I have, for the past few months, been teaching a comparative religion class at my church, and just this past Sunday, we began our final topic—the twin-headed religion of Atheism and Secular Humanism. Whether this is truly a religion or not has been debated ad nauseum, but what is undeniable is that many modern atheists behave religiously in many respects. They proselytize and encourage others to do the same. Many have even begun organizing quasi-churches immediately followed by practicing the time-honored tradition of schism.
One subject I intend to bring up in our next session is Carl Sagan’s famous contention that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, anyone who wants to suggest something that doesn’t fit into the naturalistic box needs to come up with evidence far beyond what would be required for any other type of claim. This is a favorite saying of some of the lazier atheist apologists, as it allows one to avoid defending his own beliefs and instead sit back and claim that no amount of evidence offered in favor of God’s existence is sufficiently extraordinary. This frees them up to instead focus on the task of provoking volitional doubt in the believer.
This “Sagan Standard” can trip up Christians because it is one of those statements which seems like common sense at first glance. After all, few people would need much time to come up with an extraordinary claim that they would not believe unless extraordinary evidence were offered. Nevertheless, the closer one looks, the less sense it makes. It has at least three critical failings when applied to the existence of God.
First, the statement as a whole simply isn’t true in a broad sense. Not all extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences—only some do. The reason for this is that many extraordinary claims are compositions of entirely ordinary claims. Take, for example, the Resurrection of Christ. A man coming back from the dead is certainly extraordinary. Nevertheless, a claim to a resurrection is really made up of two simpler claims: first, that a man was dead at a certain point in time, and second, that the same man was bodily alive again at a certain (later) point in time. These are about as mundane of claims as one could possibly come across; they only become extraordinary when paired together. And yet, establishing a resurrection requires nothing more. It is therefore entirely possible for extraordinary claims to rest on ordinary evidence.
The second critical failure is that claiming the existence of God is not in any way extraordinary for most people. Despite the pretense of modern intellectuals, atheism most certainly is not the default for humanity. The vast majority of people have believed, do believe, and will continue to believe in some kind of divinity. While extraordinary in the mind of the atheist, such belief is quite ordinary for everyone else. As it turns out, there is a strong subjective element to the concept of “extraordinary” that Sagan and most atheists pass over. What metric shall we use to measure it? Atheists seldom volunteer one. This ambiguity is of great utility to the atheist who needs to rhetorically pass judgment that God’s existence is extraordinary and that the evidence thereof is not. As long as nobody asks and the metric is imposed by unspoken assumption, an atheist’s job is much easier.
Finally, there have been points in time at which God has demonstrated his existence in extraordinary ways. As an historical event, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (as we already noted) is by most accounts quite extraordinary. Likewise, Jesus’ own explanation for this event is quite well-known to involve God. Extraordinary or not, however, it is something that actually happened—a well-attested fact of history. Neither does the Resurrection stand alone. Though it is the best attested of God’s miracles, it is hardly the only one. Even if extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence and the existence of God were an extraordinary claim, extraordinary evidence is still readily available unless one dismisses it a priori.
Like much of modern atheism, Sagan’s oft-quoted contention derives its force from a presumption of atheism that has characterized our the intellectual culture of the West for the past century or two. When approached by an atheist, there is no good reason for Christians to play along with that presumption.