So, the next set of arguments that Seidensticker takes up revolve around the idea that atheism isn’t a claim, and that theists therefore have the burden of proof. He points out what he claims is an asymmetry in the arguments that Bannister misses:
But I shouldn’t have to since I’m not making the extraordinary claim—that’s the asymmetry that Bannister ignores. In the case of an extraordinary claim (and “There is a god” is certainly one), the default position is the denial of that claim: “There is a god” vs. “there isn’t.”
The first thing to talk about here is to ask if it’s really the case that “There exists a god” counts as an “extraordinary” claim. The big problem with the whole “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” sound byte is that how reasonable that proposition is depends on what you mean by extraordinary, and potentially on avoiding equivocation between the two uses of the word. So, in order to conclude that “There exists a god” is an extraordinary claim, we need to understand in what sense “extraordinary” is used here, and once we do that we’ll be able to note if that sort of extraordinary is one that we should care about.
Now, let me start not by really examining possibilities for what “extraordinary” might mean, but instead by talking about the specific belief in god itself. The vast majority of people believe that some kind of god exists; atheism is, in fact, a minority position. If we wanted to consider naturalism itself, the percentage of people believing some sort of supernatural proposition — including ghosts, ancestor spirits, astrology, reincarnation, and so on — is even higher. So let me ask this: is it really reasonable to say that a belief that most people hold is in fact the extraordinary one, and that the belief that most people don’t believe is the one that is “mundane”, as Seidensticker puts it later? By the common meaning of the terms “extraordinary” and “mundane”, the belief that a god exists and the belief that at least one supernatural proposition is true are, in fact, mundane; they are common beliefs and ones that most people hold. So from the start we have reason to suspect that Seidensticker is using a very specific and specialized definition of “extraordinary” here to make his case.
Typically, atheists try to define “extraordinary” as “violating the laws of nature”. But from the above comment we can see that most people hold that natural laws can be violated by supernatural things and processes, and that at least one of those things does, in fact, exist. Thus, the atheist appealing to naturalism here is them appealing to what they are supposed to establish. If I’m not a naturalist — and, again, most people aren’t naturalists — why should I accept that a claim being supernatural in and of itself makes it extraordinary? It is unreasonable for atheists to appeal to a definition of “extraordinary” that requires me to accept a position they hold and I don’t.
Now, a lot of atheists will turn to science to help them out here, as science is naturalistic and discovers the natural laws, and so anything that violates — or seems to violate — current scientific knowledge would count as “extraordinary”. While this does fit well into our general trust of science, the problem with this approach is that the conclusions of science are not accepted because they are therefore not extraordinary. We trust scientific conclusions because we believe that science, in general, can and will provide the extraordinary evidence for any claim it accepts. Thus, if someone wants to challenge a scientific consensus, one would generally not try to demonstrate that the claim is extraordinary in and of itself, but simply go right for the jugular and claim that the evidence is, itself, not extraordinary enough to justify the proposition. So there is no reason to think that just because a proposition violates scientific consensus that it is therefore “extraordinary”, and that certainly applies even more so to science’s naturalistic assumption, which it doesn’t have extraordinary evidence for since all it can say is that so far it can explain things without appealing to supernatural explanations, which is both the inductive fallacy and runs into the issue that being able to find a naturalistic explanation does not in and of itself mean that the naturalistic explanation is the best one.
The final way I’ll consider here is to define it as not being part of common experience. Most people don’t experience gods, miracles or other supernatural things every day, so that would make them “extraordinary”. The problem is that we consider a number of uncommon experiences perfectly mundane all the time. So it’s not that we don’t experience it commonly that matters, but how much it clashes with what we currently believe that matters … which, then, cycles back to the original point that since most people believe some sort of supernatural proposition, most people won’t consider a proposition extraordinary just because it is supernatural.
So, with “extraordinary claim” at least weakened, there’s another issue with Seidensticker’s claim here: why is the default denial? As Seidensticker himself puts it, the idea is that if the theist can’t prove their claim, then the default reasonable position is “There are no gods”. Essentially, Seidensticker here presumes that we can only have two states wrt beliefs, either believing the proposition true or believing it false, and if we can’t prove it sufficiently true then we have to accept that it is false. But there’s another option here, which is the “mere lack of belief” that atheists often use as the basis for claiming that they don’t have the burden of proof. In short, instead of saying that I think the proposition is true or that the proposition is false, I instead say that I have no idea and no opinion on it, and instead of treating the proposition as true or false I treat it as irrelevant: I have no idea whether or not it’s true, so I don’t act as if it is true or false. Thus, if I believe it true I act as if it is true, if I believe it false I act as if it is false, and if I simply lack belief I remove it from consideration and act according to the other beliefs that I have. Seidensticker rather pointedly ignores this possibility, despite it being the main justification for the claim that atheists don’t have the burden of proof.
And we can see what this insistence that denial is the default gets Seidensticker when he asks why Bannister cares so much:
And why is the Christian making a big deal about this? He’s characterizing the burden of proof as a burden. If he demands reciprocity before he will make his case, he’s missing an opportunity. Does he want me to earn the right to hear the Good News? Why not say that he will gladly make his case and simply hope that the atheist follows his lead?
I think it’s because his defense of Christianity is weak, and he wants to improve his overall argument by having something to attack as well.
First, the same charge could be made of Seidensticker as well, especially since he claims to follow the evidence. If he does, then presumably he has sufficient evidence for his belief that gods don’t exist. So why, then, is he defending the atheist not having the burden of proof? Surely any evidence-based atheist has more than enough evidence to meet any reasonable burden of proof, so then why do they avoid trying to meet it? Maybe they know that their evidence for atheism is weak, and they want to avoid ever having to give it.
What we can see is that this argument over the burden of proof is to avoid falling into the atheist trap. If we look at what Seidensticker is advocating, he’s holding an actual positive belief — there are no gods — and is insisting that if someone wants to challenge that they must prove him wrong. In short, they must prove that a god exists, and if they can’t, then the default position is Seidensticker’s. So the game is rigged in Seidensticker’s favour: if the theist can’t prove their case to Seidensticker’s satisfaction then Seidensticker wins, and the theist might have to accept that believe that that god doesn’t exist is the most reasonable and rational decision. This works well for atheists because it is much easier to argue against a proposition than in favour of one, and so Seidensticker takes a position where only overwhelming evidence will leave him without the ability to at least cast reasonable doubt on the position and thus win. And the atheist will never have to actually support their position or give any evidence.
Now, let’s look at Bannister’s view of active and passive beliefs. Seidensticker characterizes it this way:
I’m seeing three categories of beliefs:
A, beliefs that are true (Sweden exists)
B, beliefs that are false (Atlantis exists)
C, things you could have a belief about but don’t (Bannister’s example: whether there are hippos in the bathroom).
He wants to call A an active belief, ignore B and hope no one asks him about it, and call C a passive belief. I want to focus instead on A (true beliefs) and B (false beliefs) and ignore C, since we’re both in agreement that no one cares about C.
We’re talking about the burden of proof here. Talking about false beliefs seems irrelevant since a) the point of the discussion is to establish whether or not the beliefs are true and b) no one has the burden of proof for a belief that they believe is false. So an atheist who thinks that the belief “God exists” is false doesn’t have a burden of proof to prove that God exists. They can have a burden of proof for the belief that they think is true, which is “God does not exist”. Only the person who lacks belief, who is in category C, has no burden of proof, because you could believe it true or false, but you don’t believe either. This is the category that Seidensticker claims no one cares about. He might be right, but that’s the only category of even atheists that have no actual burden of proof.
I’m going to skip the “worldview/religion” debate because atheism is clearly an explicitly religious opinion and worldviews need justifications as well, so settling the debate over the specifics isn’t going to matter much. The heart of this post is that it is a bad argument to say that atheists aren’t making a claim if they are, in fact, making a claim, and a number of them — Seidensticker included — do make claims. The attempts to avoid that always end up self-serving for the atheists, giving them a way out that they refuse to allow for theists or anyone who disagrees with them. It does seem odd that a group that so insists on evidence-based reasoning is trying so hard to avoid having to ever give evidence for their claims.