I had the opportunity to hear John Warwick Montgomery speak at the Evangelical Theological/Philosophical Conference in 2012. He was one of the most engaging speakers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Here, we’ll look at his presentation alongside the journal article that he discussed. The topic was “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion?”*
Conversion and Evidence
Montgomery began by discussing the possibility of a position which had so much evidence that it becomes difficult to not believe it. Despite this, people do not hold that position. The reason, he argued, is because reasons other than evidence play into one’s conversion. Moreover, we live in a pluralistic age, which means that there are a vast array of options available to people looking for a worldview. This pluralism necessitates a drop in conversion rates because there are more worldviews presenting their evidence to each individual. Thus, it is important to look into the issue of the burden of proof alongside the issue of the standard of proof.
Burden and Standard of Proof
Here, Montgomery turned to his experience in law to explore the notion. Simply put, the burden of proof can also be seen as the burden of persuasion . Montgomery noted that the prosecutor does not always carry the burden of proof because the defendant often provides a positive defense, and so has their own burden of proof. For example, if someone says “I could not have done x because I was doing y at the same time at location z” then they have made a positive claim which itself requires a burden of proof. Or, as Montgomery put it, “The person who wants to make a case has the burden of proof.”
But it is important to note that the burden of proof is not the same thing as a standard of proof. When people object to Christianity based upon a supposed lack of proof, they are not addressing the burden of proof but rather the standard. Montgomery acknowledged that Christianity must assume the burden of proof but makes several points related to the standard of proof.
First, proof “depends on probability–not on absolute certainty or on mere possibility” (Montgomery, 452, cited below). He appealed to the “Federal Rules of Evidence” to make this clear. The key is to note that probability ,not absolute certainty, is at stake. Why? Epistemologically speaking, absolute certainty can only be set out in formal logic or mathematics. It is unjustifiable to require absolute certainty for every fact. “Where matters of fact are concerned–as in legal disputes, but also in the religious assertions of historic Christianity–claims can be vindicated only by way of evidential probability” (Ibid).
Second, and more importantly for the current discussion, there are differing standards of proof. The legal system is again a model for this notion. In criminal trials, there is a higher standard of proof than for civil matters. The criminal standard is beyond reasonable doubt, while the civil standard is “preponderence of evidence.” Montgomery argued that religious conversion should be seen as bearing a standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” (453).
Third, competing religious claims must each assume their own burden of proof. They cannot simply say “prove my religious claim false.” One must meet the standard of proof in order to have legitimate entry into the competition between worldviews.
Extraordinary Claims Need Extraordinary Evidence?
Often, the claim is made that religious claims, because they are extraordinary, need extraordinary evidence. I have written on this exact topic at length elsewhere, but here will focus on Montgomery’s argument. He argued “The notion that the ‘subject matter’ should be allowed to cause a relaxation or an augmentation of the standard of proof is a very dangerous idea…. No one would rationally agree to a sliding evidence scale dependent on the monetary sum involved [in a crime]–nor should such a scale be created… The application to religious arguments based on the factuality of historical events should be obvious. Of course, the resurrection of Christ is of immensely more significance than Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but the standards required to show that the one occurred are no different from those employed in establishing the other” (Ibid, 455-456).
The notion that the import of a claim makes a sliding scale of evidence is made to be absurd because historical events have more importance across cultures and so would, on such a view, be radically different in their acceptable standards of proof.
The Existential Factor
Finally, Montgomery focused on the existential side of conversion. Here, he offered what he admitted as a somewhat crude argument which was derived from Pascal’s wager. Assuming that the standard of proof is met for a religious system, one still must deal with the existential factors of conversion. Thus, Montgomery argued, one’s commitment to a truth claim should be weighed by the benefits divided by the entrance requirements: C=B/E.
Because the entrance requirements for Christianity are extremely low, and its benefits infinite, one should, assuming the standard of proof has been met, be highly committed to Christianity. Montgomery noted that some may argue the entrance requirements are very high (i.e. setting aside adulterous relationships). Against this, Montgomery argued that the benefits vastly outweigh the finite bliss one feels by such sinful actions.
The subtlety of Montgomery’s argument should not be missed. It has application in a number of areas. First, Montgomery is as thoroughgoing an evidentialist as they come. His argument about the standard of proof being probabilistic is unlikely to gain much credence among those who favor a presuppositional approach to apologetics.
Yet it seems to me that Montgomery’s argument in this regard is correct. We must take into account the evidence when we are looking at various religious claims, and also acknowledge the existential factors which play into conversion.
Montgomery’s argument does much to clarify the issue for apologists in general. Our task is to clear barriers and present convincing evidence to those who argue that Christianity has not met the standard of proof. But our task does not end with that; we must also present the existential challenge of Christianity to those who believe the standard of proof has been met. This includes the preaching of the Gospel.
Montgomery was also careful not to discount the Holy Spirit in religious conversion. He made it clear that he was speaking to the notion of conversion in the abstract. People must be renewed by the Holy Spirit; yet that renewal may come through evidence and standard of proof.
It seems to me that Montgomery’s arguments were insightful and sound. He presented an excellent way to look at religious claims and evaluate them in light of evidence, while also taking existential factors into account.
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Montgomery’s use of evidence in law to look at religious truth claims reminds me very much of J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity. Check out my review of that fantastic book.
Extraordinary Claims need… what, exactly?– I argue that the claim that religious claims need extraordinary evidence is mistaken.
I have written about numerous other talks at the EPS Conference on an array of topics. Check them out:
Gregg Davidson vs. Andrew Snelling on the Age of the Earth– I write about a debate I attended on the age of the earth.
Caring for Creation: A dialogue among evangelicals– I discuss a lecture and panel discussion on caring for the environment.
Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– Here, I outline a fascinating talk I attended about gene enhancement and gene therapy.
You can read my overview of every single talk I attended: My Trip to the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference 2012.
*Unless otherwise noted, the information herein was discussed in John Warwick Montgomery’s EPS 2012 Conference talk entitled “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion? Some Thoughts on Burden and Standard of Proof vis-a-vis Christian Commitment”
John Warwick Montgomery, “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion?” in Philosophia Christi 13, #1 2011, 449-460.
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Excellent! It would be a great privilege to be able to listen to Dr. Montgomery, especially since his own experience and training in evidential apologetics will be getting harder to find. The one thing I would add is that questions about burdens and standards of proof do mot stand apart from the question of prior probability structures and synthetic a priori considerations. For example, we need to principally rule out claims by rival metaphysical views that make the prior probability of miracles to be 0, such as materialism and Eastern Pantheism.
Thanks for your insightful comment. I think you are correct in our analysis.
If I demand extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary claim, I’m not asking for more evidence. I’m not using a “sliding scale” or a double standard. Instead I’m taking into account the great mass of ordinary evidence all around us, which we usually take for granted.
This ordinary evidence supports most ordinary claims, so all I need to believe an ordinary claim is somebody’s straightforward assertion. For example, if you say you saw an elephant at the zoo, I’ll trust you because I already know that zoos typically have elephants on display. All my experience of zoos provides evidence to support your ordinary claim.
On the other hand, my ordinary experience provides no evidence to support an extraordinary claim. If you say you saw an elephant on the Moon, I’ll need very special evidence before I believe you. And that’s because you don’t get any benefit of doubt from my ordinary experience.
The amount of evidence required for belief is the same for both ordinary and extraordinary claims. Ordinary claims already have lots of evidence because of people’s ordinary experience, but extraordinary claims do not. That’s why extraordinary claims need to make up the deficit. They need different evidence.
I’m not sure how this argument has not already been answered. As Montgomery noted: “Of course, the resurrection of Christ is of immensely more significance than Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but the standards required to show that the one occurred are no different from those employed in establishing the other.”
There really is no different evidence needed. I have argued to this end elsewhere: https://jwwartick.com/2011/04/19/extraordinary-claims/.