We've all probably heard debates between religious people and atheists or agnostics on the topic of faith; debates where the nonreligious person is asked to prove there are no gods and the textbook reponse, "The burden of proof is on you, for positing an extraordinary cause requires extraordinary evidence". In the end, this may be a fair response, but we should be reluctant to use it because it has a few problems.
First, it doesn't convince. It is a defensive tactic used to hold off endless variations of personal beliefs that laymen put into the public sphere for consideration. Instead of listening, it asks people to come back with something they can't possibly produce. Pragmatic? In a sense, but it leaves a dangerous divide between people who subscribe to the ideas behind it and everyone else. If people have emotional experiences that convince them of deities, we need something better than a burden-of-proof argument.
Second, it is an argument by default. These are tricky, nuanced, and depend on certain philosophical views for support. If people disagree over what is an extraordinary claim (is "my gods made the universe" really more extraordinary than naturalistic frameworks? Maybe so, but will everyone agree?), the argument either has no weight or could be turned around in their head. Defaults (really, inertia) are part of how science works as a societal enterprise, with evidence/parsimony theoretically justifying the complexity in the sciences, but people outside the sciences (in my experience) often do not understand the mechanics of this, and might instead go with the traditions of their family and the church as their own defaults. Is this insensible? I place my stock in science, but following traditional beliefs and practices is a related and also attractive option for some things.
Third, by stopping with a demand for proof as an early line in the argument, we lose the chance to make stronger arguments. The burden of proof is a very strong defense, but if we want to convince, there are better tacks to take. What if we can demonstrate that the psychological needs of humans and the need for value-consensus are a plausible explanation for existing religions? What if we can demonstrate that the moral absolutism that many religions provide is incoherent? What if we can tell a new and compelling narrative of humanity that doesn't need gods and sees us as a species that creates meaning, and that narrative grabs them in a way that makes their religious narrative less rooted? We have many options, depending on the kinds of things people stress in debate - we can understand why they believe and give them alternatives. Nobody is convinced by arguments by default - we can instill the doubt that makes possible wisdom better using different arguments.
Finally, burden of proof underjustifies our position. We can build more compelling cases for what we believe and why using other arguments, with many of our beliefs also probably being difficult to defend (even if we try to match belief strength to level of evidence, we have hunches and data is not always clear). Burden of Proof can at best justify a methodological agnosticism, not anything stronger. What I mean by this is while as empiricists we theoretically should be open to adapting our worldview given any kind of data, methodological agnostics will have difficulty building a "helpful hunch" that there are no gods, or coming to any kind of (overturnable, which is what we'd want anyhow, given data) conclusion on the matter. They'd just refuse to consider the claims of theists without evidence. Having a conclusion that there are no gods is helpful, because even if it is overturned later, it leaves us in a more solid position to support philosophical naturalism (and all that entails, like statistics). We come to that conclusion through other means - by analysing religion, history, human nature, and so on. With sufficiently broad understanding of the sciences (mostly possible in modern times) and no philosophical stuff in the way, the idea of a universe without gods, without any morality beyond that which we create, and without intrinsic meaning comes into focus. We can turn this into specific arguments, and in doing so come to understand why people believe, what the mental process of belief is, and learn to shape ourselves not to be suceptible. Insights from that broad and deep perspective are what will convince people (not always logically either - we need to provide an entire picture of sane perspectives that do not rely on gods.
In sum, we should consider "Burden of Proof" arguments as only rarely convincing and not really serving us in these kinds of discussions, and prefer other types of engagement. The idea of a burden of proof corrisponding to extravagance of claim is useful within a philosophy or body of practice, but it is not very useful in discussions between worldview. Discussions that can engage and categorically inspire doubt on the contents of beliefs or those that can provide compelling alternatives are more likely to make a positive impact.
In other news, life is strange on a few fronts. I'm also starting to really figure out my post-CMU future. Which of my plans and hopes make sense?
Today there was a Google-sponsored TGIF, where an old social break was healed.