Hays begins by linking to an entry he posted in February (here) stating “an atheist attempted to refute my post.” In that February post, Hays writes:
To take a comparison, consider a typical debate with a village atheist. They lead with a particular reason for rejecting Christianity. If you shoot down their stated reason, it doesn't faze them at all. They just reach into the bag for another reason. You can go down the list, and it makes no difference.
Coming back to Hays’ July post, he quotes statements presumably made by the commenter and spars with them. The ensuing exchange involves the ever-hot topic of who has the burden of proof. The critic apparently objected to Hays’ statement quoted above from Hays’ February posting:
No. The village atheist has no burden of proof. All he needs do is say "convince me".
It's not my responsibility to convince anyone.
But if Hays the blogspottin’ Christian apologist has no burden of proof, surely no atheist has any either. If Hays wants to condemn non-believers for not believing in his mysticism and meanwhile insists that it’s not his “responsibility to convince anyone,” why should any non-believer have a corresponding burden to prove anything? I’ve been reading Hays’ blog on and off since 2005, when I started my blog. He makes some very penetrating insights into many areas of social interest, that’s for sure. But when it comes to his religious beliefs, I’ve found nothing that I would consider a sound proof of theism, of the Christian gospel story (e.g., the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus), of Christian ethics, etc. So if he has no obligation to convince anyone of anything, his 13-plus years of blogging is a wash.
Now, I sense a need to offer the clarification that my agreement that Hays has no obligation to do anything, especially on behalf of complete strangers, stems from the standpoint of my worldview. But my worldview is a worldview which not only rejects the mysticism of religion, including Hays’ religion, but also affirms the rational self-interest of the individual and an individual’s right to live and let live, a worldview which recognizes and champions an individual’s right to exist for his own sake, not a worldview which enshrines a legendary sage who commands his followers “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). My worldview has no “Great Commission” commanding me to go out and convert every creature that liveth, crawleth and clips its nails to what I happen to believe. And I’m very grateful for that – such a burden would have exhausted me and driven me to an early grave long ago. In my view, every adult individual is a free agent who has the right to choose his own path in life, so long as his actions do not infringe another’s right to do the same, and that all associations should be voluntary in nature, not forced. My view is nowhere near: “Thou shalt believe in X, or burn!” But that’s why I’ll never make a good cult member.
Apologists often have a rather idiosyncratic, if not self-serving, conception of the burden of proof. Many, apparently drawing on the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, have treated belief in the Christian god as the fundamental default of the human mind, and consequently view disbelief as either impossible or at any rate in need of a defense that will never be available to non-believers, let alone accepted as viable by the apologist. Such constraints are limitations that believers put on themselves, not as a result of following evidence (Hays worries that following evidence will lead one over a cliff), but as a result of confessional investment in something that is really only imaginary.
As a case in point, Hays himself offers a recent example. In rebooting the worn-out argument from miracles, Hays essentially claims that the reports of miracles found in the bible have an authentic ring to them and therefore they must be true, and that anyone who disbelieves or rejects them has some kind of obligation to present some alternative explanation for every miracle story found in the New Testament – as though every non-Christian needs to have a holster full of silver bullets ready to knock down each and every detail found in the Christian bible. (But be careful here: Hays will wax cross if the non-believer has more than one criticism on the matter, as we have seen.)
The applicability of this question is not reserved exclusively to religious pathologies. Not in the least! Take the notion of man-made global warming for instance. This is the fear that human consumption activity will alter climatic conditions such that they’ll be able to grow pineapples in northern Manitoba – a really horrible thing! It’s just another secular form of original sin; I remember in the 1970s it was the coming ice age that was going to do us all in, that along with “the population bomb” and ensuing mass famines scheduled for the early 1980’s that never happened. Now, if someone doesn’t believe in global warming, does he inherit a burden to prove that there is no man-made global warming? I don’t think so. Of course, he could move to Manitoba and try to start a pineapple farm, but the inevitable failure of this endeavor won’t change the mind of alarmists any more than the failure of prayer will cause a religionist to reconsider his devotion to mysticism.
Rather, what often happens in the case of people who are not persuaded that man-made global warming is a real phenomenon, is not a gathering of evidence and presentation of arguments pointing to the notion as a rational conclusion, but rather those people are vilified as ‘climate deniers’ and thereby denounced as enemies of some sort. People like Bill Nye apparently wouldn’t mind there being legal penalties, perhaps up to and including capital punishment in hard cases, for denying the revelations of ordained “climate scientists.” The parallels here to religious devotion are hard to miss, but typically ignored altogether by folks on either side of the issue.
But it’s actually quite simple: if you want to persuade someone to accept a claim or set of claims, the onus rests on your shoulders to buck up to the bar and present a case intended to do some persuading. Of course this presupposes that the one you’re trying to convince may very well not already accept the position in question. It takes work to persuade others to your position, especially if they tend to be critical-minded. For those who watch what they accept epistemologically more than the calories they consume, religion’s magic words won’t do, nor will threats of doom or repetitions of moral condemnation. “Do your worst!” says the old woman in Monty Python. And the critical atheist is perfectly right to challenge the proselytizing religionist to put his best foot forward or watch another fish swim away free.
What the apologist resents any possibility that his god-belief might be in question to begin with, which is why apologists so often either insist that non-believers shoulder the burden of proof exclusively, or at best both have a responsibility to assemble and present proofs. And the apologist who goes to the trouble of vying for his position should be prepared for the possibility that some will simply not be persuaded. Yes, that’s right, other minds have minds of their own and are not always that easy to manipulate and win over. An important step into adulthood involves accepting this fact. Christians for example should accept that the mass conversions reported in the Book of Acts are very likely wildly embellished legends and thus not get their hopes up that their audiences will prostrate themselves upon hearing stories about a resurrected savior.
But Hays has another reason why he doesn’t want to meet the non-believer’s challenge:
No doubt an atheist would love to control the debate by appointing himself the arbiter, but what he's prepared to believe is not the standard of comparison.
But true to his mystic roots, Hays’ frets over who’s got control over whose mind. While he sneers at the idea that non-believers might actually be in control of their own minds, he fears the possibility that non-believers might leverage their critical-mindedness against his apologetic if given the opportunity to spar with him. Indeed, the non-believer might very well say in response to Hays’ efforts, “Nope, not convinced. Got anything else?” And such a prospect must send the apologist’s heart into a rage of fury, for religion’s magic words certainly worked on him – why aren’t they working on the non-believer?
Now the apologist might very well reply to all this by saying he can play the same game (as though it were all a game to begin with, which would need to be established; indeed, if the believer thinks it’s all a game – maybe he’s the one who’s been inauthentic all along). But yes, in essence, the apologist has every right to consider what the non-believer presents and dismiss it all as scalding gas. Indeed, maybe it is! Non-believers are not all of a feather, and like believers sometimes we have better days than others. Moreover, non-belief in invisible magic beings does not automatically result in holding only rational positions. So I do not envy Hays’ position, given his acceptance of mysticism’s subjective premises while having to discern which non-believer’s case may in fact be the proper antidote to his religious hysteria. Religion will not provide him with the rational tools needed to do this, and just as he’s come under the spell of one form of mysticism, he might as well come under the spell of another if he’s not careful.
Hays’ challenger stated:
Square one must be non-belief. That's the default.
Does that refer to Christianity in particular, or is that meant to be a general statement about epistemological starting-points?
What’s important to note at this point is that we do not start by denying, wiping out, doubting or disbelieving some content. Rather, we start by perceiving and making the choice to identify what we perceive. Implicit in all awareness is the underlying recognition that there is a reality (the axiom of existence), that one is aware of that reality (the axiom of consciousness) and that the things one perceives are distinct from one another and from the act of perceiving them (the axiom of identity). So epistemologically, all knowledge starts from awareness of these fundamental facts, even if they are not acknowledged as the fundamental facts that they in fact are.
With these points, Hays’ next question is tailor-made for illustrating their importance. He asks:
Is non-belief in anything and everything square one?
Either way, it should be clear that belief as such is not a primary, for belief involves confidence in something more fundamental to itself, whether it is an assumption, a suspicion, an item of testimony, etc. Whatever we want to say about belief as such, the thing believed holds epistemological primacy to the level of confidence in its veracity assigned by belief. After all, one can consider a claim without believing it, but he cannot believe the claim before taking that claim into his awareness. So belief cannot be primary. That’s just the logical conclusion given the nature of the relevant factors involved here. At minimum, this means belief in something cannot be the default. Belief that X is the case is not something we’re born with. Rather, belief that anything is the case, whatever it may be, must be acquired somehow, notably after learning about X in some way and to some degree. I cannot believe that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree before having some inkling of who George Washington was, what cherry trees are, what chopping down tree is, etc. It should be apparent, therefore, that even beliefs that seem rather simplistic on the surface level actually involve a complex context that took mental labor to acquire, even if that labor was performed decades ago.
This analysis comports superbly with everyday examples anyone can cite. An example I’ve used before is a common question I’ve fielded from co-workers: Where’s the boss? Sometimes we need his input, and when that happens the inevitable question is: Where is she? “I believe she’s in a meeting,” comes one response; another offering is “I believe she went to lunch.” Whatever it may be, awareness of the boss’s existence and the concurrent knowledge that she must be someplace, all precede the respective parties’ confidence in his whereabouts.
All these points can only imply an answer to Hays’ presumably rhetorical question, namely that, if by *non-belief* one essentially means *the absence of belief*, then non-belief is certainly the default, that is, characteristic of one’s starting point in relation to confidence in some ideational content. And that’s because we start out with no ideational content to begin with – we have to learn about the world and acquire content as we grow, develop and mature, and involved in that process is the development of the ability to identify the things we perceive in the form of concepts. Unfortunately for Hays, Christianity has no theory of concepts (as apologist Jason Peterson once conceded, “concepts have no place in Christian epistemology”), so it should be no surprise if these points are lost on him and consequently much is taken for granted in his opinions.
Hays also asks:
Is non-belief in other minds, the reality of the past, or an external world the default position?
Consider again the dictionary definition of ‘belief’: “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.” My guess is that Hays has confidence in the existence of other minds, the past and the external world, but where’s his “rigorous proof”? This is not to pick on him per se, but since he runs immediately to topics that philosophers throughout history have pondered varyingly with great pains, he brings the question upon himself. Two of the things Hays raises – “other minds” and “the past” – are not things that we perceive directly, so some chain of inference is involved in our awareness of both, and thus a rigorous proof may very well be appropriate; one cannot expect that the average thinker, burdened with very real constraints of trying to lead a successful life in a difficult world, could unpocket such a contraption upon demand. The last thing that Hays cites – “an external world” – is something we all perceive directly by means of our senses. Thus “an external world” is in essence the basis of any proof one hopes to construct, for all proofs – if they prove anything objectively – would in the final analysis need to point to something that is perceptually self-evident as its ultimate starting point.
Hays asks more:
Is the onus on me to convince you that we're not trapped in the Matrix? Is the onus on me to convince you that the world didn't spring into existence five minutes ago, complete with false memories?
Speaking directly to Hays’ questions, I would say no, he has no such onus. In fact, I would advise him, were he to encounter someone who is convinced that we’re “trapped in the Matrix” or that we all have false memories of a past that did not really take place, to simply ignore them and move on with his life.
Moreover, the statements which Hays has quoted from his commenter in no way suggest that he expects Hays to construct negative proofs.
The commenter is quoted as saying:
We don't need to give reasons for rejecting Christianity.
Either God exists or he doesn't. If God exists, but you make non-belief your default position, then your starting-point is in error. Shouldn't square one be the reality? Shouldn't square one be whatever the evidence points to? Not some abstract, fact-free non-belief.
So it could be the case that something exists but we have no way of knowing that it exists, and believing that it exists in the absence of verifiable knowledge is no substitute for knowledge, but a pretense thereto. Is there a frozen lake of methane on Neptune? Maybe there is, but I don’t know either way, and I’m not in any position to know either way. Maybe there have been advances in astronomical research that make discovery of such things possible, but I’m not familiar with the science, so again I’m not in any position to know. But suppose that there is in fact a frozen lake of methane on Neptune; since I’m not in any position to know that there is such a thing, my default position on the matter certainly isn’t to believe that there is one, but rather one of non-belief. It does not follow from this that I’m in error, for my lack of believing is not the result of an epistemological mistake. I’m beginning from a metaphysical starting point necessitated by the nature of my consciousness: I have to discover, learn and integrate knowledge as I go. If there’s evidence for a frozen methane lake on Neptune that is available to me, even then I have to make the effort to engage that evidence and understand it before I could come to the conclusion “there is indeed a frozen lake of methane on Neptune!” Maybe there are thousands of such lakes. But I don’t know, and there’s no part of my brain occupied by a belief that there are any, so the absence of a belief – that is non-belief – is the default here until something comes along and changes that.
What Hays is really advocating is mystical, fact-free belief. Like the models we find in the New Testament, Hays is not concerned with rationally securing knowledge through a methodical application of reason and evidence, but rather belief regardless of the evidence. That’s one of the essentials of religion. It’s called faith. And so often the path to such uncritical acceptance is paved by closing the door to any possibility of evidence to the contrary. In fact, I have argued that the evidence available to us points unequivocally to the conclusion that gods are imaginary. (See for example here).
Consider for example a recent point Hays himself made in a recent blog entry titled At the tomb. There he opens with the following statement:
One puzzling detail in John's resurrection account is why Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him (Jn 20:17). That's a head-scratcher. Another enigmatic detail is why she fails to recognize him by sight (vv14-16). Likewise, how Jesus accessed the upper room, when the doors were locked. If the accounts are legendary, it's inexplicable why the narrator would fabricate baffling details.
In fact, as I’ve pointed out many times before, as have others, we see can see legendary embellishment of the Jesus narrative grow with each telling in the gospels, from Mark’s suggestion of a resurrection in its final chapter to all out appearances and wonders in the other three, details that are not at all present in (or even consistent with) what we read in the earlier epistolary layers of the New Testament.
As an example of an inconsistency between narrative elements in the gospels and statements in the Pauline corpus, consider the following point Robert Price makes in his book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (p. 324):
1 Cor. 1:22-23, “For the Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” would seem to envision a conspicuously nonsupernatural crucifixion scene; else why would miracle-hungry Jews be disappointed in the preaching of the cross? Would Paul have even put it this way if he had known of the prodigies at the cross such as we read of in the Gospels?
But if we take into account the fact that Paul’s writing predated the construction of the narratives we find in the gospels by a factor of decades, we see in action the course of legendary development, beginning with “a conspicuously nonsupernatural crucifixion scene” in Paul’s time to a blotting out of the sun, earthquakes, temple upheaval, zombies coming out of their graves, etc., in yarns spun by zealous crafters of lore invested in strengthening their cults.
Price even addresses the passage Hays himself cites, namely John 20:17. The verse states the following:
Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
I suggest also that we keep in mind the fact that the same New Testament tells us that “every man [is] a liar” (cf. Romans 3:4), that human beings are innately prone to deceit, that we are all born with a curse inclining us to sin. Are we to suppose that the author of the gospel of John was something other than a human being and thus immune to human depravity? As Hays states elsewhere, “in a fallen world you never know who will let you down” (see here). How can we in the 21st century know with any assurance that the author of the Gospel of John is not letting us down when we expect his report to be gospel truth? Hays might be able to dazzle us with all kinds of citations to theologians who have painstakingly documented that the author of John was in fact a certain known somebody with impeccable moral caliber, etc., but that would miss the point by moving the issue in question back a step: how could we know with any assurance that Steve Hays or the theologians he might cite are not letting us down as well? It’s not that there are just a few bad apples here and there – the bible tells us that the whole lot is bad apples! Duck I says!
Also, why is the only possibility Hays considers that the narrator himself fabricated the details in question? Perhaps the details were fabricated by an earlier narrator (or chain of narrators – Chinese whispers anyone?) and the present narrator received it with those details already worked up as part of the narrative and is simply passing it on as he had received it. No, Hays has closed the door preemptively to such a possibility, slamming it shut so hard that he never needs to consider it.
However, the explanation may be even deeper than this. Robert Price, in his penetrating collection of analyses comprising The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, points out that the passage Hays cites and those around it are rife with instances that very much appear to be modeled on similarities found in contemporary secular literature. But don’t take my word for it – investigate his book for yourself. It’s well worth the asking price.
The commenter challenged Hays:
So give us that evidence.
As if I haven't done that in 14 years of nonstop blogging.
Of course, that’s the problem with egging on the coming of a centrally-controlled utopia – there’s an infinitesimally small chance that you’ll be among the ruling elite, and if you don’t make it into the chosen in-crowd, your number might be up prematurely. Consider what Fidel did to ol’ Che – offed when he was no longer of use. Wasn’t it Dr. Laura Schlessinger who used to sign off her broadcasts with the words “Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it”? Well, let me assure my readers, I’m pretty cautious when it comes to prayer!
Speaking to the point Hays was really trying to make here, I guess I need to point out that blogging for any number of years, whether intermittently or nonstop, does not equate to evidence of the supernatural. Writing papers which insist that people believe in deities and excoriating non-believers for not believing in deities, does not constitute evidence for the existence of said deities, or any other deities for that matter. Citing theologians, quoting “experts” and re-telling anecdotes of wonders, tales of miraculous healings and accounts of the alleged effects of prayers, does not serve as evidence for the existence of supernatural beings. Sparring with rival doctrines, rebutting alternative orthodoxies, and exposing hypocrisy on the part of faithful adherents of other strains of the faith, do not qualify as evidence that Christianity is true. Sorry, them’s just the facts! I’ll get you some Play Doh® if it helps.
The commenter asked:
How did you arrive at the conclusion Christianity was right.
Actually, it doesn't matter how I arrived at that conclusion. I might have different reasons for being a Christian than I had for becoming a Christian.
The commenter clarified:
But it's not for atheists to have to justify non-belief.
So the onus is not on atheists to justify non-belief in Last Thursdayism or solipsism? What about non-belief that chain-smoking is hazardous to one's health?
So no, the onus is not on atheists to justify non-belief in Last Thursdayism, solipsism, the hazards of chain-smoking, etc. Why would they have such an onus, and to whom would they be obliged to justify their non-belief in these things?
I don’t expect we’ll get answers to these questions. But maybe Hays will prove me wrong.
by Dawson Bethrick