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Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

September 1, 2011

In December 2010 the web site Adfreak.com posted a brief report about an atheist ad campaign set to launch in Toronto in January.  Writes reporter David Griner,

Canada’s atheistic Centre for Inquiry plans to start a new Toronto bus campaign in January with the headline, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” followed by this list: “Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, Homeopathy, Zeus, Psychics, Christ.” Campaign coordinator Justin Trottier says the ads aren’t about “knee-jerk debunking” and adds: “We’re interested in a genuine debate, a conversation about so-called extraordinary claims. We’re not here to mock people who believe in these claims” (“Atheist ads liken Allah and Jesus to Bigfoot,” http://adweek.blogs.com/adfreak/2010/12/atheist-ads-liken-allah-and-jesus-to-bigfoot.html).

The claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was made by Carl Sagan. It is often used by atheists as a show-stopper. No matter what evidence is given, they say it isn’t enough. “Enough for what?” is a good question to ask here. If they mean enough to acknowledge certain historical claims to be true, they exaggerate what is required. Christians claim that Jesus lived, then died, then was alive again. These are historical matters. Either the evidence supports the claim or it doesn’t.

Let’s look at some problems with the “extraordinary claims” principle.

This claim, while seeming to be reasonable, is too ambiguous to be useful. It will be applied in keeping with one’s background beliefs. For an atheist, the claim that there is a God is obviously an extraordinary one. But it’s no more extraordinary than the claim that there is no God to theists (interestingly, atheists never offer proof for their naturalism like they demand for theists; they try to bluff people into thinking that atheism is the default position from which everyone should start). It is the metaphysical naturalism of today’s atheists that makes the claim extraordinary for them. When atheists use the principle without acknowledging the significance of their prior naturalistic beliefs, it functions as a rhetorical hiding place.

Evidences should fit what is claimed. Some major claims about Jesus are historical in nature and they can be investigated. Contemporary atheists generally believe that any claim has to pass muster with scientific evidence. Since it isn’t the biological norm for the dead to come back to life, they claim that that can’t happen. But science has to accommodate anomalies. Its job is to explain what is found in nature and to make predictions based upon it. But there is nothing in scientific method itself which precludes such events as the Resurrection from happening. It’s true, of course, that there are no known natural processes by which the dead come back to life. But if God exists, there is a realm above the natural. To deny the possibility of the miraculous requires disproving any supernatural power capable of doing the miraculous. To deny the reality of the Resurrection requires a better explanation of the historical facts surrounding it than that offered by the NT writers.

The issue comes back to the historical claim: Did Jesus in fact rise from the dead? And if so, what does that say about him? When an atheist limits the possible interpretation of events by the parameters of scientific investigation, of course there are possible explanations he will not accept. But that’s a philosophical (and perhaps personal) issue; it has nothing to do with the evidences themselves. The knee-jerk claim that the Resurrection goes against science hides the prior belief that only naturalistic causes are possible in the natural world. Phillip Johnson was right to train the spotlight on the metaphysical presuppositions of Darwinists in the early days of the intelligent design debates.

If atheists take the “extraordinary claims” principle to heart, they will apply it to their own beliefs. The naturalistic Darwinian claim that the world and all in it arose by chance with no external direction is itself an extraordinary claim because 1) on the surface it doesn’t seem reasonable, 2) it lacks explanatory evidence, and 3) the evidence unfolding in the study of the cell and in astronomy (to name two areas) renders it highly improbable. Its proponents frequently offer a faith response: in time, we will learn how these things happened naturally. In time.

Previously I noted that it’s important to ask “enough for what?” Enough to prove Jesus rose from the dead? Enough to prove the God of the Bible exists? There are plenty of evidences and arguments for both.

The issue becomes more momentous when the implications of the reality of God and of the birth, death, and Resurrection of Jesus become clear. This God isn’t one who just wants people to acknowledge He is there. He makes demands on us. The stakes are higher when it’s understood that God expects things from us and will deal with us accordingly if we reject Him. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Jesus died and then came to life. It’s another to make the momentous decision to repent and believe in and follow Christ as the Lord of life. For such a decision, a person might want more than just historical facts and philosophical arguments. What difference will it make for life? Christians have to be ready to answer this legitimate question.

 

Readers will find a good discussion of the “extraordinary claims” principle on the CARM website applied specifically to the Resurrection of Jesus (http://carm.org/apologetics/evidence-and-answers/extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence).

Another web article offers some very helpful points. It’s written by someone defending belief in the paranormal, but one needn’t agree on that issue to see the validity of the arguments against the “extraordinary claims” principle. It’s found here: http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/Page2.htm. There is a line worth quoting here, which the author draws from yet another article:

“A more accurate phrase to describe the standards of pseudoskeptics (and, I’m sorry to say, much of the mainstream) is, “UNPOPULAR claims require extraordinary evidence.” –Marcus Coleman (http://www.wbabin.net/physics/marcus.htm)

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