Keep It Fair: Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Pt. 1)

Steve Tsai Articles 2 Comments

Normally when engaged in discussion with others, there is a rule called the “burden of proof” that keeps the conversation honest and profitable. The burden of proof is a principle that states that the person who asserts a proposition has the burden to defend it by reason or evidence. Notice here, the person who has asserted the proposition must prove it true. Then and only then does the other person respond to the substantiated claim with counterevidence or a counterargument (which is called the burden of the rejoinder). The point here is that if you assert it, it’s your responsibility to prove it. And the converse point is, you don’t have to disprove what is unproven. There’s no need to go about disproving unsubstantiated claims.

Now I think this is a reasonable thing to ask of the atheist, that he bear his fair share of the burden of proof. If God’s existence is impossible, improbably or simply fortuitously untrue, common sense dictates the atheist should give evidence for these claims. At least you would think.

At this point, modern atheists have one more trick up their sleeve, one that supposedly counteracts the burden of proof. The issue has to do with the etymology of “atheism,” defined not as a positive belief in the non-existence of God, but simply a lack of any belief in God. The prefix “a-“ is understood as “without,” and “theism” (as you well know) means “belief in God.” So they will argue, the atheistic position is not one of positive affirmation in God’s non-existence, but rather simply a lack of belief in the existence of God. Atheists are without, or lack belief in, God. So, because the atheist has asserted nothing, he has nothing to prove. He does not have to prove the non-existence of God, because he never positively asserted God’s non-existence. He simply has to shoot down arguments by theists, since they do make a positive claim and must bear the burden of proof.

Source: by Salvatore Vuono from

Source: by Salvatore Vuono from

If you sense something has gone amiss, you are correct. I think this is an unfair ploy designed to shift the burden on the theist while allowing the atheist to continue taking the offensive. It’s much easier to tear down others rather than erect an edifice of one’s own. And many times, rhetorically, the aggressive person seems like he is winning.

Here are a few good responses to this ploy:

1. First, if you wish, you can play the same game. That is, refuse to give in to this unfair tactic by turning it around back on them. How this is done is you take the positive affirmation of atheist (which they must have, since a belief system cannot be purely negative) which is the materialistic thesis that claims, “all things are explainable in terms of physics and chemistry” and simply add the prefix “a” to it. So instead of claiming to be a “theist” (which would be a positive claim), one can claim to be an “a-materialist.” That is, one simply lacks the belief in the materialistic thesis. And of course since a lack of a belief (according to the atheist) does not require proof, the a-materialist (theist) can sit back and fold his arms smugly knowing he does not have to make a positive case for God’s existence.

This is more of a touché maneuver to show the unfairness of the atheist’s ploy. The point here is to show him that you can play the same burden of proof game too. Of course the objective of this response is not to end in a stalemate, but a simply to show the atheist his flaw in thinking, and encourage him to take up the burden of proof again. In effect you’re saying, “If your view does not require proof, than neither does mine given the same rationale. Oh, you don’t like that? Then let’s do away with this game and get back to proving our claims.” This can be returned to any time in the course of conversation if the atheist reverts back to his atheism-is-a-lack-of-belief-so-I-don’t-need-to-prove-it position.

2. One can simply ask the atheist if she would answer “yes” or “no” to the question “Do you believe that God exists?” Either answer to this question would be considered a positive assertion, and would therefore require argumentation and evidence. Now it is possible that the atheist at this point still could refuse to answer “yes” or “no” and instead repeat the tag line of the ploy, “I simply do not have a belief in the existence of God, therefore my position does not require proof.”

If this happens, there are two more ways the conversation can go. Either they still want to stay engaged and discuss your positive evidence for God’s existence while shirking their responsibility, or they will want to disengage completely from the topic. If the atheist takes the latter position, then you can once again assert (1), that you can play the same game too, and since you can, atheism is no more rational than your a-materialism. A position is considered more rationally justified if its grounds are more certain than other competing positions. If atheism and a-materialism have identical epistemological grounds, than one is no more rational than the other. The retreating atheist satisfied with his ploy must accept this point. That would be my parting shot to that kind of atheist. But I doubt any thoughtful atheist would be satisfied knowing his atheism is as rationally justified as my theism, for the very point of argumentation is to show your opponent’s position as rationally inferior.

If the atheist is of the former variety that still wants to engage, I would kindly explain how his tactic is unfair (since he wants me to do all the proving while he does none) and stipulate the conversation will only progress if he bears the same burden I do. That is, let’s keep the conversation fair, since both sides actually do make positive affirmations (with atheism at least positively asserting materialism, and very probably asserting God’s non-existence). Atheists make bold claims about God, and some actually harbor feelings of hatred against him. How someone can hate or ball their fist up against an entity that apparently enters into none of the propositions one believes is beyond me. My point here is that an ultimatum is set; a fair conversation or none at all. And if the atheist is not willing to bear the burden of proof, I feel very comfortable ending the conversation. Don’t throw your pearls before swine.

Next week, we’ll come back for part 2 of this article.

Comments 2

  1. It’s not a tactic. And when we read your post, it’s actually very apparent that what you’re doing is more of a tactic And here’s why:
    You say that the person who simply lacks belief is playing games. And that this person has just covered a stronger position but is trying to escape the burden of proof. Now. Let’s say that I adopt this strong position. And we’re having the discussion. I’m trying to prove that God doesn’t exist. You point out all the fallacies in my arguments, and eventually you demonstrate that I have no good arguments, and I can’t justify my position that God does not exist. Okay.
    But until you have presented your case, I’m still not convinced that any gods exist. At this point I just don’t believe either way. This is my position now. Now I just lack belief. But. This is what you just told people was a scam. A dirty tactic and a game. But it is actually nothing but the honest recognition that one can’t prove that there are no gods. Which demonstrates that the one playing tricks is actually you. You have the burden of proof on your claim that a god exists. And you’re trying to give it away to others. Others who have already stated up front that they can’t make their case, but so what? Can you? That’s all we are interested in hearing.

    And this is setting aside all the other problems.
    The problem is that there is a default assumption in addition to the burden of proof, which states that all though both parties have a burden of proof, only one of them is actually supposed to present its case when the two meat in a discussion. Namely the positive ontological assertion rather than the negative one. And we see this in court again. The jury that votes not-guilty aren’t secretly playing games where they actually think he is innocent. Even if they thought he was innocent, they are not obligated to make any case, because the burden of proof is on the claim of guilt due to the default assumption.
    Also, the problem that your point two is false: The question “Do you believe in God?” can correctly be translated thus: “If we make a list of all the things you believe; all the things you are convinced of; does God feature on that list anywhere?” When people answer “No”, then clearly they have made no case and are in no way obligated to shoulder any burden of proof. And that’s all you get from that question.
    Also, the problem is that not all atheists are materialists, and not all materialists say that the material world is all that exist; some say simply that the material world is all that can be demonstrated to exist. That’s the difference between methodological and natural materialism/naturalism.

    But who are we kidding? Why does his need to be discussed anyway? Can you make the case that a god exists or not? And if you can, why do you care about trying to have other people share your burden of proof. The only reason you would try to push the burden away and on to others is exactly because you know you can’t make the case. Atheists have softened their position to “lack of belief” precisely because they are honest enough to say that they can’t prove that no gods exist. Or knowledgeable enough that they understand the true nature of the burden of proof and the default assumptions and the nature of arguments and claims so that they know that they don’t need to prove that no gods exist. Or both. What if no one can prove that no gods exist? So what? What are you going to do now? You still need to present all your evidence and satisfy your entire burden of proof in order to convince anybody that a god exists. My goal is not to convince anyone that no gods exist. My goal is to convince people that it’s not reasonable to believe in any gods unless they have been demonstrated. I don’t care if anyone can demonstrate that no gods exist, whether they can or not.

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