Religion and the burden of proof

The late Carl Sagan used to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

What makes something an “extraordinary claim”?  For Sagan, a humanist and freethinker, the reality of the supernatural, of supernatural religion or of anything outside the scientific consensus was an extraordinary claim.

I think this is perfectly reasonable.  I, too, have made up my mind about certain things, and it would take extraordinary evidence to shake my conviction.

But for a great many people, it is atheism that makes the extraordinary claim and must assume the burden of proof.  They include:

  • prayer11People who are committed to certain religious practices and disciplines because they find them a good way to live.
  • People who’ve had transcendent spiritual experiences, and find the religion is a way to make sense of those experiences.
  • People who find that religious practices help them to deal with their troubles.  Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs are examples.
  • People who admire someone who is wise and good, and adopt that person’s religious practice to become wiser and better themselves.

I myself am without faith in any specific religious doctrine, but I am one of those who believe that the religious way of life is a good one.  That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist, a member an eclectic sect that sees good in all religion, but does not demand assent to any specific one.

I remember once I was talking with a half dozen Unitarian Universalist friends, and one of them spoke approximately as follows, “I don’t care what anybody says.  I know that God exists because of my own experience.  There was a time in my life when I was really desperate, and I sent out a mental plea for help.  I found myself mentally in contact with something, not myself, which gave me the strength to carry on.”

Another person said approximately, “I too know that God exists.  I was camping in the mountains once, and looked out at the sunrise over a distant mountain range.  Suddenly I experienced being a part of all this, and all this being part of God.”

Everyone else in the group, except me, had something like this to tell.

I said nothing.  I literally did not know what they were talking about.  I was like a deaf person listening to people talking about music.   I had no basis for judging what they said.

Obviously they each experienced something that was valuable and important to them.  None of them had made an argument or a claim.  They merely shared their perceptions and experience.

I don’t think most people believe in a religion because of argument.  What arguments for religion do is to reassure religious believers that their beliefs are not crazy.

I think there are certain religious beliefs that are self-contradictory (that God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good personality), some that are wicked (unbelievers should be punished) and others that are contrary to scientific evidence (the Genesis account of creation).

Beyond this, all I can say is “I do not know.”  I believe that everything that happens is the result of actions by sentient beings or the working of natural laws.   I do not believe in the supernatural, but I cannot rule out its existence, because it would merely consist of sentient beings and natural laws outside my frame of reference.

“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should remain silent.”

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5 Responses to “Religion and the burden of proof”

  1. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Broadly agree. I disagree strongly with an element of secular society which seems set on eliminating religion. The two most virtuous men I have ever known – my father and my late husband were both total atheists. I was too until a small number of strange experiences suggested the existence of a spiritual reality. I am not for any religion nor against any religion . My father used to say ” Religion is a shelter for charlatans and con artists”. My late husband had many very religious friends, as their morality was nearly identical . I take the view that we all have the freedom to choose our own values and beliefs. And that is what matters. And my mother pointed out – there is no reward for being/doing good .


  2. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Knowing whether someone says they believe in God doesn’t tell me much about their beliefs, let alone their characters, because the word “God” means so many different things to different people.


  4. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Agree. And in the absence of a concrete definition that everyone can agree on and the many uses religion can be used for, which have nothing to do with ” God” such as social or political advantage among others, it is better to keep “God” and state separate allowing freedom of belief providing the laws of the land are kept . Religions as political organisations should be viewed with deep suspicion. (And a state which seeks to abolish religion also ). After all Jesus himself made a clear cut distinction between God and the state. (render onto Caesar etc).


  5. Atticus C. Says:

    Holden and I talk about this a lot, especially recently. Due to recent tragedy in his life he has found comfort in religion. Myself, on the other hand, align with your way of thinking.

    I tend to think religion is a tool, just like anything else. It can be used for bad (to make excuses for violence, for example) or good (provide comfort for those in pain). As long as that tool is used in a net positive way in someone’s life I think it should be continued.

    I myself try to pull out lessons and philosophies and religions from anywhere I can find them. Through it I’ve found examples of compassion, mindfulness, forgiveness, etc.


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