Christians all too regularly misunderstand the concept of the burden of proof. This isn’t because it’s a difficult concept. It’s because in order to squeeze religious belief into a science sounding framework, they find themselves having to redefine the standards and expectations of science into something that more closely resembles their religion. The religious mind needs to maintain the perceived truth of its beliefs and in order to do so, anything that challenges that needs to be tamed. It is at this point that the religious mind warps the message of science so that it can be addressed from a religious platform before being dismissed. In fallacy terms we call this a straw man. The real tragedy is that the religious mind doesn’t even realise what it’s doing. It is so immersed in it’s own belief system that it can’t comprehend a different method of doing things.
See this blog post for an example. It’s unfortunate that comments are turned off.
The kicker in the post is the following sentence:
For instance, if a person challenges a theory of science in which there is a consensus that a theory is correct the burden of proof would be on the one challenging the consensus, e.g. the big-bang theory.
The sentence mixes up terms and the result is a mish mash which trips up the religious mind. The sentence may make sense, and may sound logical, but it really is a religious fail. In science, a theory is something for which there is convincing evidence, but the mechanism is still unexplained. The best example of a theory is gravity. We know it exists and we can even calculate its effect. We don’t know how it works though. The big bang is similar, there is evidence for the big bang and it fits the mathematical models of the universe. How it came to be is still a mystery.
Contrary to what is implied by the quoted sentence; the idea of the big bang does have a burden of proof. It needs to show that the universe did indeed start from a tiny dot and expand into what we see now. The expansion part is still being observed today so in respect to the burden of proof, well, let’s just say it’s going to be hard to counter argue. But it’s not a slam-dunk. Work is on-going to try to discover and explain more so that we can understand more. When new evidence emerges, it’ll be put into the models and the big bang theory tested. It could still be wrong and scientists want to be certain that theories are as good as they possibly can be. The big bang idea may indeed be a consensus, but it doesn’t mean it gets a free pass regarding the burden of proof. Other ideas around the start of the universe can continue to be investigated.
If someone wants to counter the big bang idea, it is not sufficient to challenge it, that isn’t really science. To satisfy the scientific method one would need to bring in an alternative idea and that idea would have its own burden of proof. This is true whatever the idea and whether the opposing idea is consensus or not. If you want to propose something in science, then you need to bring an alternative explanation which will have a burden of proof to carry. You can’t replace an existing theory with nothing.
The author of the article then switches to talking about religion and philosophy and discusses atheism and belief in that context rather than sticking to science. Logic flow tends to get a little messy when one does that.
The author says that atheists claim they don’t have a burden of proof when they challenge religion and that this atheist claim goes against the previously stated logic that a challenge to a consensus does require a burden of proof. Lost yet?
Before getting to atheism, let’s consider two competing religions. Religion A and religion B each have the same burden of proof because each wants to assert their chosen deity. Easy. When atheism steps into the ring it does get a little complicated because it’s not bringing in a rival to religion, it says no religion is convincing so why bother with any, religion has failed its burden of proof. This is where the big bang analogy falls down, science needs an explanation for the when it all started. Not having a beginning is not an acceptable position to hold. Conversely, philosophy doesn’t need a religion. No religion is a perfectly acceptable position to be, it’s what you might call the default position that every human starts with anyway. Belief in a deity and adherence to a religion is taught to us.
Belief in something is in no way an equivalent to a scientific theory. Why does not holding a belief need a burden of proof? It’s not a claim. It’s not bringing a theory to the table for discussion.
What is there to actually prove?