From Shameless Popery
By Joe Heschmeyer
Protestants and atheists are dissimilar in most regards, and I suspect both sides would be happy with my making this observation. But there is one area in which the two groups behave all too similarly: a fallacious sort of burden-shifting argument. For purposes of this post, we’ll call it “the Norseman and the Atheist.”
I. The Norseman and the Atheist
A Norseman and an atheist are having a conversation about religion:
- N: You believe that the world was created from nothing by nothing?
- A: I do. I believe that matter is all that there is.
- N: How is that possible?
- A: Well, of course I can’t prove that there are no gods or spirits, because it’s impossible to prove a negative. But since you’re the one who believes in these, it’s up to you to prove to me that Thor and Odin exist. I can’t find them looking under a microscope or through a telescope. Based on this, they’re obviously just legends, and so the logical conclusion is that there’s no god.
What are the logical errors that the atheist is making? They’re subtle, so you could be forgiven for missing them, but there are several of them:
- Assuming that there are only two possible answers (if the Norse are wrong, then atheism is right, and vice versa);
- The fallacy that you “can’t prove a negative.”
- Forcing one’s opponent to prove the case within one’s own interpretative framework. The debate here is whether matter is all that there is, and the atheist is using a materialist framework (telescopes and microscopes).
The net result of these fallacies are that one person is saying (in essence): “I don’t have to prove anything to win this argument. Instead, you have to prove your side, and you must do it using a framework I insist on. Unless you can convince me (in my framework) that I’m wrong, then I win.” The fallacious nature of this argument would be clearer if it were a Christian saying, “I don’t believe in Odin because that’s not what the Bible says.” But the fallacy is the same in either case.
So let’s unpack why this is wrong, and where this fallacious line of argumentation can be seen in both atheist and Protestant writings.
II. Where the Argument Goes Wrong
So here’s why each of the three fallacies are wrong:
The first fallacy is wrong because most arguments in life aren’t limited to two possible answers. So proving your opponent wrong doesn’t prove you’re right. After all, it’s possible that both the Norseman and the atheist are wrong!
The second fallacy is wrong because it’s just not true that you “can’t prove a negative.” Dr. Philip A. Pecorino, in the class notes from his philosophy of religion class, includes a piece he wrote entitled “The Burden of Proof” that claims:
So you simply cannot prove general claims that are negative claims — one cannot prove that ghosts do not exist; one cannot prove that leprechauns too do not exist. One simply cannot prove a negative and general claim.
To support this, he quotes from the atheist Richard Carrier’s article “Proving a Negative,” which is funny, because the article begins by debunking Pecorino’s claim:
I know the myth of “you can’t prove a negative” circulates throughout the nontheist community, and it is good to dispel myths whenever we can. As it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a “purely” negative statement, because every negative entails a positive, and vice versa.
It’s for this reason that Dr. Steven D. Hales, chair of philosophy at Bloomsburg University (and author of at least 10 books on philosophy) has written, “A principle of folk logic is that one can’t prove a negative. […] But there is one big, fat problem with all this. Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can’t prove a negative? That’s right: zero.”In other words, the idea that “you can’t prove a negative” isn’t true – it’s just bad folk wisdom.
Hales goes on to explain why this is so: “any claim can be expressed as a negative, thanks to the rule of double negation.” To say “this is pure gold” (a positive claim) is to say “there are no additives in this gold” (a negative claim). To say that the first claim requires proof and the second claim (which means the exact same thing) doesn’t is just playing linguistic games.
The third fallacy is wrong because it’s begging the question. In the conversation between the atheist and the Norseman, the atheist is assuming that if anything exists, it can be observed through scientific means (like microscopes and telescopes). But all that proves is that these gods (if they exist) aren’t material. So at the heart of the problem, the atheist is assuming the very thing that he’s supposed to be proving: that matter is all that there is.
Hopefully, it’s clear enough why the atheist’s argumentation was fallacious (regardless of whether or not you agree with his conclusions). But where do we see examples of this in real life?
III. The Fallacies in the Wild: Atheist Edition
I suggested at the outset that these fallacies are common amongst both atheists and Protestants. So what are some examples of this? Let’s look at atheists first.
Several atheist writers aggressively defend the fallacious argument that atheism is a negative position with no burden of proof. To wit, Keith Parsons both defends this fallacy, and cites several better-respected atheists who did, as well:
The “evidentialist challenge” is the gauntlet thrown down by atheist writers such as Antony Flew, Norwood Russell Hanson, and Michael Scriven. They argue that in debates over the existence of God, the burden of proof should fall on the theist. They contend that if theists are unable to provide cogent arguments for theism, i.e. arguments showing that it is at least more probable than not that God exists, then atheism wins by default. It follows that atheists are under no obligation to argue for the nonexistence of God; their only task is to show that theistic arguments fail.
But there’s one logical leap from “your particular arguments for God fail” to “there are no good arguments for theism,” and another logical leap from that to “therefore no God exists.”
It’s quite possible that one particular set of arguments doesn’t work, or even that one particular god doesn’t exist, but that there’s still a God. And even if you come away unconvinced by the arguments for God, that doesn’t prove the opposite. There’s no such thing as winning by default here. If I said, “there are an even number of stars,” I probably wouldn’t be able to convince you of that as more likely than not. But that doesn’t prove that there are an even number of stars. Surely, if someone said, “if you can’t prove it’s more likely that there are an odd number, even wins by default!” you would recognize that they were playing fast and loose with logic, and trying to manipulate the debate. The same is here. If you’re unconvinced by the arguments for theism, that proves, at most, a sort of agnosticism, that you lack the necessary evidence to come to a conclusion. But agnosticism is equally far from theism and atheism, and it’s intellectual game-playing to conflate atheism and agnosticism.
So that’s the first fallacious game being played. The related one is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (ECREE, for short). The claim was popularized by Carl Sagan, a sort of watered-down version of a bad argument by the philosopher David Hume. As Dr. David Deming has pointed out, this poorly-defined axiom has become “a fundamental principle of scientific skepticism” and “an axiom of the skeptical movement.” Not only has this saying been used to discredit mainstream scientific theses, but:
In other instances, the invocation of ECREE has been virtually unintelligible. Tressoldi (2011: 1) described ECREE as a statement that “is at the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.” Yet in the same paragraph the author conceded that it was impossible to objectively define the term “extraordinary.” He admitted that “measures of ‘extraordinary evidence’ are completely reliant on subjective evaluation” (Tressoldi 2011: 1). It is clearly impossible to base all rational thought and scientific methodology on an aphorism whose meaning is entirely subjective.
So the combination of “the presumption of atheism” and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” amounts to, “I don’t have to prove my case at all, and you have to prove your case to an extraordinary degree… as defined by me.” This is irrational burden-shifting. The claim “there is a God” and “there is not a God” equally require evidence, just as the claim “there is an even number of stars” and “there is not an even number of stars” require equal amounts of evidence.
IV. The Fallacies in the Wild: Protestant Edition
So if the atheist argument is “the default is that there’s no God, and it’s 100% on you to prove that there is,” what does the Protestant one look like? Let’s talk about just two examples: (1) is sola scriptura true? and (2) are bishops the successors of the Apostles? Protestants say yes to the first claim, and no to the second. Catholics say the opposite. But what’s fascinating is the manipulative way in which many Protestants approach the evidence on these (and many other) topics. I don’t know that they’re doing this intentionally – it may be as simple as just analyzing all of the evidence with the underlying assumption that they’re right… and that’s a universal risk. But whether it’s intentional or not, it’s certainly manipulation of the evidence.
Let’s start with sola scriptura. It’s the doctrine (according to the Westminster Confession) that
6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
But there’s a huge, glaring problem with this. In the religious controversy over sola scriptura, the side in favor of the doctrine can’t find the doctrine taught anywhere in Scripture. And what’s more, the ability to decide issues based on Scripture requires knowing for sure which books are and aren’t Scripture… and nowhere in the Bible clarifies that, either. So before we learn one thing about the papacy, or history, or Tradition, or Church Councils, we can know that sola scriptura can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense. Don’t get me wrong – it’s easy to imagine a world in which Jesus said “here, take this book, it’s all you need,” but He quite plainly didn’t.
These difficulties are insuperable for sola scriptura Protestants, which is why many of them are only too eager to try to change the subject instead. For instance, in response to the question “Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?” James McCarthy (in The Gospel According to Rome) responds not by providing evidence that the Bible does teach sola scriptura, but by claiming Protestants shouldn’t have to actually prove their doctrine:
Though this tactic is effective in putting their opponents on the defensive, it is in fact misleading. Both sides agree that the Scriptures are the Word of God and that as such they speak with divine authority. The Lord Jesus Himself, in John 10:35, clearly identifies the Word of God as Scripture. The point of controversy is Tradition. The Roman Catholic Church asserts that Tradition is also the Word of God.The question which the Roman Catholic Church must answer, therefore, is: Where do Jesus, the prophets, or the apostles teach that Tradition is the Word of God? Or, more precisely: Where in the Bible can it be found that Scripture and Tradition together, as interpreted by the Pope and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, are to be the church’s rule of faith?James McCarthy, The Gospel According to Rome, p. 354.
This is all three of the Norseman fallacies rolled into one:
- McCarthy acts as if he can prove sola scriptura true by default, by proving one variation of Catholic arguments wrong. But of course this isn’t true. The Eastern Orthodox (for instance) reject the papacy, and reject sola scriptura. So McCarthy isn’t answering the objection, he’s dodging it by changing the subject.
- McCarthy is making the negative evidence fallacy. He’s treating the Catholic claim for infallible tradition as something that needs to be proved, but the Protestant denial of tradition as something that can just be assumed until proven otherwise.
- His reasoning is entirely circular, because he’s begging the question. He proves the authority of Scripture by saying that Jesus says so… in Scripture. But he would never accept a Catholic claiming that Tradition is inspired because Tradition says so. No, he insists that Catholics must prove their claim from Scripture alone… the very framework he’s supposed to be proving.
We see the same thing in a recent Triablogue post by Steve Hays called, “What does sola scriptura mean?” in which he also desperately tries to change the conversation away from actually proving sola scriptura:
iii) The historic target of sola scriptura is the papacy and post-apostolic church councils. Sola scripture is the claim that there are no infallible post-apostolic church councils. Likewise, that God didn’t institute the papacy. The pope is not a divine mouthpiece.iv) Apropos (iii), suppose a Catholic apologist asks us where do we find that in the Bible? But that’s the point–we don’t find the papacy in the Bible. And we don’t find divine promises to inspire post-apostolic church councils in the Bible. We find promises to the apostles. But we don’t find comparable promises to bishops or post-apostolic church councils.
This is sheer conversation-changing and burden-shifting. Notice that he’s redefined sola scriptura from a positive belief in the singular supremacy of the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit’s means of adjudicating theological debates to a disbelief in Councils and popes (bizarrely, he doesn’t even discuss Apostolic Tradition). Now, instead of having to prove their doctrines, he’s acting as if Protestants can assume it unless Catholics can prove the papacy and the infallibility of Church Councils. But regardless of the truth of Catholicism, sola scriptura is self-refuting. Even if the papacy were false, sola scriptura would still be false. So this is a totally irrelevant attempt at a tu quoque fallacy. And notice that, like McCarthy, he insists that the Catholic most prove these doctrines from Scripture, just like the atheist who insists that theists have to prove theism from materialist premises.
The fallacious nature of the argument becomes more clear as Triablogue continues:
vi) It’s not that we don’t find sola scriptura in the Bible, in the sense of a direct statement about sola scripture. That’s a confused way to frame the issue. Sola scriptura is defined by the point of contrast. The historical alternative. We don’t find what sola scriptura opposes in the Bible. […] For Catholic apologists to ask or exclaim, “Where do you find that in the Bible?” proves our point. We don’t, and that’s the problem–for Catholicism.
Even if all of this were true (it’s not, but no matter), this would be a fallacious argument. The whole argument is that, unless Catholics … starting from sola scriptura… can prove specific doctrines (the infallibility of the papacy and Councils to Triablogue, Apostolic Tradition to McCarthy) to the satisfaction of sola scriptura Protestants, then sola scriptura wins by default. It would be as if Catholics said, “unless you can show me where popes have denied papal infallibility, then papal infallibility is proven true.” Protestants would rightly recognize that as just terrible argumentation, and the same is true here.
Now, it’s true that Catholics accept the authority of Scripture, but that doesn’t change the fallacious nature of the argument – we don’t believe in Scripture alone. Likewise, theists believe in the existence of the material world, but don’t believe in the material world alone. In either case, insisting that we start the debate by acting like we believe the side we reject is a very strange shifting of evidentiary burdens.
Two final examples, just to show how often Protestant apologists engage in this intellectually-lazy burden-shifting. There’s no question, from Scripture, that the Church established by Jesus had bishops (1 Tim. 3:1) and Councils (Acts 15). Triablogue’s church (apparently) doesn’t. So you would think it would be on him to show that somewhere in Scripture said “do this now, but then get rid of the structure Jesus established.” After all, if there were any other teaching where someone said, “yes, Jesus taught this, but it’s not true any more,” we would normally expect them to support this claim with some sort of evidence. But amazingly, he doesn’t view himself as having this burden. Instead, his argument is that the Catholic just isn’t enough… and so he gets to win by default:
v) Catholics sometimes appeal to the “ordination” of Timothy (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) as an example of holy orders. Suppose, for argument’s sake, we agree that the ceremony conferred a “charism” on Timothy. But Paul officiated at that ceremony. So that provides no precedent for “bishops” who aren’t handpicked deputies of the apostles. For “bishops” on whom apostles did not lay hands. […]viii) Catholics appeal to Acts 15, but apostles along with a sibling of Jesus were participants. So that’s no precedent for post-apostolic church councils.
Notice the burden-shifting again and again. He just repeatedly says some version of “the Catholic side hasn’t proven their case enough” while he doesn’t bother to prove his case at all. The Apostles appointed bishops as successors, but that doesn’t prove (to Triablogue’s satisfaction) that the bishops appointed more bishops as successors., and so therefore he just assumes the opposite. An infallible Church Council exists in the Bible. But that doesn’t prove that later Church Councils are infallible, so therefore he just assumes the opposite. On and on it goes. If we show that historically, Peter was succeeded by Linus, and Cletus, etc., well, that’s not good enough because the post-Apostolic history isn’t contained in the Bible. Somehow, Catholics have to trace the last two thousand years of papal succession while only using books from the first century.
This is an easy con game, if you can get away with it. There’s no way a Catholic will ever be able to prove every doctrine beyond a shadow of any doubt, especially if the Protestant side doesn’t need to offer any proof or any sort of coherent theory. You can just as easily use this “method” to prove that Christian sexuality morality isn’t still applicable, or that if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t really still teach the things he taught, and so on. And how can anyone ever respond? No matter how good their evidence, you can just say “I’m not convinced.”
There’s a serious spiritual danger here for Protestants, one rarely remarked upon. Relative to atheists, Protestants are defined by what (and in whom) they believe. But relative to Catholics, Protestants are defined by what they disbelieve.* And so it’s easy to take the same fallacious burden-shifting arguments that atheists often use to justify their disbelief. But at heart, we need to recognize that this approach isn’t an argument. This is just the shrug of the skeptic in the guise of a Christian. It’s an abandonment of defending one’s beliefs. As an approach, it’s ultimately both illogical and totally unfitting, least of all for a Christian.
*I think that this is an important point. I’m not familiar with the Norseman fallacy being employed by a Catholic, which may be my own blindness or bias, but which I suspect is because Catholics are rarely in the position of arguing for what we don’t believe.