Atheism and the Burden of Proof

One of the most frequent statements I hear when I talk about God with atheists is that there is “no evidence” that God exists, and that is usually followed by telling me that the burden of proof is on me, the theist, because I’m the one making the positive assertion.

However, an actual atheist, as I covered yesterday, is making a positive assertion — he is positively asserting there is no God.  This is framed negatively, but he isn’t withholding judgement on my assertion.  He declares it false.

Withholding judgement is agnosticism — not knowing.  In which case, I’m obliged to prove my case (or at least make a reasonable argument for it) for the benefit of the undecided person.

But the atheist has gone beyond withholding judgement.  He’s made one of his own, and for that he owes an explanation.

Think this through:

If I say, “God exists!”  Aside from, “Praise Jesus, I know he does!” there are two potential replies.  (Actually, there are more, but let’s just stick with these two for simplicity sake.)

Someone might respond, “I’m not convinced.”

This is your agnostic.  I should lay out my case for him.  If he remains unconvinced, we can discuss the particulars.  He has no specific position, so he owes me no explanation beyond what my argument lacks.

The other potential reply is: “Poppycock!  There is no god, you silly Christian.  Science disproves him.  Besides, there was never any evidence anyway.”

This is your atheist.  It is totally disingenuous for the atheist to think I’m the only one with a burden of proof here.  I will still lay out my case, however he needs to both rebut my case and lay out his own — merely rebutting my case doesn’t prove anything other than I have a poor case.  It only moves us to agnosticism, being unconvinced.  The atheist isn’t “withholding judgement”: he’s convinced that I’m wrong.  For that, he owes me an argument.

One needs nothing beyond “insufficient evidence” to withhold judgement, but the moment rejection enters the picture, a judgement has been made and a logical argument for why must be presented.  Saying “I lack belief in all gods” is a total cop-out and very lazy debating.

UPDATES:

  • 8/13/12 at 1:40am EDT because there were a lot of typos.  I’m ashamed of that.  1-2 is fine with me because I’m not perfect, but there were probably 4-5!
  • 8/19/12 at 12:41am: Another perspective from Steve Wilkinson here.
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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on August 12, 2012, in Apologetics, God and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. “However, an actual atheist, as I covered yesterday, is making a positive assertion”

    Well, I don’t accept your interpretation of what an ‘actual atheist’ is.

    Theists have not met their burden of proof. End of story.

    • Whether theists have met a burden of proof isn’t what’s on the operating table today. What’s under discussion is the definition of an atheist and whether that gives the atheist his own burden of proof when discussing matters of God’s existence.

      Please stay on topic.

  2. Atheists have proof that the universe exists. Theists do not have proof that God or gods exist. End of story.

    • All of your so-called “proof” that the universe exists comes from the universe itself. Pretty circular if you ask me.

      Why couldn’t the Matrix be true? It would explain everything else just as nicely as the simpler proposition that “the universe exists.”

      But, again, what I have to prove or not prove isn’t the point of this post. The point is to establish that one has to present a reasonable argument against the divine, not simply shoot holes in what I have to say. Shooting holes in my arguments only gets us to not knowing — agnosticism.

      • Maybe that’s because I am agnostic, but why do people have to present a reasonable argument against every crazy idea? I believe a magical unicorn created the universe. Nobody has ever seen this unicorn, but if you don’t believe in it, when you die you will be forced to listen to John Tesh albums for all eternity. Now, do you have to present a reasonable argument against this? If so, what would it be? We have no evidence that it’s true? You would be correct. Same thing with most religious beliefs. You have no evidence other than some book written by cave dwellers who thought the universe revolved around the earth, that slavery, stoning people to death for minor offenses and the subjugation of women were all ok.

        It’s up to the religious to prove that there is a God, because nobody has seen any evidence of God, whether they say they have or not. And the Matrix could be true, or something similar to it, but I don’t believe it to be true because I haven’t seen any evidence behind the curtain, if in fact there is one.

      • Maybe that’s because I am agnostic, but why do people have to present a reasonable argument against every crazy idea?

        No, they don’t. For example:

        I believe a magical unicorn created the universe. Nobody has ever seen this unicorn, but if you don’t believe in it, when you die you will be forced to listen to John Tesh albums for all eternity. Now, do you have to present a reasonable argument against this?

        No, I don’t have to present any argument, reasonable or otherwise, against that. Why? Because this is hopelessly and obviously ad hoc. Same with Russel’s Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I need not rebut such claims.

        Then we go back to the “no evidence” mantra that I’ve dealt with before:

        You have no evidence other than some book written by cave dwellers who thought the universe revolved around the earth, that slavery, stoning people to death for minor offenses and the subjugation of women were all ok.

        Please read what I’ve dealt with before. I’m really, really, really, really, really, really sick of dealing with all of that stuff repeatedly. So sick I’m not even going to provide links to everything you’ve regurgitated; that’s what a SEARCH function is for. Top left corner, please.

        It’s up to the religious to prove that there is a God, because nobody has seen any evidence of God, whether they say they have or not. And the Matrix could be true, or something similar to it, but I don’t believe it to be true because I haven’t seen any evidence behind the curtain, if in fact there is one.

        Equivocation, then your hand is tipped. I am only talking of who has what burden of proof, not what constitutes evidence, proof, or whether any case has been proven. I’m merely stating that, if you deny the existence of God, and since God is a reasonable (rather than ad hoc) hypothesis, then you owe some sort of explanation for why you deny him. I agree there is a burden of proof for me.

        Your hand is tipped when you say, “nobody has seen any evidence of God …” wait for it: “whether they say they have or not.”

        You are not open to discussion about this topic. Your mind is made up.

  3. Theist/atheist describes what you believe. Gostic/agnostic describes what you know. You are an agnostic theist (unless you have some knowledge or evidence of god to share). It is your agnosticism that makes room for your faith. I am an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god, but I admit I cannot know this. The same way I cannot know Russel’s Teapot is not orbiting beyond Mars or that there are not fairies at the bottom of a garden in Ireland somewhere. I just cannot disprove it. But I don’t believe there are gods, teapots, or fairies and live my life accordingly.

    • Russel’s Teapot, garden fairies, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and similar constructs fail when contrasted next to God because all are hopelessly ad hoc. We don’t need to consider them.

      “Faith” is not believing what you know ain’t so, as Twain put it a century before Dawkins. Faith is unreserved trust based on past performance. Any one of a dozen or more examples in Scripture demonstrate God keeping his word, and therefore I trust in him to continue doing so.

      Moreover, evidence for God can be found in the historicity of the Resurrection and the fulfilled prophecies of the OT in Jesus. I understand you deny those, but those are all the evidence you are going to get.

      Though the apostle Paul argues they are not strictly necessary, for God is self-evident and therefore you are “without excuse” for denying his existence.

      So this isn’t really going to get us anywhere. Ad hoc constructions do nothing to disprove God, and your misunderstanding of faith complicates issues. So let’s get on the same page and try again.

  4. Also, your premise is incorrect.

    you said, “To reject all god-belief, however, we need a coherent case for why.” This is not true. What coherent case to you have for not believing in leprechauns? The case you have against leprechauns is the same as the case against gods.

    • The case I have against leprechauns:

      The earliest known reference to the leprechaun appears in the medieval tale known as the *Echtra Fergus mac L�ti * (English: Adventure of Fergus son of L�ti). The text contains an episode in which Fergus mac L�ti , King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three l�chorp�in. He captures his abductors, who grant him three wishes in exchange for release. (source)

      Tales of leprechauns have a definite origin and are specific to a geographic location. On the other hand, the conception of God is ubiquitous and present since before recorded history. It’s part of our shared humanity.

      Is this an argument for God? Nope. But it demonstrates that any mythological creature has a relevant difference from God that renders appeals to leprechauns or unicorns or Zeus too simplistic to be a refutation.

      Appeals to things like Russel’s Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster are even worse, since these constructs are obviously ad hoc.

      So, no, I’m afraid this is little more than attempt to shift the burden of proof to me. Ironic considering this post was to show why that is a bad thing to do.

  5. Atheists are not actually making a positive assertion but denying the truth value of one. Again, the misunderstanding in these situations comes from the fact that there are not good terms for people such as Dawkins/Hitchens/etc. The Jaytheist uses the term Gnostic Atheist to describe the former but I think that’s inappropriate because Gnostic has heavy religious dimensions to its nomenclature. I don’t think Dawkins et al. would appreciate that. That’s why, instead, I promote the term Nitheist. A Nitheist, a combination of the terms nihilist and atheist, is much closer to their belief systems and views. They deny anything supernatural exists. That is to say, there is NOTHING supernatural under their view. It’s much more fitting. But under that point of view, under the claims of the Nitheist, then perhaps the burden of proof shifts slightly. But the Theist still has to establish his argumentation and evidence first.

    • Denying the truth value still requires an explanation.

      Suppose you tell me that the sky is blue. I reply, “There’s no truth in that. Actually, the sky is green.”

      You would probably want to know why. So I’m sure you’d ask, likely appealing to the self-evident blue of the sky. They even named a color after it in the Crayola palette: sky blue!

      I just say, “You haven’t met the burden of proof that the sky is blue. Therefore it is green. What’s for lunch?”

      Nope. Sorry. Doesn’t cut the mustard.

      I need to explain why I think the sky is green. Failing to establish the sky as blue doesn’t automatically make it green.

      Me failing to make a case for God doesn’t mean God is imaginary. It just means I suck as an apologist. Maybe that isn’t my ministerial calling and I should stick to mentoring youth, using my spare time to write a novel instead of apologetics material.

      For No God to be true, you must argue for that. That leaves you with a burden of proof. I agree I have a burden of proof; I’m not denying my own. But I believe the atheist has one as well, and nothing I’ve seen in the comments here is anything more skilled than, “I don’t like that you think I have a burden of proof, therefore I don’t!”

      • Cory,

        There are two issues I want to address here.

        First, there is the issue of the expectation of a countering point of view to be provided by the Atheist. Denying an assertion does not require a counter-explanation. It may be nice to have one or it may be expected, but no further answer has to or must be given.

        So you may say, “Well if God didn’t do it, who or what did?!” At that point I can either try to provide another explanation or I can simply say “I don’t have a satisfactory answer just yet.” Both are viable alternatives. But just because I do not provide a point of view of my own after objecting to your view, that does not mean that your point of view automatically reverts back to being the correct one or having the same epistemic status of truth. To argue this way is to commit the fallacy from ignorance or ad ignorantiam.

        For example, let’s say we’re working on my car. For some reason it isn’t starting properly. You assert, I think the cause of the problem is the tires. I disagree and tell you why it couldn’t possibly be an issue with the tires. But I don’t have to provide a further explanation into what I think the issue is, though I am sure it deals with the transmission. Thus the burden of proof remains with you to tell me why my objections fail. If you cannot do so, I am epistemically justified in not accepting your assertion as truth and then going on to look at the transmission instead of the tires.

        Second, the whole issue here turns on a linguistic difficulty. You’re misusing the verb “to assert.” In this context, an assertion is a positive claim, not a negative denial. So while, in a very broad and technical sense, the Atheist is asserting something (that God does not exist or whatever Atheistic claim you’d like to insert here) but that does not mean that the burden of proof is his to share. So think of an assertion this way: if you posit the existence of something that is not clearly there, you are making the assertion and as such you have the burden of proof. So you’re claiming “There is a God…” so you’re the one making the assertion.

        But I think we can agree that the burden of proof does, in fact, shift from venue to venue. In a discussion setting or an investigation/inquiry, the burden of proof, I would say, is equal since both are, or at least should be, sincere seekers of truth. However, in a debate, where both sides have already established their views, the burden of proof falls solely upon the Theist since he is making an assertion, an affirmative statement. The former venue is demarcated by more questions and hypothetical situations whereas the latter is demarcated by more statements.

  6. *Agnostic

  7. I use different definitions to you. here are the onles I use. http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/

    I am an agnostic athiest.

  8. Haha…it’s me, Héhé…long time no see…by your definition I’m an agnostic, but I’m not sure most people who call themselves “atheists” would agree with your definition of the term…examples would include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc…I see you’ve got relatively more people these days…

    • No atheist so far has agreed with my definition of the term, and I primarily think that is because they are trying to avoid having to offer any sort of argument for ME to evaluate. They still cling to me having to prove my case while they get a free pass.

      I don’t think so!

      And yes, actually, I have been getting a bit more notoriety lately. I guess link exchanges, StumbleUpon submissions, article syndication, and being much nicer to commenters than I have been in the past (yes, even the supremely DUMB ones) are paying off.

      Though for some reason a lot of my traffic is coming from Twitter and I can’t figure that out. Weird.

      Anyway, good to have you back!

      • I have no problem being called “agnostic”…”atheist” as you define just isn’t my position, I’m sincere about that…I’m not trying to avoid having to provide proof, I just really don’t have to since I’m not actually asserting anything…

      • I should have been clear that I wasn’t talking about you. You are very reasonable and I even agree with much of what you say.

        Truth claims must be backed up, even universal negatives. If you’re not asserting “There is no God,” then you have no burden. The moment you make the conclusion “There is no God,” you’ve given yourself a burden — backing up your conclusion with reason and evidence. It isn’t all on me.

  9. I’ll get back to answering individual comments very shortly, but I want everyone to read another perspective from Steve Wilkinson. This is pretty close (but NOT the same) to what I’m trying to say, phrased more eloquently and in greater detail.

    Maybe this is a compromise we can agree on.

  10. In reply to Tafacory, who reached my nested comments limit and therefore I start fresh…

    First, there is the issue of the expectation of a countering point of view to be provided by the Atheist. Denying an assertion does not require a counter-explanation. It may be nice to have one or it may be expected, but no further answer has to or must be given.

    In the OP, I did state that an agnostic (one who withholds judgment) does NOT owe any further explanation. And if all you do is doubt my truth-claim, then we’re fine. So I agree so far. Let’s proceed:

    So you may say, “Well if God didn’t do it, who or what did?!” At that point I can either try to provide another explanation or I can simply say “I don’t have a satisfactory answer just yet.” Both are viable alternatives. But just because I do not provide a point of view of my own after objecting to your view, that does not mean that your point of view automatically reverts back to being the correct one or having the same epistemic status of truth. To argue this way is to commit the fallacy from ignorance or ad ignorantiam.

    Again, I agree. And, as you capture in the example, you are epistemically justified in rejecting my truth-claim that it’s the tires. However, you jumped the shark because your counter-assertion of the transmission must be reasoned out and defended. You don’t have to include me in the proceedings, letting me spout nonsense about the tires, but you MUST keep working on that alternate theory to arrive at the truth.

    Second, the whole issue here turns on a linguistic difficulty. You’re misusing the verb “to assert.” In this context, an assertion is a positive claim, not a negative denial. So while, in a very broad and technical sense, the Atheist is asserting something (that God does not exist or whatever Atheistic claim you’d like to insert here) but that does not mean that the burden of proof is his to share.

    I’m not misusing anything. My whole point is that if you are denying my claim “There is a God,” and denying it ONLY, then you are effectively an agnostic. However, an atheist is one who is not afraid to make his own truth claim, “There is no God.”

    So, in practical terms, we’ve hit the old philosopher’s impasse of “What constitutes a proposition?” Even if a universal negative is proposed, that statement is still a truth claim and thus should be defended.

    Merely denying the truth value of my own statement “There is a God,” is fine. No burden But that is not, in my experience, typical for an atheist. An atheist typically makes the negative counter-assertion “There is no God.” That, as a truth claim, should be defended. However, the atheist also hides behind “You can’t prove a negative” and “You made the claim, I have no burden of proof” to avoid having to defend his own truth claim. That’s lazy debating.

    But I think we can agree that the burden of proof does, in fact, shift from venue to venue. In a discussion setting or an investigation/inquiry, the burden of proof, I would say, is equal since both are, or at least should be, sincere seekers of truth. However, in a debate, where both sides have already established their views, the burden of proof falls solely upon the Theist since he is making an assertion, an affirmative statement. The former venue is demarcated by more questions and hypothetical situations whereas the latter is demarcated by more statements.

    Disagree in part — because, once again, a counterclaim to truth which is its own claim to truth must be defended. Mere denial does not, but it isn’t providing a negative to the debate.

    I see what you’re saying here, but I don’t think you’re seeing everything I’m saying.

  11. Cory Tucholski wrote:
    “No atheist so far has agreed with my definition of the term”

    Hi. I’m an atheist. I agree.

  12. I’m with SkepticismFirst.

  13. “One of the most frequent statements I hear when I talk about God with atheists is that there is “no evidence” that God exists”

    You misunderstand the word atheism as used by say Richard Dawkins. We atheists are actually agnostic atheists. We say we don’t know if there is a God or not but there probably/almost certainly isn’t. We are not 100% sure that there is no God.

    Please show me your evidence of God, that’s all I need to see.

  14. “Russel’s [sic] Teapot, garden fairies, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and similar constructs fail when contrasted next [sic] to God because all are hopelessly ad hoc. We don’t need to consider them.”

    So what? WTF does being ad hoc have to do with anything? Why is the burden of proof any different for an ad hoc proposition? Elucidate please.

    And what place does the word “hopelessly” have in your first sentence, except to poison the well?

    • Peripheral issues, all of them. They have nothing to do with my point. Atheists still owe some argument as to why they don’t think God exists. Period.

      • The argument for atheists is that there is no evidence, just like there is no evidence for fairies and goblins. Then there’s naturalism on top of that.

  15. Atheists do not owe an argument as to why they do not believe in God for the same reason that you do not owe an argument for why you do not believe in Rusell’s teapot, garden fairies (or any other type of fairy, IMO. Why just the garden variety? Are field-dwelling fairies somehow inherently more credible)?

    Do you know why it it is that you don’t owe anyone an argument on those things?

  1. Pingback: On Rational Discussion « Josiah Concept Ministries

  2. Pingback: Do Any Atheist Arguments Have Validity? | Josiah Concept Ministries

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