Atheism and the Burden of Proof
By Paul Copan
In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?”
Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.”1 Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?
First, define your terms — especially atheism. Understand the terms you are using. You can clear up a lot of confusion here and keep the conversation with a professing atheist on track. Ask your friend, “How do you define atheism?” According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the historic definition of “atheist” is one who “maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence God exists expresses a false proposition.”2
The late atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew, defined atheism as“rejection of belief in God” — not merely the absence of belief in God.3 Likewise, Julian Baggini, in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, asserts that atheism is “extremely simple to define.” It is “the belief that there is no God or gods.”4 By contrast, central to theism is that an infinitely good, wise, self-existent, and powerful personal Creator brought into being a creation separate from himself, though He sustains all things in being. This creation is comprised of things visible and invisible. And God uniquely made human beings with distinctive moral, spiritual, intellectual, and relational capacities.
Second, the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.” Keep in mind: The atheist is actually making a claim to knowledge just as the theist is. So rather than shrugging off any burden of proof, the atheist should understand that both claims needs justification, not just the theist’s. If you make a claim to know something, you should be able to justify that claim when challenged. The atheist — if he or she is a true atheist — says that God does not exist. But we can ask, “Why think this? What positive arguments are there for this claim?” To date, there just has not been any argument coming close to showing how this is so. Some might say, “Arguments for God’s existence do not work.” But that is not enough. You need to show why God does not exist (more on this below). In my experience, the “atheist” more often than not turns out to be an agnostic.
Third, look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief. True agnostics affirm they do not know whether God exists or not. By contrast, atheism is a strong claim and is actually a fairly difficult position to defend. As noted, many professing atheists are not true atheists…