Saturday, January 22, 2011

The God Debates and the Burden of Proof

Debates between believers and skeptics are all over on the internet. They are usually entertaining and informative dialogues between philosophers, scientists, theologians, and authors who are trying to sell their books about the existence or non-existence of God.  One of the important points in these debates is to establish who has the burden of proof. Usually, it's the person making a claim who needs to present evidence for their claim. This is paramount.

So who is actually making a claim during a debate about the God's existence? The believer usually tries to say that it's the atheist who is making the claim that there is no God. When the atheist fails to prove God's nonexistence, the believer then claims victory - as if God exists by default if His existence can't be disproved.

However, there is something illogical about placing the burden of proof on the atheist. To understand why, ask yourself if you could disprove the existence of an invisible unicorn? Could you prove that fairies do not exist? Could you prove that Zeus or Jupiter do not exist?  Despite the fact that you don't believe in these mythical creatures and once-revered gods, you also can not disprove their existence. Nobody can. Why? Because you can't disprove something doesn't exist. You can't disprove a negative. Whatever it is (a God or ghost), it could always exist in some undiscovered part of the universe - or better yet, it could exist "outside of nature" all together - safe from any possible examination.  Or maybe we just don't have the right tools to locate God with (such as the skeptics lack of faith).  Maybe God doesn't want to be found, and therefore makes it impossible to do so. But this doesn't mean He doesn't exist. Although this is not very convincing, God (or Zeus) could theoretically still be out there. Therefore, you can't disprove the non-existence of something; even something as improbable as invisible unicorns, fairies, or the parody God who goes by the name The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century philosopher, used a famous analogy (sometimes called Russell's teapot) which is pertinent to the issue of who has the burden of proof for the existence of God:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Just as one cannot disprove something as improbable as an orbiting teapot between Earth and Mars, similarly, one cannot disprove the existence of God.  Even though there is not the slightest evidence for the existence of such an invisible celestial teapot, you could not disprove it. But belief in God (or orbiting teapots) would make sense if, as Russell points out, it were drilled into your heads from the time you were small children by parents, society, and preachers, reinforced at weekly worship services, and affirmed in holy scripture.

It should now be obvious that it is an impossible task (and a sneaky debate tactic) to try to get an atheist to disprove the existence of God. The burden of proof does not lie with him; it lies with the theist who is making a claim of knowledge! This is an important principle that operates in any respectable court of law. For example, could you imagine a court of law where the burden of proof lies with the defendant to prove his innocence, rather than with the prosecutor to show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty? Clearly this would be absurd (and reminiscent of the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition).

Next, just because one cannot disprove god's existence, it does not logically follow that the default position is therefore belief in God, or that there is somehow a 50:50 probability for God's existence. Similarly, just because you can't disprove the existence of orbiting teapots doesn't mean that they exist by default, or that the probability of them existing is somehow 50:50. And yet this is what many theists seem to say when they claim that their belief is somehow equiprobable since it cannot be proved to be false.

It must finally be said that atheists are not even making a claim of knowledge to begin with! Atheists (well, at least weak atheists like me) are just saying that we don't BELIEVE in God.  Atheism literally means "without belief in God or gods." We're not claiming to KNOW God doesn't exist. We just don't believe in God or gods. That's it!  Nothing more. Atheists will argue that there aren't good reasons to believe in God. However, this is not making a claim of knowledge; it's just refuting the evidence that believers give.  It's really the opposite of a knowledge claim. Very few atheists go any further, as some positive or strong atheists do, to claim that God does not exist. This claim, as we saw with Russell's teapot analogy, is not tenable. But neither is the existence of God (like Russell's teapot) probable just because it can't be disproved.

So why don't those damned atheists believe like everyone else? There is a long answer to that question. But the best short answer was given by Stephen Roberts, who said "When you understand why you disbelieve in all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Early Christians were even called atheists because they rejected the contemporary pantheon of gods that most people worshiped.  In a similar vein as Roberts, the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins said "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

In sum, atheists don't believe in God or gods because there is a significant lack of evidence - or at least evidence that is convincing.  When Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to God, if he were hypothetically to meet him at the pearly gates, his response was "Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence." The burden of proof, or requirement of evidence, lies with the person making a claim of knowledge. And in the case of religion, the claimant of knowledge is the theist. What that evidence is, (and it's validity) is a topic for another post.


  1. I don't know everything. About God, about Joseph Smith, about the LDS church. But what I do know is this: There is NO denying the feeling I get in the Temple. There is NO denying the few unmistakably (sp) strong answers I have received when praying. I can't deny these things. I can't talk myself out of them. Even if some things make me uncomfortable, ie Joseph Smith's secret polygamy, his gold hunting, etc, I can't deny the things I have felt, at specific times, after doing specific things or asking specific questions of my Heavenly Father.

    I know this is the religion I should be a member of. To think or tell myself otherwise would be to say that I'm crazy, that the things I have felt didn't happen. But I'm not crazy, and they DID happen. Period.

    I just don't know how you have talked yourself out of the way you have FELT at certain times in your life, Heidi also. I understand talking yourself out of believing things, I'm talking about the way you have FELT. Were you crazy then? And I know, I know, all good religions have good people who have felt good things. That's not what I'm talking about and you know that. I'm talking about the unbelievably unmistakable comfirmation. Even when other things don't make sense, that does.

    One thing I DID talk myself into was this: If God explained EVERYTHING to us, what would be the point of anything?

    Not Crazy.

  2. Dear "Not Crazy",

    Thanks for your sincere and honest comment. I appreciate any I get, and value what you say. I don't think you are crazy either. Nor do I deny that you had real and very powerful feelings related to religious experiences. I had them too. I wasn't crazy either. I don't deny I had them then (a lot in fact), and I still have them now. However, now i interpret their meaning differently.

    With regards to your experiences, I think you are creating a false dichotomy: ie. either these experiences mean what you think they mean, or you're crazy. Could it be possible that you are still having the experiences, you are NOT crazy, but that the experiences don't mean what you sincerely think they do?

    Take a step back with me, and look at religious experiences from a wider perspective. The fact is that billions of people, from many different religions, who believe in different things about God and religion, ALL have powerful subjective experiences related to their religion. However, these experiences confirm to the Muslim that Allah is the one true God and that Mohammed is his only prophet, it confirms to the Jew that he is one of God's chosen people and that the Messiah is yet to come, it confirms to the Evangelical Protestant that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. And it confirms to you that the LDS Church is true - just as everybody else has their own faith confirmed, unshakable, by the same experiences.

    The only approaches to this fact - that billions of different people have similar religious experiences that confirm mutually exclusive religious beliefs - is to say that everyone else is deluded or not having real spiritual experiences (not true, and not very nice) or to say that they are sincerely mistaken in their interpretation of them.

    I take the later approach. I was trained from a child to think that when a strong emotional experiences happened during church, or while praying, or reading scripture, or going to the temple, that it meant God was teaching me the truth of that thing. The Church told me what that emotion meant during Primary, Sunday School, the MTC, on my mission, etc, etc, etc.

    It's not such a stretch to conclude that I was sincerely mistaken in their meaning. Humans mistake the meaning of things all the time (just ask those 1 billion Muslims, or those 850 million Catholics, or those 1 billion HIndu's, or those 1 billion Buddhists). Their experiences can't all mean what they think they mean. Are you that much different from them? Are your experiences that much more special than theirs or mine?

    I get this question often, so I actually wrote a post to answer it. I wrote it about 8 months ago, but reposted it on this blog earlier in the month. I go further in analyzing religious experiences than I do here. Take a look if you want (see link below).

    And also, in the future please sign in with a real name. If I don't know you, then at least I have a name. And if I do, then you have nothing to fear. I won't bite or judge. Thanks.

  3. Josh:

    I have definitely considered your arguments, I have.

    I'm talking about specific questions. Specific. When I get such a confirmation that I about fall off of the chair. It's only happened to me twice in my life, and I'm 41. I can't deny this, I just can't.

    My family is part LDS, part non-denom christian, part Catholic. All very active in their church. I have been to numerous baptisms, confirmations, etc for these other religions, plus a few Baptist as well. I remember praying hard and asking for an answer about these churches. I kept a very open mind. I have been to their services, and while nice, they just weren't the same. And I kept a very open mind. And I have been to alot of them.

    So again. I just don't understand how you can deny your feelings. I know I never will. And I can't explain all the billions of people in the world who feel their religion is right, other than it is more than likely a cultural/family tradition. It is how they have been taught and they trust their families and communities to be right.

    This is different. I haven't been taught this way, programmed this way from birth like the other religions you mentioned. And I know that you feel that many LDS people have been programmed. But I haven't and I know countless others haven't also.

    I will never deny what I felt those two times. Never. I am just going to belong to this Church, because I know it is Christ's church, and let Heavenly Father sort out all of the rest, including the billions who went before me believing in Allah.

    Not Crazy (I never give my real name on blogs, not even my own. Sorry :) )

  4. One of the things about personal experiences is that they are PERSONAL. I have no way of verifying or evaluating your experiences, just as you cannot verify or analyze mine. We just can't get into each other's heads to fact check each others feelings. This is one reason why recounting personal experiences is never convincing to another person. I don't doubt your experiences, or that they were convincing to you. They are just not convincing to me. I'm sure you understand since you are not convinced by all the billions of Muslims who "Heavenly Father will sort out. . ."

    And AGAIN, I don't deny my feelings, as you claim. They happened. I had feelings. I thought they meant something, but now I don't think they meant what I thought they meant. I've have changed the way I interpret them is all. I think I answered why I can reinterpret them.

    Later, you seem (correct me if I'm wrong) to discount others religions experiences, who were raised in their respective faith, since they result from "cultural" or "family tradition."

    First, don't you think you are also influenced by your own Christian family and culture? Next, do you think you are the only convert to a different faith tradition than the one you were raised in? Other converts (whether to Judaism, Catholicism, or Islam) have religious experiences that convert them to their new faith, just as you had religious experiences that convinced you. These experiences are still just as mutually exclusive to yours. So, that line of argument doesn't resolve the fact that disparate religious experiences cannot all be valid.

  5. Josh:

    Again, your arguments are all valid. And when I said "sort out" I mean only Heavenly Father knows those billions of people. And only he will decide what is in their hearts. That's not for me to worry about.

    The two times I am speaking of were answers to very specific pleas to my Heavenly Father. I will never deny what happened. Just as you said, these answers/feelings people receive are subjective. Therefore, I am confident that my answer/feeling was stronger than any of those people converting to other religions. And no one knows if that is true but Heavenly Father. And me.

    I will never deny what happened to me on those two occasions. I know there is a Heavenly Father and a Jesus Christ, and I know that the Church they would like their children to belong too is the LDS church on the earth today. All the big words and smart people in the world can't take that knowledge from me.

    If things weren't perfect in the beginning, well, I have no answers to any of that. Other than these were regular people doing something highly irregular. Even Joseph Smith.

    But I know that the PLAN and MISSION and INTENT of this church is pretty perfect now.

    Still Not Crazy

  6. Still Not Crazy:
    You say "these answers/feelings people have are subjective. Therefore, I am confident that my answer/feeling was stronger than any of those people converting to other religions. And no one knows if that is true but Heavenly Father. And me."

    Do you see the problem with that statement? How can you know that other peoples spiritual experiences were not as strong as yours? How do you know anything about them? How can you (and God) verify them? Do you see how this is arrogant: presuming to be able to read people's minds?

    Later on you bear testimony to me and claim to KNOW things that you have no way of knowing. Don't you see that you are only telling me what you BELIEVE? You believe things that I don't believe. Fine. I have no problem with that. But to say you KNOW things that you obviously can't know, is - well not very convincing.

    Best wishes. I'd just encourage you to put your beliefs in perspective: they are just one of many many other opinions out there.

  7. Josh:

    1. No, I don't see the problem. Why is to completely unfeasable for me to be right here? It's possible that I'm right, right?

    2. I do know. Neither you nor Darwin nor anyone else out there can tell me otherwise. These were personal experience. AGAIN, answers to extremely SPECIFIC questions. That Knocked. Me. Over. I do know. Don't tell me that I don't. Just because I can't explain something doesn't mean I don't know it. I'm sure there are a lot of medical things/situations/processes you can't exactly explain, yet you know them to be true/work/help.

    3. This knowledge is not an opinion. You can keep saying it's an opinion a trillion times but that won't make it an opinion.

    4. You had no response to the fact that the LDS Church today's mission, plan, and intent is positive and pretty perfect, probably because there is nothing to refute there either.

    Josh, I don't think I'm any better than you, I don't. I'm sure you get a lot of people in your family and friend circle who think you have lost your mind and are leading your children straight to hell. I'm not one of them. All I am saying is that there are people who do KNOW this church is true. Because they have been told so in no uncertain terms. In ways that can NOT be argued away. If you aren't one of them, fine. That's honestly fine. But these things aren't my "OPINION". These things are my "ABSOLUTE SURE KNOWLEDGE".

    This will be my last post, I promise. And I truly wish you all of the luck in the world, and Heidi and your family too.

    Not Crazy