Monday, March 4, 2013

The burden of proof and God

One of the more tedious arguments concerning gods is the argument over who has the burden of proof.  Whereas many atheists argue that the theist must first make the argument for the existence of gods, their opponents argue that this is a cop out.  For example, on NY Times:
Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.
I take the side of atheists; I think theists have the burden of proof.  This is not about giving atheists an unfair advantage in the debate, nor is it about making a "no-arguments" argument.  In fact, I do not believe it is an advantage, fair or otherwise, at all.  It's simply about who takes which role.

I'm somewhat influenced by the role of burden of proof in law, though law does not necessarily provide a paragon of debate format.  In a court of law, attorneys set out to prove certain facts.  But producing the arguments and evidence costs money, so the law must specify whose role it is to prove the facts, and to what extent they must be proven.  In most criminal cases, the plaintiff must prove "beyond reasonable doubt", and in most civil cases, the burden of proof is a "preponderance of the evidence".  If you're wondering how to interpret that, it depends whether you ask the defendant's or plaintiff's attorney.

(Please correct me if I made any error with regard to law.)

In the case of proving God, it is only sensible that the theist has the burden of proof.  The atheist doesn't know beforehand what particular god or gods the theist believes in, and doesn't know what arguments to use.  Theists keep on telling us that not all religious people believe the same things, and I wholeheartedly agree.  That's why it's the theist's role to explain what they believe and why.

But this does not confer an advantage to atheists, any more than it confers an advantage to the defendant in a court of law.  It just means that the theist makes the first argument.  If the argument, taken at face value, meets the burden of proof, then it is up to the atheist to counter it.  In other words, the burden of proof shifts to the atheists.  The burden of proof shifts back and forth indefinitely, and does not give an advantage to either side.

By saying theists have the burden of proof, I only mean that they have the initial burden of proof.  It is not meant as a "get out of an argument free" card.


Unknown said...

The clearest way of demonstrating that the burden of proof lies with theists is to simply assert something outlandish (i.e. last night I was temporarily transfigured into a cat) and to ask whether we must assume that it is true until proven otherwise or whether we should await some confirmatory evidence before bothering to take it seriously. You'd probably struggle to find a sane person who would argue for the former over the latter. Nevertheless, I suspect that any theist who rejects that the burden of proof lies with them would think this argument facile. Facile because in their subjective world, the existence for God is practically self-evident. Indeed, as far as they're concerned, "evidence" for God's existence is abundant: Existence itself, the outward appearance of design, the (commonly believed) internal consistency of the bible, the feeling people get when praying, the perceived impact of belief on people's lives. Nevermind that none of this "evidence" actually constitutes evidence in the normative sense; in their world, everything points to the existence of God. Therefore, as far as (many) theists are concerned, claims to the contrary require some serious justification! After all, to them belief in God is the DEFAULT position that everyone should take.

goliah said...

The burden of proof is definitely with the maker of the claim. And in a development that could blow two thousand years of theology right out of the waster come new player in the culture wars with a religious claim than can be tested for it's efficacy.

The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from theology or history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined, and predictable experience of transcendent omnipotence and called 'the first Resurrection' in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods' willingness to reveal Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine Will and ultimate proof!

Thus 'faith' becomes an act of trust in action, the search to discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our flawed human moral compass with the Divine, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at,

miller said...

Goliah, that is very nearly against my comment policy for being spam-like and incomprehensible.

Unknown said...

Honestly, Goliah, if you think that the pseudo-intellectual nonsense you've written here constitutes an argument that Christianity has been vindicated according to "all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation" (whatever that means - I suspect that you don't have a science background) and now enjoys "definitive proof" (if such a thing even exists) then I think you really need to go and read a book on philosophy of science, or even just epistemology.

drransom said...

I've been thinking about this for a while, and I'm becoming inclined to think it depends on what sort of god we are talking about. There are an infinite number of possible beings that could be called a "god," and if we didn't have modern science I don't think we could just dismiss the possibility that such being(s) were responsible for things like plagues and lightning bolts.

On the other hand, there's an infinite number of possible gods, and many of them are incompatible, and there's no good way to pick out which should be viewed as more plausible a priori. So I'm inclined to think that we should start by taking no point of view on whether there is (or was) at least one god, but view the existence of any specific god as a thing to be proven.

If the discussion about "god" is being limited to YHWH and YHWH knockoffs (as is usually true in American culture) then this translates to assuming atheism.