Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

This quote was popularized by Carl Sagan, the astronomer, educator, physicist and skeptical philosopher. His quote is used by many atheists to reject the belief in God. They argue that the claim of the existence of God is so grand that any evidence to support this claim must be equally grand. In this short essay, I will explain why this statement is not only grossly subjective, but in reality the claim that there is no God is more difficult to prove than the claim that there is one.

What is an extraordinary claim?

Really, how do you define what that means? What one defines as extraordinary another might define as ordinary, and vice versa.

For example, I personally know people who consider it common-place to see visions holy men of the past. Not only do they experience these visions on a regular basis, their fellow community members also experience these apparitions. (And for the record, these are sane, educated and coherent people). For me, their experiences are extraordinary, but to them they are common-place and not even worth discussing. Conversely, I heard a story of my grandmother seeing a TV for the first time and being completely perplexed about how a man could fit inside a small box. To her, that was an extraordinary occurrence. And most some see the idea of God as well within the realm of normality.

What is an extraordinary claim, by the definition Sagan intended, is subjective from person to person.

Whose claim is more extraordinary?

The only objective way to measure whether a claim is extraordinary is by the amount of evidence required to make the claim. What the evidence consists of is inconsequential, as previously explained. Based on this objective standard, the atheist claim that there is no God requires more evidence and is therefore more extraordinary than the claim that God exists.

To understand why, consider a sample population of one million people. To make the claim that amongst them is a redheaded person, you would only need to produce a single redheaded person out of the million. This one person would be sufficient to support your claim. Conversely, if you wanted to say that there was not a single redheaded person amongst the population, the only way to verify this claim would be to check every single person amongst the million. Even a single exception would violate the claim, so one’s examination would have to be absolute.

The positive claim that a redhead exists in the population requires only a single piece of evidence. But, the negative claim that not a single redhead exists requires an examination of every single person in the population- one million pieces of evidence. Therefore, the statement “no redhead exists amongst the population” is an extraordinary claim that requires more evidence.

Now compare this to the belief in God. A believer must bring forth only a single piece of evidence for his belief in God. However, the atheist must examine every corner of the universe and personal experience claiming that God exists and conclude that they are mistaken. This is complicated by the fact that Jewish and Muslim theologians argue that God’s existence is outside of time and space, and we are incapable of examining outside of time and space. The claim of the atheist requires more evidence and is therefore the extraordinary claim.

While Sagan and other atheists used this quote to reject God, in reality, its reality goes against them.

Personal Experience or Empirical Evidence?

In this short essay, I am going to explain why I believe “personal spiritual experiences” are a valid form of evidence for the belief in God. Let me start with the objection:

Atheist Objection: One of the main problems with the “God hypothesis” is the complete lack of evidence. If one wanted to prove the existence of, say, an apple, he would bring forth observable, demonstrable evidence of its existence. This can come in many forms, such as a picture, its weight, or even its taste. These observations can be confirmed by others and thus we can conclude that the apple exists. However, the same method of analysis cannot be performed with God. To date, there are no objective measurements of God. Thus, just as a person with the complete lack of evidence of an apple is likely to conclude that the apple does not exist, no theist can demonstrate the existence of God. Therefore, we conclude that God does not exist.

I say: While the reasoning is acceptable, the main problem with this argument is the rejection of certain kinds of evidence. This is usually done through ridicule rather than a genuine argument. When a theist attempts to bring forth evidence in support of God, his evidence is dismissed as a delusion.

To understand this, juxtapose a deaf person and a person who can hear, both in a concert hall. From their vantage point neither can see the orchestra. But, the person without the physical challenge can hear their music. He insists that the orchestra is around a corner. But, the deaf person demands proof. From the deaf person’s perspective, there is no evidence whatsoever of their existence. In reality, the deaf person is not aware of his own state- his lack of auditory faculty. To him, no evidence exists. To the one who can hear, his experience of the sound is proof.

To the person who can hear, the orchestra’s existence is confirmed by the personal experience he has of the sound it produces. The skeptic deaf person may reject the orchestra’s existence because he has had no experience. Similarly, it is because of the personal experiences that a believer has that he believes in God. This is why core testification of Islam can be understood as “I witness [ie. personally experience] that there is no God but Allah”.

Atheist Objection: The problem with the “personal experience” evidence is obvious. It cannot be independently verified or objectively measured. For example, if a theist is in a state of experiencing God, there is nothing that an atheist can do to experience what he is experiencing. It is more reasonable to conclude that his experience is either a self-created delusion that has no reality.

I say: This response is rooted in ignorance and inconsistency. By its nature, all experience is personal. For example, the deaf person could not personally experience sound because he lacks the faculty to perceive it. But, that does not mean it has no reality. The atheist is arguing from this perspective- a person who cannot hear and therefore denies the existence of sound. The Qur’an refers to the spiritual heart as the root of his faculty of the perception of God and parallels this with other faculties by calling those who deny it as “deaf, dumb and blind”. Thus, on would argue that the atheists have dead hearts.

As for independent verification, it already exists. Attend any Pentecostal church on a Sunday. One can witness many individuals all going through the same personal spiritual experiences, and is therefore independently verified. It can be repeated, every Sunday or day of worship. It can even be measured, as many comment on the strength of their experiences with the Holy Spirit or other divine beings.

I say, all experience is personal. In fact, to say “objective observation” is an oxymoron, because observations by definition are personal and subjective. But, we arbitrarily define some as empirical while relegating others to subjective and potentially delusional. This is leads to our conclusion that there is no evidence for the existence of God.