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.