Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Burden of Proof

How do we determine what valid proof for a given proposition is? Which claims require proof and which don’t? Are we, as individual minds with completely separate capacities to perceive, able to assert any sort of truth at all given that none of us see the world in the exact same way? These are questions worth asking, particularly when God is part of the conversation.

There are certain things we generally view as irrefutably true. 5+5=10. The earth revolves around the sun. Two hydrogens and one oxygen make water. We regard these things to be true because they have proved to be inflexibly consistent thorough years of observation and experimentation. In short, they stand as objectively true because they have been proven to be so over and over again, without failure.

Now, it is true that I, as a non-scientist, do not have the capability to prove off hand that the earth revolves around the sun. However, I do know that the evidence for the claim is based upon centuries of observation, exploration, and experimentation done by people who had resources that I don’t. Therefore, I trust this claim to be a fact and regard it as so. If a cosmologist was called upon to verify this fact, he would be able to provide us with some sort of material that we would regard as trustworthy evidence, whether it be through a mathematical formula or a photograph or a combination of several means of communication. The point is that facts can be backed up by evidence. And generally, we trust qualified authorities on a given subject to relay facts. This does not mean that we blindly accept anything anyone tells us; it means that our society has built a system of demand for evidence if something is to be regarded as true, and if qualified authorities confirm on a given claim’s truth, we are willing to accept its validity. Every discipline in our society, whether it be biology, the news media, mathematics, history, the judicial system, etc. upholds rigid barriers for truth that are based on evidence, and demand that several authorities on the subject agree upon a claim’s validity before it can be regarded as true. If something false leaks its way into the public eye, it doesn’t usually take long – particularly in the age of instant communication and information – for it to be struck down.

It took thousands of scrupulous studies and years of skeptical analysis to prove that smoking was directly linked to lung cancer. Common sense seemed to indicate it long before scientists were willing to regard it as true, and basic logic seemed to suggest it. But only after rigorous testing and experimentation were we willing to accept it as fact. In the judicial system, for someone to be convicted of murder, there needs to be evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he is guilty. The proof for one’s guilt must be so foolproof that it borders on the realm of virtual certainty. We have all seen cases involving someone who appears to be manifestly guilty, but leaves the courtroom unpunished because the evidence was simply not strong enough (i.e. O.J. Simpson, maybe even George Zimmerman).  The point is that our society demands substantial proof in virtually every serious discipline before a claim is taken seriously. Except one.

Religion is the one aspect of our lives that demands respect without evidence. Now, in a free world, everyone should be able to believe what they want. If you want to pray to a god of which there is no proof, that is your choice and no one has the right to tell you you can’t. You can believe something to be true without having the factual foundation to back it up. But such beliefs are flatly unworthy to play a part in our public discourse, let alone our public policy. If common sense, evidence, and critical thinking were the cornerstones of our society, it’s likely that the predicaments currently on our plate would be cut in half. Religion is the only ideological weapon the Middle East has in resisting secularism so stubbornly, and Islam might be the single biggest threat to Western civilization. Imagine, just imagine, the toils we could have avoided if this custom was put to rest by the standards of reason, and the trials that may be in store for us in the future because it wasn’t. We are, as we speak, on the brink of an international conflict due to religious leaders’ lack of regard for humanity. If religion were cut out of the picture in the United States, perhaps the sole argument surrounding abortion would be when, exactly, an unborn baby is capable of suffering – not whether or not his soul is to be accounted for. Perhaps we could rationally weigh the benefits of stem cell research against the detriments, without dragging our feet on the soles of the supernatural. Perhaps there wouldn’t even be an argument involving gay marriage, and every couple could walk down the isle without a fuss from the crudely intolerant lot attempting to deem gayness a “sin”. In short: yes, religion has been the catalyst of countless conflicts and also profound acts of charity. But I’d be willing to contend that its greatest effect on civilization has been its remarkable ability to thwart social progress.

The notion – which may appear radical in the still highly religious United States – that we needn’t rely on faith for a collective conscience or purpose is one that I passionately believe can be fulfilled, in time. To a striking degree of consistency, the world’s most prosperous and harmonious countries’ populations are majority godless. Countries like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Australia, and Canada have societies in which the religious are in the stark minority, and are also, without exception, achieving higher levels of overall prosperity, according to the Legatum Institute, which compiles an international ranking based on several different categories, including entrepreneurship and opportunity, economic freedom, social capital, education, and more. The good old U-S-of-A, with its heartland of weekly churchgoers still firmly intact, is lagging behind other developed nations. In my view, it seems inevitable that this trend will eventually make its way across the Atlantic. Well, I’ll be concerned if it doesn’t, anyway. The point, however, is that faith in the supernatural can no longer be regarded as a prerequisite for social harmony. Our friends in Scandinavia are proving it.

Of course, I can’t prove that religion is the problem. But that’s the beauty of rational discourse. We can present ideas and opinions that make sense and have arguments about their validity. Each time we argue, we come closer and closer to a truth that we may never be able to objectively grasp, but can still hone in on with a certain level of precision that becomes clearer and clearer with the birth of each new idea. And feel free to argue – but religion, my friends, does not make sense.

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