The Burden of Proof

Who has the burden of proof? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Recently I wrote a piece responding to Neil Carter and posted it on the blog of his that I was responding to. Carter responded by saying he stopped after I said that if you want to disprove Christianity, you have to disprove the resurrection. I was later told that I was someone who obviously did not understand what is meant by the term burden or proof.

Seeing as this is the kind of topic that comes up often, I figured I should write about it.

Too often in debates, one person assumes that the other side has the burden of proof. This also comes with claims like “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Unfortunately, a lot of internet skeptics I meet treat skepticism as if it is the default position and anyone else arguing otherwise has the burden to prove. It is said that the existence of God is an extraordinary claim, but why should this be so? Many theists would say that atheism is an extraordinary claim. Some would also say that macroevolution being true is an extraordinary claim. Hence the problem. This is entirely subjective.

Now when it comes to my response to Carter, my claim is that if you want to argue that Christianity is false, you have the burden to show that. Why is that the case? Because he was making the claim about an argument that was to show Christianity is false. It’s my contention that you could have an unexplained problem for Christianity, but that doesn’t disprove Christianity’s central claim.

Let’s use the problem of evil as an example. If there’s one question that can be hard to answer sometimes, it’s the problem of evil, especially when you get to the personal level. “Why did my son die in a car accident?” “Why did my loved one commit suicide?” “Why does God allow sex trafficking to go on?” Now note something interesting here. What the bringer of the objector must do in this case is not only say that these are hard questions and good questions, and they are, but that these are somehow a categorical disproof that God does not exist.

You could say this perhaps lowers in your eyes the probability that God exists, but to say that it is a disproof is something else altogether. Who has the burden to show that it is an absolute disproof? It is the person who is making the objection. Let’s suppose this person makes the objection as to why God allows XYZ to happen and the Christian just says “I don’t know.” Now sure, we could say the Christian should be more equipped perhaps, but we cannot say that the challenger has proven his point simply by raising the objection. Frankly, every worldview that anyone holds will have some unknown facets to it. If you have a worldview and you lack questions you just don’t know the answer to, you’re not taking your worldview seriously.

To be fair, let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s suppose the Christian says “God raised Jesus from the dead.” The atheist responds “I don’t think so.” The Christian could say “Well unless you can tell me what really happened, then Christianity is true.” This is also not a good argument. It could be made about any position such as God revealed himself to Muhammad or Joseph Smith. The inability of the atheist to offer a good position does not mean the position of the Christian is true.

But let’s suppose that instead of just saying what was said above, the Christian makes a case using scholarly sources and then says “Therefore, Jesus was raised from the dead as this is the best explanation of the data.” The Christian has met his burden then. It does not mean everyone will find it convincing, but it means he has made his case. In this case, skepticism of the claim is not an argument. The skeptic cannot say “I am not persuaded, therefore your case is false.” If so, this would work for any position. “I am not persuaded by your case for evolution, therefore your case for it is false.”

Now let’s suppose a Christian and an atheist are debating the existence of God. The Christian makes his case and then the atheist shows that the argument has a logical fallacy in it and just does not work. Does this mean theism is false? No. Does this mean atheism is true? No. It means that the argument that was given is a poor reason. At best, we could end up with agnosticism. The only exception would be if there was no middle ground whatsoever. If it’s either A or non-A exclusively, then the disproof of one equals the proof of the other.

A simple rule to keep in mind then is that whoever makes a claim has the burden to back that claim. If you enter the debate and make any claim whatsoever, you have the burden to back that claim. If you are merely rebutting a claim, you have no burden to make your own case. In my above case that started this, I was under no obligation to make a full case for Christianity to show that an argument against it is false. I have frankly as a Christian said some arguments against atheism are bad arguments and should not be used. Rebutting a bad argument for Christianity does not mean that Christianity is false and atheism is true and rebutting a bad argument for atheism does not mean atheism is false and Christianity is true.

The avoiding of backing your own argument leads us too often to sit back and let the other person do all the work. If you are going to be a good debater, you have to hold your side up of the intellectual conversation. Unfortunately for many, that means you actually have to work and study and read books. That’s anathema to many people to be sure, but there are no easy wins in the world of serious debate. You must do your part.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

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