The burden of proof is something that gets tossed back and forth in debates like a hot potato. When do you bear the burden of backing up your view? This is something I’ve wanted to look at here for a few months, but then I found that Dr. Paul Copan had already written up an excellent article on the subject, published back in 2013, that really addresses anything I might have said, except better. The full article (about 4 typed pages) is available here or here, and I really encourage everyone to check it out. Here are excerpts from the first 3 of Copan’s 7 points.
In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?” Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.” Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?
First, define your terms — especially atheism. Understand the terms you are using. You can clear up a lot of confusion here and keep the conversation with a professing atheist on track. Ask your friend, “How do you define atheism?” According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the historic definition of “atheist” is one who “maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence God exists expresses a false proposition.” The late atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew, defined atheism as “rejection of belief in God” — not merely the absence of belief in God. Likewise, Julian Baggini, in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, asserts that atheism is “extremely simple to define.” It is “the belief that there is no God or gods.”
Second, the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.” Keep in mind: The atheist is actually making a claim to knowledge just as the theist is. So rather than shrugging off any burden of proof, the atheist should understand that both claims needs justification, not just the theist’s. If you make a claim to know something, you should be able to justify that claim when challenged. The atheist — if he or she is a true atheist — says that God does not exist. But we can ask, “Why think this? What positive arguments are there for this claim?” To date, there just has not been any argument coming close to showing how this is so. Some might say, “Arguments for God’s existence do not work.” But that is not enough. You need to show why God does not exist (more on this below). In my experience, the “atheist” more often than not turns out to be an agnostic.
Note: that has been my experience as well.
Third, look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief. True agnostics affirm they do not know whether God exists or not. By contrast, atheism is a strong claim and is actually a fairly difficult position to defend. As noted, many professing atheists are not true atheists — that is, one who disbelieves or rejects belief in God. Rather, they are more like “agnostics” — unbelievers. What they mean by “there is no God” is more like “I lack belief in God.” In April 2001, I was speaking at an open forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. A student told me during the Q&A, “The reason I am an atheist is because the arguments for God’s existence do not work.” I replied, “Then you should be an agnostic, not an atheist. It is logically possible that God could exist even if the available arguments for God do not work. So, you should be an agnostic, in that case. You have to do more than say the arguments for God do not work to be an atheist. You have to show why God cannot exist. You see, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The person who claims to be an atheist but simply lacks belief in God is blurring the historic distinction between agnostic and atheist. We should gently press him on this question: “What makes your position different from an agnostic’s?”
I hate to stop there, especially without getting to Dr. Copan’s dissection of atheists’ favorite parody of God – the Flying Spaghetti Monster – but you’ll just have to read the rest of Dr. Copan’s article for yourself. Till next time, keep thinking!
Below are the links for Dr. Copan’s full article.