Burden Of Proof: How To Avoid The Unpleasant Task Of Presenting Evidence For “Atheism” — Should We Re-define It?

INTRODUCTION

How would you feel if five minutes before you stood up to debate an opponent they leaned over, whispered in your ear, and said the following?
“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t present any evidence for my view in this debate and instead just keep shouting that ‘you have no evidence’ over and over. Please don’t take it personally, but I need to push the burden of proof onto you and get it off of me. I’m sure you’ll be a good sport about it and let this suffice as my argument. Thanks for your understanding on this matter.”

When we listen to debates on the internet, this is exactly what many of them are like. Sometimes the excuse is “You can’t prove a negative.” Sometimes they claim that “Since we don’t want to present any evidence for atheism, let’s just make atheism the default assumption.” Well, that would certainly be convenient for atheists. How about the recent attempt to “redefine atheism”?

What do these approaches have in common? They all relieve atheists of the burden of having to provide evidence for their view, each one is logically flawed, and they each are commonly used, even by world-renowned atheists. For those reasons, we placed this blog under the “Things That Don’t Make Sense” category of our outline.

FIVE REASONS TO BELIEVE IN GOD

In a previous blog, we said that using natural theology’s five arguments for the existence of God we could provide five excellent reasons to believe in God:
1. God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties in the world.
2. God is the best explanation for the beginning of the universe.
3. God is the best explanation for why the universe is so finely-tuned to sustain life.
4. God is the best explanation why anything at all exists rather than nothing.
5. The very possibility that God exists indicates to us that he actually does exist.

In presenting these arguments, Christians bore the burden of proof or evidence.

FIVE OBJECTIONS ANSWERED

We’ve also responded to some of atheism’s primary objections:
1. Suffering: If a loving and powerful God exists, why is there suffering?
2. Origin: Is the question of God’s origin an effective argument against his existence?
3. Hiddenness: If God exists, why doesn’t he make it more obvious and end unbelief in the world?
4. Exclusivity: How can you legitimately claim that Jesus is the only way to God?
5. Miracles: Are miracles impossible, and should the Bible be “demythologized”?

CERTAINTY vs. PROBABILITY

Many atheists insist that Christians must provide “100% certainty,” a standard that no Christian or atheist could meet when we are talking about God’s existence.

In public debates, some pundits will play games with this idea and hold themselves to a standard of only providing a probability, while holding their opponents to a higher standard of “certainty.”

In the blog “What Constitutes A Sound Argument?” we made it very clear that, in any discussion of God’s existence, a very “sound argument” can be made without having to provide certainty. Probability is sufficient.

A reasonable approach should be to ask: “Of the existing theories on offer, which one seems more probable than the others? Which is the most plausible explanation?”

In this discussion, the objective for both atheists and Christians should be to:
• present premises that are: “more probable than their negation” or “more probable than an alternative explanation,”
• conclusions that logically follow from the premises.

When we are talking about God’s existence, it’s absurd to think that “certainty” is the standard that either atheists or Christians should be held to. Even most philosophers and theologians do not have that stringent a requirement for evidence.

It’s entirely possible to provide a compelling case based on inductive reasoning and probabilities alone.

“NO ONE CAN PROVE A UNIVERSAL NEGATIVE”

There are atheists who excuse themselves from having to explain their view by using another well-known technique. Atheists will often say:
“I simply believe that there is no God. It’s impossible to prove a universal negative, and I have no obligation to support my position because it can’t be done. So let’s talk about what evidence you have because I can’t present any.”

First, it’s a falsehood to say that you cannot prove a universal negative. In an earlier blog, we made a statement that “there are no married bachelors” because the phrase is self-contradictory on its face. So this example indicates that you actually can prove a universal negative!

Second, using “can’t prove a negative” as an excuse to avoid facts and evidence distils the atheist’s view down to merely “blind faith” and a clear admission that their position can’t be supported by the facts. However, the euphemistic expression “you can’t prove a negative” sounds so much better than simply admitting “I have no evidence, and I can’t provide a logical justification for my atheism.”

THE PRESUMPTION THAT ATHEISM IS A “DEFAULT POSITION”

Is anyone logically obligated to accept atheism as the default position that we should all adopt unless proven otherwise? A few atheists think so. They say, “Since there is no evidence, we should just assume that God does not exist until we see evidence to the contrary.” In effect, what this does is place the entire burden of proof on the Christian and take that burden off of the atheist’s shoulders.

The idea that there is “no evidence” is simply not true, but for the sake of argument we will pretend that there is none and see what we should do in such a situation.

Using an analogy, let’s say that you want to put all of your investment money in the stock market. As your financial advisor, I predict that the market’s going to go up on Monday morning. You disagree and say it will go down. Until there is some evidence to support either of our opinions, what should be the default position? That’s right, agnosticism, a neutral position. You would not make a move with your money until you saw some facts or evidence.

As your financial advisor, what if I insisted that the idea “the market is going to go up” should be the default position and you should invest your money on that basis until we see evidence to the contrary?

In the absence of evidence, it defies logic to say that “we should just assume that one side is correct and the other is wrong.” This would apply to any discussion of God’s existence as well.

Regarding this idea that “due to a lack of evidence we should just accept atheism as our default position,” philosopher Michael Scriven says that it is NOT logically justifiable to claim that something does not exist unless there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea of its existence. Scriven says that, in cases where there is no evidence for either side, we really ought to be, at most, agnostic.

Keep in mind that, for the sake of argument, we have allowed this discussion to be predicated on the false notion that there is “no evidence” for God.

ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE DOES NOT EQUAL EVIDENCE OF ABSENCE

Regarding this idea that atheism should be a default position, there is a saying among police detectives that, “Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.” In applying this idea to God, a lack of evidence for his existence does not automatically validate atheism or make atheism a default position.

If I say that I have a unicorn in my garage, you could figure that out with a short glance at my garage and there would be no “absence of evidence.” It would be very clear.

However, if I claim that there is a flea in my garage, how could we determine if that was true? It would be much more difficult, and there might be an “absence of evidence.” We might have to remain neutral as to whether the flea is there until evidence arose. We certainly couldn’t draw a conclusion that this was “evidence of the flea’s absence.”

A lack of evidence doesn’t logically lead to a firm conclusion that there is no flea in my garage. He might be there, and he might not. In that case, an agnostic view should be the default position.

If there were no evidence for God’s existence, we would also remain neutral until evidence is presented. Atheism wouldn’t be a default view.

So the principle we started with was “Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.” It seems to be correct. An “absence of evidence” doesn’t always lead to the conclusion that the thing we’re looking for is not there. This is true of God as well.

Regarding the subject of God’s existence, there is no need to designate a “default position” because we don’t live in a world where there is an “absence of evidence.” There is significant evidence for God.

TWO OBLIGATIONS BEFORE ONE CAN CONCLUDE THAT “GOD DOESN’T EXIST”

In investigating a truth claim like the existence of God, logic mandates that we have two obligations before we can draw a conclusion that there is “evidence of absence” (i.e., God’s inexistence in this case):
1. We are required to “fully canvas” the area where the evidence should be found.
2. Second, to establish “evidence of absence” we would also be obligated to honestly answer this question: “Is this a case in which we should reasonably expect to have more evidence than we actually do have?”

For example, if I make a statement that there are no meteors between Venus and Mars, how could we find out if that is true? We could fly a spaceship to that area and fully inspect every part of it to see if there are meteors (i.e., canvas the area where the evidence should be found). We would then need to ask, “Should we reasonably expect to have more evidence than this?”

Now apply these two requirements to the specific subject of “God’s existence” and ask yourself these two questions:
1. Have I conducted a thorough investigation of the arguments for God’s existence (the area where we might reasonably expect to find evidence)?
2. After examining all of the arguments, is this a case where a reasonable person should legitimately expect to find more evidence than:
o the existence of a realm of objective moral values and duties?
o a beginning of the universe?
o the exquisite fine-tuning of the universe with incomprehensible precision to sustain life?
o the evidence that presently exists for a contingent universe?
o the fact that it’s possible, and therefore probable, that God exists?
o the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead?

So there would be no logical justification for concluding that “God does not exist” unless:
1. We had thoroughly investigated the arguments for his existence.
2. We had honestly addressed the question, “Is this a case where a reasonable person should legitimately expect to find more evidence than the moral argument, the kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the contingency argument, the ontological argument and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

After doing this, philosopher Michael Scriven tells us that we would have to honestly conclude that none of the arguments had merit and there was zero evidence for the existence of God before we could draw a logical conclusion that “God does not exist.” But if there is no evidence for either side, agnosticism should be the default position.

ATTEMPTS TO RE-DEFINE “ATHEISM”

As we said, “atheism” is the view that “there is no God.” However, there is a contemporary effort by some atheists to re-define “atheism” as just “the absence of belief in God.” This is certainly not the traditional meaning of the word.

There are atheists today, like philosopher Peter Boghossian, who attempt to re-define the term “atheist” in order to absolve themselves of any responsibility to prove God’s inexistence. In doing this, Boghossian tells us that atheists are:
• “making no assertion,” and
• “have nothing to prove.”

So by this new definition, “the absence of belief in God,” atheism is neither true nor false. Boghossian maintains that “atheism” as he re-defines it, “is not a philosophical view,” making it more like a psychological state.

This idea of trying to re-define the term is very popular on some college campuses, but it’s weak at best.

Even many atheist philosophers think this is crazy. They say that if atheism is now simply “a lack of belief in God,” then even babies are atheists! A door could be an atheist! Flowers, dolphins, stars and a building would all be atheists!

So trying to re-define “atheism” is logically unsound. It is a flawed attempt to avoid the unpleasant task of having to defend atheism. It doesn’t make sense. Babies and doors are not atheists!

VERIFICATIONISM: MUST I SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT?

There is one more way that atheists avoid having to present evidence. It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally an atheist will say, “Nothing is meaningful or real, God for instance, unless it can be empirically verified.”

Verificationists would say: “Any statements about God make no factual claim and are therefore neither true nor false.”

Verificationism is a test of meaning, not of truth, so this is not a claim that there is inadequate evidence.

In the 1960s, the philosophy of verificationism collapsed under its own weight because the “verification principle” was found to be self-refuting. It was too restrictive to be plausible. Verificationism was abandoned. Please read the last blog on “God’s hiddenness” to understand how this happened.

In the last blog, we talked about atomic particles called “neutrinos” that no one has ever seen. Scientists have simply theorized that they must be there. This is an example of something we believe in because of a series of scientific inferences, but it has never been empirically verified. Yet we do believe in neutrinos.

Very simply, you should never allow anyone to discredit ideas like God’s existence or atomic particles using only the “verification principle” as a basis. It was discredited a long time ago.

DEMANDING A MAJOR SPECTACLE

Many skeptics demand that God give them the evidence that THEY want to see like “a dramatic manifestation of his greatness.” You may have heard atheists in debates demanding such dramatic evidence.

“Why doesn’t God appear as a 300-foot Jesus? Why doesn’t he write ‘Made by God’ in permanent letters in the sky? Why doesn’t he speak with a booming voice to the entire world?”

We responded to this technique in the last blog on “God’s hiddenness.” So read that blog for our perspective on this subject.

In this blog, let’s just say that making such dramatic demands of God in this manner should never relieve atheist pundits of the responsibility to show us evidence for their view!

CONCLUSION

So these are some of the more common ways that some atheists use to avoid the unpleasant task of having to present evidence for their perspective.

It would be a good thing to be aware of these techniques as you listen to arguments for and against the existence of God.

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