Commentary  Beyond a reasonable doubt

Why the burden of proof is on believers

t some point in your life, you will find yourself confronting the idea of god. Does he exist? What is his role? Does he actually want you to do what you think he does? This is, of course, normal; to question one’s core beliefs is an integral part of the development and growth of a human being, and not to do so is to deny oneself the opportunity to mature.

Here, then, is a presentation of the view from the other side: a brief explanation of the principles behind rationalist, atheistic thought.

In a debate, you usually have two sides – the proposition and the opposition. One person proposes something and the other person opposes. If the proposer wants their argument to hold water, they have to back up their statements. Let’s say I turn to you and announce that you are standing in the way of an invisible pink unicorn that would like to get by. It would be perfectly reasonable in this situation for you to ask me how I know there’s a unicorn there. Until I provide a satisfactory answer, you’re in no way obligated, to accept the existence of my invisible pink unicorn as a fact, and if I were to start demanding, “Why don’t you think there’s an invisible pink unicorn here?!” it would also be perfectly reasonable for you to simply walk away. Since I am the one proposing, the burden of proof is on me to show that there is an invisible pink unicorn in the room.

There’s a bit more to this, though. Continuing with the unicorn, let’s say that I announce: “I know the invisible pink unicorn is there because she told me so.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” you reply. “Maybe she could repeat that?”

“You didn’t hear her because she was whispering,” I reply in turn. “She doesn’t want to talk to anyone else, though, so you’re going to have to take my word for it. There’s your proof.”

Unfortunately for me, evidence needs to be verifiable in some way in order to be reasonably accepted. Since there is no way to confirm whether the unicorn actually spoke or not, having me tell you that the unicorn spoke is not acceptable proof of the unicorn’s existence.

“Okay then,” I assert, “She’s standing right there. You can see her hoofprints in the carpet.”

“Those look like they could be marks from the vacuum cleaner,” you counter. “Can we take her outside and see if she makes the same marks in the dirt?”

“Getting her hooves dirty?!” I cry incredulously. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you have all the evidence you need?”

Further, the evidence needs to be able to be presented independently of the circumstances. If you claim that your TV can turn itself on, but only when there’s a remote control in the room, you have not presented compelling evidence. Move the TV to a new room, or move the remote, and the phenomenon is no longer replicable. The TV doesn’t turn itself on, and the unicorn probably doesn’t exist either.

This is the same issue with god. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it’s hard to find a claim more extraordinary than that there exists an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent being that cannot be perceived but which has a profound effect on everything that happens in the world. Until the proposition has working proof for its claims, the opposition is under no duty to disprove it, and the invisible pink unicorn will never make her way across the room.

Harmon Moon, U1 History, is a member of the McGill Freethought Association. Write him at