Sunday, 11 December 2011
The Burden of Proof
Despite being an avowed atheist, this week I’ll be attending a Catholic Mass. I don’t really have a say in this – I work in a Catholic school and I’m obligated accordingly. I won’t cross myself, I won’t pray and, even if I’m asked, I won’t sing religious hymns. Should I really be working in a school which espouses values and beliefs I find so hard to swallow? Am I the worst kind of hypocrite?
I don’t think so, no. Firstly, I’m supremely confident that the majority of children in the school are not practising Catholics either. For whatever reason, these kids have been enrolled in a religious school by their parents. I suspect that the mothers and fathers in question hold Roman Catholic beliefs themselves and have decided to bring their children into their faith. But like Richard Dawkins has famously said, there are no such there thing as religious children – just children of religious parents.
Secondly, I’m open about my atheism. I’ve discussed it with other members of staff and even some of the pupils. Other opinions should always be available – and there are adherents of other religions working and studying within the school. My lack of religion should be no less tolerated than their faith in different deities.
One question that the pupils have often asked when made aware of my lack of religion is ‘why don’t you believe in God?’ It’s an easy question to answer normally, but when dealing with children it’s important to make my reasons as clear as humanly possible. And what it boils down to is this: there is no proof.
For people who believe in a God, their faith is enough. They simply believe. And so they burden of proof should lie with them. They believe in something which defies the known laws of science, which runs counter to the evidence and which is utterly extraordinary. So they ought to prove the existence of their God.
Proving that something doesn’t exist is practically impossible: phenomena like the Loch Ness Monster and Abominable Snowman are testament to this. But until someone provides irrefutable evidence of their existence they remain a rumour, a possibility. And so people bring forward fuzzy photographs, dubious casts of enormous footprints and the like. These items are rightly dismissed and the majority of people reject their existence thanks to the lack of evidence. And so it should be with God.
The testimonies of unreliable witnesses are the only proof we are provided with for the existence of the Christian God. That and the faith of his followers. But surely they ought to be providing some verification for their claims. After all, believers in Scientology have been mocked mercilessly for years thanks to their ‘out there’ beliefs. But if Scientology had been founded 2000 years ago it would not be seen to be the preserve of crackpots like Tom Cruise: it would be part of a collection of contradictory and incompatible religions followed in different countries and cultures across the planet.
To believe in one God is to dismiss the rest. Surely that’s an arrogantly absurd position? Why believe in one and not the others? Surely that in itself is a form of atheism? To believe in one deity is to deny hundreds of others, to cast doubt on others’ beliefs, to claim the moral or intellectual high ground – a charge consistently levelled at atheists. My lack of belief in any god makes me only one god worse off than the religious.