Christian rumours about Steve

Yesterday I noticed a hit on this site from someone searching for “steve irwin baptized“. I’ve posted about Steve’s death and have mentioned baptism a couple of times, so the search led here. I didn’t think about it too much at the time.

Today, that search fell into context, when I read in the Sydney Morning Herald about a rumour that Steve became a born-again Christian just weeks before his death. It turns out that this can’t be substantiated, so although we can’t say for sure that it didn’t happen, the claim that it did happen now appears to be on very shaky ground.

This is where we come across an interesting asymmetry in trying to determine what’s true in history. It’s very, very difficult to prove that something didn’t happen. It’s relatively easy to prove, or at least establish beyond reasonable doubt (”proof” in the strict sense is a different matter entirely), that something happened – in this case, a photo of Steve in church, or the statement of a couple of identified eyewitnesses, or a comment from his wife Terri (who apparently is a Christian), would easily satisfy the doubts of most people. But to prove that he wasn’t converted, you’d theoretically need to talk to every single person who could possibly have witnessed it, and establish that none of them saw it happen. Even if you managed to track down the person who started the rumour, and they confirmed that they just made it up, all it would show is that they don’t know that he was converted.

And there’s always the possibility that the rumour didn’t start on purpose – there are any number of ways that someone could falsely believe something like this had happened. For example, someone could have misheard someone else who said they wished Steve Irwin had become a Christian before he died. Rumours can start by accident really, really easily, and they’re hard to disprove once they get going. That’s why skepticism is such a vital skill – it puts the burden of proof in the right place. It would be relatively easy to show that a claim like this is true, but exhaustively difficult to show that it’s false, so in the absence of any evidence beyond “I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend”, we assume by default that it’s false. For now.

In the context of Christianity, this has implications for a lot of things, but from my perspective, the biggest one is the truth of the gospels. A lot of Christians (not all) would say that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s greatest and most convincing miraculous sign, and many would say that this should be sufficient to convince anyone to believe, and that we should never need to ask for another one.

But the only record we have of what happened to Jesus is in the gospels. There’s no external evidence to confirm anything that the gospels say (beyond basic facts like Pilate being governor of Judea). An argument I’ve heard reasonably often to support their accuracy is that they were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses, so if they’d written something that wasn’t true, then they wouldn’t have spread, because there would have been enough people around to deny that those things ever happened.

Compare this argument to the activity of the rumour mill within weeks of Steve Irwin’s death, in a society where information has the means to spread more or less instantaneously.

A more specific case is the question of what happened to Jesus’ body if he wasn’t resurrected. The classical argument goes that nobody (disciples, Jews, Romans) had the motive to move the body, therefore none of them did. But this is another case where the burden of proof is in entirely the wrong place – it avoids proving that Jesus did come back to life, and instead attacks a straw-man attempt to prove that he didn’t. This is all the wrong way around.

The story about Steve should show us that the truth is no obstacle to people believing what they want to believe. (Reconciling this statement with my comments in this post about how people come to accept things as fact is left as an exercise to the reader.)

3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Sara2008 August 7th, 2008 1:42 am

    The story about Steve should show us that the truth is no obstacle to people believing what they want to believe.

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