Atheism and the burden of proof

A rock wall is made from a firm foundation

A rock wall is made from a firm foundation

When someone makes a claim about the world, if they want to convince others, they are required to provide justification for that claim. This is not a contentious or strange idea, but what does this mean for atheism? Is atheism a belief and does it require justification? In this article I will show that atheism is a belief about the world and that it does require a justification in the same way that theism does.     

When exploring this topic the most important thing to do is to define our terms clearly. Traditionally theism, agnosticism and atheism were seen as the three positions that one could hold towards the existence of God. Consider the claim “God exists.” We have three options that we could take toward this claim. We can endorse it and agree that God exists. We can deny it and say that God does not exist. Or we can neither endorse it nor deny it and claim not to know (or care). These, in theory, are the only three options (although I will come back to this later). The affirmation that God exists is called theism. The denial of God’s existence (the claim that he does not exist) is what is traditionally called atheism. We find this definition confirmed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”[1] Not knowing whether God exists is traditionally called agnosticism; again, we find this definition confirmed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it”[2]. Not caring whether God exists is traditionally called apatheism.

If we accept these definitions, then it seems clear that both the theist and the atheist have a burden of proof. Someone cannot simply assert that because there is no evidence for something it must therefore not exist. This does not follow because it suggests that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence. This is not true. Pluto was discovered in 1930.[3] Prior to then, there was no hard evidence that it existed. Did this mean that it did not exist? No! If somebody wants to say that something does not exist then they must provide a justification for that. They cannot conclude that simply because none of the arguments or evidences for a proposition fail, that the proposition is therefore false. The atheist philosopher Kai Nielson agrees and says, “[t]o show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false”.[4] This means that, in philosophy, even if all the arguments for a proposition fail, it does not follow that the proposition is false.

One criticism that is often voiced is that proving a negative is impossible; this is not true. I can prove that Santa does not live at the North Pole by going and looking, I can prove that a 30 cm piece of string is not 40 cm by measuring it, and I can show that there are no married bachelors by showing that it is a logically incoherent concept. The same applies for God. If somebody can show that God is an internally inconsistent concept or that it is incompatible with an aspect of the physical world, then this would prove that God does not exist.

Another criticism that is often voiced is that in the case of God an absence of evidence does entail evidence of absence. This criticism is similar to the argument from hiddenness (which is a formal argument against the existence of God to which there are various responses). As such, because this is an actual argument against the existence of God, this criticism does not detract from my argument.

It should be noted that people rarely fit neatly into the categories that I outlined above. Very few atheists claim to know for certain that God does not exist (many theists also would not claim to know for certain that he does). I suspect that it is views like this which lead people to adopt the title “agnostic atheist.” This has been defined in a number of different ways but one definition is “one who does not know for sure if any gods exist or not but who also does not believe in any gods.”[5]The problem with this definition is that it does not give us a complete account of what the person believes. This fails to tell us whether they believe in God’s non-existence (the belief that he does not exist). This is because lacking belief in God is not the same as believing that God does not exist. In general, people who label themselves like this tend to believe that, although we do not know for certain whether God exists, his existence is unlikely. As a result, they must justify the claim that God probably does not exist with a reasonable inductive argument. The lesson, however, is that people must be clear about what they believe and define their terms carefully before entering a conversation, and if they are making a claim about the world, they must justify that claim. We can see that atheism does require justification in the same way that theism does.


[1] Smart, J. J. C., “Atheism and Agnosticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/atheism-agnosticism/. [Accessed on 21/05/2013].

[2] IBID.

[3] NASA, “Pluto: Overview”. Available at: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Pluto. [Accessed on 21/05/2013].

[4] Nielsen Kai (1971) Reason and Practice. New York: Harper & Row.

[5] Austin Cline, Agnostic Atheist – Dictionary Definition. Available at: http://atheism.about.com/od/Agnostic-Dictionary/g/Agnostic-Atheist-Dictionary-Definition.htm. [Accessed on 21/05/2013].

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Richard Playford

Richard has a BA (hons) from the University of Exeter in philosophy with ancient history and is current studying for an MA at the University of Birmingham in philosophy. He is particularly interested in the philosophical aspects of Christian apologetics.

  • http://www.danarel.com/ Dan Arel

    I have to say you are slightly wrong here. Atheism doesnt imply saying “I KNOW GOD DOES NOT EXIST”.

    It means I dont think god exists, I dont walk that line of saying “maybe” no more than I do about unicorns and fairies. I would be alarmed and am alarmed when I hear a theist tell me they KNOW god exists. I am alarmed when I hear an atheist say they know god doesnt exist. None of us know, but what you believe relies on faith, you are asking people to believe in something untestable, unseeable, untouchable. Why is the onus suddenly on me?

    So still, the onus relies on the person making the untestable claim. For me to say I dont believe in god because there is a lack of evidence, means it is up to the person trying to convince me otherwise to provide such evidence. By claiming atheists are responsible to disprove your unprovable claim is just an illogical way of trying to justify your belief and get away with not providing proof.

    • Richard

      Hello Dan Arel,

      Thanks for reading. I think that you are misrepresenting my position and have not understood what I am saying.

      1. I never said that atheism implies saying ‘I know God does not exist’. Indeed when I explore ‘agnostic atheism’ I discuss how most atheists do not claim to know with complete certainty whether God exist. I explained how people rarely fit neatly into categories and so we must all be clear about what we believe before we begin a discussion.

      2. When you say, “For me to say I dont believe in god because there is a lack of evidence” you are suggesting that you have a lack of belief in God. I explained why this definition is incomplete, because it does not explain whether you believe that God does not exist (in his non-existence). I gave you a definition of atheism and agnostic from the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy and your account of atheism (or agnosticism) does not match the ones that they give. This is because it is an incomplete definition.

      3. I did also say that the burden of proof varies depending upon the certainty with which you make your claim: “people who label themselves like this tend to believe that … his existence is unlikely. As a result, they must justify the claim that God probably does not exist with a reasonable inductive argument.” And of course, people who claim to know something with certainty must provide a deductive argument or proof.

      4. I specifically said at the beginning that everybody who makes a claim about the world MUST provide justification for their claim: “When someone makes a claim about the world, if they want to convince others, they are required to provide justification for that claim”. I later say that BOTH theists and atheists must provide justification for their beliefs: “both the theist and the atheist have a burden of proof.” Theists must provide justification for their beliefs, on that we are agreed! :-)

      To conclude, I still do not know what you are claiming about the world. Are you saying that God does not exist? In which case, according to the definition I gave, you are an atheist (what label you give yourself is your concern). And because you are making a claim about the world (that God does not exist) you are required to justify that claim. Or do you lack belief in God and lack belief in his non-existence? In which case you are an agnostic, but then you cannot claim that God does not exist.
      Thanks again for reading and I hope that this clarifies things.

      • Guest

        Sorry, in your comment you did actually say “I don’t think god exists”. So I do know what you are claiming. According to the definitions I gave you are an atheist. But you are making a claim about the world (you are saying that God does not exist) and thus are required to put forward some form of inductive or deductive argument (if you want to convince others).
        Best wishes,
        Richard.

        • An Onymous

          “I don’t think god exists.” That is hardly a claim about the world and it is certainly not the same as saying that God does not exist. In any case, the strongest argument for an atheist’s non-belief is the lack of evidence.

          • Richard

            Hi An Onymous,
            Thanks for reading. I am not sure I agree with you, but I can see where you are coming from (I guess the person to ask is him!). However, if he is not saying that God does not exist, and he is simply professing ‘a lack of belief in God’, then I have already shown twice why that is an incomplete an inadequate definition. Once in the article, and once in my earlier comment. However, this again shows that we must be clear about what we believe before we engage in conversation so we can avoid confusion like this.
            I agree with you that a lack of evidence in the case of God can be constructed into an argument against his existence. It is called ‘the argument from hiddeness’ and there are responses. However, it is an argument against God existence so it does not detract from the point I was making about the burden of proof.
            Thanks again for reading and for commenting.
            Best Wishes,
            Richard.

            • An Onymous

              “I agree with you that a lack of evidence in the case of God can be constructed into an argument against his existence.”

              You have misconstrued what I wrote into something that you agree with.

              • Richard

                Then what are you saying?

                • An Onymous

                  I can’t see the ambiguity of my comments. Cognitive bias? Maybe you are unable to understand “I don’t believe in God.” as having a different meaning from “I believe that God does not exist.” In my reply; the argument for not believing in God (or anything else) can be expressed with: “I have not (yet) encountered any evidence that God exists.”

                  • Richard

                    I see what you are saying now! (And there is no need to accuse me of cognitive bias, I was genuinely trying to understand you).

                    I agree that if there is no evidence for a position then you should not believe in it.
                    But that does not mean you should believe its antithesis.
                    Thus, an absence of evidence for God would qualify agnosticism, but not full blown atheism (which is the antithesis of theism). This is what I was trying to say in the article.

                    I hope that this clarifies things.

                    • An Onymous

                      I have not accused you of anything. Nor have I questioned your sincerity. Where does that come from? I was unable to see any ambiguity in my original comment and wanting to know the reason for your misinterpretation. Can you offer an explanation? It is noted that you have now introduced “should” in the discussion and attributed it to me. I believe that your rigidity with the terminology also contributes to the communication challenges. I don’t have any statistics, but most atheists I have known would be what you call agnostics. So, when you speak of “atheists,” you have a small subcategory in mind; thus (mis)representing the bulk of self-proclaimed atheists and confusing any reader who doesn’t already share your bias.

                      “…that does not mean you should believe its antithesis.”

                      Sure. Every child learns that.

                    • Richard

                      The reason I was confused is that you said “In any case, the strongest argument for an atheist’s non-belief is the lack of evidence.” I was taking the definition of atheist that I described above, whereas I suspect that you meant it in the more general sense, what I would call agnostics. (And that is why I thought you were turning the lack of evidence into an argument in order to justify his non-existence). So I suspect it was a definition issue. So it sounds like we weren’t actually disagreeing that much at all! :-)
                      I guess the lesson is to make sure that we both understand what the other means by ‘atheist’!
                      Thanks again for commenting!

                    • An Onymous

                      Wouldn’t you say that someone who believes in God(s) is a theist even if they will not make the claim that God(s) exist?You seem to agree that lack of evidence is a valid argument for “non-belief”.

                    • Richard

                      I think that people who believe that God exists are theists. When a theist claims that God exists they are expressing this fact. And in a debate or discussion I think that theists they should express what they believe and defend it.

                      Similarly, people who believe that God does not exist are atheists (according to definition that I gave) and in a debate or discussion they should express fully what they believe and defend it.

                      “You seem to agree that lack of evidence is a valid argument for “non-belief”.” I think that this is a bad way of phrasing it. I think it is reasonable to not believe something if there is no evidence. Which would be agnosticism. Alternatively an atheists (again the definition I gave in the article) can turn a lack of evidence it into the argument from hiddeness.

                      Anyway, I hope this clarifies things.

                    • An Onymous

                      My question challenges your position and your definitions but your reply is only a reassertion, leaving my question unanswered. I understand that you want to devote your attention to other issues now, but you wrote that my phrasing is bad and I think I’m entitled to an explanation and also why you think your phrasing is better.

  • tildeb

    If somebody wants to say that something does not exist then they must provide a justification for that.

    And the justification is that there is no empirical evidence independent of an axiomatic belief in its support. That is a sufficient reason to reject the claim.

    You jump across the great divide between axiomatic proofs and empiricism with abandon, failing to appreciate that there is a crucial distinction between them.

    Proofs exist only within an axiomatic framework. Two plus two equals four, for example, only when we agree what informs the ‘two’; shift into chemical quantities in units of moles – a shift of what the unit ‘two’ means – and we find two moles plus two moles can quite correctly equal all kinds of other quantities than four. Math and logic depend entirely on the axioms that inform them.

    Reality is not an axiomatic framework subject to our belief agreements. We don’t alter the rate of descent of a falling object due to gravity, for example, by believing in different unit values for the formula. Reality is empirical, and it operates independent of our beliefs about it. To think otherwise is the very definition of the medical condition known as delusional (which is very much a clear and present danger ignored by those assuming metaphysical assumptions are sufficient to describe an empirical reality). That’s why empiricism – and not an axiomatic framework – is required to understand how cause and effect in reality is linked, how it functions for everyone everywhere all the time.

    You cannot make a causal claim about reality and then ignore the empirical requirements to justify it by insisting an axiomatic framework is magically sufficient. It’s not. It’s a guaranteed way to fool yourself. That is why you have no burden of proof to defend a position of non belief in an empirical claim (garden pixies prompted by the malevolent spirit of Napoleon have stolen my cell phone, I insist!) for which there is no compelling empirical evidence to support it.

    The same is true for claims about god (god is an active, loving, interventionist causal agent in the world, I insist!); without compelling empirical evidence, there is no reason, and no accompanying burden of proof, to accept it as true.

    Pluto, in stark contrast, was hypothesized to exist not because it was a requirement of some axiomatic belief system (thetans require a staging ground for the assault on Earth, I insist!) but because of empirical evidence of orbital effect in an empirical solar system. Because of this empirical effect, we could adduce an empirical cause. Lo and behold! The twin bodies that make up what was once called ‘Pluto’ was ‘discovered’ where we calculated it had to be… of a size and orbit necessary for its empirical affect.

    To be consistent, hypothesizing a belief in god to be a causal agent should be equivalent in methodology to hypothesizing the existence of Pluto to be a causal agent; allowing empirical effects found in reality to arbitrate the proclaimed connection to this empirical cause… as well an explanation of the means by which the two are connected, an operational mechanism independent of our beliefs.

    But empirical evidence for this connection we do not find in god-soaked claims fo agency and effect. No mechanism is forthcoming… other than hand-waving to anti-empirical ‘miracles’. Empirical claims made by believers are thus shown not just to be empty of empirical value but standing contrary to strong empirical evidence against the claims (such as genetic evidence that separates our oldest female ancestor from our oldest male ancestor by some 70,000 years, rendering the Adam and Eve story – a single human couple as progenitors of us all – undeniably false). That’s why claims of causal efficacy in reality require empirical evidence from reality to be substantiated. Without this substantiation, a belief remains simply that: a belief untethered to the reality it purports to describe.

    The burden of proof for causal claims about reality rests solely with those who insist they are true. The twin supports against the god hypothesis is not just the absence of compelling empirical evidence in its favour but empirical evidence contrary to its casual efficacy are is sufficient to fully justify non belief.

    • Richard

      I will try one more time to explain why you are wrong. THe burden of proof is on anybody who makes a claim about the world. Theism is the claim that there is a God.
      I have said twice, once in the article and once in the comments that theists are required to provide evidence and argument. I will state it a third time “theists are required to provide evidence and argument for their position.”
      BUT the same goes for Atheists. Atheism is the claim that God does not exist. It is the claim that there is no God. As such it is a claim about the world and it requires justification. If not we should just adopt honest agnosticism. Thus, atheists are required to provide justification for their beliefs. (I have already explained why atheism cannot be defined as ‘a lack of belief in God’ this is because it is an inadequate and incomplete definition.)
      This is not a contentious idea, I do not have any evidence that you have a pet dog. None whatsoever. But I could not conclude that you therefore have no dog. Instead, I would withhold belief and judgement until I had some evidence, such as you telling me that you did or did not have a dog. In the same way even if none of the arguments for the existence of God work we could only adopt agnosticism and not atheism.

      I hope that I have made things clearer. If you are still confused, there are other articles on here exploring this topic.

      • Richard

        Here is another article exploring this idea.

        http://www.reasonablefaith.org/definition-of-atheism

      • tildeb

        BUT the same goes for Atheists. Atheism is the claim that God does not exist. It is the claim that there is no God.

        Rather than go into an argument (again) why non belief is not a statement or claim about the world but a simple default position of reasonable skepticism, let’s turn this around and put your argument against you to see what you think of it!

        Although you capitalize the word ‘God’ as if it were a proper noun with a specific representation in the world, this is not the case, is it? People use the word to describe not just different notions of a divine being but all kinds of incompatible beliefs in spirits. So this raises the specter of your own non belief in almost all of them. Do you bear the same burden of proof you want to saddle on atheists (people of non belief just like yourself) towards your non belief in all of these ‘claims’? Or do you mean to suggest that you honestly take the agnostic position that we together suspend all non belief in supernatural and spiritual claims for which you (like I) have no compelling reasons to think may be true? Do you honestly give an intellectual shrug about the existence as a causal agent in the world about Muk Muk of the Volcano, Wotan, Tezcatipoca, Isis, Brahman, and so on?

        ?

        Be aware; there are untold thousands upon thousands of such wee beasties empowered only by belief in them, so what you are suggesting is that I must bear the burden of proof to excuse not just my non belief in the single exception you allow but we together must bear the burden of proof for our shared non belief in each and every one of these.

        I don’t for a moment think this is what you really mean. What you really mean is that you want me as an atheist to grant agnosticism for the single exemption you allow for your own belief or have to face the impossible task of proving non existence of all beliefs in the supernatural. Well, if this the case, then you must bear the same impossible burden and reduce the certainty of your own beliefs to that of agnosticism. And I don’t believe for a moment this is what you really advocate.

        • Richard

          Yes, that is exactly what I mean and advocate.

          I do not think that those other gods exist and I have arguments to support that. The main one is that I believe that the Christian God exists, and if he exists then those other gods do not exist. This is because the Christian God makes claims to exclusivity. I believe that I have philosophical, scientific and theological arguments to support these beliefs. Again, I am not going to go into them here because it would be getting off the topic of the original article

          As such, I am trying to saddle the burden of proof when it comes to my belief that those gods do not exist. Whether or not I am successful is another matter! (As a side note, you and I are using atheist in a different sense, I explore this in the article).

          Anyway, thanks for an interesting comment. I am not going to respond to anymore questions on this page because there have been a lot and I want to get started on my next article.

          It has been an interesting conversation and thanks again for your comments! :-)

          Best Wishes,

          Richard.

          • tildeb

            Thanks for your responses, Richard.

            You write As a side note, you and I are using atheist in a different sense, I explore this in the article.

            The point to my response was to show why the sense in which you are using the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ must pertain as much to you as me in all your non belief, too. You sweep all of these aside by proclaiming that your ‘exception to the rule’ of all the divine notions you don’t believe with the one you do (for reasons that you find compelling) adequately removes the burden of proof to dismiss these others from your consideration altogether. This is cheating: a positive belief no more mitigates a negative in any meaningful way, so it doesn’t address the call for the burden of proof for non belief. To use an analogy, the belief of, let’s say, extraterrestrials is not mitigated by belief in subterrestrials. The burden of proof still rests squarely with the positive claim of the existence of extraterrestrials regardless of any other beliefs. This burden does not shift to those who remain skeptical of the positive claim because you have accepted a belief in some other kind of terrestrial.

            In addition, belief in other notions of different gods you have never studied make the same argument against your beliefs. According to you, this belief held by others is sufficient to burden you with the negation of the claims you don’t believe in… including those you;ve never even heard of! But is it really sufficient for you to then admit you know nothing about them and so you must remain agnostic? Of course not.

            So my point remains: your sense of the terms atheist and atheism remains identical to mine: non belief until compelling evidence arbitrated by reality is made on behalf of the positive claim and makes this belief justified.

      • tildeb

        If you are presenting me with an argument against the existence of God
        then you have shouldered your share of the burden of proof. And it
        remains for me to show why your argument is wrong.

        There is a long and rich history over the past four hundred years of taking specific claims about your god’s causal agency and showing them to be factually wrong. In other words, if the claims were accurate, then we should find evidence in the world for it. For example, if a global flood occurred, there should be evidence. This evidence is absent where it should be present. Prayer should be efficacious but it’s not. Probably the single most compelling evidence against the christian god held by believers to be not just benevolent but omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, is the existence of suffering. The existence of suffering is fatal to this belief.

        None of this disproves the existence of your god, but it offers compelling reasons that scriptural claims made about it as a causal agent in the world cannot be trusted to be accurate.

        • Richard

          If your arguments are successful then I agree that they would give us good reason to doubt that Christianity is true.

          I am just not convinced that they are successful, but I am not going to go into that here because we would be getting off the topic of the original article.

          But, I agree that if your arguments are successful then they would give us reason to think that Christianity is false.

  • Paul Rezkalla

    Fantastic article, Richard! Hits the nail on the head!

  • Justin

    OK then, I claim that monkeys occasionally fly out of my butt. However these are immaterial monkeys that cannot be measured in any way. Prove me wrong.

    • MGaerlan

      Justin, you were warned on another thread. Please keep your comments civil and mature. One more more (which would be strike three) will get you a 5-day ban.

      • Justin

        Please pay attention to the timestamps. Both comments were written at the same time smart guy. Please excuse me for not possessing psychic insights into your concerns.

        • MGaerlan

          Strike three. Banned.