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.
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