Does Atheism Have a Burden of Proof?

Posted on December 18, 2012


Originally posted on An American Atheist.

All too often, arguments between theists and atheists end up with theists demanding that atheists disprove God. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like too much to ask, since atheists constantly ask for theists to prove that there is a God. If atheists can’t prove that there isn’t a God, then how can they demand that theists prove there is? Aren’t atheists guilty of a double standard, holding the theistic position to a standard of evidence that they don’t require of themselves? The answer to these questions is no, because theistic confusion around this issue derives from a misunderstanding of the atheist position, as well as general ignorance regarding the relationship between claim-making and the burden of proof. Although this may seem a bit “101” to those in the atheist community, it is nevertheless a major point of confusion for many theists, and is therefore deserving of continued clarification.

To start off, it is crucially important to understand the difference between the following atheistic positions:

1. I do not believe in God(s).

2. I believe there is/are no God(s).

Prima facie, these positions seem equivalent. Indeed they are similar, insofar as they describe a person who has no active belief in God(s). However, they differ dramatically regarding whether or not they carry with them a burden of proof. Both are atheistic positions; however position #2 is not a requirement of being an atheist, while position #1 is. Position #2 necessarily implies one also holds position #1 (since #2 is a subset of #1), but position #1 does not imply one also holds position #2. A Venn diagram will help clarify this relationship.

This may seem like an overly pedantic and unimportant distinction to make, but it makes all the difference when we consider which position is encumbered by a burden of proof. It is important to understand that burdens of proof are attached to claims. A common theistic misstep is to treat position #1 as a claim, or fervently insist that atheists be constrained to position #2. Position #2 is a claim, as it represents an active belief that there is/are no God(s). Such a position requires evidence and justification for its support. The same cannot be said of position #1, however, because position #1 is not a claim, but rather a response to a claim. Position #1 therefore has no burden of proof, for it is simply the default position provisionally held when claims purporting the existence of God(s) haven’t met theirs.

Theism, unlike atheism, makes a claim and requires active belief. It therefore carries with it a burden of proof, and a rather ponderous one at that. Much theistic sophistry involves attempting to shift this burden of proof to the atheist. Sometimes theists will even rephrase their position to a more passive form (i.e. I don’t believe in no God(s)) in an attempt to shift their burden of proof through prevarication. However, this does not successfully shift the burden of proof, because this argument is no longer a theistic argument. Instead of shifting the burden, they are ridding themselves of the burden of proof precisely because they are no longer making a claim. Thus they are no longer holding the position of a theist, i.e. that God(s) exist. Now there is essentially nothing to argue about, since neither side has a burden of proof, nor is either side making any claims. However, we know perfectly well that theists are making a claim that God(s) exist, and so the rephrasing of their stance amounts to special pleading, or a ruse in an attempt to force a draw. To show explicitly why their rephrasing does not accomplish what they believe it does, we need to understand the concept of a null hypothesis, possibility, and actuality.

In science, when people are testing hypotheses, the concept of a null hypothesis is used. The null hypothesis is a default position. But how do we determine the default position in a particular case? The answer to this is an evaluation of prior probabilities.

A seemingly infinite amount of things are possible. In fact, anything is logically possible if it is not self-contradictory, such as a circular square, or a turtle that is not also an animal, since turtles are a subset of animals. Many things which are not individually contradictory, as you can see, are often contradictory in concert. It is possible that I reside on the 3rd floor of a building, and it is possible that I am on the 1st floor. However it is impossible that I dwell on both the 1st and 3rd floor simultaneously. Because of this, only a vanishingly small fragment of all possibilities are actualized at any given moment.

In light of this fact, it follows that if we were to arbitrarily choose among all possibilities, it is very unlikely that anything we choose is actual. Hence, the default, null hypothesis will always be the negation of a supposed actuality. A textbook example is hypothesizing that a given drug administered to two test groups will reveal a relationship between those given the drug and a particular phenomenon of interest relative to those who did not receive the drug. The null hypothesis is that there is no relationship, since there being a relationship is merely one possibility out of countless other possibilities. This is why, relating to God, the null hypothesis is nonexistence. Any alternate hypothesis carries the burden of proof. When theists rephrase their stance as not believing in the non-existence of God(s), this is simply an attempt at repeating the null hypothesis as a claim, where its negation (belief in God) is now the null, default position. But given what we know about the possible and the actual, this reformulation makes literally no sense, since, for it to be true, the possible must a subset of the actual, which we know is not the case.

The last issue I will deal with is the assertion made by many theists that, since the question relating to God’s existence is dichotomous (God either exists or does not exist), so too must be any belief relating to God’s existence. More simply, they assume that not believing in God’s existence equates to an active belief that God doesn’t exist. We have seen why this is not the case with relation to the more general definition of atheism as the rejection of God claims that haven’t met their burden of proof. But I would like to approach this from another angle as well.

Theists are often guilty of presenting a false dichotomy, also called excluding the middle, relating to the various states of belief one can have towards God(s). The theist often assumes that things are very black-and-white—you can believe God exists or that he doesn’t. Full stop. In reality, however, we are not limited to two opposing positions. In fact, relating to the belief of the proposition God exists, there can be as many as four possibilities: (1) true, God exists, (2) false, God does not exist, (3) it is unknown whether or not God exists, and (4) God’s existence is unknowable.

Let’s look at a coin flip to illustrate this concept. If a coin is flipped, there are two possible actual states of that coin: heads or tails. But what does someone believe about each possibility before the actual state is revealed? Surely you don’t believe it is heads, because it could just as easily be tails! And tails isn’t worthy of belief, since heads is equally likely. Unless you have any reason to suspect one state over the other (maybe you caught a quick glimpse of the coin before it was covered by a hand, or you have reason to believe that it is not a fair coin), the proper position to hold is neutrality—you don’t know. In this case it is certainly knowable, since the flipper need only reveal the outcome. Our unknowable category does not come into play here, but an example of this category can be found in quantum mechanics; according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a particle’s precise location and velocity at any instant is unknowable.

We’ve made it! Thanks for bearing with me. Though we have covered a broad swath of atheistic reasoning, I think you will have realized that nothing was particularly difficult to grasp. That is because the atheist position is the most reasonable and intellectually honest position a person can hold. All that is required of the reader is an open mind and the willingness to go wherever evidence and reason leads.

Posted in: Atheism, Religion