The Burden of Proof

"What can be asserted without proof can just as easily be dismissed without proof." - Christopher Hitchens

Before we get into more specific areas of religion, it's important that we establish a foundation for moving forward. If you were charged with a crime, the prosecution has the responsibility to prove that you did what they claim you did. The prosecution carries the burden of proof, not you. In a court of law, the Latin phrase "semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit", which means "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges", is of paramount importance to our judicial system. The defense carries the benefit of assumption, meaning that the accused bears no burden of proof. Ironically enough, the benefit of assumption, used as a legal instrument, was first created by Jean Lemoine, a French cardinal, bishop of Arras, and papal legate.

Whether you subscribe to the well-known legal version of the burden of proof or the philosophic burden of proof, the end result is the same. The responsibility for providing evidence to support something as true is owned by the person making the claim14. If Christians are presenting the Bible as true, Christians bear the responsibility of presenting sufficient evidence to back up their claim. If Muslims present the Qur'an as true, Muslims bear the responsibility of proving it.

If I were to tell a man that rubbing green Jell-O on his bald head will help him regrow hair, he's going to require more evidence and proof before rushing out to the store to purchase large quantities of green Jell-O. If I were to tell the same man that the book he has in his hands on Sunday was written or inspired by an invisible entity with unimaginable powers and that he should believe everything in the book because of that assertion, he surprisingly requires no further evidence or proof. A comically-inspired example reinforcing this concept comes from the late, great comedian George Carlin. He once said, "Tell people that there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

I've watched and participated in a number of religious discussions where the person making the case for their chosen religion is unable to adequately respond to contradictions and issues of logical deficiencies. Once they've reached their threshold of frustration, they often participate in a fallacy known as "Shifting the Burden of Proof" by suggesting that I or someone else prove them false. If this were the most appropriate way of determining truth, we would all bear the burden to prove that Jesus wasn't the son of God, Muhammad wasn't visited by the archangel Gabriel, and Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, and Shakti do not exist. This is neither a practical approach nor an intellectually honest one. If you're a Christian, the responsibility to disprove your religion does not belong to the atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. The responsibility to prove, or at the very least support, your assertion lies with you.

I'd like to share with you a remarkable and deeply personal story. I only ask that you read the following with an open mind. For the past 6,000 years there has existed a group of watchers who have been the guardians of mankind. They not only intervene in the lives of the humans in their charge but they also provide spiritual guidance in both our current lives as well as our afterlives. We don't know for sure how they came to be, but we do know that one of these beings is assigned to every human soul that walks this earth. We know this because they have personally revealed this to our ancient ancestors and specifically highlighted the fact that we have free will to either accept or reject their guidance. These magnificent beings resemble pink unicorns that stand an impressive seven feet tall. My personal unicorn physically lives in my backyard and I frequently look to him for guidance 24 hours a day. This guidance is dispensed in accordance with the UniBook - a divinely inspired text with instructions on how to live a righteous life. The UniBook clearly tells me that the world was created instantly the moment that the Great Unicorn rubbed his magical horn willing mankind into existence. The Great Unicorn has commanded us not to make any graven image and it is therefore forbidden to depict the Great Unicorn in any manner. I can't show you a picture of the Great Unicorn, but I need you to have faith that he exists. I choose not to pay attention to those who say they can't see the unicorns because I know that those people are sinners and not true believers. They have rejected this amazing gift from the Great Unicorn. These sinners tell me that unicorns don't exist because science has been unable to measure or prove their existence. These people don't understand that the mere fact that we can't see the unicorn doesn't mean that they don't exist. It certainly doesn't negate the more important fact that I can feel the love and care resulting from the personal relationship that I have with my unicorn. I have seen evidence of my unicorn's influence in my life every day. Even when it feels like the world is about to crash around me, I know that my unicorn loves me unconditionally and that love gives me strength. I am a better person because of my unicorn and I know how to tell the difference between right and wrong because of the Great Unicorn and his divinely-inspired UniBook. I cannot imagine nor would I want to live in a world where unicorns do not exist.

I challenge anyone to prove that the pink unicorn does not exist. Until someone comes forth with evidence of the pink unicorn's non-existence, I demand that you respect my belief - not the right to have the belief but respect for the belief itself. In the meantime, I would like to have tax exempt status for unicorn-worshiping organizations and I would like to have the story of the Great Unicorn taught alongside evolution in our public schools.

You might consider me insane if I truly believed in the pink unicorn and you would have every right to do so. The pink unicorn story uses the same brilliant principle used by philosopher Bertrand Russell in Russell's Teapot to demonstrate where the burden of proof lies. If we take any religious claim and substitute the word "God" with "Unicorn", we can not only achieve the same logical result as the initial claim, but we can also demonstrate how arbitrary the supernatural beliefs and metaphysical claims of religion truly are. I would not expect anyone else to prove that the unicorn doesn't exist. If you are a religious person, please understand that this is exactly how your religion and the demands made on behalf of your religion appear to the rest of us. If a religious person could convince me that pink unicorns do not exist, I would gladly accept a successful refutation because it would mean that a model exists to prove the nonexistence of their god as well.

Anyone making a claim that they want others to rationally accept should provide rational support to help draw that conclusion. A conclusion without logical, supporting evidence does not warrant rational belief.

The default position in any argument should be disbelief until credible evidence is presented to support the claim. If someone wants to believe in miracles and claim that they are true, they can't say that miracles exist because nobody has proven that they don't. If someone wants to believe in angels and claim that they are real, they can't say that angels exist because nobody has proven that they don't. If someone wants to believe that God exists and claim that it is true, they can't say that He exists because nobody has proven that He doesn't. To do otherwise gives someone the ability to say with equal authority that leprechauns exist because we can't prove that they don't. Pink unicorns exist because we can't prove that they don't.

Whenever I ask someone why they believe what they do, I frequently get the response "because I do", "I have an inner conviction", or "I just know". Are any of these answers a satisfactory fulfillment of the burden of proof? If I gave the same type of answers when pressed to prove my unicorn's existence, would those types of answers be sufficient to warrant rational belief? A similar line of questioning has been posed to me regarding love. How do I know that my wife loves me? I can't see love, nor can I taste, touch, or hear love. For many Christians, this concept is frequently offered up as analogous proof or validation of their relationship with Jesus. This isn't a fair comparison because the difference lies in the evidence for each position. I believe that my wife loves me because 1) she has verbally told me, 2) she has indicated her feelings to me in written form, and 3) her actions are consistent with the concept of love. Could she have faked any of it? She certainly could have, but the evidence doesn't suggest such a conclusion. To the Christian, Muslim, or Jew, I would ask whether or not the same three criteria can be applied in their situation? Has God ever verbally spoken to them? Has God ever personally written something to them? Has God ever done something directly and specifically for them to demonstrate His love without the person having to read tea leaves to try and interpret the event? The honest answer to each of those questions is no. God does not verbally speak to us. God does not personally send us letters, manuscripts, banners, faxes, emails or any other type of written communication. God does not physically do anything to show us love in a way that can be directly and verifiably attributed to Him in the same manner that we can with a visible loved one.

It's not uncommon to hear people say that they've felt the presence of Jesus. I'm not going to deny that people truly believe this nor would I ever cast any doubt upon their sincerity. To them it was most likely a very real event. It was likely just as real to that Christian as it was to the Muslim who made a similar claim. If a Hindu has a religious vision, he/she believes with an equally strong passion that the vision was real. If someone wants to claim that they "just know", then under what authority is it permissible for that same person to discount someone of another faith who "just knows"? One (or both) of them is wrong. "Just knowing" is not sufficient to satisfy the burden of proof. For many years, people "just knew" that the world was flat. At one time, we "just knew" that fairy rings were caused by elves gathering and dancing. For centuries, we "just knew" that lightning and thunder were the work of gods. If someone is religious and intends to tell another person that his/her chosen religion is true, they need to be prepared to do more than just assert their beliefs as true. They need to demonstrate it; support it; prove it.

Finally, I would offer the following suggestion. If a god is not just a spiritual god, but rather a personal god that answers prayers, intervenes, and can have a material impact in our world, I would propose that this can be measured and quantified. If there is a physical change in our world, we can measure that physical change. The chapter of this book that deals with prayer will pose this very question.

Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and astrophysicist, once said "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Please keep this concept in mind as you not only progress throughout this book, but also as you progress through your daily life. If someone makes an amazing claim like an act of God, it is appropriate to expect amazing evidence in return to support that conclusion. The burden of proof is on them.