As I have discussed various issues with atheists over the years, I have noticed that there is one area about which they are more sensitive than any other. An atheist can calmly discuss the many difficulties of evolution, they are serene when discussing the nihilistic implications of atheism, they are enthusiastic when discussing the difficulties of the Old Testament and they are generally sanguine about admitting to a belief in the fantastic number of alternate universes necessary to dispute the fine-tuning of the constants of physics. Despite this general equanimity, however, an atheist can become positively unglued when you discuss the burden of proof. I think that this is because atheists know that if they lose this argument, they lose the war. Since it is well known that it is impossible to prove non-existence, atheists know that the only way they can intellectually justify their position is to assume that atheism is true and place the burden of proof on theists. Let us, therefore, examine the issue of who has the burden of proof in the God debate.
The Burden of Proof in the Criminal Justice System
The issue of the burden of proof is familiar to most of us through our experience with the criminal justice system. “A defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is the phrase with which most of us are familiar. Most people don’t know that the burden of proof in civil cases is different and that the “preponderance of the evidence” decides the issue. Why does the burden of proof matter? Why the higher burden of proof in criminal cases?
To show how vitally important burden of proof is, let us consider a criminal case where the accused is innocent and the strongest evidence for guilt is a fingerprint that has been found at the crime scene. CSI lab analysis finds that the partial fingerprint matches the suspect, but the match is only partial. Some 5% of the population of the city would match the partial prints and there are, therefore, thousands of other possible suspects who could have committed the crime. In a country where the burden of proof is that the prosecution must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the defence attorney can rejoice at this news. With thousands of other suspects who could have left the fingerprint, this evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But what would be the case if the defence had the burden of proof? What would happen if the suspect was assumed guilty and had to prove that he was innocent?
If the burden of proof were reversed, then the defence attorney would be devastated by the news that the fingerprint matched at all. To prove the defendant innocent, the defence attorney might have been able to prove that the fingerprint belonged to the criminal and that his client could not have left the fingerprint. With any degree of match, however, the defence attorney cannot use the fingerprint evidence one way or the other. If he proves that the fingerprint belonged to the perpetrator, then the suspect is plausibly guilty. If he proves that the person who left the fingerprint could not have committed the crime, then the defendant is still plausibly guilty. Either way, the accused goes to prison unless some ironclad exculpatory evidence can be found.
As we can see from this example, the issue of burden of proof has a devastating impact on arguments in a debate. With the same evidence, an innocent defendant who was virtually guaranteed to go free under one system is virtually guaranteed to go to prison with the opposite burden of proof. Given that the burden of proof should be on the prosecutor, why should the prosecutor have to prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”?
If you ask a lawyer why the prosecutor should have such a difficult burden of proof, the lawyer will say that the prosecutor has all of the resources of the state to use against the defendant while the defendant only has a very small amount of resources with which to defend himself. While this is a good reason to place an onerous burden of proof on the state prosecutor, there are several other very good reasons for assigning the burden of proof in this way.
As we have seen from the thought experiment above, if the burden of proof is placed on the defendant, then it is very easy to get false convictions. If you tried 1000 people for the same crime, then you could very easily get 50 convictions 49 of which must be false if there was only one guilty party. (50 = 5% of 1000) If an onerous burden of proof is on the prosecutor, on the other hand, then the worst that could ever happen if you tried 1000 people for the same crime is 1 false acquittal. A simple statistical argument, therefore, indicates that an onerous burden of proof should rest on the prosecutor.
But there is another reason that an onerous burden of proof should be on the state prosecutor. This has to do with the negative impacts associated with erroneous results. Since a career criminal that is falsely acquitted is likely to be convicted of a later felony and since felonies carry a heavy penalty, false acquittals are less damaging to society than false convictions. Consider the O. J. Simpson case. Though many people believe that Mr. Simpson avoided conviction in the murder of Ron Brown and Nicole Simpson by getting the best defence lawyers that money could buy, he is still in prison for many years. Why? Because he had a criminal mentality and this eventually led to his conviction and removal from society. Or consider the case of the real life mobster Henry Hill who inspired the movie GoodFellas. Despite the low conviction rate of crimes in our society and a high degree of criminal sophistication, Mr. Hill spent a good deal of his life behind bars. Contrast this to the high penalty of false convictions where an innocent person can lose their entire life to a single false conviction.
For all of these very good practical reasons, therefore, we as a society have decided to impose an onerous burden of proof on state prosecutors in criminal cases. This brings up an important question. Where should the burden of proof be placed in the debate between Christianity and atheism?
The Burden of Proof in the God Debate
When atheists discuss the burden of proof in the debate over the existence of God, they tend to make arguments that focus on the implausibility of a particular set of theistic beliefs. “If you came to me and told me that you had a time machine in your back yard”, one atheist said to me, “Do you expect me to believe you without any evidence? Of course not. Belief in such a fantastic claim cannot be consented to by a rational person without commensurate evidence. In just this way, a Christian must prove that the Bible is true before I will believe. Where is your proof?” Though this argument may seem reasonable, it is in fact irrational.
To see why this is, we have to examine the entirety of the question. As human beings, we observe that we exist and that we have certain astonishing characteristics. We are capable of reason and our reasoning leads us to mathematical theories of the world around us that can be verified to 20 places of the decimal. We are social beings capable of relationship and love. We are moral beings who believe in right and wrong and are capable of making choices. We are astonishingly complex in our biological composition and even the most ardent atheists admit that we appear to have been designed by a superior intelligence.
Because atheism gives us no good basis for believing in the transcendent realities that are central to human experience, establishing atheism as the a priori default truth by placing the burden of proof on theism requires us to reject the reality of these basic human observations. While it might be rational to place a strenuous burden of proof on a particular brand of theistic beliefs such as Islam or Christianity, it cannot be rational to place such a burden on the reality of reason, morality and love. For the same practical reasons that we impose a burden of proof on the prosecutor in criminal cases, therefore, we should place a burden of proof on atheists who wish to deny the reality of transcendent values.
Despite the fact placing the burden of proof on transcendent values effectively rejects the reality of human experience, atheists will never give up their most prized weapon. The fact is that they cannot give it up because the arguments for their position are far too weak. With the burden of proof on their side, atheists can laugh and mock at every theist attempt to “prove” theism. If the burden of proof is on them, however, they are the ones whose pathetic attempts at “proof” would be the objects of ridicule and scorn. The enormous problems with naturalistic scenarios for the origins of the first living organisms, for example, would cause atheism to fail any reasonable burden of proof in and of themselves.
“But”, an atheist will argue, “What difference does it make if we reject transcendent values by placing the burden of proof on theism? Nobody is stupid enough to actually do the evil things which a belief in atheism would allow.” This exact sentiment was expressed by an audience member in a presentation by Ravi Zacharias that I watched on YouTube recently. “China is secular”, this man reasoned, “and they don’t rape and murder each other so why are you afraid of subjective moral reasoning?” This attitude represents an astonishing level of ignorance.
I know a man who works with Falun Gong refugees from China and the stories that he has told me about human rights abuses in China are absolutely horrific. People being imprisoned without trial, censorship, torture and even the government murdering prison inmates in order to harvest kidneys and other organs for sale on the black market. This audience member thinks he knows about life in China, but he only sees what the Chinese government allows him to see through the so-called, “Great Firewall of China“. A westerner, for example, might hear that shoes are made by “prison labour” think that this is an acceptable practice. “Felons are made to pay a bit of their debt to society by making shoes. What is wrong with that?” What this person doesn’t realize is that when the prison needs additional labourers, the general population is subject to random arrest and imprisonment in order to provide the necessary people. “Don’t worry, such corruption and abuse will never happen in western countries because we are better human beings than they are.” Why does this ignorant and racist assurance fail to make me feel any better?
If you examine history with an objective eye, you will find that functional societies are more fragile than they might appear. Without even mentioning third world countries, we can see that China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea and Germany have all experienced horrific atrocities in just the last 100 years. If a society places the burden of proof on reason, morality and love, that society eliminates the only beliefs that have ever successfully attained any degree of freedom or prosperity. The inevitable long term consequences of such behaviour can only be a return to what is observed to be the historical norm of totalitarianism and misery. If I thought it wasn’t already too late, I might plead with atheists and their secular humanist allies in the west to be reasonable. “It is fine to put a personal burden of proof on the truth of Christianity, but don’t impose a societal burden of proof on the truth of theism which is the only basis for human dignity.” Unfortunately, atheists don’t believe that transcendent values have any importance and they work diligently to undermine the influence of these values in western society. Anna Kendrick might be singing as the personification of transcendent moral values when she sings “You are going to miss me when I am gone” in this video I found on YouTube.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -The Declaration of Independence
This post gave many atheists the impression that I am attempting to pose the burden of proof on atheists for their personal choice not to believe in god. The paragraph on the “time machine” argument is the reason for this. I have considered rewriting this post to remove that difficulty, but I have decided to move on. I wrote a second post on the burden of proof that clarifies my position on this topic.