Tag Archives: Burden of Proof

Where to Start?

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Krista Johanson

I was reading some more of atheist Dan Barker’s book “godless”, and came across this passage:

“I have often heard Christians say we must ‘start with God.’ … Isn’t that interesting? Would they say we must ‘start with unicorns’ or must ‘start with UFOs?’ We can only start where we both agree, and proceed from there. We both agree that there is a natural universe – no argument there. It is the religious persons who maintain additional ‘supernatural’ or transcendent assertions that go beyond what we both accept. It is unreasonable and unfair for them simply to fold their arms and demand that I disprove their allegations. Any impartial investigator will agree that we should start with what we do know, and then proceed from there. We should start with nature. We should start with the nonexistence of God and then the believer should argue for God’s existence, not demand that atheists argue against it. The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it.” [1, emphasis in original]

What do you think? Does he have a legitimate point? Let’s work through that today.

Let me first just agree with Dan on his last statement about the burden of proof. He is correct: anyone making positive propositional statements bears the burden of proof for those statements. With that in mind, let me quote the closing sentences of Dan’s previous paragraph: “…the probability for the existence of a supernatural being can be safely dropped to zero. In the name of honesty, it must be dropped to zero.” (emphasis in original) Dan, I’m afraid, took on a monumentally heavy burden of proof with that proposition. I’m no UFO hunter, but I’m not about to make the bold claim that the probability of UFOs are zero. To prove a universal negative requires either proving a self-contradiction that makes it deductively impossible, or observing all possibilities to verify inductively that the object in question does not exist in some unobserved state. However, the concept of God is not internally inconsistent, like speaking of a square circle would be, where we can truly say it cannot exist, by definition. Nor is Dan Barker omniscient, and able to search all time and space, and alternate dimensions, and so on, to verify the non-existence of God. I think I would reconsider that proposition if I were Dan.

Moving on, I agree that starting with common ground is a great place to start. That saves two opponents the trouble of arguing back and forth trying to establish such common ground. And we do both agree that a natural universe exists; we can both observe it, and we can both make rational inferences about it. So I’m perfectly OK starting with nature. But did you notice the switch Barker did? First he wrote that we should “start with nature”, but then in the very next sentence, he wrote that “we should start with the nonexistence of God….” Not so fast there, Dan. Those aren’t the same. If we start with nature, then we are starting with raw observational data of the world around us, working to establish probable causes for what we observe. One of those possible causes is God, no matter how small you personally feel that possibility is. Therefore, you can’t rule that out beforehand. This is actually the logical fallacy called “begging the question”, or “assuming what you set out to prove”. [2] Now, if he had eliminated God as a possible cause in the course of the investigation, that would be one thing that we’d have to look at more closely later to find where he went wrong. However, defining Him out of the investigation before you even begin is like deliberately putting blinders on before watching a lab experiment, and wondering why you can’t explain the results: you only saw half the experiment!

As a former pastor, Dan Barker should know that the Bible encourages us to look at nature. Passages like Psalm 19 tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” [Ps19:1]  Paul tells us in the New Testament that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” [Ro 1:20] And when we look at nature, we find a lot of things that need explaining. We see an absolute beginning that requires a Beginner; we see an incredibly fine-tuned cosmos that requires a powerful super-intelligence beyond imagination; we see amazing code written in our every cell that points to a Master Programmer; and we see beauty that has inspired artists and poets in every generation to try to represent it to their audiences. In short, we see that nature speaks of something beyond nature, something supernatural. Contrary to what Dan Barker assumes, when we have an open mind as we “start with nature”, we are compelled toward God, not away from Him.

[1] Dan Barker, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p. 92.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 94.

The Burden of Proof

Overworked-800pxThe 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.