The Burden of Proof

I am moderately a fan of the Armoured Skeptic.  I definitely like what he says and how he says it, but I don’t know if I am a fan of giving religious fanatics a further platform for their extreme views.  But one of his recent videos, though in my view overly long, was interesting because the person he was dueling with kept bringing up the idea of “proof” and the discussion centered around where the burden of proof lies.

Mr. Skeptic (as the New York Times might refer to him) pointed out numerous times that theists are the one making a positive assertion and therefore have the burden of proof.  The maker of the theist videos says he continually asks atheists, “Can you prove god does not exist?”  To which Mr. Skeptic continually reiterated, “You have the burden of proof to show that he does!”  Which is true as far as it goes.  But there is much more going on here, that I feel Mr. Skeptic missed in his video rebuttal.

The first problem we have here is that neither side (at least in this case) is asking, “What is acceptable proof” for the holder of the opposite view?  The theist in this case offers the wonders of the world as “proof” which TAS does not (correctly in my view) accept.  But what “proof” would it take to prove without a doubt that there is a god?  But before we get to that, we have to see what the theist is actually claiming.

Christianity actually makes a whole series of claims, but they usually make them in one sentence that has to be unpacked.  The claim is something like this: “God created the universe and especially the earth and then sent his son to save us.”  Of course there is often much more than that, but even this needs to be unpacked.

Because this is presented as one claim (when it is actually a chain of reasoning) they often commit the logical error of using evidence for one part of the chain to prove the whole chain.

For example, creationists will argue that evidence for a created earth also proves the end of the chain, that is to say “Jesus saved us.”  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The universe could be created (in some way) and the bible still could be the  made up stories of a couple of thousand years ago.  It could be that the universe is uncreated, but some alien race (or god) created the earth and seeded it with life.

So, when a theist creationist to say that god created the universe (and or the earth) the more interesting response is not “Did not!” but rather, “Interesting, and what does that prove?”

A created universe (if such a thing could be proved) does not in any way the entirety of the Christian claim.  For example, of course, Jews can believe that Genesis (the book, not the band) is 100 percent literally accurate, but also believe that the new testament is just misguided quote mining of their scripture.

An early bishop of the Christian movement, Marcion, believed another scenario that could also follow from a created earth or universe.  Marcion believed that Yaweh  was a petty and even evil god who created the earth, defectively at that.  Jesus was sent by the actual creator of the universe, a benevolent being who wanted save the world from Yaweh.  Marcion was denounced as a heretic, but apparently it took Tertullian five books to show why Marcion was wrong.   A philosopher said recently that the evidence looked to him that if the world was created, it was created by a being who was 80 percent effective and 80 percent malevolent.  There are, of course literally millions of other scenarios.

And even if I were to look around me and conclude that, by golly, the universe (or the earth) must have been created, there is still a long way to go before you can prove that the bible describes that same creator.  And using the bible to prove the bible is, of course, simply begging the question.  To be able to use the bible in your proof, first you need to prove that it reflects the thoughts of the actual creator god, not just the philosophical and political ramblings of a iron age tribe.

So, the burden of proof on a Christian theist is quite high, especially when they say they want to give this proof according to the rules of science.

Steven J. Gould wrote a book that said that science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria.”  Which can be true.   But this is only true to the extent that there is no claim of god (or other religious constructs) interacting with the world.  Science is a way of investigating how the world works, it is a method, not a collection of beliefs.  As soon as religion says that something happened in the world, we can use the rules of science to investigate it.  But following the rules of science means following the data all the way to its conclusion, no matter where the data leads, even to the “no god” conclusion.

Using science inappropriately weakens the proof, not strengthens it.  I found this little gem in a document promising “undeniable proof of god’s existence:”

“Many evolutionists have tried to argue that humans are 99% similar chemically to apes and blood precipitation tests do indicate that the chimpanzee is people’s closest relative. Yet regarding this we must observe the following: ‘Milk chemistry indicates that the donkey is man’s closest relative.’ ‘Cholesterol level tests indicate that the garter snake is man’s closest relative.’ ‘Tear enzyme chemistry indicates that the chicken is man’s closest relative.’ ‘On the basis of another type of blood chemistry test, the butter bean is man’s closest relative’” (Morris, Henry M., The Twilight of Evolution, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967).

The author of the pamphlet is was contained  in says that it somehow debunks evolution.  Even in it’s “wrongness” it actually shows evolution at work.  Because what it does say is that biochemistry is the same across many living things (we share the same neurons and neurotransmitters with insects).  Similar biochemistry argues for common ancestry.  But ultimately, if we want to determine the father of a child, we don’t compare blood chemistry, or tears or sweat, we compare DNA.  And on that the data is clear, humans are much more closely related to chimps than horses or butter beans.  So, sorry, Henry Morris, evolution is upheld by the DNA evidence, and your evidence is just nonsensical.

Which is why, many of us are not convinced by evidence that is put forth for creation, god, and Jesus.  It is pretty weak evidence indeed.  But just to help out the rest of you fellow atheists who may be asked to prove the non existence of god, I will take a shot at that next time.


5 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof

  1. I discussed that same “chain of reasoning” on the Biblegod claim in a blog post I did a few years back. Here’s how I unpacked that claim:

    A supernatural being (or beings) exists or has existed. (from here on, I’m going to use the singular “being” but please realize that it can mean “beings” where appropriate.)
    This being created the universe.
    This being still exists.
    This being is capable of interacting with the inhabitants of the natural world.
    This being is interested in interacting with the inhabitants of natural world.
    This being is all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent.
    This being has a particular interest in the humans on our small planet, and created the whole of the vast cosmos entirely for our benefit.
    This being is interested in what you do, what you think, what you eat, what you wear, who you sleep with, whether you believe, and for some reason desires your submission and worship.
    This being took a special interest in one particular small mideastern tribe of bronze-age goat herders, and became their personal war totem, helping them to kill many thousands of innocent people.
    This being also gave them a list of very picky laws that he wanted followed, and was quick to punish them for any small transgression of those rules.
    In the bronze age this being was extremely interested in blood sacrifices, worked many obvious miracles, and interacted visibly with humans.
    This being gave some of his chosen humans the power of prophecy, and they correctly predicted the coming of a messiah.
    During the Roman Era that same being miraculously became a human, and continued to work miracles, but now delivered an entirely different message than the legalistic rules delivered before.
    That human was actually the promised messiah, was executed, and rose from the dead. Correct belief in this event is what divides humans into two groups: those who will be eternally rewarded and those who will be eternally punished.
    And this being chooses to communicate with humanity by means of a book, which we do not have an original copy of, but which is nevertheless perfect in every word.

    So there’s a heckuva long way from “the universe was created” to all of these other conclusions, but the christian apologists seem to have convinced themselves that if they can just change our minds about creation that we’ll just automatically accept all the rest of this stuff.


  2. Agellius says:

    Of course. Only a moron or an ignoramus thinks that proving the existence of God, in the sense of a necessary First Mover, proves Christianity.


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