Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.

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