Avoiding the Burden of Proof in ‘Atheist Overreach’

Avoiding the Burden of Proof in ‘Atheist Overreach’ August 14, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been reviewing Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. In it, he seeks to persuade his audience of two things: first, atheists need to quit talking about religion, and second, that everyone actually needs religion to continue to be a dominant force in the world. One section of the book deals extensively with what he views as the limits of science. Today, we dive into that idea with Christian Smith and ask ourselves what science can and can’t PROVE YES PROVE about religion — and what his own burden of proof looks like as a result.

burden of proof is alive and well here
(Monica Diaz.)

(Previous Atheist Overreach posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People; The Wrong Questions to Ask About Atheism. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. All emphases exist in the original sources unless noted. All “x” notations come from original sources (ie, not scare quotes) unless noted. Incidentally, the author here does throw in references to other religions from time to time. Officially, his book concerns religion generally, not about just Christianity as hardline American Catholics imagine it. But it’s hard for me to see those references as more than a smokescreen thrown up so people don’t classify this work as apologetics for Christianity — which it 100% is.)

Questions and Answers.

Just to review, in Atheist Overreach Christian Smith asks three questions in his introduction. Here are the questions (verbatim from p. 2):

  1. “What kind of moral standards are genuinely secular people justified in upholding?”
  2. “How much can we rely on the findings of science to know whether or not God exists?”
  3. “Are human beings somehow ‘naturally’ religious?”

Then, he answers those questions in the body of the book itself.  His questions lead up to these conclusions:

  1. None. “The condition for these [human rights and compassion] having evolved into existence in the first place was the historical emergence of transcendent monotheism, first in Judaism and later continued by Christianity. [. . .] And so I fear that in the naturalistic universe that atheists promote, universal benevolence and human rights will in time as cultural objects go the way of the dinosaur” (p. 86).
  2. None. “So whether or not certain religious claims are actually true or false, it is inherently beyond the scope of the proper competence of science to address and judge most of them” (p. 100).
  3. Yeppers. “Secularization as a process will likely be limited, contingent, and susceptible to reversal. The New Atheist dream of a fundamentally secular world will prove illusory” (p. 122).

Today, we zero in on that second question and answer. To me, it’s the most important.

(In our next installment I’ll explain more about why I see it that way.)

The Second Question.

So okay, how much can science tell us about religion’s claims? How far may scientists feel allowed, by their profession and its practice, to discuss religion? Christian Smith writes (p. 88):

Who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid? The specific question here is: What kinds of issues and claims is science legitimately authorized to address and make? And what kinds is religion legitimately authorized to address and make?

I mean, these are not terrible questions. The way he uses them — to exempt religion from the inquiry of scientists — is terrible, yes. But if we assert the right of science-embracing people to comment on religion, then yes, we should be able to support that assertion.

And hey, wouldja lookit that! 

We can.

(If you’re already head-desking, get a pillow. Things do not get better from here.)

How Science Works.

The Scientific Method represents the real backbone of everything humans have ever developed in the scientific fields. It’s one of the most powerful ideas we have ever come up with in our entire history as a species. With this tool, we have a solid a way to test the ideas we have, then discard the ones that turn out not to be based in reality.

(This reminds me: We have a post coming soon from Mr. Captain about “Batman vs. the Germ Theory of Disease.”)

The Scientific Method can’t test ideas that are not based in reality. Imagine if someone wants to see if a particular nail polish improves the strength of Arnie the Magical Invisible Pink Unicorn’s hooves. They can’t use the Scientific Method to do that. It’s useless here because nobody’s ever actually demonstrated that Arnie the Unicorn actually exists. First, someone must produce Arnie the Unicorn. Then we can assess his hooves’ hardness. Then we can test the nail polish. And finally, we can see what relationship emerges from those tests.

In this manner, the Scientific Method can also supply a number of measurements and observations that fill or empty the Faith Pool. For example, if someone wonders if prayer does anything at all in the real world, they can design a study around that question. The results provide a reason to think well of prayer — or a reason to doubt that prayer does anything. In fact, it’s been done.

Burden of Proof.

In terms of Atheist Overreach, nobody in science can study the Christian god directly. He leaves no tangible signs whatsoever of his existence in the real world. In fact, he might as well not exist at all.

Instead, we can study a number of facets of Christianity itself where they intersect with reality, and we do. But we can’t study the Christian god, because he exists like Arnie the Unicorn does: only in the minds of the people who believe he exists despite all indications to the contrary.

If that assertion offends Christian Smith, then he may consider himself freely invited to produce his god — or any tangible sign of his existence.

I hope he tries. If he succeeds, he will be the literal first Christian who has ever accomplished that feat. And he’ll become the darling of the science world within the hour. I for one would immediately quit saying his god doesn’t exist. At that point, the skept-o-sphere would be far more concerned with defeating the worst monster to ever exist than with snarking Christians for believing in boogeymen and imaginary friends.

But instead, Christian Smith just whines about how mean it is that people keep saying stuff like that.

I reckon it’s way easier to silence critics than to pony up evidence for his own claims because burden of proof belongs with him in the first place.

The Turf of Scientists.

Christian Smith loves to talk about turf in this book. He sees religion as the turf of theologians, while science remains the turf of scientists. And never the twain shall meet. Whatever a theologian asserts may not be criticized or studied by scientists.

It’s not anybody else’s fault, though, that Christians constantly encroach upon the turf of scientists.

Indeed, if a Christian makes a claim regarding reality, then that is a claim that can be tested — and thus, commented on, criticized, and rejected.

Christians do not get to make claims about reality and get a free pass because OMG IT’S ABOUT RELIGION Y’ALL. If they go there, then they’re not talking about religion at that point. They’re now talking about reality itself. So yes, we can assess that claim. Anywhere their claims intersect with reality, we get to assess them.

As long as Christians play in their own sandbox and keep their claims out of reality, then there’s really nothing to assess. As mentioned above, the Scientific Method can’t possibly remark upon non-reality-based claims.

If Christians play in their sandbox, then I’m all for leaving them alone.

They just don’t, is all.

Well, fine. If they wanna come play in Reality-Land’s sandbox, they gotta play by our rules. And in this sandbox, we demand that the people making claims shoulder the burden of proof for those claims.

How Burden of Proof Works In Reality-Land.

If Christians want to claim that a particular style of prayer makes their god particularly happy, then not a scientist in the world is equipped to test this claim. We have no idea where to begin. They’ve never produced this god, so we have no idea how to figure out what makes him happy or sad.

But if Christians want to claim that prayers cure cancer or make tornadoes change course, then we can test that claim nine ways from Sunday. We might not have any idea if their god is doing it, but there’s enough real-world elements involved here to test the relationships claimed.

Not only are Christians’ reality-based claims free and open game for comment and assessment, but they should be — for anybody at all who desires to do so

Though really, the people who should be testing Christians’ claims are the Christians making the claims. They’re the ones insisting that their god does real stuff in the real world. Fine, then that activity will inevitably leave footprints. Christians should be showing us those footprints. And if their claims were true, meaning based in reality, then they would have plenty of footprints to show us. They should already have that research in hand to present to anyone curious.

They don’t shoulder their burden of proof, though, and there’s a reason why they don’t. The reason shines as bright as sunlight at midday: there’s none for them to find.

The Purpose of Avoiding Burden of Proof.

What’s amazing — but hardly surprising — is that Christians want this thing both ways. They want to make reality-based claims at will, but they also want those claims to be off-limits from testing and criticism. They want a real-world god meddling constantly with the real world.

However, they also want that activity to leave no footprints at all and for this to be perfectly okay. How dare we heathens keep bringing up their god’s total lack of footprints?!?

It doesn’t work that way. Not anymore, anyway. Christians got spoiled from all that unearned dominance they reveled in for centuries, so they never really understood exactly what their limits were regarding their own turf (to borrow Smith’s own wording). They got lazy about where their turf ended and scientists’ began.

Now they make claims without evidence of any kind, and get mad when others point out that they lack evidence.

And now here we are, with Christian Smith trying to assert ownership of turf that simply doesn’t belong to him. 

Atheists: PROVE My Claim Is False!

I’m afraid that Smith displays further intellectual cowardice in his book. In criticizing Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, Smith writes (p. 89):

How, I wondered, does or could Harari possibly know these things [about gods’ nonexistence]? From artifacts dug up in archeological excavations? From fossils archived in natural history museums? I think not. Said plainly, Harari is here engaging in a deceptive sleight of hand, an unacknowledged smuggling of atheological metaphysics in through the back door of science, ostensibly with the authority of science.

If Christian Smith thinks gods exist, it’s on him to demonstrate that point using real-world evidence. That’s how burden of proof works. Remember, the scientific method tests positive assertions. It can’t prove something doesn’t exist, though it can find no relationship between two facts or no support for a claim’s validity. There’s not really a way to test an assertion like no gods exist. However, it can seek evidence for Christians’ reality-based claims, and find them wanting.

Eventually, enough of those claims turn out to be wanting that one feels quite safe in making an assertion like no gods exist. You know. Like unicorns don’t exist. In fact, Harari classified unicorns as nonexistent for the same exact reasons as Christianity. Strangely, Smith doesn’t seem offended by that assertion at all or take him to task for this blanket assertion about unicorns. Maybe that’s cuz he happens to share Harari’s belief that unicorns don’t exist.

So Smith wants Harari to present him with artifacts and fossils that DISPROVE YES DISPROVE that Smith’s god is real. But he doesn’t present Harari — or us — with evidence that supports his own claim. The reason ought to be very obvious.

This tactic is very common in Christian apologetics, so I wanted to call attention to it. Christians constantly avoid burden of proof by pushing it onto others. Don’t let them do it. Make sure they know how cowardly this tactic is, and that you know exactly why they’re doing it. At all times insist: if THEY think their imaginary friend exists, then THEY get to support that assertion THEMSELVES. Don’t get caught up in such a pathetic and dishonest game. You can’t win it — by design.

(We also get a bonus assertion that Harari engages in atheological metaphysics here. It’s just another illustration of the Law of Conservation of Worship. “Atheological metaphysics?” Seriously? I CAAAAAN’T with this guy.)

Mischaracterizing Burden of Proof.

For a guy who claims all through his science chapter that he lurrrrrves science and reads science books all the time, Christian Smith has a downright mystifying misunderstanding of the Scientific Method. He actually thinks atheism makes positive claims that the Scientific Method has somehow failed to support. As one example, he writes, after insisting that he has deliberately avoided trying to support Christianity’s claims (p. 102):

All I have said is that science, by virtue of what science is and does, cannot validate (or for that matter refute) atheism, a pointless universe, a nihilistic destruction of all things human at the end of time, or any similar claim of metaphysical atheology. And so scientists should not suggest otherwise.

That’s so far past ridiculous that it hardly even merits a word here. But I’ll offer one anyway. Hey. I’m helpful like that.

If he thinks that Christianity’s reality-based claims merit anyone’s belief, then he needs to pony up evidence for those claims. Burden of proof is on him. Not on those rejecting his claims.

Our entire requirement — if we accept it at all, which we might not — rests in evaluating the evidence he provides for his own claims. If he provides none, we will reject it. If he provides some but it’s flawed or non-credible, we will reject it. And if we don’t feel like dealing with him at all, we’ll reject it.

He’s the salesperson here, not us. If he wants us to buy his product, he needs to give us a good reason to do so, provided we’re in a mood to purchase anything at all.

Why His Criticism Is Not Valid.

All of the opposites of what Smith named in that quote (a god or gods; these beings handing purpose down to humans; life everlasting) are based in reality. Thus, they require evidence to be taken seriously. That requirement exists because they are all reality-based claims. They are not metaphysical or theological, and thus do not require refutation with what he’s called “metaphysical atheology.” Anyone can do it. Hell, any ten-year-old with a basic understanding of burden of proof could undo this guy.

(Seriously. My ever? It’s way over there now. It’s gotten fed up and it’s left the room. I might not see it back today. Smith acts like a toddler who just found a new word and wants to wear it out. HAW HAW, those silly atheists and their mirror-image version of what we do! They don’t do theology, they do A-theology! HAW HAW!)

Since all the things Smith named as oh-so-awful are the null position beliefs in their dyads, then he is under a big burden of proof to demonstrate that his positive claims to their opposites have merit.

But he can’t, so he seeks instead to shame scientists into shutting up about the evidence contradicting (or entirely lacking in) Christianity’s reality-based claims.

So Disappointed.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m very disappointed with this book. The cowardice I describe here represents one small part of that disappointment. Smith seems to want scientists (like Harari) to do work that he himself doesn’t want to do — and can’t, for obvious reasons.

Christian Smith paints himself as incredibly smart and educated and oh-so-objective. Oh y’all, he just wants to foster dialogue! He just wants atheists in particular to consider these concerns of his! He lectures atheist scientists (and presumably any scientists who go this route) (p. 103):

And while you are at it, please think harder about the presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism that drive you into narrow imperialistic scientism. They are seriously problematic.

“Scientism” is one of those code-words Christians use that tell us right off the bat that we can safely ignore anything else they have to say. It’s how they insult the scientific method and try to shade those who trust it more than they trust wingnuts with a story. They ache for the validation that science would give their claims, but since they can’t have that they’ll instead try to make science look unreliable. And well, that’s another claim that requires support that they don’t have.

Indeed, Smith uses all the same tactics for avoiding burden of proof that all Christians use. He makes all the same unreasonable demands. And he ends up at the same position:

Why gosh woulda lookie there, a religious person has somehow and against all odds argued himself into humanity totally needing his product or it’ll fall apart!

How how how did THAT happen?

SO MYSTERIOUS.

The Reality.

Christian Smith is not nearly as high-flown or as high-falutin’ as he thinks, nor as objective.

He mischaracterizes atheists and atheism, completely misses where his own burden of proof lies with regard to his claims about his religion, and makes a ton of assertions about what will totally for sure and realsies happen if people keep abandoning his religion (and by extension, if we keep laughing at the demands of his religious leaders).

Just look at the poor white evangelicals down in Greasy Corner, Arkansas with all the Trump signs in their yards. They say all the exact same things, just with way worse vocabularies.

I think this guy needs to quit pretending he loves science. He only loves science if it defers to his religious beliefs. The moment it treats his reality-based claims the same way it treats any other reality-based claims from anybody else, he stops liking it.

Well, he’d better get used to it.

NEXT UP: Evangelical conspiracy theorists represent well the problem of wingnuts. Tomorrow, I’ll show you why. Then, we’ll look at how Atheist Overreach suffers from that same exact problem. See you soon.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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