Atheism and the Burden of Proof
Must the theist back his belief in God with irrefutable evidence?
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 — that is, one who disbelieves or rejects belief in God. Rather, they are more like “agnostics” — unbelievers. What they mean by “there is no God” is more like “I lack belief in God.”
In April 2001, I was speaking at an open forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. A student told me during the Q&A, “The reason I am an atheist is because the arguments for God’s existence do not work.”
I replied, “Then you should be an agnostic, not an atheist. It is logically possible that God could exist even if the available arguments for God do not work. So, you should be an agnostic, in that case. You have to do more than say the arguments for God do not work to be an atheist. You have to show why God cannot exist. You see, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The person who claims to be an atheist but simply lacks belief in God is blurring the historic distinction between agnostic and atheist.5 We should gently press him on this question: “What makes your position different from an agnostic’s?”
Fourth, distinguish between the two types of agnostics — ordinary and ornery. You have seen the bumper sticker: “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you can’t know either.” Notice what this agnostic’s position is. He is not simply confessing, “I just don’t know if God exists” (and perhaps he would like to know). This is the ordinary agnostic position. No, he is taking the ornery agnostic position. He is confidently claiming to know something after all — thatno one can know if God exists.
I was at a local philosophical discussion recently (I am organizer and moderator of a Socrates Café),6 and one participant exclaimed, “You can’t know that God exists.”
I gently replied, “But how do you know that you can’t know?” I then pressed him: “I can understand that you obviously speak for yourself about not knowing if God exists. But how can you say that no one else can truly know that God exists? That just sounds presumptuous to me.” The militant agnostic speaks for all people, claiming to know that no one can know God exists. But how can he support the claim to know this? Like that atheist, the militant agnostic must justify his claim as well.
Fifth, distinguish between “proof” and “good reasons.” In the past, Christian philosophers and theologians have talked about “proofs” for God’s existence. To many, however, this suggests 100 percent, absolute, mathematical certainty — with absolutely no wiggle room for other explanations or alternatives. I have met plenty of people who claim that, even if an alternative to a “God-answer” is logically possible, then they do not have to take God seriously. “It is logically possible that the amazing finely tuned, life-permitting, life-producing, and life-sustaining universe came about by nonconscious, material, unguided processes.” Do we make important decisions or judgments in any other area of life on the basis of the slimmest of possibilities? Just because something is possible does not mean it is even remotely plausible. I have talked to skeptics, agnostics, and atheists who seem willing to risk everything based on the remotest logical possibilities — a very thin thread to hang everything on. It is logically possible that the universe is just an illusion too, but so utterly counterintuitive and implausible. Clearly, plenty of alternative possibilities need not detain us from taking seriously more substantive explanations.
Here is the point: We do not need 100 percent certainty to truly know. After all, we cannot show with 100 percent certainty that our knowledge must have 100 percent certainty. We believe lots of things with confidence even though we do not have absolute certainty. In fact, if most people followed the “100 percent rule” for knowledge, we would know precious little. But no one really believes that.
Now, if our only options were either 100 percent certainty or skepticism, then we would not be able to differentiate between views that are highly plausible, on the one hand, and completely ridiculous, on the other. They would both fall short of the 100 percent certainty standard and so both should be readily dismissed. But that is clearly silly. We know the difference. And what about those who seem to know with 100 percent certainty that we cannot know with 100 percent certainty. Interestingly, skeptics about knowledge typically seem quite convinced — absolutely convinced — that we cannot know.
Also, we know some things even without evidence — say, that the earth is older than 15 minutes and that other minds exist. These beliefs are, as some philosophers say, “properly basic.” They simply arise from our experience, and we have no reason to doubt them. We cannot show that the earth is older than 15 minutes or that other minds exist. Now it is logically possible we could be wrong, but we can know these things quite confidently, even if we do not have absolute certainty.
Sixth, we have good reasons for belief in the biblical God, but not in mythical beings like mermaids, elves, unicorns, the tooth fairy, or flying spaghetti monsters. When people say that belief in God is like belief in the tooth fairy or Easter bunny, this is a philosophical blunder, a misguided comparison. These cases are quite different. We have good reasons for thinking tooth fairies or Santa Claus do not exist. For example, we know that parents typically replace their child’s extracted tooth under the pillow with some surprise; we know where Christmas presents under the tree come from — and it’s not the North Pole. By contrast, belief in God is far different, and today we live in an age in which arguments for God’s existence are being taken seriously and are ably defended. (View the many debates of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig at www.reasonablefaith.org/media).
While the evidence for God’s existence may appear to be lacking for some, that is different from saying we have evidence He does not exist (which we do for the tooth fairy and Santa). Having reasons for rejecting the existence of something is different from not having evidence for something. Outright denial of God’s existence is what happens when we do not distinguish between (a) not believing in the existence of something (as in the case of God) and (b) believing that it does not exist (as in the case of unicorns).7
What about Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that maybe a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” is responsible for the universe? (i) Physical objects like flying spaghetti monsters would be part of the physical universe. The one true God transcends the empirical world; spaghetti monsters do not but are embedded within it.8 (ii) This “objection” proves nothing. It only reminds us that philosophical arguments about the nature of the Creator cannot get as specific as those from special revelation. However, the universe came into existence a finite time ago apart from previously existing matter, energy, space, and time; so we can still legitimately conclude that what brought the universe into being must be personal, powerful, immaterial — unlike a spaghetti monster. (iii) This objection does nothing to undermine the very legitimate conclusion that the finely tuned universe was designed by a remarkably intelligent being. (iv)There is no reason to think that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a necessary being — one that necessarily exists in all possible worlds. Either something is necessary (it exists by its very nature without relying on something outside of it), or it is contingent (it depends on something else for its existence and does not exist by its very nature). Does the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s nature require that it necessarily exist? We have no reason to think so. (v) Why suggest a Flying Spaghetti Monster at all? Where does this idea come from, and why should it be taken seriously? How are the phenomena of the universe and human experience specifically connected to this entity? How does it do a better job of explaining these features of reality?
For those who want to read about some of the evidences for God’s existence, I mention some of these in an earlier Enrichment essay, “Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?”9 (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_108_Naturalism.cfm) Indeed, there is much to be said in support of God’s existence.10
Seventh, we should distinguish between two types of ignorance — innocence and culpable — and the agnostic would be quite culpable of refusing to seek.When a Western tourist travels to Cambodia, she might not be aware that exposing the sole of her foot or bottom of her shoe is insulting and offensive. The tourist may offend someone out of ignorance of this cultural taboo. But this ignorance is innocent.
There’s another kind of ignorance. What if you are driving down a highway and not paying attention to speed limit signs? An officer may stop you and ask why you were speeding. You cannot rightly say, “I didn’t know what the speed limit was — or even how fast I was going. So you shouldn’t give me a ticket.” Obviously, if you are driving, you are responsible for paying attention. Ignorance is no excuse. It is blameworthy rather than innocent.
Likewise, to say “I do not know if God exists” may reveal a failure in my responsibility to seek God (“I do not want to know”). In this case, I would be at fault. The Christian Geneticist Francis Collins of Human Genome Project fame said he was an agnostic in college. Yet he confesses that his “I don’t know” was more an “I don’t want to know” attitude — a “willful blindness.”11 This agnosticism eventually gave way to outright atheism — although Collins would later come to faith in Christ. He began reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and Collins realized his own antireligious constructs were “those of a schoolboy.”12
Because the existence of God is a massively important topic, we cannot afford not to pay attention — especially in an age of so many diversions. Philosopher Tom Morris points out that sports, TV, restaurants, concerts, cars, billiards, and a thousand other activities can divert us from the ultimate issues of life. As a result, we don’t “tune into” God. And when a crisis hits (death, hospitalization, natural disaster), we are not really in the best condition to process and make accurate judgments about those deep questions.13 The person who says, “I do not know if God exists,” may have chosen to live by diversions and distractions and thus to ignore God. This is not an innocent ignorance; this ignorance is the result of our neglecting our duty.
So the theist, atheist, and militant (ornery) agnostic all bear a burden of proof; the theist does not have a heavier burden since all claim to know something. Furthermore, even the alleged ordinary agnostic still is not off the hook. For one thing, one cannot remain neutral all his life; he will make commitments or hold beliefs all along the way that reflect either an atheistic or theistic worldview. He is either going to be a practical atheist or practical theist (or a mixture of the two) in some fashion throughout his life. But he can’t straddle the fence for long. Also, the ordinary agnostic may say, “I do not know,” but this often means “I do not care” — the view of an “apatheist.” Refusing to seek out whether God exists or not; refusing to humble oneself to seek whatever light about God is available; living a life of distractions rather than thoughtfully reflecting about one’s meaning, purpose, or destiny leaves one culpable in his ignorance, not innocent.
1. Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 102.
2. Paul Edwards, ed., “Atheism,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 1:175.
3. Antony Flew, Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 28.
4. Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 3.
5. See also J.P. Moreland, Does God Exist? (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1993), where Moreland rightly states that “the usual understanding of atheism" is “the positive assertion that God does not exist” (223).
7. Scott Shalkowski, “Atheological Apologetics,” American Philosophical Quarterly 26 (Jan. 1989): 9.
8. Eric Reitan, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 83,4.
9. Paul Copan, “Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism?” in Enrichment 17, no. 1 (2012): 108–11. Found at http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_108_Naturalism.cfm. Accessed October 9, 2012.
10. I lay out some of these reasons in a number of my books. A good place to start is Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007); there are other popular-level books, scholarly books, and articles on this topic (see www.paulcopan.com). One large-scale defense of God’s existence is found in William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009).
11. Frances S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 16.
12. Ibid., 21.
13. Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 34.