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07 June 2010

The Burden of Proof

I recently received the following email from a fellow skeptic. He is an eminently reasonable and likeable fellow, perhaps his only flaw being that he's quite enamoured of our friend C.S. Lewis (Wikipedia and Iron Chariots). I've agreed to read The Great Divorce, so perhaps I'll have a few posts related to it when I can find the time.

But back on track. This is the email that I received:

Hi Gem,

If you have time, could I get your opinion on this?

Let's assume that God exists and created the human race. Also assume that there is a person who would like to decide whether they believe he exists. With the character of the Judeo-Christian God in mind, do you believe the burden of proof would lie on God or on the person?


I put some measure of effort into my reply (much to the annoyance of my lovely wife, who eventually got fed up waiting for me and went to bed) and figured that it may be of some interest to others.

So here it is.


That's an interesting question.

The term "burden of proof" is generally used in cases when two people are discussing an assertion (such as "entity x exists", "I have been to place y", or "substance z is the cure for all disease"), and in this case the burden of proof always lies with the claimant. What this means is that the person making the claim cannot reasonably expect to be taken seriously unless they back up their claim in some way (usually with evidence proportional to the claim); as Carl Sagan would remind us, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." So the claim "I have a pet dog" will generally require less evidence than the claim "I have a pet leprechaun", as we know that dogs exist and that some people keep them as pets.

This isn't arbitrary, of course: it's necessary. The reason the burden of proof lies upon the claimant to prove his or her claim, and not the respondent to prove the claim false, is that the latter rule would force us to believe every concept presented that is beyond our understanding or the current scope of our investigation. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that it would also require us to hold contradictory beliefs! If I were to say to you (as Bertrand Russell might have), "There is a small china teapot orbiting the planet Venus," you the second maxim would require you to believe me unless you were able to perform an exhaustive search of the second planet's skies. If I were to then tell you, "There are no china teapots in outer space," you would have to believe that, too! (Unless you were up for a somewhat protracted scavenger hunt in space.)

And so it seems clear that the burden of proof must lie with the claimant. Consequently, if someone were to make the claim "some god exists", the burden of proof would require that person to provide evidence for that assertion. Likewise, if someone were to make the claim "no gods exist", the burden of proof would require that person to do the same. (It's worth noting that I don't know anyone who would make the latter claim; although certain god concepts are logically inconsistent or contradict certain observable facts of the universe, there are plenty of god concepts that are completely unverifiable.) I have simply found no convincing reasons to believe that any gods exist (barring any "god is love" utterances and equivocations of the sort).

So what about the scenario that you mentioned?

The question you might ask is this: Does God want you to believe that he exists? If he were trying to convince you that he did exist, the burden of proof would lie with him. If the person is trying to decide whether or not God exists, he or she is simply evaluating evidence. Think of it like a trial: the prosecution is presenting evidence in an attempt to meet their burden of proof, while the judge is simply evaluating that evidence; the judge has no burden of proof. (It is worth noting in this case that the defence does not have to provide positive evidence, but simply has to refute the evidence of the prosecution.)

So the burden of proof doesn't lie with the person evaluating the evidence. If God wants that person to know that he exists, he has the burden of proof (and, assuming an omniscient god, presumably knows exactly what it would take to convince the person).

There's a lot more to discuss here (some of the common arguments, for example), but I'll leave that for another time. I do want to take a moment to discuss faith, however, just briefly.

Faith is something that I've never particularly understood, and it's never really been explained to me in a way that seemed coherent and reasonable—but perhaps "reasonable" isn't what it's supposed to be. In any event, it's been put to me in the past that if God were to provide sufficient evidence that he existed: we have to choose to believe, or he would be in violation of our free will*, and we would have no choice but to worship him. Perhaps you've encountered this one as well.

This particular argument fails spectacularly in several places. First, if we're speaking of the God of the Bible, there is a perfect counterexample readily at hand: Satan. I'm fairly sure that this character is meant to have known God pretty well, and still passed on the whole worship thing—instead fomenting rebellion and whatnot—so it seems clear that knowing that God exists doesn't prevent us from exercising our freedom of choice. This argument also flies directly in the face of empiricism: this one belief, among all beliefs in the universe, is not allowed to be made on the basis of evidence. This is called special pleading, and it is generally frowned upon. The argument may also assume that belief is governed by the will (a fault it shares with Pascal's Wager). Unfortunately, I don't feel particularly at liberty to believe whatever I want: my beliefs are dictated by evidence and by persuasive arguments.

When it comes right down to it, I don't think that anyone really believes based on faith—I could very well be mistaken, but I think that most people, if not all people, who believe do so because they think that they have a good reason, or they avoid thinking about it because it's uncomfortable. And hey, I certainly know that feeling—I really didn't want to give up steak.

Well, that's enough rambling for one night. I think that buried somewhere deep in the above you may find the answer to your question. If I missed it somehow, my apologies! Just let me know.

All the best.

* I should mention in passing that I don't actually believe in free will, the way most people mean it. But that's a discussion for another time. ;)

I went to bed, but realised that there was one more thing that I wanted to add. So back to the computer I went.

One addendum:

I should also mention another place in which the "proof denies our free will" argument fails, just to put a more personal spin on things. I can tell you that if God does exist, and the Christian Bible (both New and Old Testaments) accurately describes his actions and character, I don't find him particularly worthy of worship. Not to belabour the point, but this god does strike me as a bit ruthless, pretty petty, and barbaric, and although the New Testament is often praised for its "turn the other cheek" mentality, it also introduces the concept of infinite punishment for finite crimes: in the Old Testament, once you were dead, that was that—no more suffering, whether inflicted upon you by God or by men—but with the New Testament we get the idea of Hell. The thought that any crime could warrant torment without end is simply morally repugnant to me, and many of the crimes listed in the Bible barely seem worthy of the name.

You may be interested to know that by denying the holy spirit I have committed what is called in Matthew and Mark the only unforgivable sin. If true, there's nothing for it: it's an eternity of torture for me! But doesn't it seem odd that a serial child rapist could repent upon his deathbed and spend eternity in paradise while those pursuing reason and free inquiry would be damned?

If I ever do meet this Yaweh fellow, I hope that he has time for a nice long chat before he throws the lever and trap door opens below my feet, because if nothing else he would certainly be capable of sating my curiosity on a great many subjects.

I apologise for the typos in the above: it was written well after midnight.

Any thoughts? Did I get it right?


  1. I think you had a good response, I probably wouldn't have gone into as much detail!

    I just want to say that even though I'm an atheist, I love The Great Divorce. It's a fantastic fictional idea of the afterlife.

  2. Interesting. Something to look forward to, then! I often have trouble with the more modern religious stuff, as I find it often lacks the vivid imagery and arcane flavour of older works. It doesn't help that I never much cared for The Chronicles of Narnia (although apparently that makes me crazy).

  3. D. Rolling Kearney01 May, 2012 17:37

    Hey, Gem! I thought you might be interested in how a devout Mormon might answer some of the questions/concerns you posed in your response to this letter. Actually, most of them relate to an understanding of the role and purpose of the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit, as you refer to him in your letter). Let me explain.

    The role and purpose of the Holy Ghost is directly tied into who God and Christ are and what they do, so bear with me.

    Mormons believe that God is the father of all mankind. He is a perfect being. He created a plan for us, his children, to come to earth as a learning place and testing ground, to see if we would be obedient to God, in whatever degree we discovered it in this life. Making correct choices would/will cause us to become like God, and allow us to return to him after this life. Being imperfect ourselves, though, God knew we would make mistakes so he made arrangements for us to make things right when/if we do. The eternal law of justice demands that negative actions receive negative consequences. Humans are unable to erase history, therefore our inevitable mistakes, or willful disobedience (i.e., sins) keep us separated from God. Another eternal law, the law of mercy, however, allows for justice to be fulfilled by proxy. Which brings us to Christ.

    Jesus Christ agreed to fill the central role in God's plan by paying the price of justice for all the sins of mankind. This is analogous to your best friend paying off your debts to keep you out of prison. Your best friend would doubtless require repayment in some form, and so does Jesus Christ. The payment is to stop sinning and follow him. Herein lies the answer to the question of "free will" you mentioned. If your friend was smart, he would draw up a legal contract stating what the requirements of your agreement were, and also what the consequences of neglect would be. Upon entering into the agreement with your friend, you have given up your freedom to do just anything you want - specifically to violate the terms of your agreement - but only to the degree that abiding by the covenant will give you the desired results of freedom from your debts. Otherwise, you are ultimately still free to violate the terms and reassume the consequences of the original violation. It is the same with Jesus Christ; his suffering will apply to your sins IF you follow the prescribed method of repayment. Jesus' role, then, was both to pay the penalty of sin, and to teach mankind about God's plan for them.

    As you mentioned, Satan was indeed quite familiar with God. The terms used to describe him in the scriptures portray someone possessing knowledge and glory. He did not "pass on the worship thing", as you say, but sought to fill the role of savior and contended with Christ for this role. The difference lied in one key tenet of God's plan: namely, that of agency. Whereas Jesus would allow implementation of God's original plan and allow us all to determine our own level of obedience, Satan wanted to add the stipulation that in exchange for his payment of our debts, there would be NO agency, and all mankind would be forced to live a pointless, basically robotic life, without opportunity of learning through mistakes, etc. Fortunately, we have our agency, and you are as free to hold to atheist views as I am to be a Mormon. God loves us both, and we can choose for ourselves. But how do our choices qualify us for God's judgment? This brings us to the Holy Ghost.

  4. D. Rolling Kearney01 May, 2012 17:38

    The role of the Holy Ghost is to give people an unmistakable impression of what things are true. This allows God to provide the "burden of proof" to all who will listen. We do come into this world ignorant of his plan, after all, so the burden does lie with him, as you correctly claim. But God would be a tyrant if he forced us to be obedient, so the burden of obedience lies with us, the individual. This is where we tie into the concept of faith. The scripture tells us that "[F]aith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) This is mistakenly interpreted that to have faith is to believe in something, anything, you cannot see. A true understanding of faith lies in understanding that at its root is the unmistakable impression, given one by the Holy Ghost, that something is true. The "substance" of the truth comes from the Holy Ghost, even though the "evidence" is lacking at present. Because God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost all act in unity for our salvation, they are "one" as the scriptures say. They form what Mormons refer to as the Godhead.

    Because the Holy Ghost is God - a member of the Godhead - his word to us is law. This brings me to your comment about your own supposed inability to be saved due to your "denial of the holy spirit", by which I assume you mean denial of his existence. In fact, there is much more required to qualify one for committing this act than mere ignorance or doubt of the existence of the Holy Ghost. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism says this:

    "The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, "No man can commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, nor in this life, until he receives the Holy Ghost" (TPJS, p. 357). To commit the unpardonable sin, a person "must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against Him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him…. he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened to him, and to deny the Plan of Salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it" (TPJS, p. 358; cf. Heb. 10:26-29).

    If people have such knowledge and willfully turn altogether away, it is a sin against light, a sin against the Holy Ghost, and figuratively "they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame" (Heb. 6:4-6; D&C 76:35). Such remain as though there were no Atonement..." (Unpardonable Sin, Encyclopedia of Mormonism,

    In other words, one must have an ABSOLUTE knowledge of truth, and then go against it, to qualify for what is referred to as the unforgivable sin. You are partially correct, however, in your interpretation. The only way that God can guide his children back to him is through the influence of the Holy Ghost. There is no other way. If a child does not take his father's hand while walking through a maze, he will get lost. In a real-life maze, there is still a statistical chance that the child could find its way out. However, in a spiritual sense, you cannot, on your own, get where God wants you to be. The laws of justice and mercy require that you follow the requirements laid out by the Savior.

  5. D Rolling Kearney01 May, 2012 17:39

    Without the advocacy of Jesus Christ, you will be required to suffer for your own sins. This does not mean, though, that you will do so forever, as some interpret the scriptures. No loving God, just like no loving parent, would subject his own children to a literal "lake of fire and brimstone" for all time. Just as our actions are of limited duration, so is our punishment of limited duration. Afterwards, following judgment, all of God's children will receive some form of glory, and be given a place of happiness to dwell forever. The answer here is one of interpretation, as defined by God himself:

    "And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless. Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass... Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal dangation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory... For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore— Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment." (D&C 19: 4-7, 10-12)

    There is no "crime [that] could warrant torment without end". For an LDS (Mormon) understanding of Hades, I refer you to the Bible Dictionary entry for Hades, as found in the LDS edition of the KJV Bible:

    I should mention here that your example of a "serial child rapist [repenting] upon his deathbed" is problematic. Namely, God requires true repentance - "a broken heart and a contrite spirit" as the scriptures say (See Psalms 51:17, among others). A true turning from one's sins is required for forgiveness; this is unlikely on one's deathbed, when efforts of repentance are usually motivated by fear of punishment rather than from a choice to be obedient to God.

    You mentioned that "if God does exist, and the Christian Bible (both New and Old Testaments) accurately describes his actions and character, I don't find him particularly worthy of worship." It is not enough that a description be accurate, but the interpretation of those actions must also be correct. I can see how some of the things God did, or commanded others to do, in the scriptures can seem "ruthless, pretty, and barbaric". I would encourage you, however, to keep searching for truth and understanding. We are finite beings with limited understanding. We are meant to "[increase] in wisdom and stature", learning and growing gradually just as Christ did (Luke 2:52). As you are true to each little thing you are given, you will receive more:

    "And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God. For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith." (D&C 98:11-12)

    It is also important to note that sometimes what the Holy Ghost tells you is true will be incompatible with what the world tells you. This is where faith comes in. Remember, if God is real, he knows everything; men, on the other hand, are just doing the best we can with the limited tools we've been given. (That's the ideal, anyway. Many men promote lies that work in their favor.)

    In closing, I just want to say I hope someday you do "meet this Yaweh fellow". While you may not yet have come across the answers you seek, they are, nevertheless, out there.

    PS - Sorry for the novel here :) I wanted to respond to everything.

  6. I appreciate the evident thought that you put into your reply, Kearney. While it's interesting to get a Mormon perspective on the issue, surely you're aware that quoting the Doctrine and Covenants couldn't be persuasive to someone who has no reason to believe that Mormon scripture (or any other scripture, for that matter) has any substantive difference from the writings of Tolkien (although perhaps Card or Sanderson would be better examples, in this case).

    You say that "The role of the Holy Ghost is to give people an unmistakable impression of what things are true." While you don't go into any real detail here, I assume that you're referring to the so-called "burning in the bosom"—the mechanism by which many Mormons claim to receive divine confirmation of their faith, etc. While mechanisms differ, surely you're aware that people of all faiths routinely receive similar confirmations. If you would submit such "confirmations" as evidence of truth (which apparently your godhead would have you do, given what you have quoted above), I am curious as to why you apparently reject the "confirmations" of others whose faiths are different from yours.

    I should also note that many of the quibbles you have with what I wrote above seem to stem from doctrinal differences between Mormon and mainline protestant Christian theology. While these may be interesting distinctions to make, it strikes me as something akin to telling an artist that real faeries have blue wings, rather than the green wings that she has painted.