Doing Christian apologetics online can get really interesting, really serious, and also sometimes amusing. I need to preface this post by explaining that I teach philosophy of logic at the college level, and there are two things that add to the context when reading this blog post; first, it is important to take a formal logic class if you are seriously going to debate anything online, or anywhere else for that matter, and second, taking one formal logic class is just enough to make a person dangerous…the danger being that one then tries to make everything into a formal argument, and one tends to see rhetorical devices lurking behind every sentence, which often leads to mislabelling, and can be annoying.
I’m going to focus on one problem area in this post; The Burden of Proof. I don’t believe I’ve witnessed one specific area of logic argued over more between Christians and atheists. The problem usually arises when a Christian who hasn’t had a formal logic course, or studied it on their own, or is not looking for a formal argument, runs into an atheist that has had a class, and is fit to bursting to show off their newly acquired vocabulary, unfortunately these meetings do not go well, and the only reason why is that there are crossed wires. Inevitably, the conversation usually starts off with the atheist asking questions of the Christian, and the Christian giving their reasons for believing…the atheist doesn’t like what they hear, so the discussion escalates from there. Then it happens, the Christian says, “fine, so prove to me that God doesn’t exist.” Then the atheist pounces, and neglects to mention that they are now kicking into “formal” argument mode, instead of just a discussion.
“Oh, no,” says the atheist, “the burden of proving God exists falls on you.” Here is where the misunderstanding comes in, and both sides are usually ignorant of what is happening. When a Christian (who has not been warned that this has become an exercise in formal argumentation, instead of just a conversation) hears the words “the burden of proving,” they are not thinking about formal logic, they are thinking about moral responsibility. So, they understandably hear, “Oh, no, the moral responsibility of proving God exists falls on you.” And rightly, they flatly deny it. The atheist assumes that the Christian doesn’t know logic, but that isn’t necessarily the case; their mindsets are just understandably different. Christians are generally concerned with their moral responsibility, which actually ends at presenting the gospel truthfully and correctly, and includes providing a reason for their personal belief, if asked. That’s it. The rest we leave directly up to God and the atheist.
The discussion usually goes steeply downhill from there; the atheist insisting that the Christian has the burden and the Christian flatly denying it. For the atheist’s part, they are referring to the formal logical concept of The Burden of Proof; who has the weight in arguing a certain issue to provide the majority of evidence to lend credence to their conclusion. There are several ways of figuring out who has the logical burden; 1) If everyone involved agrees, you simply lay the ground rules for who has the burden (they do this formally in court proceedings, for example), 2) Whichever side has the least initial plausibility (meaning whichever side tends to run counter to things like common sense, and our background information) usually has the greater burden, and 3) Whichever side is stating a “positive” or “affirmative” position (there is life on mars, there is a problem with your battery, God does exist…) is normally held to the higher burden.
So, neither side is being intentionally thick, they are just using different definitions for “burden of proof.” If you find yourself in a conversation like this, or just listening in, try to get each side to state what they mean by “burden of proof,” it should save a lot of misunderstanding. As for me, the interesting question is, which side does indeed have the burden. Well, it depends on which general rule you claim; if it is only a matter of the affirmative side, then yes, if I say, “God does exist,” and I am engaging in an argument, not just an explanation, then the burden would fall on me (not every statement is an argument, and not everyone is interested in “arguing”). However, if we look at initial plausibility, I believe the burden shifts to the atheistic side, of course that is a debate in and of itself, which I’m not getting into in this post. Also, the Christian is free to counter with, “you are claiming that nature itself, with no outside force or designer, is capable of bringing forth complex life, and that we are a result of macro-evolution; prove it.” Oh, what a burden…