking and debate with antagonistic strangers, that’s fine. He encourages them to ask questions to learn, to admit when a topic is new to them, and to ask permission to respond to the atheist after some research. However, his tactics go too far when he ignores that the atheist is defending the default hypothesis (naturalism) and that the Christian is making the extraordinary claim, which must be defended. Attack has its place, but that’s subordinate to making and defending the Christian claim. And, of course, his goal isn’t to follow the evidence, it’s to support a predetermined conclusion.
(In case it’s not obvious, I do want to follow the evidence. Atheism is my provisional conclusion, but evidence could change that. If atheism is incorrect, I want to find the evidence that shows this.)
We’ve seen the same contempt for honest debate with Koukl’s metaphor of arguments committing suicide by being self-defeating. Here’s an example: if I said, “I’m offended at Christians condemning homosexuals; in fact, I think it’s wrong to condemn anyone for anything,” he could reply, “Then you shouldn’t be condemning me.” Or if I said, “There are no absolutes,” he could reply, “You might want to reconsider your position because that certainly sounded like an absolute.” Many of these “suicides” are easily corrected, but Koukl has no interest in engaging with the valid points at the core of any opponent’s argument. He just wants a technicality with which to dismiss it. (More here.)
Clumsy reversal of the burden of proof: more examples
Here are two more quick examples that illustrate the wrong approach to the burden of proof. These have nothing to do with religion, so both Christians and atheists should be able to see the flawed thinking without distraction.
Beginning in the 1970s, psychic Uri Geller claimed to be able to perform a number of impressive feats, most famously bending spoons with his mind. While these were part of the standard repertoire of stage magicians, Geller claimed to be able to do them with paranormal powers given to him by aliens, not with stage magic.
Magician and psychic debunker James Randi publicly showed that he could duplicate all of Geller’s tricks. Geller admitted that but said that just because Randi could do his tricks with fakery (like any stage magician would) didn’t mean that Geller wasn’t doing it for real. Randi replied, “If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way.”
Let’s map this onto Christianity. It’s true that just because Christianity arose from a region in the world at the crossroads of cultures with religious dogma including supernatural births, dying-and-rising gods, and other miracles familiar to Christians, that doesn’t mean that Christianity’s stories about Jesus’s virgin birth and resurrection weren’t real. Just because Christianity looks like just another religion, and we toss all those other religions into the bin labeled Legend and Mythology, that doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t the real deal.
We can’t prove that Christianity is just one more manmade religion, and we can’t prove that Uri Geller uses trickery to bend spoons, but in both cases, that’s the way to bet. (More on Uri Geller here.)
Here’s an example from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the ruthlessly empirical detective Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was fascinated with spiritualism, and he discussed this interest with illusionist Harry Houdini. Each was an expert in deception in his own way, but curiously, they were on opposite sides of the spiritualism question. Deaths of people close to Conan Doyle pushed him to see spiritualism as a legitimate way to contact the dead, while Houdini spent much of his life debunking the spiritualist Uri Gellers of his day. Houdini encouraged Conan Doyle to reject spiritualism, pointing out that all his stagecraft was deception.
After Houdini’s death in 1926, Conan Doyle wrote a book about spiritualism. Without Houdini to refute him, the book included a chapter summarizing Houdini’s feats. In it, Conan Doyle argued that Houdini used supernatural powers but lied about it. He said,
Can any reasonable man read such an account as this and then dismiss the possibility which I suggest as fantastic? It seems to me that the fantasy lies in refusing its serious consideration. . . . As matters stand, no one can say positively and finally that his powers were abnormal, but the reader will, I hope, agree with me that there is a case to be answered.
(More on Conan Doyle and Houdini here.)
The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proof. If I claim there’s a teapot orbiting the sun or that pixies and unicorns exist or that we’re living in the Matrix or that our world came into existence last Thursday, I would have the burden of proof.
There’s another definition of “burden of proof”—the obligation someone has to defend a statement they made—and that’s fair, but keep these two definitions separate. Don’t let this definition allow the person making the Christian claim to demand any sort of parity. There is no parity between the extraordinary claim (the theist’s position) and the default hypothesis (the atheist position). The theist is starting at a deficit—don’t let them forget that.
he’s a very naughty boy!
— Brian’s mum
(Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones)
Image from Mariam Shahab, CC license