The burden is heavy, but it is not mine to bear. So says the atheist, and indeed, so says the theist. The argument of who needs to provide the proof—to warrant belief in God’s existence or non-existence—often ends with both parties feeling like they had presented a superior case, and seldom ends with any party changing their position. This happens frequently in religious debates, which almost renders the pursuit pointless, were it not for the audience. People change their minds. Not often, but every so often, people abandon their presumption of being correct—and/or their fear of being in error—and evaluate an argument on its merits.
I will endeavour to unravel the subtleties of the Burden of Proof argument from my point of view as a disbeliever, with the hope that someone in the audience learns something. I’ll even explain atheists’ obsession with the fantastical; from ceramics in space, to colourful and unseeable horned horses, to carbohydrated terrors of the sky. I’ll curb my desire to wittily describe leprechauns and fairies, lest I lose you to sub-par humour.
Let me forge ahead and make it difficult for myself by admitting that an atheist who believes that God does not exist carries a burden of proof. Any belief requires justification; that is to say, if the belief-holder cares about believing things that are likely to be true, or wants to convince anyone else that the belief is warranted. One of the “tricks” that atheists perform is to argue that we, in fact, do not make a positive assertion of belief. Atheism is, by definition, the disbelief—the lack of belief—in God. The theist makes the claim; they should provide the proof. This is a perfectly valid argument—as I will demonstrate—but atheism rejects all claims of God. Does this not mean that an atheist must, therefore, make the belief claim that God does not exist?
No. There is a noteworthy difference between rejecting all claims of God, and making the claim that there is no God. I didn’t recognise this fact for a long time, thinking it a philosophical difference of little consequence, but then I came upon a gumball machine. I’m standing in front it, with a friend. There must be hundreds of gumballs. My friend takes a sip of his coke and says, “did you know, there are an odd number of gumballs in there.” I ask how he knows this, but he does not say. Drinking my own coke, I think to myself, I don’t believe him. He might be right, he might be wrong, but he has not demonstrated how he knows that his claim is true. The point of the analogy is this: my rejection of his claim does not mean that I make the opposite claim: that the numbers of gumballs are even. Indeed, in this scenario that would be preposterous. The correct starting point is to remain neutral—the default position. The point is: disbelieve both claims, until it is demonstrated that one is likely to be true; or only believe something when you have good reason to.
Like the gumball analogy, God is a binary proposition. There are two claims that one can make regarding the existence of God: God exists, and God does not exist. For each claim, there are two positions that can be taken: acceptance (belief), and rejection (disbelief). For the claim, “God exists”, theists take the position of belief, and atheists take the position of disbelief. For the claim, “God does not exist”, theists take the position of disbelief, and atheists can take either position. An atheist who accepts the claim—strong atheism—carries a burden of proof. An atheist who rejects the claim—weak atheism—does not carry a burden of proof, and it is the default position.
Personally, I believe an intervening God does not exist, and I am of the opinion that my belief is warranted. I justify my position in my post, On Why I Remain An Atheist. Here, I will list two reasons as justification: the first is the conspicuous lack of evidence for God—for an intervening God is a supernatural entity with natural consequences that science can observe—and the second is the growing amount of evidence that contradict the claims made of God in “holy” books and show that God is not only unlikely, but unnecessary too. The scientific understanding of our origins, both cosmological and anthropological, is by no means complete, but the fact that we do not yet know exactly how the cosmos or life started, does not mean that we do not know a great deal already, and it certainly does not mean that God is the likely answer. “Explaining” a mystery using a bigger mystery is a slippery slope of Arguments from Ignorance.
Of course, the reasons I offered as justification for my belief rely on science, which means that I must trust the scientific method, by which we try to understand everything, and—perhaps more importantly—I must trust the scientific community, who describe our reality using science that is often beyond the comprehension of my layman understanding.
It is reasonable—even effortless—to trust the scientific method because it has endured an extended baptism of fire, and the method itself is reviewed and improved to avoid mistakes and remain unbiased; it remains our most reliable way to determine what is likely to be true or false. Consider for a moment what a gargantuan—if not futile—task it will be to justify not trusting the scientific method. Likewise, one does not lose any sleep over investing trust in the scientific community because scientists are by nature fiercely competitive, and submit to brutal peer-review. People are fallible on occasion, but the method is designed to detect, reduce, and fix errors and biases. The exception proves the rule comes to mind. Science is the brutally honest endeavour to understand our reality as best as we possibly can, without making any presuppositions, and I don’t “get” people who do not trust and celebrate it.
A fallacy commonly committed is to draw a parallel—generously phrased—between an atheist’s trust in science—not that all atheists trust in science—and a theist’s faith in God. It takes more faith to be an atheist is an oft-used phrasing. My trust in science is an earned trust, and I trust it for good reasons. I accept as confirmation the fact that the most brilliant minds of our time, and of our history, embrace the wonders of science. An appeal to faith, on the other hand, is to immediately admit that there are no good reasons to invest trust, otherwise the appeal would not have been necessary in the first place. In the words of Matt Dillahunty, “faith is the excuse people give when they do not have good reasons to justify their belief.” Let us not pretend that trust in science and faith in God are on equal footing.
There is hardly a more studied and debated mystery than how we came to be. Science offers an open invitation to God, but he has failed to show-face. Why God would choose to excel at Hide and Seek, I do not know; either he’s a bit of a bastard, or there is only one player in the game. What I do know is that the gaps are closing, and God is becoming less relevant and necessary, and more difficult to take seriously.
Yet theists persist with the common defence that atheists cannot disprove God. No, we can’t. Do we need to? No. Atheists are only required to justify their belief—if indeed they even make said belief claim—and in my view, the burden of proof has already been satisfied such that the belief that no God exists is warranted. Do we claim to know that this belief is true? Almost never; I don’t. Absolute truth must be discarded as useless in the world we live in, lest we start babbling that nothing can truly be known.
Unlike the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, a great many theists do not recognise the absurdity of their claim. The irony is that they have no trouble calling out rival faiths on their absurdities. Nonetheless, it is difficult to get this point across, and that is why atheists resort to the fantastical. It is not to belittle, to offend or to annoy the theist—okay, sometimes to annoy—but rather to make them question what they might take for granted. It is extraordinary to claim that there is a personal God, but the theist goes even beyond this, and fearlessly steps over the line. They continue to insist that they hold the default position and that it must—not only—be respected, but adopted by other people. They believe this to the point that acts of prejudice and cruelty are often justified, if not celebrated. It is this arrogance that motivates atheists to speak out.
Given the knowledge we have gained, the modern theist’s God is no different from ancient Thor, no more compelling than Bigfoot and no more believable than a teacup orbiting the sun. The atheist’s argument—that theists need to provide good reasons and evidence to support their claims—is perhaps best communicated through the silly discourse between my imaginary friends, Christopher and Richard:
“There’s a unicorn in this box,” says Richard. “It has changed my life.”
“Really!?” says Christopher, looking around for hidden cameras. “Show me.”
“You can’t see it, it’s invisible.”
“Oh. How do you know it’s there?” Christopher asks tentatively.
“It talks to me.”
“Okay…” Christopher, now a little scared, can’t resist asking, “I can’t hear it, what does it say?”
“That it is pink, and that it loves me, and that I must worship it, and so must you” Richard says with a straight face.
“Err. How do you know this? It seems, well, a bit improbable, a bit crazy,” Christopher says stupefied. “You must be under a misapprehension. Perhaps you’ve been in the sun for too long?”
“You don’t believe it!?”
“Why should I!? I can’t see it. I can’t hear it. I can’t feel it. Your claim is in conflict with our understanding of reality, and you’ve given me no good reasons why you believe it, or why I should believe it. All I have is your testimony, and that is, quite frankly, questionable.”
“Well, you can’t disprove it,” Richard says dismissively.
Let me regurgitate in the hope that all nutrients are digested. I hope it goes down better the second time around, if only because it’s shorter. “Weak” atheists do not have a burden of proof. “Strong” atheists have a burden of proof, but it has already been met—although I can be proved wrong on that. This has nothing to do with theists’ responsibility to justify their beliefs that are contradictory to reality, and frequently cause harm. *Gulp* Yum.
I’ll conclude with this thought: The theist’s most compelling evidence is the subjective experience of peace and happiness—hardly exclusive to any one faith. I am relieved that I do not have to carry that heavy a burden.