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.
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”.
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