Who Has the Burden of Proof?

In the 1970s, Anthony Flew, one of the world’s leading atheists who converted to deism late in life, wrote a book called The Presumption of Atheism that changed the atheist/theist dialogue forever. In it, he argued that atheism should be assumed until theists prove that God exists. In other words, in the absence of strong evidence for God, one should be an atheist. Further, one was not required to put forward arguments in favor of atheism, because it was, he believed, the default position.

Modern atheists have taken his argument further. Traditionally, the word “atheism” referred to the belief that God did not exist. It is a standard rule of debate that if a person makes an assertion, they are required to provide evidence for its truthfulness. Therefore, if an atheist declares “God does not exist,” he is required to give reasons for his disbelief. The word was redefined, however, to mean “a lack of belief in God’s existence.” Under this new scheme, atheists began to argue (and still do today) that they don’t have to justify their disbelief for the simple reason that they do not positively disbelieve; they simply lack belief. Therefore, since they make no positive assertions, they need not prove their case. It is the theist, they say, who has the burden of proof. Since we advocate God’s existence, we are the ones who have to prove our case.

Between these two arguments, atheists have built a defense system that is often difficult to penetrate. On the one hand, the atheist (as it is now defined) does not have to defend his or her position. They are content to deny arguments for God’s existence, which, according to this system, ends up justifying their disbelief as atheism is the assumed position. What makes this particularly difficult is that atheists themselves are often unclear on what qualifies as sufficient proof to justify belief in God.

In general, there are two strategies theists can employ when they find themselves talking to someone who holds this view.

First, we can point out that one who merely lacks belief has been traditionally understood as an agnostic, which is one who does not know whether or not God exists. Whether or not they accept the label, once they admit that they do not hold to a positive belief in God’s non-existence, we can hold them to that position when citing future arguments. For instance, if we use the Moral Argument and they insist that morality must be subjective because God doesn’t exist, we can remind them that they can’t assert God’s non-existence. In other words, we hold them to their stated neutral position.

Second, we can challenge their basic position. Do they really just lack belief, or do they positively belief God does not exist? In reality, they probably hold something of a middle ground. If they were to rate their disbelief on a scale of one to five, with one being complete neutrality and five being convinced that God is impossible, most self-professed atheists would admit to being somewhere around a three (at least, in my experience). But in that case, any degree to which the atheist moves away from absolute neutrality, they are required to give evidence for their position.

Beyond all this, we can argue that Flew was simply mistaken, and that a prima facie case may be made for the presumption of theism. No culture in human history has ever been discovered that was naturally atheistic. Human beings, as modern science is now finding, seem hardwired for belief in God. While the atheist can attempt to explain that as a factor of evolution, the theist may point out that shy of any good reason to believe that is the case, there is no compelling reason to believe that every culture is wrong. In fact, if God really does exist, we would expect Him to make Himself known on at least some level to everyone, which seems to me exactly the case. Further, when we consider the basic human desire for purpose and meaning, and when we realize such things are empty without God, their presumption–that is, the assumption we should make before we get to the evidence–certainly should be that God does exist.

Many arguments can be put forward to offer evidence for God. We will look at a great many of them. In the meantime, we should not allow atheists to argue that only the Christian has the burden of proof for his position. If they are truly neutral, they should be able to present reasons to ignore the surface evidence of all human history (not just present an alternate explanation!) to justify at least their neutrality; if they actively disbelieve, they’re in the situation as we are. If we are to be honest, we all have to justify why we believe what we do. No one gets a free ride.

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16 thoughts on “Who Has the Burden of Proof?

  1. First, atheists have changed the definition of atheism because theists have broadened the definition of “god”. If we’re talking specifically about Yahweh, the character in the Christian Bible, then I know Yahweh does not exist. But if we’re talking about the myriad of theological and philosophical definitions, including gods who hide behind the couch and gods who do nothing at all, then I have no belief about them.

    Second, quibbling over atheist/agnostic labels is just hair-splitting.

    Second, the argument from popularity is an extremely poor argument for the actual existence of anything.

    Third, there’s a positive argument for atheism: the world looks very different from what we would expect if it had been created by the sort of god any sane, caring human being would respect and admire, much less worship.

    It’s *possible* the world was created by a malevolent, utterly indifferent or completely undetectable god, but so what? Who cares about that sort of god?

    • TBB, thanks for the comments, although I’ll have to dispute them 😉

      First, theists haven’t broadened the definition of God in over seven hundred years. In fact, it’s gotten much narrower since the height of scholastic philosophy.

      Second, it isn’t hair-splitting when a person calls themselves an atheist while extolling agnosticism so as not to be accountable for their position, only to turn around and make arguments based on the atheism they supposedly don’t hold to. It is a matter of intellectual honest.

      Third, you’ve misconstrued my comments in labeling it an “argument from popularity.” The argument is that all cultures of all time have held to the position, which is exactly what we would expect if there is a true God. That is an amazing fact that needs to be explained. Moreover, it’s not an argument for God’s existence. It is an argument that the burden of proof is actually on the atheist, not the theist.

      Fourth, I suppose you are talking about the problem of evil. I actually need to do a full post on that one, only because it is so popular in atheist circles. For now, let me just ask, how would you expect the world to be if God had created it? Can you offer any specifics?

      God bless

      • “First, theists haven’t broadened the definition of God in over seven hundred years. In fact, it’s gotten much narrower since the height of scholastic philosophy.”

        What about Bacon’s God? Or Spinoza’s? How about Tillich and Sprong? What about the “mutant” Christianity millions of teenagers are supposedly following? But that, I suppose, is beside the point: I’ll be more than happy to address a particular and specific definition of God equally specifically.

        “Second, it isn’t hair-splitting when a person calls themselves an atheist while extolling agnosticism so as not to be accountable for their position, only to turn around and make arguments based on the atheism they supposedly don’t hold to. It is a matter of intellectual honest.”

        You really do need cited quotations for a charge like that. Context matters.

        “The argument is that all cultures of all time have held to the position, which is exactly what we would expect if there is a true God.”

        First, we’d also expect them to assign the same attributes to God, and have God prescribe the same moral standards. We don’t see this even in a single sect across time. And why don’t all individuals hold to the position?

        Second, what could we possibly observe that would lead us to believe that no God exists?

        Third, is the simpler explanation the theistic or non-theistic to account for all the evidence?

        “That is an amazing fact that needs to be explained. Moreover, it’s not an argument for God’s existence. It is an argument that the burden of proof is actually on the atheist, not the theist.”

        I will allow that widespread theistic beliefs are indeed facts in evidence which demand explanation. I don’t concur that it’s “amazing” that such belief is widespread, and I don’t grant that it shifts the burden of proof to the atheist regarding the existence of a God. We don’t need to prove definitively that no God exists, we need only prove that the facts have a plausible non-theistic explanation to shift the burden of God’s existence back to the theist.

        “I suppose you are talking about the problem of evil.”

        In part, but there are other components, such as bad “design” and the immensity and inhospitality of the universe relative to humanity.

        “how would you expect the world to be if God had created it?”

        This is a big issue. I’m more-or-less with Swinburne on this: an omnipotent etc. deity could create any universe it wished, or no universe at all. Nothing we could possibly observe could falsify such a deity. Worse yet, even with the hypothesis of an omnipotent creator, we cannot infer anything about the underlying intentions of that creator from the facts in evidence. For example, any set of observable facts would be equally compatible with a malevolent, benevolent and indifferent deity.

        (Obviously, this position is different from my position above; the issue is which particular notion of God we’re talking about. I can’t give you a “silver bullet” argument that will address all notions at once.)

      • 1. The gods of Spinoza, et al aren’t nearly as encompassing or rigorous as the God of classical theism. Atheists didn’t redefine their name because of Spinoza. They did it as part of an argumentative strategy so that they wouldn’t have to justify their unjustifiable position.

        2. For only of a million examples, arguing miracles cannot happen assumes the non-existence of God, a position they publicly disavow. Why do you think, for instance, Matthew is dated so late? Primarily, because of the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple.

        3a. No we wouldn’t. We would expect them to mold Him so that they could be more comfortable with Him, which is exactly what we see.
        3b. You’re only providing evidence that atheism has the burden of proof.
        3c. Theistic.

        4. It shifts the burden of proof to atheists to justify their radical position.

        5. “Bad design” is consistently shown to be not bad at all. We can go through specific examples if you like. Start a discussion on the FB page.

        6. You said that a positive argument for atheism is that the world doesn’t exist as it should if God existed. Shy of examples, which you did not provide, you are just making an assertion.

      • “Atheists didn’t redefine their name because of Spinoza. They did it as part of an argumentative strategy so that they wouldn’t have to justify their unjustifiable position.”

        Since you know the argument better than I do, my presence here is apparently unnecessary.

      • “Since you know the argument better than I do, my presence here is apparently unnecessary.”

        Or you could present evidence where I am mistaken or address other points of disagreement. As I said, the definition of God has not been broadened in over seven hundred years. You can’t, therefore, say the redefinition happened in response to the definition being broadened. It’s just a historical fact, my friend.

        God bless

  2. What Atheists tend to forget is that Jesus Christ (who claimed to be God) was an “historical” figure. When it comes to “burden of proof”,the works of Christ are hard to dispute as are the rise of Christianity.The resurrection of Christ is is paramount in the discussion of whether or not God exists(not to mention the miracles of Christ).There is enough secular evidence to “prove” that Christ,(again who claimed to be God), existed. The atheist has a hard time trying to “explain away” historical evidence.

    • The historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection (among other things) is, as you note, actually very, very strong. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to go through that over a post or two in the very near future.

      I had a talk with an atheist last year that lasted about an hour. His best explanation at the end of that time was, “Well maybe aliens did it.” No joke. 😕

  3. I don’t have to explain away any evidence. I just have to note that the conclusions that Christians draw are poorly supported by the facts actually in evidence.

    And whether some historical person as Jesus actually existed is a completely different question than whether that person actually rose from the dead. Support for the first is not at all support for the second. I know that Muhammad existed; I really don’t know that Allah dictated the Koran to him.

  4. I disagree with you, in that I do think that atheism (or agnosticism, by your definition,) is the default position. It may not be the culturally default position, or even the psychologically default position, but I do think it is the logically default position.

    However it is frustrating when I’m arguing with an atheist and they say something to the effect of “Jesus couldn’t have magically turned water into wine, because that’s scientifically impossible.” This of course presumes positively that God does not exist.

    • The example of the argument you gave is exactly why I think this is such a big deal. When atheists assert agnosticism, and then turn around and presume atheism in their arguments, they are being intellectually dishonest. Christians should not let them get away with such sloppy thinking.

      Beyond that, I simply see no need to consider agnosticism the logically default position. There is nothing in agnosticism that is inherently more obvious or credible than theism. Theism meets both criteria for the presumptive position, namely, again, that of intuition and that of basic explanatory scope. Agnosticism seems to me inferior to theism on both counts.

      • Well, would you agree that if a theist and an agnostic are debating, the theist has the burden of proof? I mean the agnostic’s position revolves around the idea of “there is no evidence for god”, so it’s not like he can provide some sort of evidence to support the idea that there is no evidence (for god.) The theist is the one with the burden of proof, because he is the one making the positive claim.

      • No, I wouldn’t. The agnostic isn’t making a claim other than “I don’t believe.” That’s self-evidently true and doesn’t proving. But the question is why he doesn’t believe.

        Consider another example. Suppose I said that I didn’t know if racism and bigotry was wrong or not. Certainly, you can try to explain to me why it is, but does that mean you have to prove to me that it is? Of course not. Its wrongness is the presumption by both standard cannons of who has the burden of proof. In fact, it would be absurd of me to say to you, “Well, if you can’t prove racism is wrong, then I must presume that it isn’t,” and then try to turn around and ague that I have no reason to justify my belief that racism isn’t really wrong.

        This is exactly what atheists/agnostic do on a regular basis. It is time, I think, we call them on it.

  5. Holy Cow!! I can’t wait to comment on this. Tomorrow, thank God, is a new day bring with it more time. And then . . . . . . . . I will post.

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