Keep It Fair: Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Pt. 2)

Steve Tsai Articles 1 Comment

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this article, go here.

3. I think this point of logic I’m about to raise is one that is rarely understood by the atheist. For example, let’s say I do in fact give five good arguments for God’s existence. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, the atheist has successfully rebutted or refuted all five of my arguments for God’s existence. The question is, does this mean God does not exist? Does my failure to provide evidence of God’s existence prove the opposite point, his non-existence?

No, not at all. An unsubstantiated claim is not a false claim. Epistemologically they are different. Even if all my arguments fail, all that proves is that I have bad arguments or may be a poor apologist. It does not prove God does not exist. And it does not entail that no one has good arguments for God’s existence. At worst, my failure would leave the issue of God’s existence a question mark. That is, maybe he does exist, maybe he doesn’t. You see, this is the point where the atheist is supposed to step up, and argue from uncertainty to the positive claim of God’s non-existence. But if he is not willing to bear his share of the burden, then God’s existence is neither impossible, improbable nor fortuitously untrue (and this is the case even if all my arguments have failed). And if the atheist has shown none of these, I reckon he’s a rather poor atheologian, since God’s existence is still left on the table as a very real possibility.

4. This last point may be a more complicated one. It may be the case that the atheist’s ploy is self-contradictory. That is, there is a logical difficulty in asserting a lack of a belief (here I will use “knowledge” and “belief” interchangeably for this point, which I think is fine for present purposes). I know we do so all the time in common parlance, but, strictly speaking, this may be impossible, since you have to at least know something about what you’re denying knowledge of. So, to totally lack knowledge of something and to assert that at the same time would seem to be contradictory.

Now there’s a weaker sense in which we can assert our ignorance of certain issues. But in these cases it’s arguable that the assertion of ignorance is one of lesser knowledge to greater knowledge, that is, one of degree. We know a bit and we wish to know more. The problem with the atheist’s ploy is that it is not this type of degreed claim but a non-degreed claim of a total lack of knowledge. It’s hard to believe that anyone can assert their lack of belief in things that don’t enter into any of the propositions that one holds. How can you affirm you lack a belief unless you first know the belief that is lacked?

This is more clearly illustrated by employing what philosopher’s call propositional or doxastic attitudes. For any proposition, there are three epistemological stances or attitudes that can be taken towards it:

1) affirmation,
2) denial, or
3) withholding of judgment.

Notice there are only three propositional attitudes. The proposition under consideration is that of “God exists.” If you affirm the proposition, you are a theist. If you deny the proposition, you are an atheist. If you withhold judgment, you are an agnostic. Notice there is no propositional attitude of “lacking a belief.” Affirm God, deny God, or throw your hands up in the air and say you don’t know. But it is unclear on this very standard account of propositional attitudes where “lack of a belief” would fit in.

So at best, “lacking a belief” is an extremely queer concept, and, at worst, it is self-contradictory.

Comments 1

  1. Great point(s)!
    One of my favorites though is this one: God argues in Isaiah that He is the only God as demonstrated by the evidence that He knows the future (the end from the beginning). To prove His point He sends us to what He has revealed through His prophets and challenge those who would contest this claim to go ahead and try to do something similar or to show us what they have done of the same sort.
    This is not an apologetic; it is a polemic. If we read the context or the follow up of these verses we observe that it is indeed a rough polemic. God is fed up with the phonies and those who blindly follow them. Is it not time for us to echo His polemic and to draw those who will hear that wisdom to the Light which will not disappoint them?

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