How Theists and Atheists Share the “Burden of Support”

by Mike Keas

In his insightful article Who has the Burden of Proof? Atheism vs. Theism, Austin Cline, who appears to be an atheist (he writes extensively for atheism.about.com) notes concerning “burden of proof”:

A more accurate label would be a “burden of support” — the key is that a person must support what they are saying. This can involve empirical evidence, logical arguments, and even positive proof.

I make this point in my Reasoning (logic and critical thinking) course each fall at The College at Southwestern. It looks like a high-volume Internet atheist agrees with me. In very few academic subjects beyond mathematics is “proof” possible for either side of most specific disputes. Arguments might be very strong, but proof is rare. Cline agrees. Mr. Cline and I also share the following understanding of the theism-atheism dialogue in regard to burden of proof (burden of support). The quotations below are from Cline’s same essay quoted above.

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  1. “If a person claims something, they are obligated to support it and no one is obligated to prove them wrong.”
  2. Anyone “making a claim which they consider rational and which they expect others to accept must provide some support.”
  3. Who has the “burden of support” is itself a debatable at many points in the theism-atheism debate.
  4. Burden of support “is not something static which one party must always carry; rather, it is something which legitimately shifts during the course of a debate as arguments and counter-arguments are made.”

Let’s see how this works in practice. Suppose a theist invites an atheist to consider the evidence for the existence of God. Initially, the theist bears the burden of support in that segment of the conversation. But if the atheist finds the evidence for God unconvincing, he or she may claim that the our universe, precisely fine-tuned for life as it is, could still be explained by naturalistic causes. Suppose the atheist invokes the multiverse (infinite or nearly infinite number of bubble universes, one of which is ours) to help get that argument going. Fine, but in this part of the conversation, the atheist bears the burden of support…

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