The Burden of Proof and why Atheists don’t have one

I am interrupting my leisurely meander through the AfM to take a look at the Burden of Proof (BoP). Anyone who has been following me will realise that two posts in just over a week constitutes a positive flurry of activity on this otherwise slothful site. But it came up recently on Victor Reppert’s dangerousidea blog, so I thought I’d do something on it. Here is a link:

Apologists are very keen on the BoP. Not in the sense that they like to have it. They hate having it. They react like whiny teenagers: “Oh, it’s always us! It’s so not fair! What about atheists? How come they never get the BoP? Huh? Why isn’t it ever their turn?” But they are keen on it in the sense that they like to argue about it. A lot. Anyone who has spent any time looking at apologetics will be familiar with the question of BoP and where it lies.

The BoP lies on whoever makes the claim. So in the case of theism, when the claim is “God exists” then the burden lies with the claimant. But what about the atheist who claims “God does not exist”? Does she have as great a burden as the theist to evidence this claim?

One issue which is often raised by way of response is what it means to be an atheist. Many atheists say that atheism is no more than the rejection of the claim “God exists”. It does not necessarily entail the claim “God does not exist”, it simply means that the theist claim “God exists” remains unproven.

The typical theist response to this is to say that the atheist is just trying to evade the BoP by a dishonest pretence. This in turn has led to much discussion about what atheism is and how it is different from agnosticism. For an illustration of how desperately important this is to the apologist, see here:

For those who lost the will to live after a few paragraphs, let me take you to the bottom line: An atheist must say “God does not exist”. Anyone who is not prepared to claim this much is not an atheist but an agnostic. If “God does not exist” is an assertion which carries as much of a BoP as the claim “God exists” then the apologist can drop back from being always on the offensive.

I don’t accept that atheism need be more than a denial that there is any credible evidence for God’s existence. But for the purpose of this discussion, let me concede what is obviously so important for the apologist. I will say for these purposes that in order to call myself an atheist, I must sign up to the full-blooded proposition “God does not exist”.

Who has the BoP? It is whoever makes the assertion. See here for quite a good (albeit ultimately flawed) discussion on the point:

So, that’s settled then. Atheists and theists have the same BoP, because both make claims.

Hang on. Not so fast.

In any discussion where the point at issue is the claim P by one party and the claim ~P by the other, firstly, there must be some claim “P” put forward by pro-P in order for anti-P to have any interest in knocking it down. So, if no adequate evidence is adduced for P, where does that leave P as a rational belief?

The answer to that question will depend on what type of claim P is.
Suppose Fred and Barney are arguing about whether Fred’s dog, Dino, is bigger than Barney’s dog, Hoppy. Fred claims he is, Barney says he isn’t.

Who has the BoP? Both do. Barney’s burden might be fractionally lighter, in that his claim includes the dogs’ being the same size, whereas Fred’s claim will fail unless Dino is actually bigger. But that is an insignificant difference and does not affect the BoP.

If you are asked to adjudicate, consider the following situations:

1. At the end of the argument Fred has said nothing which would prove that Dino must be bigger than Hoppy. But neither has Barney managed to put forward any compelling reason for believing that Dino is not bigger. In that case you should hold the case unproven. You should be “agnostic” in the sense favoured by apologists – having no opinion one way or the other. The complete failure of Fred to put forward even a smidgen of evidence to show Dino is bigger cannot by itself be a reason for rejecting the proposition “Dino is bigger than Hoppy”.
2. If Barney had refuted all Fred’s reasons for saying that Dino was bigger, but had not actually put forward any reasons for saying that Dino was not bigger, then Fred would have failed to meet his burden of proof. But without some positive arguments for his own case, so would Barney. So even though Barney refuted all Fred’s arguments, he put forward none of his own and again, you should be agnostic on the question.
3. If Fred’s arguments are sound, if they are not refuted by Barney and Barney does not put forward positive arguments for saying that Dino is not bigger, then Fred will have met his BoP and it will be reasonable to conclude that Dino is indeed bigger. That would not rule out the possibility of Fred being wrong, but it would be sensible to proceed on the basis that he is right.

However, it does not always work this way and the proposition “God exists” is a case in point. Other examples are “ghosts exist”, “fairies exist” and “the Loch Ness monster exists”. If there is no credible evidence of the Loch Ness monster’s existence, if every photograph, every film, every sighting can be undermined, then it is simply absurd to claim that unless its existence is actually disproved we are obliged to have an open mind on the subject, with the possibility of its existence and its non-existence equally balanced.

Why should this be? “Dino is not bigger than Hoppy” looks as if it is much the same sort of claim as “the Loch Ness monster does not exist”. So why should the latter fail if the BoP is not met, rather than simply remaining an open question? It’s our old friend, Occam’s razor at work. The claim that Dino is bigger than Hoppy does not amount to a more complex claim about the world than does its denial. Whether or not Dino is bigger, the world continues to turn in much the same way as it would do if Dino were not bigger. Occam’s razor is not engaged. But the claim “God exists” is a claim which adds a further entity to the universe whilst the claim “God does not exist” is a more parsimonious proposition.

That is why atheists are happy to go no further in their argument than to say that God has not been shown to exist. There is no need to go further; Occam’s razor will do the rest of the work for us. Apologists are not going to be prepared to sit back and rely on an absence of arguments from their opponents proving God’s non-existence, because they know that in the absence of evidence that something does exist, nobody is going to infer that it does from the mere lack of argument to the contrary. They are obliged to put forward some positive arguments, however much they might prefer to hunker down in the trenches and let the atheists go on the attack.

Of course, apologists may claim that they are in situation (3) above – they have made sound arguments, which have not been refuted. Firstly, this is a question-begging approach. That the apologists’ arguments are sound and unrefuted is exactly what the atheists do not accept. But additionally, if the apologists had made their case well, if their arguments were substantially untouched by atheist attacks and atheists had not put forward any arguments in support of the “God does not exist” claim, then one might think that things could hardly be looking better for the theist cause. Why would it be a source of complaint, rather than celebration, that atheists are not offering any arguments in support of their own claim? I suggest that it is because the apologists recognise all too well that their arguments have failed. They wish to divert attention from their failure by falling back on the retort: “Well, you can’t prove it isn’t true”. And we can’t. But we don’t need to.


2 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof and why Atheists don’t have one

  1. I wish I could be as optimistic as you when you say, “I suggest that it is because the apologists recognise all too well that their arguments have failed.” My impression is that, sadly, they do not recognise that their arguments fail. In my brief experience of Christian apologists, there are two categories:
    1) The upper echelon – those who use long words, formulae, syllogisms, and flow charts, and usually pronounce the letter “o” as an “a”: “ferlassafy”, “Gad” etc… This echelon represents a book-publishing, conference-giving minority.
    2) Most of the rest wouldn’t recognise a failed argument if it lay on the floor in front of them, whimpering. They argue from “authority” (scare-quotes necessary), quoting people like WLC, and just making louder noises when challenged – the argument from decibels.
    None of them do anything to prove the existence of God. They just prove the futility of trying to engage apologists in debate.

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