Goodbye Burden of Proof

Atheism is impoverished by the weakness of popular theism. Although God-believers are numerous, they are overwhelmingly advocates of revealed religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which are built on credulity and faith. To put it bluntly, atheists are used to puff-ball theism. They rarely find themselves challenged in their interactions with opponents. The result has been unfortunate: most atheists have not developed robust arguments against intelligent or “informed” theism.

Atheology.com is all about rectifying this situation, of course. But first, what do I have in mind when I say that most atheists don’t have a robust enough argument against this higher-class theism?

Blind Atheism

The most common argument for atheism goes something like this:

1) there should be a presumption of atheism – i.e. the burden of proof falls on those who assert the existence of God (you can’t expect non-believers to prove a universal negative)
2) there is no adequate logical or empirical evidence for God’s existence, therefore the burden has not been met
3) personal experiences (“God spoke to me”) can never be substantiated, so they can’t be used to meet the burden.
4) faith is wholly inadequate, so don’t even bring it up.

The famous atheist philosopher Antony Flew wrote the book on the presumption of atheism (see Flew’s “The Presumption of Atheism”), but a few years ago Flew came around to the viewpoint that theists have indeed met the burden of proof. Flew has now concluded there is a God, and he has become a deist. Flew’s conversion represents a serious challenge to atheism, and also represents one of the best examples of intelligent theism. To be sure, Flew still rejects revealed religion and does not believe in a “personal” God — despite the glee of some Christians, Flew is nowhere near to becoming a Christian. But just as certainly Flew is no longer an atheist. He no longer accepts point 2 above. There is in his view adequate evidence for the existence of God.

Goodbye Courtroom Analogy

But the situation is worse than this implies. Why? Because the burden of proof / presumption of atheism argument Flew popularized never really made much sense anyway. Flew used a courtroom analogy, where the burden quite properly falls on those who assert the positive: that x did y. But the debate between atheists and theists does not take place in a courtroom: no one is on trial, no one is at risk of jail time for their belief or non-belief. There is no defendant whose right to a fair trial needs to be protected by a presumption of innocence.

Even the argument that you can’t prove a universal negative is not necessarily true: we can be very certain there are no married bachelors anywhere, even in the most distant galaxy. But there is something else flawed about this whole burden of proof approach. Philosophical “proofs” can never establish matters of fact. The debate about God’s existence is a debate about which hypothesis — the natural one or the supernatural one — is most convincing. It is a factual question, not one that can be “proved” philosophically. Failure to provide that kind of “proof” means nothing. The better model for determining matters of fact is found in the method of science.

If we look to science we find that Flew’s assertion about burden of proof doesn’t apply: in actual practice the burden of proof is on new proposals and the presumption is in favor of the established scientific position. For example, if someone wants to argue that quarks are a myth, the burden is on them to make a convincing case for their assertion — not on the vast majority of scientists who believe in quarks. Imagine if the quarks-are-a-myth minority presented no alternative hypothesis and merely announced,

You can’t expect us to prove that no quarks exist, because after all no one can prove a universal negative. No, you need to show us a real quark and not merely rely on inferences and the quark hypothesis. We need to see real proof.

Obviously they would be ignored, or if not ignored ridiculed. If we want a real life example of the same principle, we need only look at the small cadre of scientists who are evolution-deniers. In their mind the burden of proof is on evolutionary scientists to find all the “missing links” in the fossil record; whereas they, the small minority of scientists who are deniers, see no obligation to produce scientific evidence for their own position.

In actual practice (outside of the courtroom) the burden is always on the minority to convince the majority, not the other way around. Extrapolating from this, it is clear that since we live in a world dominated by belief in God, the burden of proof is on atheists to make the case that God’s existence is unlikely, that naturalism better fits the evidence.

Atheism Out of Context

This is where atheism has a problem. You see, most atheists don’t recognize that they even have an alternative hypothesis to offer. They are stuck on the notion that atheism is simply the withholding of belief in God and nothing more. For them, atheism has no context.

They fail to see that what animates atheism is naturalism. Without its connection to naturalism, atheism is blind.

They also fail to see that intelligent theists have some pretty good arguments. Atheists need to be able to knock those arguments down. Unfortunately, my experience is that typically atheists aren’t good at doing that. Most atheists don’t even know about informed theism, since they have only come in contact with puff-ball theists. And on the other side of the coin, most are completely unprepared to make a case for naturalism.

Atheists tend to be arrogant. They are too stuck up on saying to the overwhelming majority who represent the dominant consensus: “prove you are right”. That simply won’t fly. Atheists have the burden because they are a minority. It is the same burden all scientists in a minority have: to show that the dominant consensus is seriously if not fatally flawed, and to demonstrate that they have a better hypothesis.

If atheists do this will they convert puff-ball theists? Probably not. But the door will be opened to intelligent debate with informed theists. And atheism will no longer be quite so blind.

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2 Responses to Goodbye Burden of Proof

  1. S.creed says:

    I am a christian (or was) and now I would like to comment on the argument about evolution vs. creation, hopefully this is on topic. I have had a terrible experience in the debate and have been reduced to chagrining an atheist or to as they chide back. It all becomes childish insults represented as fact, such as “you are a stupid christian who needs a father figure” or “Your uninformed about the subject” when I seem to understand the matter of evolution by natural selection quite well. I thought this article on the burden of proof relieved the sting of having to argue with people who dub themselves “realists.”

  2. Rastaban says:

    Thanks for the comment. It’s unfortunate that so many internet discussions on hot button topics like evolution vs intelligent design or atheism vs theism degenerate into angry name-calling. Or if the conversation doesn’t degenerate, people often seem to talk past each other. I feel for what you went through in your debate, and I’m glad you found my thoughts on burden of proof worth reading.

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