Religious Belief and the Burden of Proof

March 25, 2010

I am currently reading Miracles by C.S. Lewis.  I came across a remark in passing that caught my attention:

The state of affairs in which ordinary people can discover the Supernatural only by abstruse reasoning is recent and, by historical standards, abnormal.  All over the world, until quite modern times the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of the philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition; they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life.  In the conditions produced by a century or so of Naturalism, plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before.  We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it.  There may be two explanations for this.  It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, have made a ghastly mistake; a mistake which will not be the less fatal because the corruptions of those in authority rendered it very excusable.  On the other hand, it may be that the Power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment.  Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages?  Is the distinction between wise and simple to disappear because all are now expected to become wise?  . . . .

If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying tradition, well.  If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still.  But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her himself is fatal.  A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully.  But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction.  On or back we must go; to stay here is death. 

(Emphases added.)

Thus, according to C.S. Lewis, in the past it was perfectly acceptable to trust wise authority figures on spiritual matters.  Now society urges upon everyone the need to figure it all out “on their own.”  Of course, if a person is incompetent to figure it out “on his own,” Naturalism is often treated as the necessary default choice.

On a related note, last night I came across an interview with Antony Flew, a long-time atheist who recently became a deist (meaning he now believes in an inactive god but rejects all religious revelation).  He discussed his reasons for rejecting Christianity with Christian Philosophy Professor Gary Habermas, but added this:

HABERMAS: You have made numerous comments over the years that Christians are justified in their beliefs such as Jesus’ resurrection or other major tenants of their faith. In our last two dialogues I think you even remarked that for someone who is already a Christian there are many good reasons to believe Jesus’ resurrection. Would you comment on that? 

FLEW: Yes, certainly. This is an important matter about rationality which I have fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual’s consideration depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the fine tuning argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in the existence of that God.

The above remarks from Lewis and Flew—two long-time debate opponents at Oxford—lead me to conclude that one is justified in placing the burden of proof on opposing worldviews.  In other words, if an atheist finds the evidence in favor of the resurrection of Jesus to be wanting, he nevertheless cannot accuse the Christian of unreasonably holding to a false belief unless he can prove as a matter of reason that the resurrection did not happen. 

Both the Christian and the atheist are beholden to simple reason.  But when reason permits two contrary conclusions of fact based on evidence, neither side is justified in accusing the other of acting irrationally for retaining a prior belief.  They may, and should, argue which way the evidence points, but each is justified in retaining prior beliefs, even if based solely on authority, unless all evidence and rational thought require one particular conclusion.  No one can be a sage in all fields; we must accept some facts based on faith in someone giving us information, whether that person be priest or physicist.

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