Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist
My primary reason for remaining an atheist is that theists have failed—to date—to meet the burden of proof (BOP) for their assertion that a God exists. Let’s use Carl Sagan’s dragon in a garage—no doubt, inspired by Bertrand Russell’s teapot in an orbit—and adapt the story to explore philosophic BOP and how it pertains to my atheism.
Three Women and a Dragon
“There’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage,” Malala informs Heina, her neighbour.
“I doubt that,” Ayaan, another neighbour, replies.
“It’s true! Heina, you must believe me.”
“Then show us,” Ayaan demands. “Can we peek through the window to see it?”
“Well, the dragon is invisible.”
A silly scenario, I grant you, but not an altogether bad analogy.
I don’t want to discuss legal BOP, which is a related but much broader topic than philosophic BOP, but thinking about our dragon in the context of a legal court case is actually a useful thought experiment.
Step into the courtroom where our garage dragon stands accused of existing—a terrible crime, I know.
Dragons are considered innocent until proven guilty, don’t you know, so let’s look at what such a trial might look like.
The prosecution (Malala) has to prove that the dragon is guilty of existing, and the jury (Heina) has to deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Now, if the prosecution fails to prove guilt, the jury ought to deliver a verdict of not guilty, which in context, means that Heina ought to reject the claim that the dragon exists. That is not to say that the dragon is necessarily innocent, of course; it simply means that guilt could not be proven, and that we should proceed as if the dragon is innocent—i.e. does not exist.
Note that I’ve failed to introduce the defense (Ayaan)—an advantage for the prosecution, eh? I did this to emphasise that guilt does not have to be disproved. That would certainly be a bonus, if it’s possible, but the defense is not obliged to prove innocence. Their only obligation is to show that the prosecution did not prove guilt by pointing out inconsistencies, contradictions, fallacies, more plausible theories, etc.
Why, you may ask, did I accuse the dragon of existing? Why not accuse it of not existing?
Well, Malala made the claim that the dragon exists, intent on convincing Heina. At no point did Ayaan make the opposite claim; and she is not required to. But if Ayaan goes on to claim that the dragon does not exist in order to convince Heina, there would be a second, separate trial, where Ayaan would play the prosecutor. Regardless, Malala is not let off the hook; she still has to prove guilt in her case.
You may also wonder why the jury votes guilty or not guilty, instead of innocent or not innocent.
In a real legal trial, only guilt is assessed, and for good reasons. We value the principal of treating people as if they’re innocent until they’re proven guilty. The alternative will result in an unfortunate situation where a whole lot more people would be going to jail—many of them surely innocent, in truth. It’s important to understand that not all claims are on equal footing. To say that a person is guilty of a federal crime is unusual, while saying that a person is innocent is not. That’s because we know that few people, given the overall population, commit federal crimes; it’s an evident truth—thank goodness. Not so with our dragon. We don’t know of any dragons, let alone, invisible ones. For it to be guilty of existing is not just unusual, but extraordinary, and that is why we evaluate its guilt instead of innocence.
That said, let’s see what a trial might look like if the dragon is considered guilty of existing, as claimed by Malala, until proven innocent.
The defense (Ayaan) has to prove that the dragon is innocent of existing, and the jury (Heina) has to deliver a verdict of innocent or not innocent. Now, if the defense fails to prove innocence, the jury ought to deliver a verdict of not innocent, which in context, means that Heina ought to reject the claim that the dragon does not exist. Do you see the absurdity…?
Imagine a world where a person can make a claim that is not evidently true, without having to provide supporting evidence, and proceed as if the claim is true, which other people are required to accept, unless they can disprove the claim. Consider the practical implication of having to accept numerous such claims that are in direct conflict with each other… Chaos.
Burden of proof, then, can be described as your obligation to provide evidence in support of assertions that you make—especially if said assertions are extraordinary and you want it to be taken seriously—while accepting that others are not obliged to disprove your assertions in order to reject it.
Two Claims and a God
It’s time to abandon dragons and to take up God. I’ll start with believers.
Do theists make belief claims about God’s existence? Yes, by definition, theists assert that a God exists, and therefore they have a BOP.
Do theists want others to accept their claim—or something that follows from the claim?
If they do not, the BOP applies only to the individuals themselves, and if they do, they are also obliged to demonstrate to others that the BOP has been met.
Consider Christians and Muslims, who together make up nearly 55% of the world’s population. They generally venerate their religious scripture as a direct consequence of their theistic belief—going so far as to call it holy—and between the Bible and the Qur’an believers are mandated to evangelise, proselytise, and fight, convert, or subjugate unbelievers. It follows, then, that many theists influence public sentiment, policy, and law, either directly or by proxy—using arguments that are deeply rooted in their belief in God—which affect not only people who share their belief, but also those who do not. Their interest extends, unsurprisingly, to all areas of life, including education, family planning, medical and other scientific research, journalism, foreign policy, the environment, and human rights—particularly those of women and LGBTQIA people. It’s evident, in my view, that theists usually act to promote their particular God claim, even if they’re not aware of it. These believers are obliged to prove their God claim if they want to justify their actions to themselves and to others.
What about atheists? Do they make an assertion about God’s non-existence? No, negative position atheists reject theistic claims, but they do not assert that Gods do not exist, and therefore, BOP does not apply. And yes, positive position atheists assert that there are no Gods, so they do have a BOP.
Do positive position atheists want others to accept their claim—or something that follows from the claim?
Like theists, if they do not, the BOP applies only to the individuals themselves, and if they do, they are also obliged to demonstrate to others that the BOP has been met.
I suspect, however, that atheists who promote the explicit belief that Gods do not exist, as something to be believed by others, are the exception rather than the rule. I base my suspicion on experience and the thought that atheist arguments are primarily challenges to theistic claims, meaning that the effort of convincing other people to accept that gods do not exist—which requires the demonstration of proof—is unnecessary labour, twice over…
The facts of reality, as we discover them, is all we have—and need—to fuel debate on how we ought to live as individuals, families, groups, communities, cultures, nations, and human beings. And as far as I can tell, there are no worthwhile arguments to be made that hinge on the truth of the claim that Gods do not exist. Ask yourself, is there an argument of significance, where it is said, “Because God does not exist,” that is not a direct challenge to a theistic claim? And if, instead, it is said, “Because I reject the claim that Yahweh exists, or Allah, etc,” is the challenge any less potent? I say no, and no, again. To make the former claim is simply to complicate the matter unnecessarily while tempting interlocutors to switch the BOP, which given an opportunity, is known to happen. For these reasons, positive position atheists generally avoid promoting their belief, and they typically argue from a minimum requirement position.
This is true for me. I’m rationally convinced, and therefore believe, that Gods do not exist. I became convinced as I evaluated the evidence in support of God’s non-existence—I’ll discuss proof for “negative claims” in another article—and I’m personally satisfied that the BOP has been met to justify my belief. But, for me, there is nothing that depends on the truth of what I believe about God; I do not ever think or say, “This is so, or this ought to be so, because God does not exist.” I have no reason, then, other than vanity, to convince others that my personal belief is true. And so, I’m not in the business of promoting this belief. I do, however, want to challenge theists about their beliefs which affect my life and others’.
To recapitulate, when it comes to assertions about God, theists have a BOP—if only for themselves, but generally for others too—and atheists usually do not have a BOP, and even when they do, it’s generally a burden that was taken on unnecessarily. You may distil that to: theists make the claim, they have to provide the proof, and atheists do not. But that is too broad a stroke for me; I think the nuance is important to understand and recognise.
The Weight of Rejection
We’ve looked at claims about God’s existence and non-existence specifically, but we ought to review rejection claims too. When a God claim—any claim for that matter—is made, for which the BOP has not been met, the claim may be rejected. That is true. But to say, “The BOP has not been met, and therefore, I reject the claim,” is in itself a claim that carries a BOP. If you reject a claim, you should be able to back it up. And if you want others to take it seriously, you are obliged to provide evidence. Unless, you’re rejecting a claim for which no evidence was provided, in which case the claim may be dismissed without evidence also.
There is a temptation for us atheists to say that theists have not provided any evidence, but that’s disingenuous. It’s not that they offer no evidence—theists can and do give the evidence that they find compelling—it’s that the evidence is bad and shouldn’t be considered compelling. If we want theists to accept our rejection claims, and I think we should want this, we are obliged to provide evidence that demonstrates why their given evidence is not convincing and why it should be discounted. We are the defense, after all, pointing out that the prosecution has not proved guilt. Maybe a jury member will see reason.
Thoughts for Closing
I remain an atheist because theists have not met their burden of proof. Their evidence is not convincing, and that is what the rest of the articles in this series are primarily about. It’s a demonstration of evidence to prove that my rejection of theistic claims is justified. It’s mostly for myself, to consolidate and explore my thoughts—because I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible—but I share it with you, as food for thought, and so that it may be refuted or refined.
I have two final comments regarding BOP.
The first is that the question of God is undoubtedly an important one, and for this reason, I must encourage everyone—theists included—to proactively look for and evaluate the evidence in support of, at least, the “major” Gods that have survived history, even though no-one is obligated to do so.
The second is a response to theists who insist that God’s existence is the default position. Given the unblemished track record of discovering natural explanations for phenomenon that were once blamed on deities, one cannot honestly argue that God is evidently true. Add to that the common plea to resort to faith, and the game really is up. It is an untenable position. To say that God exists is an extraordinary claim, which, to quote Christopher Hitchens, requires extraordinary evidence.
References and Notes
- ^ “The Dragon in My Garage” article from RationalWiki. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “Russell’s Teapot” article from RationalWiki. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “Guilt, Gumballs and a clarification” video by Matt Dillahunty (Apr 2013), starting at 2m21s. Note: I borrow the courtroom analogy from Matt Dillahunty; my views on burden of proof are significantly influenced by him.
- ^ “The Global Religious Landscape” demographic study by Pew Research Center (Dec 2012).
- ^ “Mark 16:15” “Matthew 28:18-20” “Qur’an 8:39” “Qur’an 9:11” “Qur’an 9:29”
- ^ LGBTQIA: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and asexual
- ^ I mean intervening Gods, specifically. That is, supernatural entities that interact with the natural world in some way. Of pure supernatural beings, or simply the supernatural, I have no belief.
- ^ “Signature Series: TV Show Host, Debater – Matt Dillahunty” video interview with Matt Dillahunty for Compass 120 Apparel (Apr 2014), starting at 2m32s.