Who Has the Burden of Proof? Must the Christian Provide Adequate Reasons for Christian Beliefs?

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1 Who Has the Burden of Proof? Must the Christian Provide Adequate Reasons for Christian Beliefs? Issue: Who has the burden of proof the Christian believer or the atheist? Whose position requires supporting evidence or reasons in order to be rationally accepted? The evidentialist challenge to Christian faith During the past three centuries many have been heavily influenced by what is sometimes called evidentialism, or the view that in order to be rational we should always have sufficient evidence for our beliefs. We should not accept any beliefs without sufficient evidence for the beliefs. W.K. Clifford ( ): "To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Bertrand Russell ( ): "Give to any hypothesis which is worth your while to consider just that degree of credence which the evidence warrants". Thus, many take it for granted that in order to be rational Christians must provide sufficient reason for belief in God and other central Christian claims. This produces what is sometimes called the evidentialist challenge to Christian faith: To be rational, the Christian must have sufficient reason for belief in God. There is not sufficient reason for believing in the existence of God. Therefore, it is irrational to believe in God. Many claim that there is a presumption of atheism (or at least agnosticism); atheism or agnosticism is the default rational position and if theism is to be accepted rationally then Christians must provide sufficient evidence for such belief. Antony Flew ( ): "What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist... What the protagonist of my presumption of atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a particular perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application." Problems with evidentialism In a famous essay ( The Will to Believe ) William James ( ) criticized W. K. Clifford s maxim ("To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"). James argued that in circumstances in which the

2 following factors are present it can be rational to decide whether to accept a particular belief on the basis of passion (viz. other considerations such as the expected utility or benefit of accepting the belief): 1. When rational or evidential considerations alone cannot determine the truth or falsity of the belief. 2. When the belief in question is a genuine live option. 3. When the belief presents us with a forced issue (some decision is unavoidable). 4. When the belief under consideration is momentous or significant. For James, the existence of God is a belief that meets these four conditions. Thus, even in the absence of sufficient evidence it can be reasonable for the believer to accept the reality of God. Clifford and James approach the epistemology of belief in very different ways: James: Clifford: In the search for true belief, it is better to accept the possibility of error rather than to withhold belief because of the risk of accepting false beliefs. In the search for true belief, it is better to withhold belief and risk the loss of truth rather than accept the possibility of holding false beliefs. Unless qualified significantly, evidentialism (and especially Clifford s maxim) is unrealistic and faces enormous problems. 1. The notion of sufficient evidence is vague and controversial; who decides what constitutes sufficient evidence? 2. There are many beliefs we accept (and are perfectly rational in accepting) without being able to provide sufficient evidence for their truth. 3. Epistemic justification (providing evidence or justification for accepting certain beliefs) cannot occur unless some beliefs stand on their own epistemically and thus do not require justification on the basis of yet other beliefs. (2) and (3) above make reference to what philosophers previously called first principles or epistemic givens, but today are often called properly basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are beliefs which we accept but which we do not accept on the basis of other beliefs; they are not inferred from other more basic beliefs we hold. In appropriate circumstances we simply find ourselves accepting them. They form the foundation or basis for other beliefs we hold.

3 Properly basic beliefs are basic beliefs which we ought to accept; or which it is fully reasonable for us to accept as basic. Some properly basic beliefs: There is an external (extra-mental) world around me. In general, memory is reliable. Other minds apart from my own exist. The universe did not just pop into existence five seconds ago. The same belief (statement, proposition) cannot be both true and false simultaneously. We should do what is right and not do what is wrong. Moreover, much of what we believe we accept on the basis of authority (what others say), and we are unable to offer sufficient evidence in each case for accepting their authority. In the absence of good reasons not to accept a particular authority it is reasonable to accept what others say. Belief in God as properly basic? In the past thirty years it has become popular in certain Christian circles to claim that in appropriate conditions it can be perfectly reasonable for Christians to claim that belief in God is properly basic and thus does not need any supporting evidence. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga s (1932- ) paper "Reason and Belief in God" (1983) launched what has come to be known as Reformed epistemology, and a central part of this movement is the claim that certain core Christian beliefs can be properly basic and thus do not need evidential support. Plantinga states that it can be "entirely acceptable, desirable, right, proper, and rational to accept belief in God without any argument or evidence whatever". There has been an enormous amount of debate over Reformed epistemology s claims (many committed Christian philosophers reject some of its central claims). Positively, Plantinga and Reformed epistemology remind us that it can be rational to believe p apart from being able to produce an argument or evidence justifying acceptance of p. We accept many beliefs in a properly basic way. Moreover, surely it can be reasonable for some Christians in appropriate circumstances to accept central Christian beliefs even though they are unable to provide evidence or arguments for such belief. Nevertheless, there are problems with the claim that belief in God is (or should be) properly basic for all Christians in all circumstances.

4 1. Epistemologically, there seems to be an important difference between treating beliefs in the external world, other minds, reliability of memory, etc. as properly basic and treating belief in God as properly basic. One significant difference is that there is a sense in which it is strange to question the truth of the former beliefs -- normally functioning human beings simply do not question whether there is or is not an external world. But many apparently very "normal" persons do question the existence of God. Moreover, almost all people accept the former beliefs whereas many people do not belief in God. 2. Plantinga's discussion of belief in God as properly basic is conducted in terms of "epistemic permission" ("epistemic rights") rather than "epistemic obligation". There is nothing in Plantinga's discussion to prevent a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or secular humanist from similarly claiming that for them belief in Emptiness, or Brahman, or Allah, or the ultimacy of the physical universe is properly basic. 3. Widespread religious disagreement places a certain epistemic burden upon any particular group s claims to unique religious truth. The disagreement is not simply between theists and atheists; there is fundamental disagreement among religious groups over central claims, including rival claims to divine revelation. Extraordinary claims require appropriate evidential support. Should one have adequate reasons for believing the central claims of the Christian faith in order to be reasonable in so believing? For some Christians, in appropriate circumstances, it can be perfectly reasonable to believe as they do without their being able to articulate adequate reasons for their belief. For some Christians, belief in God is properly basic. For many Christians, it is sufficient if (1) they give the relevant issues some thought, (2) they are not aware of decisive reasons not to believe as they do, and (3) they are aware that other Christians who are more informed and competent have examined the issues carefully and assure them that belief is justified (appeal to authority). For many people (Christian and non-christian), especially those who are existentially aware of religious disagreement and specific challenges to Christian belief, it is important to have adequate reasons for accepting the claims of the Christian faith rather than other alternatives. (What counts as adequate reasons will vary somewhat with individuals and circumstances.) For many non-christians, it is important that basic challenges to Christian faith be addressed and that adequate reasons for accepting Christian theism be presented in an appropriate manner.

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