Frank Zindler’s blog dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed (part 10).
Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!
Readers will recall that I have been temporarily diverted from my plan to examine all the so-called evidence for an historical Jesus by the appearance of an “anxiousbench” blog written by one Philip Jenkins. His blog was titled “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus.” In Part A of this series I deconstructed the first two paragraphs of that apologetic effort and exposed its ad hominem fallacies and its attempt to frame the bounds of argument in such a way as to rule out important lines of criticism and beg many important questions. In this installment, I wish to examine the way in which Jenkins handles the problem of burden of proof. Here’s what he has to say about that:
“Philosophically, say the mythicists, you can’t prove a negative, and it’s up to believers to present an affirmative case for anything, including the historical existence of Jesus. Fair enough.”
Jenkins employs here a strategy unusual to most apologists. Usually, when one challenges them to present conclusive or even merely compelling evidence that Jesus of Nazareth once existed, they will argue that the onus probandi—the burden of proof—is on the denier. “You have to prove that Jesus didn’t exist,” they usually will reply, citing legal procedural principles such as “innocent until proven guilty.” When told that in science the burden of proof always falls upon the person claiming the existence of a thing, process, or principle, they will falsely claim that questions of historicity are not scientific problems. They’ve never heard of astronomy or paleontology or evolutionary biology, it would seem—or else they don’t “believe” in such things!
With some frequency, defenders of the indefensible will taunt the Mythicist with the claim “You can’t prove a negative,” implying that the affirmative cannot be successfully challenged. (Interestingly, Jenkins lays this procedural fallacy in the laps of Mythicists.) With feigned magnanimity, Jenkins take up the challenge and will claim that he has produced sufficient evidence to prove the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Even though Jenkins’ blog reverses the usual positions taken in the argument over who bears the burden of proof, it does entangle the reader in the complex relationship between “proving a negative” and burden of proof. It just so happens that I dealt with that problem in a chapter of Volume IV of Through Atheist Eyes, in a chapter called “Are There Any Gods?” I think it will be useful to quote here a little dialogue in that essay dealing with “The Argument Against Proving a Negative.”
VIII The Argument Against Proving a Negative
In essence, this argument asserts that ‘God’ must exist simply because you cannot prove he doesn’t exist. This is so, it is alleged, because it is not possible to ‘prove a negative.’ But is that true? Consider the following dialogue:
BELIEVER: How do you know there is no god? What proof do you have?
ATHEIST: How do you know there is no Easter bunny? How do you know there is no Santa Claus? Have you disproved the existence of Thor and Osiris?
BELIEVER: Be serious! Those are just myths made up by men. I’m talking about God!
ATHEIST: Well, the burden of proof is on you to prove that a deity exists. I don’t have to prove a negative. The burden of proof is always on the person who alleges the existence of something.
BELIEVER: I don’t buy that. You have to prove that my God does not exist.
ATHEIST: Your god? Singular? How do you know there aren’t lots of gods? Have you disproved the existence of goddesses?
BELIEVER: Don’t be silly! I’m talking about the existence of God—the creator of the universe.
ATHEIST: Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere! You’re talking about me!
BELIEVER: Since when are you God?
ATHEIST: Since just a bit more than an infinite length of time. Of course, I created you just three minutes ago.
BELIEVER: That’s crazy! I’m fifty-seven years old!
ATHEIST: Of course you think you are: I created those memories in you, and I altered everyone else’s memories also—to make it appear that you were around before three minutes ago.
BELIEVER: I suppose you created my birth certificate too! What evidence do you have to support such an absurd idea!
ATHEIST: Ah! So you’re beginning to understand that the burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim of a god’s existence. Don’t you think you should try to disprove the claim that I am a god?
BELIEVER: Well, maybe. If you’re God, why don’t you perform a miracle?
ATHEIST: Good question. Unfortunately, I don’t do miracles anymore. I could if I wanted to, but I’ve decided that from now on, people have to believe in me through faith. Being a god, I’ve just now read your mind and I see you’re thinking that you might be able to torture me into confessing that I’m not a god. Well, scrap that idea! I might very well decide to pretend to be in pain and confess all sorts of silly things. But believe me, I would punish you for eternity after you die!
BELIEVER: Hey, that’s not a legitimate argumentation. There’s nothing I could ever do to disprove your claim of divinity. You could always wriggle out of it by claiming you’ll show me after I’m dead!
ATHEIST: Very true! You’re learning how impossible it is to prove a universal negative. But you’re learning one even more important lesson.
BELIEVER: What’s that?
ATHEIST: You’re learning that it is stupid to argue about propositions that can’t be tested even in the imagination. For every test you could imagine to try, I could come up with a way to evade your net—in just the same way as the preachers tell me your god doesn’t want to get involved in my tests. My claim to divinity can’t be tested. Your claims of the divinity of Jehovah or Jesus can’t be tested either. If I call upon your god to strike me with lightning if I’m wrong, I guarantee nothing will happen. Your god won’t get involved any more than I will. Claims that can’t be tested even in the imagination are meaningless. They can’t even be false. We don’t need to waste our time trying to disprove them. You aren’t going to waste your time trying to disprove my claim to divinity, and no sane person will waste time trying to disprove the existence of your untestable god. Of course, when you accidentally make a claim about your divinity nominee that is testable, sane people might take the time to show you how the test results turn out to be negative. But in general, no one is going to waste time trying to prove that Jehovah and I are not gods.
To return to Jenkins: Despite the objective fact that there is no incontrovertible evidence to prove that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived—nothing, for example, on the order of the evidence for his alleged contemporary Tiberius Caesar—Jenkins confidently sets out to convince his readers that there is indirect evidence sufficient to prove his historical existence. He starts off with the “affirmative evidence… of a sizable body of writings dating from a half century of the events described.”
Stay tuned to see what I shall have to say about his claim in the next installment.
Dr. Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist.
(Photo credit: TRF Mr Hyde; https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottchene/7055709681/)
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