The Burden of Proof

The Burden of Proof Fallacy and God-Belief

I want to use today to introduce an idea that I have for a series of posts.  As my regular readers will know, I have been on a “what is/isn’t atheism” theme.  The more time I spend on Twitter and the more I blog, the more I come into contact with people new to atheism.  I also come into greater contact with theists of all stripes who want to refute atheism.  None of that should be surprising to anyone, as I am sure it happens too many of you as well.  I want to write a series of posts that addresses some of the main arguments I see between theists and atheists.  I have noticed that many people who are new to atheism are unfamiliar with these arguments, as I once was.  I also notice that the majority of people who contact me to say something positive often express thankfulness for things of this nature.

While I realize that for many of you battle seasoned atheists, what I write in these posts will be “old news”, I ask that you still read them.  Your job, if I may assign you one, is to critique them and/or add to them in the comments section.  The more information we get onto these posts the more helpful they will be to others.  I have created a separate page above: Atheism 101 where I will feature these posts.  I will not be writing these posts back to back, but will sprinkle them in over the next stretch (at least that is the plan).  Let’s have some fun with this.


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Perhaps the most common error that I see in atheist vs. theists debates surrounds the “burden of proof”.  Before moving on, we must define what this term means: (from Wikipedia)

Burden of Proof: The philosophical burden of proof or onus (probandi) is the obligation on a party in an epistemic dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.  When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim. If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of “appealing to ignorance” (more on that later) is committed.

This notion is quite common in our daily lives. When someone makes a claim, it is incumbent upon them to provide evidence to support their claim.  This is a skill we learn at a young age in school, when we are assigned our first “paper”.  It is a tool that we employ daily—whether we are arguing for something at work, selling something, buying something, or arguing with a friend over who is better Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.  We expect people to be able to back up what they believe.  We expect it from politicians.  We expect if from doctors.  We expect it from the person working at Best Buy when he answers our questions about which of two televisions that appear similar is the “better buy”.

The notion is really quite simple: The person who is making a positive claim owns the burden of proof.

This concept is often lost, from the start, in debates between atheists and theists.  It is a common occurrence to witness a theist demand that the atheist a) prove their god does not exist and/or b) provide some other alternative explanation for something they feel their god has done (like create the universe).  Both of these are logically fallacious.

It is not incumbent upon the atheist to disprove the theist’s god.  (This ties in to the agnostic and gnostic discussion, which you can read here).  Rather, it is up to the theist to prove his/her god.  The theist is making the claim that a god exists.  It is incumbent upon him/her to provide the evidence to support that claim.  There is no other option.  Yet we often see things like, “I know that god exists, prove that he does not”.  That statement is fallacious.  The only rational response from the atheist should be, “It is your burden to prove your god, not mine to disprove your god”.

Suppose the theist accepts his/her burden and proceeds to lay out the case for their god.  It is the job of the atheist to either accept this argument, in which case this conversation is over as they would no longer be atheist, or to refute it.  This often brings us to the second point above.

Pointing out holes in the theists argument does not mean in any way, that the atheist must then provide an alternative solution to fill that hole.  (For more on this, look up “God of the Gaps” arguments).  The hole is the theist’s problem to fill, not the atheists.  It is still the theist’s burden.  The mistakes in his/her argument do not become the atheists to correct.  This is where the notion of the need to “disprove god” comes in.  The atheist does not necessarily need to disprove god, but rather only needs to show that the theist’s argument is flawed, improbable, or irrational.  No one reading this readily accepts a flawed, improbable, or irrational argument in any other area of our life.  We do not accept them from friends in the Brady/Rodgers debate, from politicians, or the Best Buy employee.  We certainly should not accept such an argument on something so important as god-belief or the creation of the cosmos!

Summation:  The Atheist does NOT need to disprove the theist’s god.  Rather, the atheist need only show that the theist’s argument is flawed, improbable, and/or irrational.  The atheist does not need to offer an alternative solution to fix the problems in theist’s argument.  The entire burden of proof lies with the theist.

Another form of “burden shifting” that is common is some form of the following:

Theist: “well if you don’t believe in god, how do YOU think the cosmos originated”

This is perhaps a more fallacious than the one described above.  In this case we have two fallacies at work.  First, we have “burden shifting”.  Second, we have “argument from ignorance”.  I want to look at them individually.

In this scenario it is not incumbent for the atheist to prove anything (similar to above).  If the theist feels that his/her god is responsible for some action (creating the cosmos) it is incumbent for him/her to prove that.  The atheist needs to have zero knowledge of cosmic creation to win this argument.  It is not incumbent upon the atheist to demonstrate how the cosmos originated naturally.  Rather it is the job of the theist to show how their specific god a) exists and b) accomplished this task.

The phrasing of the question above is problematic.  It is an irrelevant question to the topic at hand.  (For more on that, look up Red Herring).  It matters not if the atheist can offer a solution for cosmic creation.  Once again, like above, it is the theist’s burden to prove that his specific god is responsible.  Questions of this nature are nothing more than distractions from the real issues.

The vast majority of conversations between atheists and theists eventually evolve into some form of the “argument from ignorance”.  This fallacy is worth a blog post in and of itself, so I will only mention it briefly here.  It states that a proposition must be true because it has not yet been proven false.  It is also sometimes used in place of the answer “I don’t know”.  Just because we do not know something does not in any way mean that we can just imply that “god did it”.  It can be employed in the following way: If the atheist cannot explain how something happened, then the theist declares victory for “god did it”.  This is clearly fallacious.  The god-concept does not win by default.  Like all other hypotheses it must be vetted and proven.  If the atheist cannot explain how the cosmos originated by purely natural processes, it does not mean that the “god-concept” is victorious.  (This leads to the fallacy of false dichotomy).

In closing, the burden of proof in relation to deities lies solely with the theist.  Any other path for the argument to take is logically fallacious.  I am always wary of this when debating theists.  It is quite common for them to either consciously or unconsciously attempt to “burden shift” or to fail to accept their burden all together.  In cases of the former, I remind them of their burden.   In cases of the latter, I just walk away from the conversation—that sort of theist is not a serious or rational person on this topic.  I also completely avoid questions that are based on the “argument from ignorance”.  I politely point out that they are distractions and irrelevant to the topic at hand, which is god-belief.  The theist then has the opportunity to lay out their case for their god or the conversation ends.

Lastly, and this is based only on my experience—I truly have nothing other than personal experience to back this up, so would be curious to know your thoughts on it…I find that many theists do not want to accept the “burden of proof”.  As I reflect on this, the best answer that I have come up with is “faith”.  It seems to me that most theists recognize at some point in their thinking they must rely on “faith”.  This is where their argument is guaranteed to fall apart, if it did not do so sooner.  I can’t help but think it is why so many amateur apologists and lay theists do not accept the “burden of proof” and why professional apologists spend so much time working out their “proofs of god” that attempt to not rely on “faith”.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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19 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof

  1. Vini M. from Los Angeles, CA, United States

    Great post, thank you! We need more short but comprehensive articles like this. I look forward to the next ones.

    May I suggest a post about "faith" itself? What is it, why it is not a virtue or a valid pathway to truth, the difference between faith and trust, and so on. (Please point me in the right direction if you've already done so in the past!)

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks Vini–you are reading my mind, that is next on my list. I thought of the idea the other day, started writing it yesterday, it became too long and disjointed, and I ended up not posting at all. Needless to say, I am reworking it into some form of readable text (it really isn’t right now, it looks like my cat wrote it while drunk), expect it soon!

  2. Hausdorff from Oak Park, MI, United States

    I like the idea of a "new to atheism" tab up top.

    I think you summed up this idea pretty well. Although to be honest, I'm not completely sure how I feel about using this tactic in debates. Not that any single debate item will have a huge chance of changing people's mind, but in my experience arguing about burden of proof seems to be particularly unproductive. I'm curious if you have had many interesting conversations after going down this road.
    My recent post Happy Birthday

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks Haus. I don't view this as a tactic, but rather as a proper framing of the way a discussion should go. This won't win you any debates, but I think it important to start off on the right foot. I have had many great discussions by going down this road. I don't really waste time on discussions where the theist wants me to disprove their god unless they make an argument or of the argument from ignorance types. I guess I am kind of a stickler for framing things correctly. If the theist is not even willing to put forth an argument for his/her god, I generally don't view the conversation as worth my time…
      My recent post The Burden of Proof

  3. WTE from West Liberty, IA, United States

    "It is not incumbent upon the atheist to disprove the theist’s god. (This ties in to the agnostic and gnostic discussion, which you can read here). Rather, it is up to the theist to prove his/her god. The theist is making the claim that a god exists. It is incumbent upon him/her to provide the evidence to support that claim. There is no other option"

    I agree and you have an excellent article here.

      1. WTE from West Liberty, IA, United States

        True, we all have a creator. It's our parents. But in the end it is up to the the person making the claim that god is real to prove he is real

  4. Pingback: Atheism Does Not Require Faith | Reason Being from Columbus, OH, United States

  5. Hammiesink from Manhattan Beach, CA, United States

    It depends on the definition of "atheist", though, doesn't it?

    If by "atheist" we mean "strong atheist", then they do indeed carry a burden of proof.

    The two parties are usually talking past each other, because the theist generally takes "atheist" to mean "strong atheist", while the atheist often takes it to mean "weak atheist". Really, to stop all this both parties should stop using the term, at least during debate or specific conversations.

    However, I maintain that most weak atheists have a burden of proof as well. Not to disprove the existence of God, obviously, but to prove that the evidence for theism is indeed weak or non-existent, as they claim.

    For example, I could make a claim that the evidence for evolution is non-existent, and support that claim by pointing to the lack of transitional fossils, the sudden appearance of species in the fossil record, etc. I'm making a claim here: that the evidence for evolution is weak or non-existent. And I supported that claim.

    And you would, of course, point me to talkorigins or something and show how each of my points were false or based on error. My claim, about the state of the evidence for evolution, was shown to be a false claim.

    Similarly, if the weak atheist claims that the evidence for theism is weak or non-existent, then he needs to support that claim.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I agree with you. It is why I linked to my post on agnosticism and gnosticism, where I discuss the idea of strong and weak atheism as well. I would also agree that "strong" or gnostic atheist does have a burden of proof. Which is where it becomes it important to not talk past each other and make sure that both parties are talking about the same deity.

      I also agree with you that to be a rational atheist (and let's be honest, not all atheists are rational) one would need to show the holes that exist in the theists argument. Simply stating, "No you're wrong" without offering any reasons why would be poor form, at least in my opinion. I would also add, and I realize this is completely subjective, that most atheist I know are quite willing to point out the holes they see in a theist's "proofs" for god.

  6. Hammiesink from Manhattan Beach, CA, United States

    That's actually where I become skeptical, concerning the claims of weak atheists. I think of myself as a "weak a-[weak atheist]". I'm waiting for them to give me evidence that the evidence for theism is lacking, and they generally don't seem to be able to give me any. So why should I believe their claim?

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I'm not sure I follow you here. If you are looking for counter arguments to typical theist arguments such as the cosmological, teleological, ontological, etc, those can be found online fairly easily. Otherwise, it is up to you to reason them out yourself. So much of these counterarguments vary from conversation to conversation. Other than the main arguments for god and those counterarguments (some of which I just mentioned) you won't find a "general disproof of god". One major reason for that is it will change depending on which god we are talking about. I hope that helps, not sure if does though…


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