Who Bears the Burden of Proof? Is Christianity True? (Part 5)

In the discussion between believers and non-believers, who bears the burden of proof? Who must present evidence, and who gets to decide whether the evidence is persuasive? The conventional wisdom is that the person affirming a belief must present evidence sufficient to move the one who denies or doubts the belief in question. Doubters do not need to make arguments for their doubt. And the doubter decides the question. Clearly, this presumption gives the doubter and denier an almost insurmountable advantage in discussions with believers. Does the believer really bear the burden of proof?

Let’s begin with logic. Are propositions that affirm something inherently less likely to be true than propositions that deny something? Or to put it another way, is it inherently easier to know the truth of the general proposition “A” than the truth of general proposition “not-A”? Apart from knowing what is being affirmed and denied in the real world by these propositions, I can’t see any reason for preferring “not-A” to “A”. In either case, one would need to survey the logical or existential space where the referent of “A” would reside if “A” were true. The assertion “A” finds the referent of “A” present in that space, and the assertion “not-A” finds the referent of “A” absent. The task is the same in both cases.

What about real world affirmations and denials? Is there something inherent in the real world that makes doubt and denial always the more rational option than affirmation and belief? The answer is no. Everyone would agree that someone faced with overwhelming evidence in favor of an affirmation would be acting less rationally to deny that belief than to affirm it. For example, suppose I deny that my child smokes marijuana even when confronted with a video of my child actually smoking marijuana. Clearly, I would not be acting rationally in my denial. I am allowing wishes and prejudices rather than reason to determine my beliefs. Hence whether one believes or doubts and denies is determined by more than the evidence presented on behalf of belief. It is also determined by one’s beliefs about other things, one’s prejudices, and one’s values. In other words, the amount of evidence required to persuade people is determined by the entire situation in which the argument takes place.

Consider the rhetorical rules in a court of law. In a criminal case, the prosecution always bears the greater burden of proof and must convince 12 people “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the defendant’s guilt. The defense need only create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Why lay this heavy burden on those affirming the proposition, “Defendant X murdered victim Y.” Are defendants always more likely to be innocent than guilty? No, that is not the reason for the burden. The reason is that our legal system presupposes that it is morally superior and socially more expedient to let a guilty person go free than to convict an innocent one. So, the side that must bear the greater burden of proof in a court of law is determined by the special situation that applies in that setting.

Someone may make the following objection to what I have said so far: to move from not believing to believing a proposition (for example, God exists.) requires evidence, but doubting or denying a proposition requires no evidence. But this is not true. You need a reason to doubt an affirmation. After all, doubting is an action. We are compelled to doubt or deny an affirmation when it conflicts with other beliefs, values, wishes, or prejudices we possess. If you doubt or deny that God exists, you do so because you sense the conflict between the proposition “God exists” and your other beliefs and values. You may doubt or deny God because you believe that “the physical world is all there is” or that “human freedom is not compatible with God’s existence.”

But this means that the rationality of your doubt and denial of God depends on the truth of your other beliefs and values, which themselves must be supported by evidence. The doubter and denier get no exemption from the need for evidence. Every argument between a believer and a non-believer always involves a confrontation between two systems of mutually supporting beliefs. Both parties affirm and both deny certain beliefs. There is no such thing as pure doubt or pure denial. To claim that one merely doubts and denies but does not affirm is to deploy a rhetorical trick. We should not fall for it.

I conclude that in the discussion about the truth of Christianity there are no general rules for who bears the greater burden of proof. There are no general rules for how much evidence is enough or what type of evidence counts in favor of Christian belief. And there is no objective third party qualified to declare when the burden has been met. The rhetorical situation in which the discussion takes place determines all these issues. Different people demand different levels and types of evidence and are moved by different arguments. In a particular phase of the discussion believers may need to present evidence for belief, but in a different phase non-believers will need to present evidence for their supporting beliefs, the beliefs that compel them to doubt and deny.

It’s as true in the argument between belief and non-belief as it is in the economic sphere: there is no free lunch. There is not even a subsidized lunch.


3 thoughts on “Who Bears the Burden of Proof? Is Christianity True? (Part 5)

  1. nokareon

    Agreed all around on the content of the post. I am curious to get your take on a related follow-up question, though:

    It is often said among Atheist speakers and communities that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” usually said in response to Christian beliefs in a miracle occurring or, in particular, the Resurrection of the Jesus. In particular, I am studying the views of atheist historian Richard Carrier right now, and he touts this line around as a truism on par with the law of non-contradiction. This line has its roots in David Hume’s views on miracles to the effect that no amount of evidence would be sufficient to demonstrate that a miracle occurred. In confronting this line, William Lane Craig has called it a sort of “rhetorical slogan” attempting to improperly raise the burden of proof for the believer, and he adjusts the slogan to “extraordinary claims require sufficient evidence,” although he also adds that any claim would require sufficient evidence. However, the slogan surely has *some* degree of intuitive support, as shown by the Bayes Theorem of probability, which factors in the prior probability of an event into its final probability calculus. Thus, if the prior probability of the event is lower, the final probability would be as well. A common Christian response at this point would be to say that a supernatural event would not necessarily have a low prior probability if God does exist.

    As Christian believers, we no doubt should circumvent or rebut the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I have my thoughts on how one ought to go about doing that, but I would be interested in hearing your response first, since it seems to me to be related to your above discussion on the burden of proof.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    A reply that does justice to this question would require pages and pages. So, let me give you just a few thoughts. From what you quote from him, I think Craig is on target, though I’ve not read his detailed reply. I would want to probe the idea of what makes a claim extraordinary. Of course, by definition a miracle is extraordinary in some sense. Hume defined it in terms of our present experience. We don’t experience them now, he thinks, so any report of a miracle should be met with skepticism in proportion to its unlikeliness. As I remember Hume wanted to avoid making his skepticism depend on a scientific or metaphysical theory that made miracles logically or metaphysically impossible. But I do not believe Hume and other skeptics really leave their metaphysical and logical beliefs out of consideration. So, your allusion to the “common Christian response” is appropriate. Our assessment of any claim to have witnessed a miracle greatly depends on our background beliefs. You cannot just isolate a particular miracle like the resurrection of Jesus from the totality of our beliefs and from the total Christian belief system. If I believe God exists, loves us, wants us to know him, is Creator of all things, exercises providence over all things…I am more likely to believe that God would sometimes communicate with us in ways that we would call miraculous. I am open to that. But for someone who believes none of these things, all claims to miracles would be met with disbelief.

    When the argument about the resurrection of Jesus focuses on the general idea of what would count as extraordinary or even sufficient evidence, it speaks quite generally of “reports of miracles.” A report is of less evidential value than first hand experience. But I’d like to think about the question of whether or not, for example, whether Paul’s experience as he reports it would be sufficient for him. Given Paul’s history and his reported experiences, was he warranted in believing that God raised Jesus from the dead? I believe the answer is yes. Now the question faces us of whether or not our belief that Paul was correct in his conclusion about Jesus’ resurrection is also warranted, given all the other facts of the case. I won’t go into this in depth but I think we are warranted in our trust in Paul, along with the many others who also experience what they believed were resurrection appearances.

    Going back to my post, I think what counts as “extraordinary” and “sufficient” evidence may differ from person to person. I do not believe there is an objective and precise measure of these levels of evidence. Hume, like Thomas, would have to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet and side.


  3. Charles Hanson

    I recall what Jesus said in regards to those who do not want to hear or believe the gospel.
    Walk away from them don’t argue it is a waist of time on both parts. Mat.10:13-14
    Just a note on Paul’s preaching to those who are wholly into idolatry.
    I am sure we are familiar with Paul in Acts 17:16-34. It would be well to read the verses.
    And after he spoke Paul departed.
    Acts 17:33 So Paul departed from among them.
    Seeing there was little hope of them believing. It was not his custom to labor long in a barren field, or to preach where there was no prospect of success.
    No further questions, no effort to arrest him, no further ridicule. He walked out never to return to Athens. Had he failed?
    He departed from amongst them, as seeing little likelihood of doing any good with them at this time; but, it is likely, with a promise to those that were willing to hear him again that he would meet them whenever they pleased.
    Acts 17:34 But some men believed, joining themselves to him, among whom also were both Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
    I believe these are the only Idolaters in the New Testament that believed the gospel.

    But some men argued with Paul? No one argued with Paul as recorded.
    Paul did not argue between belief and non-belief in the resurrection.
    A person who believes in God and lives in sin can be shown in scripture what sin is.
    A person who does not believe in God is what Paul called a fool.

    Rom 1:22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

    Paul teaches a very good lesson in:
    1Co 15:34 Awake (out of stupor) to righteousness, and SIN not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame.
    1Co 15:35 But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?
    1Co 15:36 Thou fool (unwise), that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:

    Paul mentioned this make alive or quickened to life when he spoke to those on Mars Hill when he mentioned the resurrection.

    There is no burden of proof in believing in God or the resurrection it is all about repenting.
    That is if you know what repenting is?
    Enough said, God bless in Jesus name



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