Levels of Religious Claims

critical thinkingI came across a very interesting look at how atheists ought to look at Christian claims that I thought I’d examine here. It was posted in a thread over on Debating Christianity & Religion, the link to the original thread is here.  I will be evaluating the entire original post, but of course, much more happens in the thread and I encourage anyone interested to go read along.

Anyhow, what I’m going to demonstrate from this argument is the fact that theists really have no quarter to hide from their burden of proof, regardless of how they phrase their statements.  Just saying “I believe X” doesn’t keep you from supporting X.  Saying “I have faith in X” isn’t a defense either.  At best, it may shift the credibility of the argument from the thing being believed to the believer themselves and honestly, destroying your own credibility by believing in absurd, indefensible things is probably the worst strategy overall.

So let’s get started and look at his levels of religious claims.

Level One: The claim that “I Believe” 

Supposed a Christian makes the claim, “I believe that Jesus is the only begotten son of God” 

That claim is unprovable. All they can offer is their word that they believe this. In fact, in this case, anything other than accepting that their claim is true amounts to nothing more than accusing them of lying. 

All they are claiming in this case is to believe something. They aren’t claiming that they can demonstrate that what they believe is actually true. 

However, at this point there should be no debate going on at all. What is there to debate? The fact that someone claims to believe something? Let them believe it. There is no need to debate it at all. 

There are some really good things here and some that are not so good.  Yes, the theist is not claiming they can demonstrate that what they believe is actually true.  However, inherent in any such statement is a claim that such a thing is actually so.  Saying that you believe a thing to be true is as good as saying the thing is actually true, otherwise what rational reason could you possibly have to believe it?  If someone’s word means nothing, as seems to be the suggestion here, then we, as rational people, can dismiss the claim entirely.  There certainly is something to debate though, a  belief is not just a neutral statement, it is a positive position and a person has to present reasons why they find the evidence for such a claim compelling.  Can they?  Almost certainly not.  Will they? Almost assuredly not.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not invalidating their entire position and likely their entire credibility on the subject by refusing to engage in debate.  Just saying that you believe something absurd doesn’t make the absurd thing any more likely, nor does it make you look any better because you believe it.

Level Two: The claim that “I can demonstrate that my belief is reasonable” 

Supposed a Christian makes the claim, “I believe that Jesus is the only begotten son of God, and I can show that this is a reasonable belief” 

This appears to be something that can be debated to some degree. However, even this can become an extremely subjective debate. This can lead to endless arguments concerning just exactly what constitutes “reasonable”. And there is a whole lot of wiggle room here for the Christian. The Christan can wiggle quite a bit concerning the Biblical account of Jesus by appealing to all manner of vague subjective interpretations of the scriptures. They can also appeal to the magical powers of God to overcome any scientific objections, etc. 

Such debates are pretty much guaranteed to end with one party simply rejecting what the other party feels is “reasonable”. 

I think this is the tactic taken by Dr. William Craig. He can basically argue until the cows come home that he feels it’s reasonable to believe in this religious texts. 

Such debates will never be won or lost, at best all they can do is sway audiences who watch the debates into accepting that one side is being more reasonable than the other side. 

It isn’t something that ban be debated to some degree, it is a truth claim that needs to  be demonstrated or the claimant is wholly discredited.  This only becomes subjective if we allow it to.  After all, if the believer simply says that they find whatever claims they make to be reasonable, does that really prove anything?  If someone claims that he finds the flying spaghetti monster to be reasonable, is that an actual fact, or is it just someone with a particularly low standard of evidence?  A believer saying “I believe it” isn’t any more impressive than a conspiracy theorist saying “I believe it”.  We need to hold them to a standard of evidence that would be acceptable to a skeptical mind.

Level Three: The claim that “I can demonstrate that what I believe is true.” 

Now you’ve got a debate where demands for evidence are not only appropriate but are a must. This debate can be decided based entirely on the evidence presented with no room for subjective opinions. 

Yet isn’t this exactly the same as #2?  They can demonstrate what they believe is true, to what standard of truth? I’ve had plenty of crazy people tell me exactly this, they have failed utterly to demonstrate anything, to produce any evidence, to provide even the merest example of logical intuition, they simply declare that they’re right and off they go down the primrose path.  In fact, I’d say that the more crazy one is, the more delusional one’s beliefs, the more likely they are to make this kind of claim.

So he tries to turn it all around on the atheists and blows it entirely.


Level One: The claim that “I Believe” 

Supposed an Atheist makes the claim, “I believe that there is no God” 

That claim is unprovable. All they can offer is their word that they believe this. In fact, in this case, anything other than accepting that their claim is true amounts to nothing more than accusing them of lying. 

All they are claiming in this case is to believe something. They aren’t claiming that they can demonstrate that what they believe is actually true. 

However, at this point there should be no debate going on at all. What is there to debate? The fact that someone claims to believe something? Let them believe it. There is no need to debate it at all. 

An atheist who said they believe there is no God has the same burden of proof that the theist who says they believe there is.  The burden of proof is always on the positive claimant.  However, there aren’t a lot of atheists who say that there is no God, they say that there is no evidence for a God, therefore they don’t believe in one. This is an important distinction to make.  Let’s remove the emotional element that invariably accompanies religious discussions and talk about unicorns.  I do not believe unicorns do not exist, I simply lack belief that they do.  If I argued that unicorns don’t exist, I would be on the hook to prove it.  I see no evidence whatsoever to demonstrate that unicorns are a reasonable proposition, thus I do not believe that they are real.  If someone has evidence that they’re actual creatures, present it and I’ll change my mind.  Until then, I will continue to lack belief in unicorns.

Level Two: The claim that “I can demonstrate that my belief is reasonable” 

Supposed a Atheist makes the claim, “I believe there is no God, and I can show that this is a reasonable belief” 

This appears to be something that can be debated to some degree. However, even this can become an extremely subjective debate. This can lead to endless arguments concerning just exactly what constitutes “reasonable”. 

Such debates are pretty much guaranteed to end with one party simply rejecting what the other party feels is “reasonable”. 

Such debates will never be won or lost, at best all they can do is sway audiences who watch the debates into accepting that one side is being more reasonable than the other side. 

It is indeed a reasonable belief, given what I said above.  Of course, a better statement would be “I don’t believe in gods and I can show that this is a reasonable belief.”  Rational people only believe in things for which actual evidence has been presented and actual critical thinking and logic has been employed.  That goes for gods, ghosts, Bigfoot, unicorns, etc.  We cannot possibly believe in every unknown but imagined entity, many are contradictory or absurd, thus we all have to operate in this manner.  Even theists do for virtually every single category of imaginary creature, with the exception of gods.  Thus, even they think that it is rational and reasonable to reject belief in things for which there is no evidence, except where this comes into conflict with their emotional desires for an imaginary friend in the sky to exist.


Level Three: The claim that “I can demonstrate that what I believe is true.” 

Now you’ve got a debate where demands for evidence are not only appropriate but are a must. This debate can be decided based entirely on the evidence presented with no room for subjective opinions. 

So Atheists can be in the very same predicament as Christians depending on what their claims actually are. 

And yet, they’re not because virtually no atheists operate under this straw man.  That’s really what it is, an absurd strawman, designed to make theists feel good about holding ridiculous beliefs.  Can we prove that there are no gods?  Of course not, any more than we can prove that there are no unicorns.  However, only a fool believes in something for which there is no evidence, for which there is no logical reason to show that it most likely is actually so.  Theists cannot get from point A to point B.  They have nothing that will convince a skeptic, not because the skeptic cannot be convinced, but because their emperor has no clothes on.  The skeptic knows this, that’s why they continue not to believe the claims of the theist.  When and if the theist’s presentation improves, we’ll re-evaluate their position, but not until.

All in all, I think all of these levels are approximately the same in essence, but the theist who just says “I believe” is worse off in scope.  They are very much like the battered wife who is sure their husband will stop beating them.  They’re like the guy who is positive his wife would never cheat on him, even though there are pictures of her with other men posted on the Internet.  These are people who believe what they want to  believe, whether it’s so or not. They likely have never even considered their beliefs intellectually, it’s a wholly emotional thing and truth really isn’t important to them.

The next time a theist tries any of these claims, point out the errors in their ways and suggest that they might rethink their approach.  It won’t help, of course, but at least others watching the exchange might have a good laugh.

4 thoughts on “Levels of Religious Claims

  1. "An atheist who said they believe there is no God has the same burden of proof that the theist who says they believe there is."

    Not so sure of this. If I say I don't believe in unicorns or 12 legged cows that speak, I have the same burden as someone who says they do believe in them? The person, as you pointed out in your commentary, who claims to have belief in something is the one making the positive claim. As you said, the person who states belief in X is implying that that X exists. If I reply that I don't believe X exists how am I making or implying a claim that has an equal burden of proof?

    Lots of atheists say they don't believe in God. You are saying that they then have to prove God does not exist? While it is possible to prove a negative, I think the burden to demonstrate the truth of a belief is much greater for the one who holds a belief that X exists than the one who holds that X does not exist. Believing something does not exist is not a positive, it is a negative.

  2. " Of course, a better statement would be “I don’t believe in gods and I can show that this is a reasonable belief.” "

    Perhaps an even better one would be "I reject belief in gods given the lack of evidence that would be and is necessary to warrant belief in gods." Seems to me that pointing out the insufficiency of the evidence for the claim that gods exist is all one needs to demonstrate that not believing in gods is a reasonable position to take on the claim.

  3. "They are very much like the battered wife who is sure their husband will stop beating them."

    Clarify. How is a woman who believes this the same as a person who says they believe there is a God? I am doubtful that the intellectual, emotional, and psychological factors involved in a woman who believes this are the same as those in play with a person who states a belief in God.

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