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The Burden of Proof

This began as a response to Andrew S., a thoughtful commenter on my Monday post, and it got long enough to be its own blog entry. So here I am, bringing it out onto the main page.

Andrew masterfully demonstrates that atheism and theism can both include varying degrees of belief and doubt, and that agnosticism can go hand in hand with either. And then he says something quite interesting.

This gets into burdens of proof. One side is asserting something. The other is
rejecting. The burden of proof goes to the asserting side.

So let’s talk about the burden of proof for a moment.

He’s right – if the question is, “Is there a God?” then the burden of proof is on the theists.

But that’s not the question.

The question is, “Where did the universe come from?”

If you only deny that God did it, you sidestep the question. To be an intellectually consistent atheist, you have to be ready to provide an alternative theory. If you’re confident enough to dismiss God as a possibility, you have to have affirmative faith in another explanation.

Suppose, for instance, that in the middle of the night, your pick-up truck suddenly appears in my living room, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. In court, I have the burden to prove that you purposely drove it into the side of my house. But that will be pretty easy to do if you respond by saying, no, the pickup truck’s very existence is the result of random chaotic occurrences absent any manufacturer, and its presence in the living room is an accident of nature.

The problem in both instances is the same: both the universe and the pick-up truck exist. You can’t sidestep the question and say there is no pick-up truck – you have to account for how it got into my living room. The universe is far more complex and intricate than the pick-up truck, and someone who posits that there is no God involved either has to back up that assertion with facts – or rely on faith.

If there are not enough facts to conclusively demonstrate your case, you’re left with faith – faith in science, faith in chaos, faith in who knows what. But without facts, all it is is faith.

In my estimation, the idea that both the pick-up truck and the universe are the product of intelligence is a more logical conclusion.

I should note that the Book of Mormon agrees with me. As Alma replies to Korihor in Alma 30: 40-41:

And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them?

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I found Elder Holland’s Book of Mormon talk so masterful. To be intellectually consistent, if you reject the Book of Mormon as a fraud, you have to have an alternative explanation for where it came from. Yes, the church has the burden of proof to demonstrate that it’s true, but from what I can tell, the most plausible explanation for its existence is the one offered by Joseph Smith. I have yet to see a more credible alternative.

Like the pick-up truck and the universe, the Book of Mormon exists. If the question is, “Is it true?” then the faithful need to answer. But if the question is, “Where did it come from?” then both sides have to make their case. Most people just ignore or dismiss the question. They don’t offer alternatives.

I submit that atheists don’t often see the implications of what they assert. They can say “no” to the question of God’s existence, but to answer the question about why existence exists, they have to offer their own positive theory, and, to date, those theories have been sorely lacking.

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