Why should atheists have any burden of proof?

I recently received an insightful question about atheism and the burden of proof.  He was in a dialogue with an atheist friend who argued that the theist has the burden of proof, and not the atheist.

The atheist argued that unless atheism is the default position then we will have to admit all sorts of crazy beliefs, such as beliefs in ghosts or in the teapot orbiting earth that Bertrand Russell invented.

What seemed to be the central contention of the atheist was that we should reject anything that goes beyond our senses without evidence for them.

My response is below:

What a great question!  There is a very thorough treatment of this on the Reasonable Faith website at question #115 and I would recommend it to you.

First, we should not understand the burden of proof like a ball that is passed between parties.  Anyone making a claim has a burden of proof if we are to take their claim seriously.  So the burden of proof that the theist has does nothing to lessen the burden of proof that the atheist has.

It may be worthwhile to consider what ground the atheist is conceding here.  If they deny that they have any burden of proof, a great follow up would be to ask them to clarify.  Are they saying that although there are no good arguments for atheism, they do not need them?  In that case they have dismissed any arguments against God’s existence from consideration.  If they do not find them persuasive, then why should we consider them?

You gave a great explanation of the atheistic position that atheism should be the default position!  You said, “…the fault in this argument is that it assumes we have ‘a priori’ better or more reasons to think God does not exist than to think God does exist.”  This is spot on!  Although we may not always explore them, I suspect most people can give some reason that they disbelieve in ghosts and orbiting teapots.  We may take note, for example, that space flight is an expensive endeavor and surmise that no such expense would be undertaken to put a teapot into orbit.  The teapot example isn’t ridiculous in its own right, but due to the background information that we have about the nature of space missions.  What background understanding are we meant to have in opposition to God’s existence?

You say your friend goes on to suggest that we should reject anything that goes beyond our senses.  Why is that the case?  With which of the five senses did she determine that we should reject anything beyond the senses?  There are also other claims that we should obviously accept that are beyond our senses.  Consider the existence of black holes.  It is the nature of the case that we cannot see black holes since light cannot escape them but rather we infer their existence from what light we receive around them.  If we take your friend’s assertion to its logical conclusion then we can never move from, “Light bends in such and such a way in an area of space,” to the conclusion, “There is a black hole in this space.”  We are inferring from those things of which we can have a direct awareness to something beyond the reach of our senses.  This same sort of reasoning goes on in the arguments for God’s existence.  In those arguments we infer a conclusion from premises that are closer to our direct awareness or understanding.


Matt Bilyeu

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9 thoughts on “Why should atheists have any burden of proof?

  1. Hi Mr. Bilyeu. Thanks for topic.

    As an atheist myself I’m going to have to disagree with pretty much everything in your post. But instead of picking on every single point, let me zoom in on this one thing you wrote:

    “Anyone making a claim has a burden of proof if we are to take their claim seriously.”

    It’s pretty easy to see that this can’t be correct. For instance, let’s say that you and I are in line to get coffee at Starbucks, your phone is dead but you want to know what time it is, and so you turn around and ask me “excuse me sir, do you have the time?” whereupon I check my own phone and tell you it’s 10:33am. Now, I just made a claim about the time, but clearly I don’t have any obligation to *prove* that it is 10:33am in order for you to take my claim seriously.

    Indeed, I have found in my experience that the very phrase “burden of proof” is just an obfuscation in most contexts. It refers to a kind of obligation, but obligation is a subjective thing that depends on widely varying assumptions, conventions, etc. Far better, in my opinion, to simply avoid talk of burdens or obligations, and instead just be clear about what has been proved and what has been taken for granted. If the parties involved are satisfied, that’s the most important thing (IMO).

    To be fair, this is something internet atheists are notoriously bad at handling. A lot of them will parrot the talking point that atheism is “the default position,” whatever that means. When pressed, they will either deny that they are taking any position at all (atheism as a “lack of belief”) or, less commonly but still pretty common, pretend that they have good reasons for atheism when they really don’t.

    No doubt this can be frustrating for Christians who want to engage them on the existence of God. But I think it might help to remember that we can still discuss whether or not there is evidence for and/or against the existence of God without getting sucked into a debate about who is claiming what.

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    1. I think you may be mistaking situations in which the burden of proof has already been met for a situation in which no burden of proof is necessary. We already have the general cultural understanding that phones are accurate in telling the time. So if I see you look at your phone and tell me the time, then the burden of proof for your claim has already been met. Imagine, however, that you ran into some sort of aborigine who had no concept whatever of technology. If he saw you look at a rock in your hand and then give a precise time, he may be dubious about your claim without some background (some satisfaction of the burden of proof).

      You are quite right in saying that the burden of proof amounts to a subjective obligation. In order for me as a subject who is evaluating your claim (the object) to consider it seriously I will want you to meet a burden of proof. I am not saying your claim (the object) is false, but rather I am saying that I as a subject haven’t been given any reason to take your claim seriously if you haven’t given me any such reason.


  2. Thanks for the response.

    Looking at my phone and telling you the time is not a proof of what time it is, at least as I use the word “proof.” Maybe you use the word differently, but then that’s yet another reason to avoid it, since it only serves to obfuscate.


    1. It isn’t a proof, but almost nothing meets the rigorous standard of a mathematical proof. Rather, your looking at the phone coupled with my background information about the nature of phones gives good reason to believe you.

      I can see how the phrase, “burden of PROOF” would imply that only an actual proof would satisfy it. The phrase is just a colloquial way of referring to one’s obligation to substantiate the claims they make.


  3. I guess what I’m trying to say with the Starbucks example is that we don’t need to substantiate a claim if it’s already obvious to the other person that it’s true. I’m sure you would agree with this.

    In the context of a conversation about whether God exists, the claims themselves aren’t so important to me as the reasoning and evidence being produced. In my case at least, I’m not aiming to immediately convince the theist that God doesn’t exist. Instead, I want to convince him that he doesn’t have any good reason to believe. Whether he responds with atheism, agnosticism, or even just a persistent but epistemically humble faith, is pretty much all the same to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do agree that if we agree on a position, we probably won’t ask for reasons and evidence from each other.

      Regarding your other comments, I would just encourage you to ask yourself the same questions. The world views under consideration are atheism and theism. Do you have good reasons to hold out for atheism, comparable with the reasons to believe that God exists? You may not owe me any burden of proof if you are not making claims you want me to consider, but surely you are considering those claims yourself. Should you satisfy some sort of burden of proof for yourself in order to have the peace of mind in knowing your position is rationally held?


  4. Thanks for the reply.

    I actually spent many years trying to figure out some way to justify my atheism, either by empirical evidence, philosophical argument, or some other means. And while I’ve found some potentially-promising leads, nothing has really struck me as definitive or satisfying.

    It turns out, though, that it really doesn’t bother me that I can’t justify my atheism. I’m quite happy to go on believing that God does not exist even though I’m unable make a good case for my disbelief.

    In fact, there are lots of things I believe despite not being able to make cases for them. For example, I disbelieve in fairies even though I don’t have convincing evidence or argument against them. Rather, it just seems to me that fairies don’t exist. And this impression is so strong and secure that my belief rises to the level of absolute certainty. Two more examples: I have no arguments against the matrix or brain-in-a-vat hypotheses, but I don’t seriously countenance either one.

    I suspect that a lot of my fellow atheists get caught in the trap of mistakenly thinking a person should give up any belief he tries and fails to justify to himself or others. It causes them (so I suspect) to parrot bad arguments, because after all, you have to have *some* sort of argument, right? But no. As long as there is no good evidence or argument *against* atheism, it’s perfectly fine to go ahead and be an atheist.

    A Christian is welcome to do the same, as far as I’m concerned. If he wants to believe in God, Jesus, the Bible, and/or whatever else, that’s perfectly fine with me as long as he doesn’t pretend he has any good reasons for his religious beliefs. Plantinga comes pretty close to doing that, although he seems to think that certain arguments in support of Christianity do have some limited force. But when it comes right down to it, that’s not why he believes. Rather, it just seems right to him that the Christian God exists.


    1. If you are interested, I’d love to discuss the standard arguments for God’s existence with you. The comments section may be a tough place to do it, especially since the platform limits the number of replies (to 10 I think). If you’re interested, use the Question and Contact form below and we’ll move to e-mail.


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