Who Has the Burden of Proof? Apparently Not the Christian.

Who Has the Burden of Proof? Apparently Not the Christian. January 18, 2020

Remember evil Professor Radisson, the philosophy professor in the 2014 Christian persecution-porn movie God’s Not Dead? On the first day of class, he insisted that his students write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. When plucky Christian student Josh refused to play along, Radisson demanded a public debate between them, with a large fraction of Josh’s grade dependent on the outcome. (My review of that movie is here.)

What should’ve happened, of course, was that Josh, with a Jedi hand gesture, says, “That challenge didn’t happen . . . or else I go to the dean.” I’d have reported the professor to the administration myself if I’d been in that class. That was a blatant violation of any conceivable faculty code of conduct.

The Christian burden of proof is such a . . . burden

Christian apologist Greg Koukl seems not to have figured out that that was just Hollywood when he introduced a similar situation Christians encounter when evangelizing Christianity.

I call it the Professor’s Ploy because professors like to use this. You go to class, and you have a professor that is bent on destroying your own convictions, and so they’re going to go after Christianity as often as they can in the class.

Sure, that sounds plausible. Professors have nothing better to do than be mean to Christians, right? The subject they’re actually teaching—French Literature, Intro to Quantum Mechanics, or Tudor England—is subservient to Academia’s primary goal of making baby Jesus cry.

Koukl’s “Professor’s Ploy” imagines the student protesting the Christianity-bashing, and he sketches out a brief hypothetical discussion between the plucky Christian student and the wicked atheist professor and then imagines that the professor is impressed by the kid’s determination. He offers the student a few minutes in front of the class to explain whatever aspect of Christian apologetics they were discussing.

Success!

Uh, no, apparently not. You’d think that this would be the goal. It might be enough time to plant the seeds in a few souls that would eventually grow into Christian conviction. In the same way that God gave Moses the words to speak to Pharaoh, you’d think that he would guide the evangelist. But no, in the topsy-turvy world of Christian persecution, the student has been ensnared by the Professor’s Ploy, which now places the burden of proof on the student. Apparently, speaking the Good News to a captive audience (yet more of what would never actually happen in a regular, non-Christian university) isn’t a good thing. One wonders when the Christian is supposed to take a stand and defend it. But more on that later.

Another shirking of the burden of proof

Jim Wallace of the Cold-Case Christianity ministry gives a murder scene as his example. One detective thinks the coworker did it and another thinks it was the girlfriend. Wallace imagines himself as one of those detectives and says:

We both have the same burden of proof to explain why it is our proposed cause can explain the evidence in this scene. Both of us share the same burden of proof.

I agree. Given the fact that someone was murdered, it’s plausible that it was someone known to the victim. There’s symmetry here—each detective is proposing a hypothesis, each of which must be defended. There is no default hypothesis that must be overturned.

But things go off the rails when he moves on to imagine two people arguing about the origin of the universe. One says it’s natural, and the other says it was caused by a divine being. He cheerfully admits that the divine being arguer has a burden of proof. But then he says,

Do you see that both of us have an equal burden?

Nope. One person is on the side of the default explanation, and the other is making the most incredible explanation possible. The burden is not equal. We know coworkers and girlfriends exist, not so gods and the supernatural.

The symmetry we had before—two people each arguing their plausible hypothesis—is gone. Now we have one person arguing for a natural explanation for a phenomenon in nature and another making the grandest, most incredible claim possible, that a supernatural being created everything. In this case, there is a default. We know countless examples of natural explanations, many of which overturned pre-scientific supernatural explanations (no, lightning doesn’t come from heaven, God doesn’t cause famine, etc.). That’s the default. We can keep an open mind about the supernatural, but that explanation is the upstart, and it has the burden of proof.

We’ll look at two different definitions of “burden of proof” in part 2.

If God made man in his own image,
why aren’t we all, like . . . invisible?
— Father Guido Sarducci

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Image from Gabriela Fab, CC license
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  • Now we have one person arguing for a natural explanation for a phenomenon in nature and another making the grandest, most incredible claim possible, that a supernatural being created everything.

    But it’s not just that a supernatural being created everything, but that this supernatural being created everything, ex nihilo, by an act of will power alone. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to will anything to come into being by will power alone, let alone without some previous stuff to make it from.

    • Cozmo the Magician

      More importantly they claim it is THEIR VERY OWN SPECIAL PERSONAL deity that did it. They will use some nebulous “you can’t get something from nothing” to deny evolution and/or cosmology, but they will then tell you ALL OTHER religions are wrong.

      Zeus did in the bathtub with a lightning bolt is JUST as valid as Yaweh did it in the garden with mud.

      • No, it was Zeus in the library with the lead pipe.

        • Or was it Ra, in the conservatory, with the knife?

        • Cozmo the Magician

          Glad somebody caught my not so subtle humor O_o

    • Jim Jones

      > but that this supernatural being created everything, ex nihilo, by an act of will power alone.

      And yet all living things (with a few exceptions) are created by sexual reproduction. And I wonder if ‘god’ wants to take responsibility for those few exceptions.

    • let alone without some previous stuff to make it from.

      They’ll demand an explanation of how the universe came from nothing (when that’s not the scientific consensus), seemingly unaware that their God is said to have done that.

      The good news, of course, is that they have no good evidence for God doing that, so they’re quite happy to accept an evidence-less declaration that nature could do it as well. /s

  • al kimeea

    Analogy poor
    The murderer is a ghost
    Like the deity

    Xians have the BuyBull and we have the body of knowledge we’ve gathered from actually paying attention to creation when discussing the origins of this universe as our burdens to carry. Xians have no advantage with that book vs cosmology.

    • Advantage with those Bronze Age legends?. LOL.

    • Susan

      Analogy poor
      The murderer is a ghost
      Like the deity

      Precisely.

      I’ve used that analogy before. When theists insist that if non-theists can’t explain everything, their supernatural explanation wins.

      It’s like telling homicide detectives that if they haven’t solved a murder, it must have been a ghost who did it.

      And expecting to be taken seriously.

      • MR

        You can’t prove it wrong
        The ghost/deity could be
        The murderer sought

        • Susan

          You can’t prove it wrong.

          Amazing, isn’t it? But that’s their go-to strategy.

        • MR

          It’s a thinly-veiled admission that they know they have nothing.

        • BertB

          I think they actually believe they do have something. Or at least some of them do. So my take is…some are charlatans, the rest are deluded.

        • MR

          Well, I’m referring to evidence. I don’t doubt that most believe, but they quickly realize they don’t have the evidence they think they do and quickly run to, “you can’t prove it’s not.” It’s a ridiculously childish argument.

        • BertB

          Agree.

        • eric

          Keep bringing this up. Every thread. It pre-empts a couple of our regular Christian posters and then (out of embarassment?) they don’t post the multi-paragraph version of it. Which is a relief to us all.

      • Doubting Thomas

        Yup. Until god is demonstrated to exist, we can’t even know if god is a possibility when asking what created the universe. So to use the creation of the universe as evidence for god is simply circular.

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        Ha! Perfect.

        • Susan

          Ha! Perfect.

          🙂

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      Great point. That single change brings the issues right to the forefront.

  • eric

    [Wallace]Do you see that both of us have an equal burden?

    [Bob]Nope. One person is on the side of the default explanation, and the other is making the most incredible explanation possible. The burden is not equal. We know coworkers and girlfriends exist, not so gods and the supernatural.

    I wouldn’t say default explanation if by default one means “the explanation we should prefer, should there be no relevant observations or evidence at all.” I’d say Wallace’s analogy fails because it assumes the search for an explanation for the origin of the universe is, like the murder investigation, a ‘clean sheet.’ That no investigative work has yet been done, that it’s all ahead of us in the future, and thus there is no evidential basis on which to prefer one hypothesis or the other.

    But this simply isn’t the case with the origin of the universe. Genesis 1 profoundly failed, to be replaced by our modern understanding of solar system formation. Flatearthism profoundly failed. Geocentrisim profoundly failed – to be replaced by celestial mechanics. YECism profoundly failed, to be replaced by naturalistic processes. The notion of all humans originating from a single pair has profoundly failed, to be replaced by population genetics and evolution.

    We are not in blankslatesville. The proper analogy would be the ‘naturalistic’ detective pulling out hundreds if not thousands of person-years of observations on the co-worker all pointing to them having done it. Meanwhile, the ‘religious’ detective vacillates between saying (a) this is all wrong, and it must be the girlfriend, because he’s got a 2,000 year old book that he interprets as implying the girlfriend did it, or (b) the girlfriend is such a perfect murderer that it is impossible to collect evidence showing she did it, so it is unfair of everyone to ask him to show evidence supporting his hypothesis, or (c) nobody can prove with absolute philosophical certainty that she didn’t do it, so nyah.

    In such a case, which set of detective’s evidence should the jury believe? And who should we convict? You’d have to be mostly crazy to convict the girlfriend based on any of the three girflriend arguments…but you’d have to be absolutely bonkers to give any credence or respect to the religious detective, after he has the gall to pull out three mutually contradictory arguments and try them all on you.

    • RichardSRussell

      There are 5 main hypotheses to answer the question “Where did everything come from?”:


      (1) Some entity made it. (Religious people always claim it was their entity.)


      (2) It’s always been there.


      (3) It sprang into existence spontaneously (like electron-positron pair production writ large).


      (4) It’s not really there; we’re all living in The Matrix.


      (5) The question is meaningless, like “What’s north of the North Pole?”

      There isn’t enuf evidence available to seriously support any of these hypotheses, so — far from concluding that we must take one of them on faith — the most reasonable position to hold as of 2020 is “nobody knows”.

      • Greg G.

        I have evidence for #4: Carrie Anne Moss

        • Castilliano

          So, Greg, you’re a Trinitarian?
          /s

        • Greg G.

          Exactly that!

        • al kimeea

          You’re the second I’ve encountered

        • Lord Backwater

          By which you mean that he is the second person of the one Trinitarian.

        • Greg G.

          Neo was a Christ figure. He died. Trinity resurrected him.

        • al kimeea

          the second follower of Moss 😉

      • al kimeea

        Yeah, we’re not really sure, but we’ve got some interesting ideas that may pan out. Or not. 1 & 4 seem somewhat synonymous as both rely on a creator of everything, an alien kid’s ant farm… and they make us special. When did the simulation start? Last Thursday?

        Strange how comments like these are arrogant versus the humble certainty of a deity of some sort

    • Some good additions, thanks.

    • Lord Backwater

      “Either I will win the lottery, or I will not win the lottery. Do you see that there is an equal probability to my winning or losing the lottery?”

      Also known as The Argument From “I Can’t Math”

  • Michael Neville

    A couple of thousand years ago it was obvious that gods existed. How else could one explain the Sun and Moon, the winds, plants coming up every spring, thunder and lightning, earthquakes and volcanoes, etc.? The gods did all that stuff. But over the years people found natural explanations for these phenomena. The need for gods kept shrinking. Now cosmologists can describe the universe back to Planck Time (5.39 x 10^-44 seconds) after the Big Bangg. That’s an awfully tiny gap to fit a god or gods in. Also the move of explanations has been in one direction only. Never once has a natural theory been discarded in favor of a supernatural one.

    • Greg G.

      I often say that God is an explanation looking for something to explain.

  • sandy

    Unfortunately, in my experience, Christian’s feel no need to prove anything. They are convinced Yahweh/Jesus is a true story and real. Us atheists live in a world of logic and reason, Christians don’t. If you ask for their “burden of proof” you will likely get the bible or I don’t care about evidence. The only Christians that might feel they need to defend their faith/belief and put up a “burden of proof” defence, are those that are having doubts. If you can mine out and identify doubters then maybe you can ask for proof. I’ve gone down this road many times and will not engage with any Christian who isn’t doubting or seeming so. I’m not totally giving up but childhood indoctrination is a 69bitch to beat.

  • BertB

    The evil professor badgering the poor Christian student…this is the myth that Christians spread constantly…that Christians are persecuted by this vast atheist conspiracy…while Christian enjoy a large majority. It would be laughable if it were not so hypocritical and manipulative.

    • Lord Backwater

      “and that professor was Albert Einstein!”

    • eric

      But a useful myth, at least for fundamentalist Christian parents trying to get their eager-to-explore-the-world kid to pick a Liberty University over an MIT.

  • Jason Aaron Scalmato, Ph. d.

    Okay, why did it take so long for Default State Loss to be Noticed, this time?

    • Michael Neville

      It took place gradually over the centuries, starting most noticeably during the Reconnaissance with the work of people like Francis Bacon, Galileo, Tyco Brahe, Kepler, people like that.

      • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

        Renaissance?

        • Michael Neville

          I see autocorrect struck again.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          This autocorrect was funny, though…

        • Susan

          I see autocorrect struck again.

          I hate autocorrect.

          I’d rather live with my errors (which are probably many)

          than with its errors (which are many, many, many).

  • Geoff Benson

    I read the article by Koukl, and am amazed, both by its naivety and by its arrogance, the impression it gives being that teachers have nothing better to do than to ‘pounce’ on Christian belief. The reality is that they are unlikely ever to mention it unless a pupil actually brings up the subject.

    The burden of proof issue is straightforward, and again Koukl is hugely confused. We understand the world through natural mechanisms. Where there are gaps in our knowledge we try and fill them via natural explanations. There will always be gaps; if there weren’t then we’d be able to stop looking. Koukl seems to think that throwing in a hypothesis (generous description) based on the supernatural is sufficiently reasonable as to confer a burden of proof on the natural explanation. He plays semantic games when he does this. To be valid his hypothesis must first demonstrate a valid base, namely the existence of supernatural explanations, then proceed from there. In short, the burden of proof is entirely his.

  • epicurus

    Most of my profs in university complained about how little time they had to cover all the material. The idea in God’s Not Dead that a prof would casually toss out what he or she was required to teach in order to bully some religious student who was just minding his own business seems crazy, or a one off, that got embellished and multiplied to the point where some like Koukl sees an antagonistic prof under every stone.

    • Aside from the Internet anecdotes, or this movie, I’m not aware this ever really happened. You can be sure if something like it did, Christians would scream to high heaven (in that case, rightly so). While some professors no doubt have disparaged Christianity or religion, this goes far beyond any snide or contemptuous remark that might offend a believer. Like the post said too, they have a class to teach (even assuming they wouldn’t get in trouble with such a blatant biased display). Plus, any professor is likely going to beat a student in debate about their subject, the film’s “David and Goliath” idea aside.

      • Michael Neville

        The only time I heard a religious topic argued in a college class was in an Intro to Oceanography course. After discussing waves, currents, tides, ocean floor, coasts, and water, the professor began a section on marine biology. As soon as he mentioned the word “evolution” one student got up and denounced evolution as being against the word of God. The professor said that he didn’t care what the student’s particular religious beliefs were, but for the purposes of the class the student would accept evolution or should withdraw from the class. Since we were over halfway through the semester the student stayed in the class.

        • Illithid

          My Chordate Anatomy prof said on the first day that this was a class in evolutionary biology, and that to pass the class we would have to understand evolution, whether we believed it or not. He said he’d sometimes been asked by students if he really believed in evolution, to which he stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, emphatically, “yes”.

          And that was the end of that. It took me two tries to pass. But I knew vertebrate skulls by the time I finished.

        • My high school biology teacher said much the same thing, in a more conciliatory way (he even added that any creationists could use what he taught to understand more and bolster their arguments). No one actually brought it up, but to judge by that he’d dealt with this before. In one university public speaking class a student had an incomprehensible presentation for creationism. The teacher simply said thanks for choosing a topic that was controversial or something, though like me his unstated reaction seemed to be “WTF was that?”

    • Carol Lynn

      I think it’s projection. Since Christian colleges have students and professors sign ‘articles of faith’, they believe that secular colleges *must* have the same kind of ‘statement of non-faith’ in place. Or at least that the run-of-the-mill Christians they are appealing to will believe that secular colleges insist on a ‘statement of non-faith’ by at least some of the professors.

    • David in Tucson

      Way, way back I took a required History of Western Music course as part of my studies. It was taught by a professor (yes–an undergraduate course taught by a full professor!) who was usually pressed for time by the end of the second semester, and gave a once-over-lightly to 20th century music. His expertise was in music through the end of the 18th century, and particularly in music of the French Baroque. He was also an atheist. He made no particular deal about it at all, though. His atheism didn’t stop him from covering very thoroughly how closely intertwined European art music was with the liturgy of the Catholic Church and then the Lutheran Church in Germany and the Anglican Church in England. He had a stellar reputation as a teacher; his courses were hard, and one worked very hard to keep up with him, but he clearly loved what he was doing, and students respected him. This was also at a state university.

  • Ficino

    @eircc:disqus Good specifications below on the “default explanation.”

    Another thing to consider is differences between burdens. I’ve found Douglas Walton’s stuff helpful. Walton points out that a proposition can be a positive or a negative claim. I can say it’s the case that P and I can say that it’s the case that ~P. Both are assertive claims. I have the obligation in a reasoned dialogue to shoulder the burden of proof for P or for ~P.

    But to cast doubt on the truth of an assertive claim is not to assert the contradictory of that claim. In a reasoned dialogue, it’s not legitimate just to retort, Well, I don’t believe you, and give no reason for rejecting the interlocutor’s claim. But the doubter’s burden is less stringent. S/he only has to give reason why the claim is not convincing.

    I think that someone who claims, “There is no God”, is obligated to take up a burden of proof to the extent that s/he is making that assertion literally… and not just as shorthand for some epistemically less confident stance. The person who expresses doubt, on the other hand, is, unlike the opponent, not obligated to assume a burden of proof. Only a burden of doubt.

    • Quite so. Even a person who offers evidence to show that God doesn’t exist isn’t under a burden of proof in showing what does instead. To build on the crime scene analogy, if a defense attorney provides evidence their client didn’t commit the murder (say they had an alibi) they’re not also then obliged to show who did do it (though it would help).

    • eric

      I think that someone who claims, “There is no God”, is obligated to take
      up a burden of proof to the extent that s/he is making that assertion literally… and not just as shorthand for some epistemically less confident stance.

      I disagree. I think every knowledge claim should be assumed to be “regular” and not a claim of absolute philosophical certainty, unless the speaker actually says they are making a philosophically certain claim. “There is no God” should be treated exactly like “there are no unicorns.” Both should be treated as “I am making a provisional claim based on my currently available data” unless the speaker goes to the extra effort to claim philosophical certainty.

      To treat atheism claims as if they are all “philosophical certain” claims is to carve out an exception for religion not given to any other ideology. I.e., for everyone else, a claim is ‘regular’ unless you state otherwise. But for anti-theological claims, a claim is ‘absolute’ unless you state otherwise. That’s not fair, and there’s no justification for the double standard.

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        {Gives a rousing one man standing ovation}

        The bizarre epistemic caution granted to religious claims is perhaps my biggest pet peeve with these discussions.

        • NSAlito

          Tangent: Bizarre Epistemic Caution have decided to go on a revival tour.

      • Ficino

        I think every knowledge claim should be assumed to be “regular” and not a claim of absolute philosophical certainty, unless the speaker actually says they are making a philosophically certain claim. “There is no God” should be treated exactly like “there are no unicorns.” Both should be treated as “I am making a provisional claim based on my currently available data” unless the speaker goes to the extra effort to claim philosophical certainty.

        Yes, I agree with the above. That’s in line with the distinction I was trying to make. The point I derived from Walton is that “it is the case that P” and “it is the case that not-P” are both assertive claims when so worded. Your example, “I am making a provisional claim based on my currently available data”, is a weaker assertion, but it’s still an assertion of someone who is ready to assume a burden, if not of “proof”, then of justification. The speaker is ready to justify the asserted claim by appealing to the currently available data and reasoning from them.

  • They’ll never agree to that. I also don’t think we should claim this. Just cite the science of cosmology showing that there is a natural explanation. That’s not a hard burden to meet. I think the default hypothesis would be “unknown” on these things.

  • JustAnotherAtheist2

    One person is on the side of the default explanation

    I’m not a huge fan of this wording. Even among “natural” hypotheses, there is no default explanation. And the origin of the universe is so removed from experience and intuition that referring to its naturallity carries little weight.

    IMO, it’s better to acknowledge that both sides have miles to go, but at least one has robust mathematical foundation and is actively trying to test and falsify their ideas. By contrast, the other cannot even define their “hypothesis”, let alone offer a mechanism or make predictions.

    • Greg G.

      One makes observations with Space Age technology like space-based telescopes. One makes observations with Bronze Age technology.

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        And, despite their silly attempts to position themselves are serious thinkers, bronze age philosophy.

  • Lord Backwater

    What if the universe has no end?

    In fact, it’s possible that time has existed forever.

    Wot?

    • Michael Neville

      I read that article and J.B.S. Haldane’s comment came to mind: “The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine.”

      • Lord Backwater

        Although Roger Penrose is involved, which makes me more likely to dismiss it as total BS, since he rode on the “quantum consciousness” train.

        • Michael Neville

          You are talking about Sir Roger Penrose OM FRS, who shared the Royal Society Royal Medal with Stephen Hawking in 1985. And has come up with some totally off the wall ideas, especially about how physics affect consciousness.

    • wannabe

      Thanks for the link. I’m glad some physicists are questioning the theory of cosmic inflation, which posits a field which came into existence for no known reason, did its work, then went out of existence for no known reason. Talk about ad-hoc!

  • NSAlito

    In the past, detectives showed their prime suspects the rack, hot tongs, and a stake over a bonfire pile, and they readily confessed to the murder.