There Is No Onus Of Disproof

This week I have spent some time attempting to reconcile my lack of spiritual and religious belief, which can clearly never be proven, with the idea that it is this same lack of provability in a divine presence that reinforces my own atheism. Although this may seem at first glance a form of hypocrisy, that I can dismiss certain arguments for my own ends while also using them to refute the theories of my intellectual opponents, I do  not believe this is the case, it certainly has no bearing on the certainty of my beliefs.

Throughout the history of Western civilization, the burden of proof has increasingly been put on the asserter rather than the denier. The sea monsters of so many sailor’s tales were believed because so few hearing the stories had ever been far out to sea, there was no reason not to believe. The same could also be said of the saintly miracles from the middle ages. Witnessed by few if any, yet believed by nearly all because of the fervent religious belief and poor education of the laity. This kind of blind, automatic faith in what one was told by others would not have been endemic throughout all parts of life in these times, the size of an angler’s ‘one that got away’ would be no more believable to the listener then than now. There was however, a large part of the workings of the world which were not just unknown to the general populace but also unknowable, these people were not just uneducated, there simply was not the existing knowledge base there for even the most educated of their time to explain the mechanics of the natural world without recourse to irrational superstition.

Starting with the renaissance, proceeding through the reformation, scientific revolution, enlightenment and further, into more modern times, mystery has become a troublesome pest to be removed wherever possible. Phenomena must have had causes, needed to be explained rationally and scientifically and only by removing the ‘god did it’ attitude of former times could we progress and flourish into the evidence based, technological world we now inherit. This idea was not wholly new, the classical Hellenic world knew a great deal of the merits of rational thinking but the idea of inductive reasoning based on empirical data analysis from repeatable experiments would have been alien to them. This was most definitely progress in the modern sense.

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”.

– Sir Isaac Newton

Now it was impossible to advance a hypothesis without some sort of scientific back-up, an omnipotent god acting on a whim was no longer enough to explain away any part of the natural order. Moreover it soon became clear that a good hypothesis was not only one that explained previously observed phenomena but also predicted as yet unforseen results and was easily experimentally falsifiable, that is to say an experiment that would prove the hypothesis false (if it was) could easily be devised.

 Needless to say this has not proven to be the case for the religious believer. Even in this apparently enlightened, educated and civilized age there are hundreds of millions if not billions of people around the globe who, for religious reasons, refuse to accept Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, despite the fact that it fulfills all of the above criteria if one expands the definition of experiment to include the data found in both living animals DNA, anatomy and of course the fossil record.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

– Charles Darwin

A single verified mammal fossil found in a known Pre-Cambrian rock would destroy all credibility in the above theory yet none has been found. Yet like any theory (as opposed to theorem) it is not truly ‘proovable’ only ‘not-disproovable’. I’d like to mention that in a technical sense a theory is much more tested and believed than a hypothesis, despite their interchangeability in common parlance and the ‘its only a theory’ line doesn’t really hold any scientific water with modern biologists.

Religious leaders worldwide, mainly those of the 3 main monotheistic or ‘Abrahamic’ religions have used this ‘not-disproovable’ argument against atheists such as me to argue both that Darwin was wrong and that their theory of god’s existence cannot be truly falsifiable. Biologists and palaeontologists have produced a myriad of verified evidence since before the time of Darwin and none has yet been found to contradict the central idea of evolution by natural selection, it has withstood the rigours of scientific analysis, it has mathematical models to show how it works and it has produced predicted yet previously unseen results (eg. Archaeopteryx, Australopithecus).

Religion has done none of these. It has been used by people since before the dawn of time to explain away perfectly natural occurrences, changing the rules ever so slightly each time it is successfully challenged, it makes no unforseen predictions other than an afterlife (which is an effective way of terrifying people into submission) and by continually refining their definition of the divine, religious leaders have made their hypothesis unfalsifiable (and worthless).

The comical religious parodies of Bertrand Russell’s teapot and Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon show the ridiculousness of the theologian’s position. When knowledge is available, humans have always used Occam’s razor to trim the messy, unnecessary fat from poor scientific theories to produce a lean, simple explanation with known quantities and facts rather than speculation. Involving ever more powerful and unpredictable deities to explain any observable occurrence or phenomena can never tell us anything of the world and is a clear sign of a lack of understanding, especially on topics we know so much about empirically, such as evolution by natural selection, the creation of stars & planets or how the face of Jesus appeared on your toast this morning.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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2 Responses to There Is No Onus Of Disproof

  1. aynway says:

    Well said.

    Every version of god, it seems to me, is a “god of the gaps” since, as you’ve noted, religious apologists (of all types) adjust the rules each time their explanations are demonstrated to be absurd. It is frustrating to try to conduct a reasonable discussion with those who argue in this way, as no gap seems too small to contain smaller and smaller remainders of god. Should science ever produce a genuine “theory of everything,” I imagine the apologists will claim that it only proves that god is responsible for everything and, undoubtedly, they’ll look to the Delphic uses of the word “god” by Einstein and Planck for “proof.”

    • Maybe god can only ever be found below the Planck length in the quantum foam? Or maybe everyone who types ‘OMG!’ is a Christian? If you’re obsessed with believing, you’ll continue to believe no matter what evidence you see.

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