Burden of Proof

Expose False Symmetries & Weed Out Spurious Arguments


When two opposing points of view confront each other, it must not be assumed that they are symmetric, i.e. that they are both about equally plausible. That may sometimes occur, but often one side is much less plausible than the other. When one side of the debate is highly implausible and extraordinary, then the burden of proof falls on those who advance that side.

Sommaire en français Lorsque deux points de vue opposés s’affrontent, il ne faut pas supposer que la situation est symétrique, c’est-à-dire que les deux côtés sont à peu près également plausibles. Cela peut parfois se produire, mais souvent l’un des deux côtés est beaucoup moins plausible que l’autre. Lorsqu’un côté du débat est hautement invraisemblable et extraordinaire, le fardeau de la preuve incombe à ceux qui avancent de ce point de vue.

The concept of burden of proof is an important logical tool which allows us to weed out spurious arguments. It does so by exposing the falsehood of alleged symmetry between two opposing arguments or, in some cases, completely inverting the apparent plausibility of the two opposing sides. We say that one of the opposing sides has the burden of proof when they are making a specific assertion which requires substantiation, whereas the other side is simply expressing scepticism.

Those who take an irrational position, whether out of ignorance, confusion or dishonesty, generally fail to take account of this aspect of the debate. Sometimes they argue for symmetry in a situation where in fact there is no symmetry between the opposing sides of the debate. Worse, they may assume, sometimes unconsciously, that the burden of proof falls on the wrong side.

The basic idea here is summed up in several famous quotations. Science educator Carl Sagan, in his famous television programme Cosmos, declared that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The statement by Christopher Hitchens that “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence” has become known as Hitchens’ Razor. The ancient Greek mathematician and geometer Euclid made a very similar statement, “what has been affirmed without proof can also be denied without proof”, more than two millenia before. Thus, the burden of proof falls upon the person who makes some extraordinary claim. The opponent who merely questions that claim has no such obligation.

I will illustrate using the following three examples.

(1) Does “God” Exist?

An individual claims that “God” exists. However, another individual disagrees, claiming that knowledge of the existence of such an entity is unavailable. Clearly, the burden of proof here falls upon the person making the claim of god’s existence, starting with the obligation of defining what they mean by “God.” In the absence of such definition or proof, anyone who disagrees may simply dismiss the claim and is under no obligation whatsoever to prove the non-existence of the hypothetical god proposed by the claimant. There is no symmetry between the god-hypothesis and the rejection of that hypothesis. In other words, there is no symmetry between theism and atheism.

(2) What Does “God” Say About Sex?

An individual claims to know what “God” wants in some situation. For example, the individual may claim that god abhors sexual behaviour other than heterosexual relations between a man and a woman who are legally married to each other and that all other sexual behaviour is forbidden. However, another individual disagrees, claiming that no such rule is known to apply. Which individual is right? Clearly, the burden of proof falls upon the individual making the assertion about the will of “God” because that assertion requires knowledge of the existence of god, knowledge that god has a will and knowledge of that will itself. Unless the first individual offers some proof in support of their claim, those who disagree may simply dismiss it. There is no symmetry between the two sides of this disagreement.

(3) Do Symbols Communicate Anything?

A government introduces legislation which bans civil servants and public schoolteachers from wearing religious symbols while on duty. Opponents of the proposed law claim that the ban is unnecessary because, in their opinion, such symbols have no significant effect either on users of civil services or on public school pupils. Supporters of the law disagree. On which side should the burden of proof fall? This situation may appear less obvious that the previous two. Perhaps we have a symmetrical situation here, where the competing assertions are about equally plausible, where neither claim is extraordinary?

However, upon closer inspection, any apparent symmetry disappears. Why do some religious believers wear religious symbols? They do so to communicate their religious identity to others, i.e. in order to assert that identity ostentatiously. If such symbols had no effect, believers would not wear them. Pious Christians use the verb “witness” to describe the act of asserting one’s Christian identity by word or by symbol. Why do corporations spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, using symbols, logos, slogans, etc. to promote their products and/or their brand? They do so because advertising works, because such displays influence those who are exposed to them and change their behaviour in some way.

Thus, It is eminently reasonable to expect that religious symbols will have a real effect on those who witness them. Furthermore, we can expect a particularly significant effect if the wearer is a civil servant or schoolteacher on duty, especially if the observer is a child. In fact, some forms of advertising directed at children are forbidden by law, and for good reason. To assert that such symbols would have no effect—or only harmless effect—is an extraordinary claim which can be rejected in the absence of proof of such innocuousness. A precautionary attitude requires that we take the potential effects of religious symbols seriously.


Of course, some extraordinary claims may turn out to be valid, but only if solid supporting evidence is provided. But in the three examples given above, the claimants never succeed in providing such evidence for their extraordinary claim.

Next blog: Sur l’extrémisme trans

Religious Symbol & Face-Covering Bans in Other Countries

Quebec Bill 21 is only one of many such laws

2021-12-26, Updated 2021-12-27

What opponents of Bill 21 never talk about: the many laws in other countries which stipulate similar bans, but often stronger, more extensive ones.

Sommaire en français Ce dont les opposants à la Loi 21 ne parlent jamais : les nombreuses lois dans d’autres pays qui prévoient des interdictions similaires, mais souvent plus fortes, plus étendues. La compilation des données est disponible en français : Lois restreignant les couvre-visage et les signes religieux

Many other countries have laws similar to Bill 21, but often stronger. For example:

  • Religious symbols are banned for public servants in France, in Geneva and in two “Länder” of Germany. In particular, the Republic and Canton of Geneva, Switzerland bans religious symbols throughout the civil service, but with the proviso that it applies when the employee is in contact with the public.
  • Religious symbols are banned in public schools in France, parts of Belgium and in Pennsylvania.
  • Face-coverings are banned in public in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chad, Denmark, Egypt, France, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, etc. Morocco also bans the manufacture and sale of the burqa.
  • Face-coverings are banned in public services (employees and users, as in Quebec) in Italy [Lombardy], Malaysia, Netherlands and Tunisia.
  • Face-coverings are banned for public servants in Algeria and Germany.

When it comes to restrictions on religious symbols and/or face-coverings, there are two extreme positions:

  1. Ban them everywhere. I have only known one person who held such a draconian view.
  2. Ban them nowhere. This extremist position is apparently held by most opponents of Quebec Bill 21 (because they rarely specify any alternative, just a complete repeal).

A reasonable position is somewhere in between these two extremes: i.e. ban religious symbols (for secular reasons) and face-coverings (for reasons of security, identification, communication and women’s rights) in contexts where a ban will not unduely encroach upon some people’s freedoms while it protects others’ freedoms. That is precisely what Bill 21 does, although it is a little too weak and needs to be extended to the entire civil service.

Secularists choose a position somewhere midway between the two extremes, not because it is midway (that would be just the Fallacy of the Mean) but because in this situation it maximizes human rights, whereas the two extremes threaten such rights. Banning religious symbols worn by civil servants while on the job extends everyone’s freedom from religion, while putting only a small, well-circumscribed restriction on freedom of religious expression (i.e. religious practice) for State employees. Such a ban puts no restriction whatsoever on freedom of religious belief. In other words, it treats religious expression similar to how political expression is treated: with some restriction in the workplace.

The extremist position (2) holds that any ban is an encroachment on personal freedoms. This is libertarianism on steroids and is unacceptable because it gives absolute freedom to the wearer while completely neglecting the rights of others.

By adopting Bill 21 in June of 2019, Quebec joined the many countries listed above. In reaction, the arrogance and ignorance of Canadian anti-secularists have been infinite. Will they now claim that all those countries are populated or controlled by Christian supremacists with nefarious motives?

The page Laws Restricting Face-Coverings and Religious Symbols provides a compilation with full details. I update it periodically. Please let me know if you find any errors or omissions. (Links to relevant on-line articles are helpful. Links to actual legislation are even better.)

Next blog: Repeal Citizenship Regulation 17.1.b

Passive Proselytism


The wearing of religious symbols by civil servants and teachers on duty is a form of unacceptable religious advertising and an undeserved privilege granted to believers.

Sommaire en français Le port de signes religieux par les fonctionnaires et enseignant(e)s au travail est une forme de publicité religieuse inacceptable et un privilège indu accordé aux croyant(e)s. Voir mon blogue précédent Le prosélytisme passif.

The recent (2020-12-08) press release from Atheist Freethinkers gives the following explanation of the importance of banning State employees from wearing religious symbols:

[…] to allow civil servants and schoolteachers to indulge in ideological displays while on the job, simply because their ideology is religious, constitutes an unjustifiable privilege for religions. The consequences of this privilege are (1) an infringement on the freedom of conscience of users of social services and students in public schools, by exposing them to passive proselytism and indoctrination which these partisan religious manifestations exemplify; and (2) […]

One of the strategies of opponents of Bill 21, that is, anti-secularists, is to deny that passive proselytism even exists. To deny the reality of this phenomenon is very dishonest and in extremely bad faith. This is obvious.

When we are exposed to advertising on television, or in a print magazine, or on a billboard, we are being targeted by passive proselytism of the commercial variety. No-one can deny the effectiveness of this proselytism—and even less so its very existence! Businesses spend millions of dollars on such publicity—because it works.

If we allow civil servants in the public service or in schools to wear and display religious symbols while on the job, then we are dealing with passive proselytism of the religious type. Just replace the kippah, crucifix or hijab with a large promotion for McDonald’s or any other product for sale, displayed on the clothing of the civil servant, and the result is an advertisment which is obviously unacceptable. The kippah, crucifix and hijab similarly constitute unacceptable publicity in this context.

the purpose of religious proselytism is not necessarily to convert anyone, just as the goal of commercial advertising is not always to sell a product directly.

We must keep in mind that the purpose of religious proselytism is not necessarily to convert anyone, just as the goal of commercial advertising is not always to sell a product directly. Instead, the purpose is often to promote a particular brand or ideology, to normalize or trivialize the presence of that brand, so that it will be accepted and recognized by the public who are exposed to it.

In fact, a common practice among anti-secularists is to insist on a very narrow definition of the word proselytism, limiting it to mean the intention of converting others to the religion of the symbol worn. This is usually followed by a demand that quantitative studies be used to prove that such symbols do indeed have a proselytic effect. This is completely illogical.

In November 2020, Patrick Taillon testified before Quebec Superior Court as an expert witness for the Attorney-General of Quebec (AGQ) in the case Hak versus AGQ. In a radio interview with Antoine Robitaille, Taillon explains that, in 2015 when the Supreme Court of Canada endorsed the ban on prayers at municipal council meetings of the city of Saguenay, there was no requirement for quantitative studies of the effect of prayers on those persons who attended the meetings. The Court similarly did not require that the atheist complainant prove that the prayer could have converted him to Christianity. The wearing of religious symbols by agents of the State constitutes a similar situation. It is not necessary to prove explicitly that religious symbols have an effect on those exposed to them, especially if those persons are children.

[…] internal religious proselytism—that is, proselytism targeted at people of the same religion as the wearer of the symbol.

It is also important to recognize the importance of internal religious proselytism—that is, proselytism targeted at people of the same religion as the wearer of the symbol. This is generally the purpose of the Islamic veil, to send the message that the woman wearing it is a good, pure Muslim, while those Muslim women who do not wear the veil are bad, impure Muslims who deserve to end up in hell and should therefore adopt the veil in order to avoid that fate.

To allow teachers to wear religious symbols is tantamount to violating the right of pupils to an education free of indoctrination, in an environment free from proselytism. No quantitative study is required. The principle of secularism—in particular the principle of separation between religion and State—is sufficient to justify a ban.

the burden of proof is on such anti-secularists.

If the opponents of Bill 21 wish to grant religious believers the privilege of being allowed to engage in religious advertising while on the job, the burden of proof is on such anti-secularists. It is they who must provide proof of their claim that pupils will be unaffected.

Bill 21 establishes a reasonable compromise between the rights of State employees on the one hand and the rights of students and users of civil services on the ther hand.

Next blog: The Swiss Face-Covering Ban is About Deterring Religious Fanaticism