Atheist vs. Theist – Who Has the Burden of Proof?

Sometimes in a debate you might hear an atheist say that the burden of proof is on the theist since it is the theist who is making a positive claim. Richard Dawkins, for example, says that if someone says there really is an Easter Bunny or a Tooth Fairy or a Flying Spaghetti Monster it is the person who is asserting the reality of these characters who bears the burden of proof. The person denying it has no burden of proof to disprove these fantasies. Likewise because a theist is asserting something they have to show it is true. The atheist does not have to prove he doesn’t exist. I’ve been reading a remarkably good book by Paul Chamberlain called Why People Don’t Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to Christian Faith and I think Chamberlain gives one of the simplest and best answers to this challenge. Chamberlain first observes that “every truth claim, whether positive or negative, has a burden of proof.” (82) He continues:

“Consider what happens to Dawkins’ contention when we simply substitute other illustrations in place of his fictional characters. What if a friend tells you that he or she did not believe in pineapples or rhinoceroses exist or that George Washington, Winston Churchill, or Nero had never lived as real, historical figures? Suppose a friend goes further and insists that the World Trade Centers were not attacked on 9/11 and that even the Holocaust never occurred? He or she has heard of all these, of course, but refuses to believe in any of them. Suddenly things seem different. Notice, these are all negative truth claims about some state of affairs in the world. They tell us something is not the case and, in this sense, resemble the atheist’s truth claim that there is no God. Does their negativity alone free your friend from having to give a reason for thinking they are not true? Hardly.”

Here’s where it really gets good.

“These examples show that the burden of proof does not hinge merely on whether an assertion is positive or negative, as Dawkins seems to assume. But why then does it seem to do just that in Dawkin’s illustrations above concerning the Tooth Fairy and Mother Goose? The reason is because he has restricted his illustrations to trivial characters that were intended to be fictional in the first place and are recognized as such by anyone talking about them. He has strategically used fictional characters because his argument only works with fictional characters such as these. No one is asking for evidence that the Tooth Fairy does not exist because no adult ever thought it did. It is not the negativity of the claims that releases them from needing any proof but their triviality. When we substitute normal, serious characters such as Plato, Nero, Winston Churchill, or George Washington in place of these fictional characters, it becomes clear that anyone denying the existence of these figures has a burden of proof equal to, and in some cases greater than, the person claiming they do exist.” (82-83) Emphasis mine.

This is a fantastic book which is well worth reading. There have been a lot of books published responding to the New Atheists but I would have to say I would put Chamberlain’s as one of my top picks.

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19 thoughts on “Atheist vs. Theist – Who Has the Burden of Proof?

  1. Yes that is a good point he makes. I remember reading The God Delusion and I was continually frustrated by his juvenile arguments and uninformed philosophy.

  2. To be honest, since the book makes the false claim that atheist say there is no god, the book isn’t worth reading. An atheist says they see no evidence for a god, that is not even close to saying there is no god. Now some atheists will say there is no god of the bible and then I agree that it is their BOP but that is a far cry from saying there is no god. In the most basic sense all an atheist is is someone that lacks theism, that is in no sense a claim that requires a BOP. Christians are unable to prove their god exists so they attempt to shift the BOP on atheists by making ludicrous claims about atheist’s beliefs.

    • You are working from the new “we atheists realize we have an indefensible position, so lets redefine our position in a way we don’t have to defend anything” definition of atheism.. It is intellectually dishonest.

      The bop is on whomever makes the claim. Atheists do more than assert there is insufficient evidence, that is agnosticism (not enough to know), atheism asserts God(s) do not exist, which is a claim, and requires evidence. Unless you are willing to hold a position which has no evidence.

      Of course, you may not have enough evidence, but thats probably because you ban dissenters from your blog.

      • @John – No, I ban people that make accusations of what I say and then when asked to back it up avoid answering. You did that not once but twice. Now as to the rest of your post, I described atheism but you can call it whatever you want. Doesn’t change the fact that the BOP rests squarely on the theist that makes a positive claim. Claiming the holocaust and 9/11 didn’t happen is making a positive claim as is claiming the god of the bible doesn’t exist. If you think agnosticism is a third alternative to theism you are just plain stupid.

        • @noreligion, your blog post was a criticism of the Christian story of Jesus as a rehashing of previous seemingly similar stories of other alleged gods. If your criticism is true, then the resurrection was not a fact of history. Therefore Christianity is false. I was certainly addressing this point, then I was banned because you likely don’t understand the implications of your argument.

          @Joey, that is exactly the point. Atheists seem to be under the impression that only the theist has a case to make for their view. Unfortunately the belief God does not exist requires a defense. The reason the majority of professional philosophers who are atheists do not make this claim because it is virtually impossible to defend. Thus the “lack of belief” redefinition was birthed in an effort to avoid having to defend their claim.

      • @John – You were banned because you made an accusation and refused to back it up. If that was what you got from what I wrote, it was a good decision to ban you and I would also wonder how you remember to breath. I simply showed similarities between the resurrection stories and mythemes in ancient Greek literature. If you feel that falsifies Christianity (as if it is a scientific theory) , that is your problem. ow can you stop being a real moron and polluting this blog with your hangups? BTW, this is my last reply to you wherever you might try to respond to me.

  3. Excellent points. Ultimately any claim about the nature of reality requires there to be explanation for that claim. Either reality is explained with gods (theism) or without gods (atheism.) Both sides make a positive claim that reality exists, and it is up to each side to explain why their explanation of it is better than the other.

  4. Actually, the burden of proof is still on the theists.

    It’s just that the theists don’t have good enough evidence to support their claims, unlike 9/11, the Holocaust, Nero and George Washington.

    • I don’t think that the point is that theist do not have a burden of proof. It’s just that they are not the only ones who have to defend their position. Taking the Nero example, most people will simply assume he was a real historical figure based on only few lines they read in a book and because it is universally accepted that he was real. Of course that’s not air-tight reasoning, but would you not agree that it’s sufficent reason to assume it to be true? Given that it is a reasonable assumption, despite having a pretty flimsy evidential foundation, the onus would still fall upon the one denying Nero’s existence to show that the assumption was incorrect or unreasonable.

  5. Great quotes! Solid reasoning. Sounds like an excellent book, Louis. Thanks! :)

  6. “When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim”
    From Wikipedia.
    So weather a theists or an anti-theists, if either are making a claim they have to burden of proof.

  7. Pingback: Who Has The Burden of Proof? « challenge2

  8. This is a false characterization of atheism. No atheist states that ‘X does NOT exist.’ It’s impossible to prove a negative. Atheists, like another commenter pointed out, simply lack the belief. They see no reason to adopt it. Thus, the burden rests on those making the positive claim.

    • I actually think that is still a false characterization of atheism. I agree that atheism is not making a positive claim that God does not exist. But that does not mean it makes no positive claim. The idea that atheism is defined by a “lack” of belief is incoherent. By definition, atheism acknowledges the concept of a god(s) and even implies a concession that many people have a belief that such being(s) actually exist. Now if someone says to an atheist that they ‘should’ also believe in God, then I agree, the burden of proof is squarely on that person. The atheist has no burden in that case. The line between burden and non burden gets crossed when an atheist claims that the belief in God itself is unjustified. That is a positive claim. It’s the difference between saying, “I’m not convinced” and saying “You don’t have enough proof to make the claim.”

  9. Interesting point, but please understand that most atheists are not claiming with certainty that there is no God, as such a thing is impossible, but claim that there is insufficient evidence to support the notion of a God. It could be argued that this claim needs evidence too, which atheists readily provide by pointing out the flaws in all of the provided ‘proof’ for God.

    • I think most theist get that. And the problem form both sides is that the axioms involved in the question, “Does God exist?” cannot be transversed objectively using arguments for the affirmative or objections for the negative. This creates an extra burden on both sides to explain why the axiom exists given their worldview is correct.

  10. OK, so the author dismisses Richard Dawkins’ arguments as trivial, but replaces them with something just as trivial to make his point. Nice flip of the coin. If not one needs proof that a tooth fairy exists, the same can be said about George Washington’s existence. If one argument is dishonest, what does that say about the other one?

  11. This post is old, but wrong. If I make a testable statement in science, and others think I am wrong, they will then test my statement and report the results to the community. If I make an untestable statement, then the burden is on me to provide proof, because I have provided no means to prove the statement.

    I have a tiny man in my pocket who is magical. You can not test that in any way. I am here, you are there. Is the burden on you to prove I don’t have a magic man in my pocket if you don’t believe me, or is it on my to provide the proof? Let’s go a step further, I say he is invisible, and only I can see and hear him and that I am his prophet and I raise a religion around him. He whispers to me that he is the true God, the one in the Bible is fake. Who has the burden of proof now, me or you?

    Don’t do logic gymnastics to try to shake off the burden of proving what you can’t. That is the ultimate in cognitive dissonance. You aren’t answering the question, you are finding every way possible not to even acknowledge the question.

    It does not matter who makes an assertion, what matters is if there is a testable claim. Somebody did give me that test. They said to me if I pray on it with honesty I will be answered. There were no voices in my head, no signs around me, and so, I must concluded there is no God.

    On the other hand, science has been able to test claims in the bible regarding the: origin of humans, the effectiveness of prayer, whether the tower of babel existed, whether there is evidence of all languages having spread to where they are from a central location… it goes on, at the end of the day, the testable things in the bible just don’t show up. Even much of the history is demonstrably wrong.

    Isn’t it interesting the a God that doesn’t want to provide evidence of his/her existence sure was active according to the bible for a long period of time, and then a little over 2000 years ago, vanish. Unless you are a Catholic I suppose; where Mother Teresa who delighted in being in the presence of misery and suffering of the poor because it brought her closer to God. So if you find God in suffering, well, there you go I guess.

  12. Uhm No….See …The Examples Dawkins Made Was Good Ones… Like…. In The Case Of God ….Firstly no One Can See Nor Ever Saw God …As Apposed To Winston Churchill ….I Say The Burden Of Proof Is ALWAYS with The Person Making The Claims For The Existence Of Something …Imagine Talking To Your Friend And You Claim Angelina Jollie cted In Tomb Raider …And Let’s Say He Says She Doesn’t …You Wouldn’t Say Ask Your Friend To Prove She Doesn’t …You’d Have To Prove She Does ….The Only Difference Is… And Because The Claim You Made Was Fact…The Burden Of Proof Is Not Heavy… As Apposed To Making A Supernatural Claim Without Any Evidence …In That Same Sense You’d Have To Prove Winston Churchill Did Exist… But Because its A Fact That He Did …It’ll Be Easy To Prove (Like In A Court Case ..The One making The Accusation Of Something Has To Prove It)

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