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.