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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4 responses to “The Burden of Proof

  • Noah Ketterman

    I agree with your overall premise that there is, or at least should be, a burden of proof for everything you believe in. I also agree, although not nearly as passionately, that a belief which is unfounded is “unworthy to play a part in our public discourse.” I do find one thing very interesting about this whole entry though and that is this: you have never once, on this blog or in person (our live discussions about this same topic are also a blast), defended your own view as an atheist with any of the proof you are demanding here from the religious. All you have ever done is attempt to deconstruct religion (primarily Christianity) as one of the competing worldviews. However, even if you were to successfully disprove Christianity, you still have the responsibility to replace that newly created void with the better alternative. So, now the burden of proof is on you to prove why atheism is the best solution.

    Your worldview has huge ramifications concerning all of your beliefs in everything from the sanctity of human life, relationships, politics, justice, the origins of the universe, and morality. If you get the source issue wrong, then all of these outpouring issues suffer. In order to get it right, there needs to be proof for the foundational worldview and I look forward to watching you try to create proof where it does not exist.

    I also believe you are wrong about your assessment of the proof for Christianity. There needs to be a level setting up front though on what kinds of proof are required in this discussion. Atheists love to cling to science as the primary weapon against Christianity. However, the vast majority of science is completely useless in proving anything at all in this conversation just like it is useless to prove anything about properly interpreting a poem, any facts about Napoleon’s historical conquest of much of Europe, and the correct grammar rules of the Spanish language. My point here is that you need to frame the discussion properly to allow the right kinds of proof. When one does this, he/she can clearly see that the proof for the Christian faith is very compelling and I am sure I will get the chance in the coming entries to demonstrate that to you.

    For a reader, this may be the only chance I get to prove anything at all about the Christian faith. Knowing the likely audience here, I would like to present one simple, yet beautifully complex proof of the existence of God and I will use science to do so! Consider the amazing complexity of the universe in which we live. We live on a planet that is perfectly positioned from the sun to be the right temperature, we have the perfect balance of gases in the air to not kill us and even better allow us to breathe, we have a sustainable supply of food and water, the nuclear forces at play within the atom are perfectly balanced to neither collapse on themselves nor expand into oblivion, and so much more. It is as if, to quote Dinesh D’Souza, the universe knew we were coming. The balance of life permitting variables is so tenuous that to say it rests on a knife’s edge seems woefully inadequate. Now consider one more thing: we actually came. The fact that the universe exists is, by itself, a miracle. The fact that a life permitting universe exists is even more ridiculous. The fact that life was ever introduced to the universe is impossible. The atheist must believe that all of this is by chance and there is no proof at all that this is the case. It is true that this does not necessarily prove that the Christian God exists in the way He says he does, but it is an excellent start.

  • Mark McHugh

    Noah,

    First off, thanks a lot for your thoughtful response. I’ll try to respond point by point.

    You say, “you have never once, on this blog or in person, defended your own view as an atheist with any of the proof you are demanding here from the religious.” You are correct, but only because the philosophy of atheism does not make a definitive claim for the existence of a god. In fact, some argue that the term “atheism” is not even a legitimate label for the philosophy, because it’s comparable to saying something like “a-biology”. No one is an “a-biologist”. The point is that atheism does not say there is no god – it merely claims that there is no valid evidence for saying there is one. The intention of the atheist is to point out the mere lack of evidence for a god, not to compile evidence against one. In this sense, the entire burden of proof lies with the theist, as he is actively asserting for the existence of something.

    As to your second paragraph, I am not claiming to have the capability to identify the source of all morality, justice, origins of the universe, etc. But saying these things come from an entity called God is a cheap and contrived way to answer the questions. It’s like forcing the answer to a math equation that you don’t have the ability to figure out. Just because you create an answer doesn’t make it the right answer. As atheists, we know we don’t know the source of these things. We do believe, however, that we can make sound judgments on such issues with our faculties of common sense and good will. And as we continue to learn more about the nature of the “equation”, to continue with the analogy, we will learn to do better in all of the fields you mentioned. If religion has proved anything on this front, it is that believing that you have the one, true source of such knowledge is frighteningly dangerous and will often lead to needless conflicts with those who are equally as convinced as you that they know the source.

    On to your third paragraph: atheists use science as a weapon against religion because religion makes inherently scientific claims. It claims to know how the universe originated, how long it took, what force created it, and also claims that the laws of science can be broken by magisterial entities. Atheists like Sam Harris go further and argue that morality – traditionally thought to be in religious territory – can be determined by science. The religious like to say that religion deals with the metaphysical aspect of the universe, but there is simply no escaping its overlapping with science. Even you use science to attempt to prove Christianity in your last paragraph!

    Moving to your final point, then: Yes, the conditions of the Earth had to be relatively precise in order to produce life. But when you examine the supposedly miraculous conditions that made life possible, you are ignoring the absolutely colossal proportions of the universe itself. You may already be aware of these tidbits but it’s important to really absorb them: the Sun, which is the center of our solar system, is one of an estimated 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. I’ll say it again: 300 billion stars. Okay, now swallow this: according to a German supercomputer calculation (thing), there are roughly 500 billion galaxies in the universe. 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and 500 billion galaxies. Wow. But perhaps even more significant: NASA recently launched the Kepler Mission to seek out Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Though the numbers are still being interpreted, the number of Earth-like, inhabitable planets is estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of 60 billion (http://blogs.voanews.com/science-world/2013/07/02/60-billion-earth-like-planets-could-exist-in-milky-way-galaxy/). That’s 60 billion potentially habitable planets that could produce life, just in our one galaxy. Okay, so now consider that there are potentially 500 billion more galaxies in our universe. What are the chances that somewhere out there, there is life? When the magnitude of Space is put into perspective, it is no longer even remotely remarkable that, somewhere within this gargantuan universe, the conditions were precise enough for life to exist. In fact, I think it would be even more remarkable if we didn’t exist.

  • Noah Ketterman

    Religion does not make inherently scientific claims. Christianity does have an account for the origins of the universe but never goes to the point of describing the science behind it. So, the study of the details of how the universe began is something that both the atheist and the theist can actively pursue in full confidence. Just because you are able to describe the details of the creation story does not mean you have in any way pushed the Creator out of the equation. We would never examine a building and comment on the formation of the joists, the type of wood used to create the frame, and the exact length of the supporting screws and say that we have now negated the work of (or even the existence of) the carpenter. So, science in this way is not helpful in proving or disproving God.

    I am very glad that you brought up the enormity and the complexity of the universe and suggested that life may exist elsewhere in it. Doing so was awkward for you for two reasons. First, in suggesting that life MAY exist somewhere else, you have made a categorically a-scientific argument. You use this as a possible reason for suggesting God is not necessary to introduce life but provide no proof whatsoever that it actually is the case that life exists elsewhere. That kind of hypothesizing has no place in a thread entitled “The Burden of Proof.” Second, it is widely accepted that the universe is a finite thing. That means that everything we know of in this world and the worlds around us came from nothing. As we learn more and more about how vast and complex this “something” really is that came from nothing, it becomes increasingly more ridiculous to suggest it is in any way possible without divine intervention. Believing that it came into existence by chance takes a lot more faith than I have as a Christian.

    It is also interesting to me that you say you have nothing to prove concerning the existence of God when you have an entire blog devoted to what you feel is evidence that He does not exist. So, you do make a definitive statement on the existence of God and it is that He does not exist. As such, your viewpoint requires every bit of evidence that mine does especially considering the fact that there are huge implications for both of us if the other is right about this fact.

    The existence of God is really just one of many aspects of a worldview. Even if you were to successfully disprove His existence, you have only solved one part of the equation. You still need to provide proof that atheism, as a worldview, is the right one and you claim that is not necessary. However, the interesting thing about that is that you do live your own life as if atheism is true. Even more bizarre is that you personally live your life with purpose but atheism is insufficient in supplying any source for purpose. You got good grades in school, are honing your already advanced writing skills for a future in journalism, are entering into meaningful relationships, and doing many other things that prove to me you are living with purpose. But from where does that purpose come? None of those things are inherently valuable and atheism does not assign any value to them, yet you do them anyway. You need to defend your source of purpose and value placing the burden of proof squarely on your shoulders.

    As I was thinking about this response, an image popped into my head that I think is appropriate to apply here. I am sure you (the reader in general) have seen the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and her friends finally make it to the Emerald City, they go before the wizard and are met with a huge display involving projected images, fire, and some sort of megaphone. This spectacle is exactly what the atheistic community is trying to create by only ever going on the offensive against the religious community. But Toto soon exposes the bluff. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” the floating head pleads, but it is too late. The curtain is ripped away to reveal a very underwhelming image of the actual wizard. The same thing happens when we finally turn our attention away from the spectacle that the atheistic community is trying to create by always being on the offensive. When atheism is forced to actually defend itself and answer questions of value and purpose, we soon find it to also be very underwhelming because there is no proof to support it.

  • Mark McHugh

    The book of Genesis certainly says some things about science. The creation story provides a specific timetable for the creation of the world (seven days). This is concretely scientific. Also, claiming that God made Adam and Eve, two seemingly conscious and competent individuals capable of making rational choices, completely undermines evolution, for which there is more proof than there is gravity. Furthermore, saying that the laws of Nature can be interrupted by a metaphysical force through miracles says something scientific about the fragility of the material universe, which requires some sort of proof as well.

    I will try to respond to your next few paragraphs as succinctly as possible (though in re-reading this response now that I have finished, it is clear that I have failed). It appears that I have not been convincing enough in my explanation of atheism. This point is probably more critical than any other I could make and it is crucial that we are on the same page. Christopher Hitchens said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If you want to assert that something exists, you must provide proof. But to refute a claim that bears no evidence at all would be moot. You have misinterpreted my intentions in creating this blog. I do not endeavor to disprove the existence of God – I attempt to argue against religion’s fallacies. There is a difference between proving something not to be true, and scrutinizing the arguments for something’s truth. I attest to doing the latter.

    How can you prove that an invisible bunny rabbit is not hopping on my head? You can’t, because that claim involves a nonphysical realm that there is no reason to believe exists. I am absolutely not saying that God does not exist. Why? Because I can’t prove it. Just like you can’t prove that an invisible bunny is not hopping on my head. But for some reason, you argue that the burden of proof lies equally on my shoulders as on yours, when you are the one making a claim about the existence of something. You would not be compelled to prove the nonexistence of an invisible bunny rabbit, either, and it would be unfair of me to require you to do so, regardless of how strongly I believed it was there. I could surmount mountains of philosophical arguments attesting to the truth of that rabbit, but none of it would mean a thing if I didn’t have some sort of proof for its existence. You might, hypothetically, be inclined to identify yourself as an a-invisblebunnyrabbitist, but that would seem a bit silly.

    This post’s title, “The Burden of Proof,” was not meant to convey the notion that atheism is correct, but rather, to illuminate the fact that religion is not held to the same standards of evidence that other disciplines are. This is the central point: atheism is absolutely not making a definitive claim about the existence of God. It is saying that there is no good reason to believe that there is one. Just like there is no good reason to believe an invisible rabbit is hopping on my head. If you do not understand this difference, you do not understand the core premise of atheist ideology.

    To address another point I find important, I want to highlight the fact that you seem to believe that one worldview must be correct, whether it be Christianity, or Islam, or atheism, etc. You have selected a worldview – Christianity. Philosophically, you might be able to argue that Christianity is more sound than, say, Judaism or Hinduism. But from an objective, realist perspective, you simply cannot be certain to any degree of Christianity’s truth. Your “proof” is in philosophical logic and, of course, plain faith. My point is that your “worldview” is purely subjective. As is mine. I attain my worldview from my individual perception of what is needed to live a fulfilling life (on a personal level) and how I think humanity can best flourish and live peacefully and happily (on a societal level). I by no means believe that my worldview (which, of course, is more complicated than I could outline here) is objectively correct. It is based on my perception, which is subjective and also mutable and completely open to change. I invite new insight and ideas regarding how to live a good life. However, you claim that you have found an objective truth, which is impermeable and immune to alteration. Really, the only difference between our views is that you claim to have found the one, untouchable truth that everyone, if they just came to their senses, would discover as well. Essentially, you are qualifying your utterly subjective view of the world as objective truth. I am doing no such thing – I merely live my life in pursuit of better ideas and lifestyles, acknowledging all the while that I don’t have the answers to the questions religion claims to. The point of this post was to point out that, in order for something to be objectively true, it cannot be based on one’s mere perception of the universe. There is a burden of proof that is mandated in almost every societal discipline in order for something to be called true. Religion claims a free pass on this front and I think it’s time for it to be held accountable.

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