The Handbook: How to Know Who Owns the Burden of Proof

The Handbook: How to Know Who Owns the Burden of Proof January 2, 2015

A rather impish part of me wants to write, “The person making the claim is the one who owns the burden of proof,” and have done with the post, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Today we’ll talk about how to tell who owns the burden, and how to prevent yourself from taking on more of that burden than you should. (This is going to be the non-philosophy-professor version of how this works, by the way.)

A claim is a statement of fact. A claim can range from assertions “horses have hooves” to “GMO foods are safe/unsafe for humans to eat” to “chocolate tastes better than vanilla does.” Moreover, it’s a positive statement of fact about something.

As you can guess, religions make quite a few claims. Here are just a few of the ones that are very popular:

Former abbey Church in Zwiefalten (Germany) ; ...
Former abbey Church in Zwiefalten (Germany) ; an angel with the map of the abbey, by Johann Joseph Christian(1706-1777). (Photo credit: Wikipedia). CITATION NEEDED. Also: OMG that cherub on the right is CUTE!

* A supernatural realm exists.

* Some part of human beings lives on after we die.

* That undying part of us goes to a supernatural realm after we die.

* One part of this supernatural realm is an afterlife that is very nice, while another is very nasty.

* If people don’t do the right things before they die, then after they die they will go to the nasty afterlife.

* If people do the right things before they die, then after they die they will go to the nice afterlife.

* In either case, that undying part of us retains the ability to perceive sensations and feel emotions, so the nice afterlife feels good to be in, while the nasty afterlife hurts (either physically or emotionally) to be in.

* Christians know what the right things are that people must do before they die so that they will go to the nice afterlife.

* The Christian god has communicated his threats and promises to people in a form that can be meaningfully accessed (particularly in the form of the Bible).

* The Christian god has some very firm opinions about how people should live their lives, and has the ability and the desire to communicate with people before they die.

* The Christian god can interfere with, help, hinder, and punish people on this earth, and indeed does so regularly.

* A number of other supernatural beings exist who can do much the same things (angels, demons), but these beings are far less powerful than the Christian god.

We could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. And no Christian claim should ever be considered universal; for every claim one could name, one can find Christians who don’t buy into it. One such claim concerns the so-called Rapture, which is the belief that at some point Very Soon Now™, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ will vanish right off the face of the planet and get whisked away to Heaven, where they will party (and in many cases gloat) about the horrors that will be happening on Earth in their absence.

Sometimes one runs across Christians who believe things very strongly but who don’t really care about making others buy into their claims. They might personally believe in a Creator, but they don’t want to push Creationism on schoolchildren. They might personally believe in the necessity of repentance for sins, but they don’t force their beliefs on people who don’t want to talk about religion with them. These Christians I leave alone and indeed thank for their consideration.

We’re not talking about those sorts of Christians today. We’re talking today about Christians who make claims and want the rest of us to buy into those claims along with them.

Once we’ve heard a claim from a Christian, we can set about figuring out how valid that claim is. And here is where new ex-Christians can stumble a little.

When we’re fresh out of the religion, we may still be locked in one of its favorite methods of avoiding questions: shifting the burden of proof.

That’s why I want to talk about one of the most important things a new ex-Christian may need to hear:

Whoever is making the claim is the one who gets to provide support for that claim.

The default state is non-belief in a claim. Sometimes this is called “the null hypothesis” in science. You’ll also hear it “innocent until proven guilty” in courts of law, where it forms the backbone of the American criminal-justice system. Our belief must be fed and swayed by support for the claim. Sometimes someone may not understand exactly what constitutes “support”–for example, many Christians genuinely think that the Bible is all the support they need for their claims (“the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it!” was one of the most popular bumper stickers at my old Pentecostal church; my pastor, though, thought that the middle phrase should have been removed). Other times, a person might not know how to assess citations of evidence to review supporting documentation for a claim (which is how David Barton, Fox News, and Creationists weasel their ideas into Christian thought). But one way or the other, once support that a particular person thinks is credible for the claim gets provided, then belief is stirred in that person.

The idea of the maker of a claim bearing the burden of proving that claim might seem straightforward, but Christians in particular are coming up with some novel ways to shift that burden. It’s not hard to imagine why, is it? Someone who actually has credible support for a claim doesn’t typically have to go through such somersaults. As in the case of all errors like this one, getting caught doing it doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s assertion is untrue, but it doesn’t help a lot.

Here are some of the ways I’ve seen of how Christians try to shirk their burden of proof:

1. Demanding that non-believers “prove” that the Christian’s claim is false by disproving it.

In this tactic, the Christian declares, “Prove that my claim is false!” and sits back, confident that nobody will take up that cause. When nobody steps forth to do this impossible (and frankly unreasonable) task, the Christian declares victory–and then gets pissy when the reaction is something less than tears of repentance and signed commitment cards waving in the air.

I’ve also seen this done as a dare by a college-aged Christian who tangled with me on YouTube a while ago. She quite literally expected me to feel stung by refusing her dare to pray and see if I felt anything. She got indignant when I laughed at her and told her that I got over feeling bullied into carrying out dares many years before she was even born, and her mood did not improve when I informed her that it’s not my job to pray to see if I feel anything. It’s her job to provide credible support for her claims. I know something she clearly didn’t–that subjective feelings aren’t a good reason to believe anything. Besides, I’d spent half my life in various denominations of her religion and hadn’t felt or seen or encountered anything I could say for sure was supernatural in nature; I didn’t see why I should waste more time on the project without some reason to do so.

I strongly suspect she got the idea for her tactic from some apologetics website or a Sunday youth group rah-rah session, since pretty much every other thing she said was parroted straight out of the sneakier and more Bible-illiterate end of apologetics. I’ve since seen the idea of “daring” non-believers to do stuff in various places, like this Creationism site that “triple dog dares” non-Christians to design a better cosmology than their reconstruction of the Genesis myth. It’s hilarious that these people haven’t even halfway demonstrated the validity of their claims, but have the cojones to “dare” someone else to play pretendy games with them. What are we, twelve years old? Are we so ego-insecure that we’ll quake in our pretty purple booties at the mere idea that some Christian somewhere thinks we’re not brave enough to (gasp!) pray?

This is the tactic of someone who has been painted into a corner and decided that the best defense is a good offense.

Be careful not to take on something that is not your job. To paraphrase a dear friend of mine, proving a Christian’s claims true or false is not your job, not your circus, and not your monkeys. I don’t imagine most non-believers want to “convert” anybody into deconverting, so we’re not the ones with anything to prove. We don’t actually have to do a damned thing here except review the evidence Christians have and decide if it’s compelling or not.

2. Restating their claim as a negative, then insisting that non-believers “prove” the reworded negative claim they are saying non-believers are making.

In this tactic, the Christian may say that non-believers are claiming that some aspect of Christianity is false, and so these non-believers are the ones who must prove their claim is false in such a way that the Christian is persuaded.

You may hear this tactic worded something like, “Atheists believe there is no god, so the burden of proof is on them to prove that there is no god.”

It’s a sort of strawman, too, because most of the time very few people would actually positively assert whatever the Christian thinks non-believers are asserting (such as how most atheists don’t actually positively assert the nonexistence of any gods).

This tactic is distressingly popular, with one pastor even offering a lot of money to whoever can prove to his satisfaction that his god doesn’t exist, but it is also quite dishonest on a number of levels. First and foremost, the person using it is twisting words around to distract from his or her own claim. Second, the person doing it is demonstrating that he or she really has no idea what a claim is or what reasonable support for a claim looks like. And third, obviously, the person doing it thinks that he or she has successfully avoided having to come up with support for the real claim being made–in this pastor’s case, that his god exists. I bet the person who first thought of this strategy thought he or she was quite the clever little bunny! But it’s not hard to see a reason why the Christian doing it would want so desperately to avoid putting him- or herself into a position where support for a claim simply must be made.

The Christian talking like this also assumes that the non-believer actually wants to convince the Christian of anything. Because we normally don’t, and are merely assessing the Christian’s claims, we do not need to feel compelled to take on this task. The Christian is the one trying to convince us. We’re not trying to convince the Christian.

The Christian talking like this is dishonest in another way still, because by using it an implication gets made that the Christian will change his or her mind when provided with enough evidence contradicting the claim and subsequently stop repeating and believing the claim (for example, the wealth of evidence contradicting the scientific accuracy of the Genesis creation myth). That pastor’s challenge strongly implies that if someone can adequately disprove his god’s existence to him, that he’ll stop believing and go away. Though I’ve often heard Christians imply that this is the case, when pushed on this point they will generally admit that they would never actually do so. That’s not quite true–quite a few ex-Christians have mentioned to me being seriously challenged by an online wrangle-session–but if their stated stance is that no matter what evidence is presented to them that they will not change their minds, then going into the discussion they are arguing in bad faith.

It’s hardly fair to expect non-believers to be ready to change our minds if compelling evidence does somehow get provided, but for the Christian to refuse to consider changing his or her own mind if that happens. This mindset also produces a dynamic in many Christians’ minds of unequal power, where they act like they feel superior to non-Christians, who they paint as childishly, stubbornly, petulantly believing the “wrong” things and therefore must be educated out of their foolishness while the Christians themselves believe the correct things and are never in any danger of being proven wrong, but that is a topic for another day.

We can respond to this attempt to manipulate us very easily by saying that we are not actually making any positive assertions that require evidence, but rather assessing the Christian’s evidence–and, uh, any time the Christian wants to provide any, that would be just super.

3. Insisting that because one cannot be totally sure of anything in science, that supporting a claim about Christianity is unnecessary because just the possibility is enough to provide evidence for the claim.

I don’t even get why a Christian would think this is anywhere near persuasive, but it’s popular among sneakier Christian apologists, where it goes by names like “the ontological argument” (which boils down to “we can imagine a being like the Christian god, so therefore this being simply must exist”). The idea is that if nobody knows every single thing about the universe and metaphysics, then we can’t be totally sure that a god isn’t around somewhere, in some capacity. Because we cannot totally rule out a god’s existence, we must accept it. Unfortunately, that is bullshit. We also cannot rule out pink ducks ruling our planet from their Martian stronghold, but that’s no reason to accept our new avian overlords.

And yes, it’s true that we don’t know everything about our universe. But ignorance is not support for a specific claim. “Well, maybe it might be true” is about the least compelling argument I’ve ever heard. If I wrote an article for Scientific American claiming that it might be true that a god-driven sky-chariot is responsible for the movement of the Sun across the Earth’s sky so therefore we should all believe that this is the case, I’d be laughed offstage.

It’s also not actually credible, objective support for a claim; it’s a case of a Christian confusing an argument for evidence. We’ll be talking about this error soon, but for now, we’ll just say that asking people to believe on the basis of (often willful) ignorance is not an adequate response to the burden of proof.

4. Declaring that they don’t need evidence because they have faith that their claim is true, thereby insinuating that people who do need evidence before believing are inferior somehow to believers who don’t need no steenkin’ badgers.

This one seems pretty pointless, but it’s common–especially when a believer is confronted with evidence contradicting a religious claim.

Every single religious person in the world thinks that his or her religion is the correct one out of all the thousands of religions our world has ever seen–and moreover that whatever permutation of that religion the adherent happens to believe, that is the correct permutation out of possibly tens of thousands of different ways of interpreting the religion. Every single one of these people has faith that this is the true permutation of the true religion, and that their god is the one true god out of all the thousands of gods past and present.

And all we need to do here is respond that “I have faith that this is true” is not compelling support for a religious claim, not to us. As Christopher Hitchens famously said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” This simple truth may frustrate the believer very much, but the person making a claim is not in charge of deciding what someone else will find compelling or not.

So.

Remember the preposterous claim I wrote about last time, about how I’m really a Space Princess from the Wild Planet of Intoxicated Nurses?* (The phrase is from Bloom County, if you’re wondering, and if someone can imagine such a planet exists, obviously that planet must really exist.)

If I were seriously making that claim, then I’d be the one who would have to support it. I could not say, for example, “Prove there is no such planet!” and then gloat because nobody could do that. I could not say, “Well, you’re making a positive claim that the planet doesn’t exist and I’m not a princess, so you’re the one who has to prove that to me.” I couldn’t offer up simple demands that people just believe that I’m really a Space Princess from the Wild Planet of Intoxicated Nurses or sniff that they’re just inferior weak human beings who can’t tell a Space Princess from Adam’s housecat. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to scoot by on claiming that an absence of evidence for this planet and my royal title doesn’t mean that evidence is absent.

If I’m the one saying I’m a Space Princess, then I’m the one who has to give my audience a reason to believe the claim.

Don’t take on more than you should when it comes to burden of proof, friends. I know it’s tempting, especially since I’m betting a lot of us did it ourselves as Christians, but it’s a losing game. Concentrate on the claim itself, and refuse to budge when someone tries to shift the burden onto you. Ain’t your job. Ain’t your circus. Ain’t your monkeys.

* Disclaimer: I don’t really believe that and I’m not really claiming that. Normally I wouldn’t say something that self-evident, but that is the world we live in now.


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