October 1, 2009

Burden of Proof

In the legal system of the United States, persons accused of committing a crime are supposedly considered innocent until they are proven guilty. That is, it is up to the prosecution to convince everybody on the jury that their assumption of innocence is incorrect. The evidence must be overwhelming beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is truly guilty. Essentially, the defense could just sit there and do nothing, and if the prosecution does not make it absolutely clear that the accused is guilty, he or she walks free. The reason for this is that it is generally felt that it is better to allow 100 guilty persons go free than to wrongfully convict just one innocent person.

The system in religion is an interesting one regarding upon whom the burden of proof lies. The LDS church, for example, insists that if there is any way at all that it could explain itself, it is the default correct position. Any opposing evidence must absolutely and in every possible way overpower their position before they are willing to yield, and sometimes not even then.
In other words, the tactic of the Church is to keep instilling a tiny shadow of reasonable doubt so that it can remain the default.

Consider the debate about the origin of Native Americans. Genetic, linguistic, and archaeological research has essentially proven that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the American continent descended from Asia, and there is little to no reason to believe that they came from anywhere else (for references, see links section as well as the outline of my concerns). This, of course, contradicts the most basic premise of the Book of Mormon that Native Americans came from Israel. However, the Church has cleverly come up with several unlikely (if not impossible) explanations for why this may be so. While there is little agreement among apologists, the main consensus is that the Book of Mormon must have taken place in a very remote and isolated area of the Americas, where the peoples mentioned would never have made contact with any of the other original inhabitants (this notion is even contradicted by the text of the Book of Mormon, but let's not go on that tangent).

For a person who feels that the default is that the Church is true, this fragile explanation is all that is needed. "Okay, it's still remotely possible that the Church is true, so that's what I'm going with." they say.

On the one hand, I suppose that it might make sense to err on the side of the Church. After all, if you follow the evidence against the Church, but upon your death find the Church was actually true, you've got some explaining to do. I, for one, feel that those things covered in my outline of concerns and this blog make my decision blameless, especially before the God worshiped by the Church (I'm happy to discuss that with anyone interested). But if you're on the other side, clinging to the religion that is ultimately a lie, some would argue that you are robbing yourself of an authentic life. In any case, I think it is a position everyone should reconsider, whether a believer, skeptic, or whatever else.

For me, I think back to long before I knew any of the things in my outline of concerns. I think my default really was that the Church was the truth. How could I have thought otherwise? Why would I want to think otherwise? The burden of proof lay upon logic and reason to convince me that the default was wrong. It's obvious which side won my vote. That is because, for me, all of the Church's attempts to make its case stronger ended up being excuses, when what I wanted were explanations. All of these apologist theories of why Black persons were denied the priesthood, why there is overwhelming evidence that Native Americans came from Asia, why polygamy was justified, why there are so many historical errors in the Book of Mormon, and on and on and on were just not enough to keep a reasonable doubt in my mind, and suggest that in some dimension of reality the Church might still be true. Instead of an excuse for these, logic and reason gave me one huge, convincing explanation; the whole thing is man-made.

Believers will say that I looked for anything that would give me an excuse to leave. I just didn't want to repent of my sins, or whatever. They are welcome to believe that. The reality is that I got sick of letting guilty men go day after day, week after week, generation after generation.

1 comment:

Richard Packham said...

The burden of proof lies with the party making a positive assertion. The church makes the following assertions and therefore has the burden of proving "beyond a reasonable doubt" that:
- Joseph Smith saw a vision of the Father and the Son in 1820
- the Book of Mormon is a historically accurate portrait of ancient American life and culture
- the earth has a total "temporal existence" of 7000 years (D&C 77:6)
- the first human beings lived in Missouri

These assertions, if true, should be easily verified (unlike assertions that your baptism has cleansed you from sin).

They cannot show these things even by a lesser standard of proof (e.g. "preponderance of the evidence").

For more on the burden of proof see "101 Reasonable Doubts About Mormonism".