Posted by: keepfishing | May 16, 2008

Who has the Burden of Proof?


Richard Dawkins slightly sweaty

It is often said by Atheists and similar that when talking about God, the burden of proof falls to the Theists. I guess that this is standard operating procedure in philosophy – the primary position is that things are not, so those that think something IS, have to prove it, rather than the other way round.

However, it occurred to me that in the case of God, this seems counter-intuitive. I may be way off, and this is mostly the jumbled flow of a two minute thought last night, but here’s my logic….

Most Atheists subscribe to a Darwinist or neo-Darwinist theory of evolution and development. As far as I understand it, part of the theory includes the idea that common traits amongst established species are probably good, otherwise they would have been selected out.

Now, all (maybe there’s one or two, but I’m yet to hear of them) cultures around the world are originally theistic in some form or another and have some form of spiritual worship. Social evolution theory might say that this is a good thing (hence why it’s stuck around), because it brings communities together or something, or gives them a crutch when times are hard, or helps manage fear and depression. Heck, one of them might even be true!

So sticking with this idea of it being a good thing, for whatever reason, why are the evolutionists now telling us that it is definitely not true and is a delusion? Delusion, in my book, has always been a bad thing. Presumably the Atheists believe they have overcome the shackles of our Neanderthal-esque beliefs and that now non-belief is somehow beneficial for the progression (see comments here for a wide range of ideas on this)  and advancement of the human race.

Therefore, if this state of a-theisim is a secondary, allegedly more advanced stage of human development and evolution, surely the burden of dis-proof should be on the Atheist, rather than the Theist?

Or I could be talking complete codswallop. I look forward to being informed either way. 



  1. Belief in god being beneficial and belief in god being well founded are two entirely different things. Evolution has no care whether a thing is true or not, it cares whether traits are beneficial. An idea that unites a people under common law when they’re too primitive to come up with common law on their own is beneficial, whether it’s a delusion or not. Once the people become advanced enough to control themselves without threat of a higher power, then the delusion can become a bad thing. There is no absolute, what is beneficial in certain conditions can be a negative in other conditions. Lungs are pretty beneficial if you live on land. Not so much if you live on water. I think a major part of peoples misunderstanding of evolution is that people think there is an evolutionary goal, that things go from less evolved to more evolved. There’s no such thing as more evolved, there’s differently evolved.

    And there is no such thing as disproof, so the burden of disproof is never on anyone. It’s always the burden of proof. You can’t prove things *don’t* exist, you can either show beyond a reasonable doubt that they do, or fail to show that, in which case you assume they don’t.
    Which comes to another point, atheism does not say that belief in god is definitely not true, it says that it hasn’t been demonstrated within reason to be true and is therefore assumed false until further evidence arises.

  2. You’re mixing up meanings dreadfully. As Jason pointed out, the evolutionary process selects for traits that are useful, not traits that are true or inherently good. Moreover, what traits are useful can change according to the environment. Additionally, while our tendency to believe events must have personal causation probably evolved, the trappings of religion are not found in our genes, but are cultural.

    An evolutionist would not say a tendency towards belief in the supernatural is *good*, just that it probably was *useful* in the past. For instance, religious beliefs have been used throughout history by one tribe of humans to excuse eradicating a competing tribe. Useful, yes. Good, no.

  3. Imagine this scenario:

    A man goes to court and talks to a judge:

    Man: My neighbor stole $2000 from me.
    Judge: Okay, do you have any evidence for this claim?
    Man: No, I don’t need evidence, I said it was true, therefor it is.

    That really makes no sense.

    Another point to ponder:

    How can the burden of proof lie with the atheist? How can I, an atheist, prove the non-existence of something that in non-existing? You are asking me to prove a negative, which is not possible.

    Burden of proof always lies with the one who claims it to be true.

  4. Why don’t you let God prove Himself, I think He can do it better than anyone else.

    Psalms 19

  5. Keepfishing, I think you are misunderstanding the burden of proof a little. The point is not that the assumption is that things don’t exist, it’s that the person making the claim is responsible for justifying why it’s true. This is just as true for negative claims (this doesn’t exist) as it is for positive ones.

    In the case of religion, I think the answer to your argument is that evolution does not entail the idea that everything that exists is a) optimal or b) itself directly and exactly the result of a beneficial trait. There’s no reason, evolutionarily, why belief in a god couldn’t a) play or at least have played some sort of useful social role in early humans that is useful for the species utterly regardless of whether it is true or not, or b) simply be an side-effect outgrowth of other important things, such as the ability to imagine, or the importance of creating social cohesion or c) merely a side-effect that just happened without much of a connection to anything. None of these things advance the idea that there is a God any further, and all are compatible with an evolutionary picture of things.

  6. There is no empirical proof on earth that a god or gods exist or ever existed…none.
    Therefore man cannot prove god…never will be able to.

  7. Frankly, I think you are *bob on*.

    For what it’s worth.

  8. One must appreciate an interesting property of the universe, that through the suspension of natural law, God’s existence can be made known; however, there are no possible conditions of the universe which could possibly disprove God’s existence.

  9. I don’t think the burden of proof is on any interest group. I think the burden of exploring the issue and trying to come to our own conclusions is on everyone as an individual. It’s dangerous when we allow our culture to do our thinking for us, whatever that culture might happen to be.

    How much evidence and personal experience do we require to settle on a tentative conclusion one way or another? I don’t think initially, we operate on a threshold of “beyond reasonable doubt” – we say “what do i think is more likely, given my understanding of the issue, my knowledge and my life experience” certainly in other aspects of life, decision making and relationships we operate on much lower levels of certainty than beyond reasonable doubt.

    the $2000 analogy works both ways: i can’t claim the money under my mattress just came into existence by itself – through purely natural processes and without external interference – just because you can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone put it there.

    Whilst there is no burden on the atheist to disprove God, there is a burden of proof to provide evidence to back up the assertion that all of human experience and circumstance can be explained through purely natural processes operating without external interference – from the existence of the awesome universe we live in, to the existence of life, to concepts of justice, to the affect that music or a sunset can have on the human psyche.

    Equally, the theist should point to evidence of such external interference to support their assertions.

  10. personally i think Jesus was good enough proof that God exists..

  11. I don’t think the burden of proof is on any interest group. I think the burden of exploring the issue and trying to come to our own conclusions is on everyone as an individual.

    That’s sort of going way off track/topic. The issue with the BoP is a strictly pragmatic one of logical warrant. It amounts to the idea that if you want to make a claim, then its your responsibility to first support it before it’s anyone else’s responsibility to disprove it.

    And non-believers do not have a burden to explain the workings of the entire universe in order to not believe that “goddit.” Especially since what you are asking them to explain is far far more detail than “goddit” ever provides.

  12. When it comes to proving or disproving God, I think we ask some of the wrong questions. Whether we were created or evolved, was it in six days or six millenia or more, is not the point. The church–(I refer to the historic Catholic church) has been proved wrong (think heliocentricism) which brings me to my point. Galileo said that the pupose of scripture is to tell us how to go to heaven; not how the heavens should go.
    Secondly, the Apostle Paul wrote that Christ rose from the dead is the lynchpin of our faith. If he did not, then our hope is in vain.

  13. Chrsty: ok
    1) what about Jesus proves that God exists? Please demonstrate the connection.
    2) If you want to use Jesus’ life as evidence of God’s existence, you need to provide evidence to back up the historical veracity of any claims you might make about him. Otherwise its just blind faith one step removed – you’ve moved the lack of evidence provided one step along.

    Like they always used to tell me in Maths lessons: please show your working.

    Bad: I don’t think its off topic – i’m taking the subject of BoP and asking is that how people actually make decisions about what they believe? or even should people make such decisions that way?

    And your second paragraph very eloquently describes why BoP arguments muddy the issue so. They’re basically an attempt by one side or the other to frame the argument in such a way that they can then sit back safe in their “self evident and perfectly reasonable” convictions, offering no evidence whatsoever whilst setting the advocate of a different worldview an impossibly high standard of evidence (proof).

    With these kind of issues you can make an argument for almost any position based on “you can’t prove the opposite is true”. Its a waste of everyone’s time. I’m saying its much better and more productive for everyone to present evidence FOR their worldview, then the evidence can be weighed and individuals can come to a conclusion based on where they feel all the evidence, on balance, points.

    So yeah what you say about making a claim and having to back it up is true. The thing is, everyone with an awareness of what their worldview is, is making a claim. Those with a materialist (non-theist) worldview need to support that claim as much as those with theistic worldviews need to support theirs.

    For what its worth, i wasn’t asking for anything in my last post, and certainly not a complete explanation of the entire workings of the universe. I was trying to explore how atheists might provide evidence to support their worldview – basically by saying look, here is the evidence that the universe and all human experience is the product of natural processes. Sorry for wording it badly. Theists, on the other hand, would need to point to evidence of interaction with the material universe from a spiritual realm or deity.

    The problem is, I can think of powerful arguments *against* both theistic and non-theistic worldviews much more easily than i can think of actual evidence to support either. And i think that’s why we tend to think in terms of disproof rather than proof on these matters.

  14. Linus,

    I know you’re question is pointed to Christy, but, to my point; if there is historical evidence that Christ did the things that we believe, would that not in fact prove God? I refer to C. S. Lewis’ trilemma. You cannot simply take Jesus as a moral teacher. He was 1) A liar and he knew it, which makes him a con man 2) A liar and he didn’t know it. which makes him a madman or 3) He was telling the truth and was exactly who he said he was

  15. Lewis’ argument isn’t taken seriously by scholars, because it’s terrible.

    It’s first and foremost a false dilemma. Most human beings are a mix of all three possibilities: a a little bit truthful, a little bit insincere, and maybe even a little bit nutty. It furthermore leaves out some very important and even quite likely possibilities, which include that Christ’s words were misrepresented or misunderstood, mixed with mythical elements after the fact, and so on.

    And it isn’t very plausible to begin with. Many many people in the age he would have lived in claimed to have mystical powers. Many people TODAY claim the same. Not all are either liars or crazy, end of story, though both are plausible and commonplace. People believe all sorts of things, sincerely, mistakenly, without being mentally ill. And, in fact, what exactly is the basis for suggesting that Christ wasn’t mentally ill in the first place? He did all sorts of rather nutty things that theologians cannot decipher or agree upon the meaning for even thousands of years of trying later.

    Lewis’s judgment is worth little here.

  16. Dear Linus.. You have a lot to say.. I have not read Al’s blog in a week or two so missed your comment to me. Sorry for the delay. Would you like to reply to you directly or to this thread? You ask valid questions.

    Bad on the other hand I will address here because your first line of your post rules out the rest. You start will faulty logic which is just untrue. “Lewis’ argument isn’t taken seriously by scholars because it’s terrible.”

    Which scholars? There are plenty of scholars in the world who do take him seriously. Edwin Yamauchi for one whom I studied under is one of the top ten scholars in the world in his field of ancient history and has worked with over 22 languages alive and dead. “Yamauchi’s areas of expertise include: Ancient History, Old Testament, New Testament, Early Church History, Gnosticism, and Biblical Archaeology. He has been awarded eight fellowships, contributed chapters to several books, articles in reference works, and has published 80 essays in 37 scholarly journals. He has been a member and officer of the Institute for Biblical Research, an organization of scholars devoted to the research of the Bible.” Check him out for yourself. I could come up with a list of thousands of scholars who do take Lewis’ argument seriously. But to save time.. one does the job because you inferred “no scholars.”

    Linus, as you have better questions, I will be less cheeky with you. I promise. 🙂

  17. Am I being too simplistic to say that I like Dawkins and his ilk, cuz they focus energy on a belief in humans and the goodness WE’RE capable of… instead of putting the responsibilites on some ‘spirit’.

    However, saying that, I do borrow from Buddhism/Zen often, more as a way of being good in the world than relying on a deity to solve all of the worlds (or my) problems.


  18. Christy, the first line of my post doesn’t “rule out the rest.” Even if I was 100% wrong, and every scholar in existence took Lewis’ argument seriously, this wouldn’t invalidate any of the other arguments I made.

    You seem in a real hurry to avoid having to address those arguments, though, don’t you?

    I’ll happily modify my statement: no serious scholar who isn’t an evangelical apologist like Edwin Yamauchi with an axe to grind takes Lewis’ argument seriously.

    And the reasons you can ‘t take Lewis seriously? Those I’ve already explained.

  19. The human condition is both the trap and the escape for understanding our desire for proof of God. Tragically, I feel, we don´t have enough self confidence to see immediately that all of us are nothing other than the God we are trying to understand. Because the primary cause and principle is above both negation and affirmation most of us choose to either deny or take a blind faith approach. Agnostic is just another word for lazy but you can´t blame some people for refusing to accept the superstition that is a major part of most religions. The way that Christianity is going currently with the evangelist avatars and Islam with the crazy interpretations of martyrdom and sacrifice would turn anyone off who has any sense at all. I urge everyone to read serious mysticism and to seek enlightenment, salvation lies in ourselves, not in some idea of an external God entity that is only and ever will be a mental constructin in our own heads. Among many others, Jesus of Nazareth showed us the way but instead we choose to worship the finger that points rather than trying to understand whathe was pointing at. History, art, religion, philosophy, science; thay all have their place but they are not knowledge. Facts are not knowledge, the law is not justice and religion often has very little to do with God. Truth is an experience and therfore is as self evident as reality. God neither exists nor does not exist, logic and dual reasoning won´t help.

  20. Bad i agree with you that Christy addressed the least important part of your previous post but i feel the need to challenge your modified statement: You are discounting a scholar as fatally clouded by bias on the basis that he disagrees with you.

    Even if it were an accurate description, describing you as an atheism apologist with an axe to grind would not render you any more or less relevant, qualified and intelligent than you are, so the same goes for Yamauchi, whoever he is.

    But you’re right, that has no bearing on the actual quality of Lewis’ argument, so i’ll attempt to address your reasoning for discounting it.

    first off, the trilemma is in reference to a specific claim that Jesus is alleged to have made – that of divinity. Most people are indeed a mixture of the good the bad and the ugly, but that is irrelevant here – most people do not claim to be God. Lewis argues that in the act of making this specific claim, an individual is either lying, deluded, or telling the truth. Mutually exclusive possibilities in relation to this one claim.

    Note here that Jesus isn’t just claiming vague mystical powers, he’s claiming equality with God, according to the gospel accounts. In a culture which considers blasphemy a capital offence. Again the Gospel accounts make it clear many of Jesus contemporaries considered him guilty of such an offence because of his statements. He makes no attempt to explain away, modify or retract these statements when challenged – in fact he reiterates them even more boldly. This would indicate he was neither misrepresented nor misunderstood – he had ample opportunity to correct people of their misapprehensions if so. As far as mythical elements being added by the gospel writers, Jesus claim of divinity was such a central tenet of the gospel accounts and belief for the early church, and such a central aspect of the case against Jesus at his trial that it could not be an addition tacked on to a pre-existing story – it is an essential part of the narrative without which the rest of the story makes no sense.

    Lewis’ primary aim is to argue that the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher and/or a good man but not divine is an untenable view of Jesus to hold – that this view is not consistent with the claims Jesus made. In this context Lewis is trying to put forward a watertight argument, and i think he does that well. When the trilemma is used as an outright attempt to prove Jesus’ divinity, its misrepresenting to an extent the point Lewis is making. Lewis does not claim to have watertight arguments that Jesus was neither a con man nor delusional. He does point out the difficulties in both beliefs though.

    With regard to the basis for suggesting Jesus wasn’t mentally ill, Lewis argues that Jesus demonstrates remarkably lucid thinking in various debates detailed in the gospels, and also a clear awareness of others’ thoughts and feelings and compassion for them. These are clear indicators of a non-delusional mind. He also argues that what Jesus was claiming to be is so far removed from the status of a human being that if Jesus was in fact merely human, such a belief would be a massive delusion, equivalent to believing oneself to be a poached egg. He argues that such a huge delusion does not tally with a person exhibiting strong evidence of mental health.

  21. Christy you’re right i do have a lot to say. sorry! I’m a contextual thinker so i find it hard to be succinct. I’m working on it. Feel free to post anything you want here if you think it would add to the debate – my earlier questions were merely a rsponse to your first post.

    I’ve just realised how completely off topic we are. I think we got sidetracked after armchairapologist referenced the trilemma in a previous post. I should maybe respond to that post as it was addressed to me. basically, i don’t fully understand the point you’re trying to make.. What are the things that Christ did that we believe? Who’s we?

    For historical evidence to PROVE that God exists, it would have to be utterly conclusive historical evidence and it would have to be evidence of the occurrence of events that could only be explained by the existence of God. But that is proof. Evidence that may support or lend credence to a belief in God need not be so impressive.

    Either way, i don’t see how the trilemma applies directly here – it’s a philosophical argument based on the acceptance of the reliability of certain historical accounts.

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