On the Burden of Proof

When people find out that someone is an atheist, they usually have a lot of questions. I’ve seen, in my experience, that most of these questions take the offensive stance and are often accusatory. Atheists are used to hearing things like, “Where do you get your morals from?” and “Why do you hate God?” One of the most common of these quips is “How do you know for sure that there is no god?” which also takes the form of “Well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, so disbelief is illogical.” These statements are the embodiment of the theist’s attempt to flip the burden of proof.

I’ll make a disclaimer before I go on. Many times here on this blog, people tell me that they identify as gnostic atheists, and personally, they are sure that there is no god. They say, “I believe that there is no god.” (So they are making a claim that there is no god.) I, on the other hand, identify as an agnostic atheist, and I assume this negative, agnostic atheism as the default atheist position. Therefore, I always say “I don’t believe there is a god.” (So I am not accepting the claim made by the theist that there is a god.)

I’ve always thought of these as linguistic technicalities, but depending on what you’re talking about, like here where I’m going to dive into the burden of proof, it’s good to be clear on whether you’re doing it on a basis of positive or negative atheism. Here, I assume negative atheism. Even if you identify as a gnostic atheist, keep this in mind as you follow along. By the way, shout out to Antony Flew for introducing the idea of negative atheism in his book The Presumption of Atheism.

Simply put, the idea of the burden of proof is that if Person A makes a claim, they must defend their claim. If Person B doesn’t believe them, it is up to Person A to try to persuade Person B that their claim is true. It has its roots in the court of law, and it can be summed up in the concept that someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. In the case of the existence of god, it is sometimes said that he is innocent (of existence) until proven guilty (of existence), so you can assume that he does not exist until it has been proven that he does.

I don’t think that this completely works, because it’s pretty much impossible to absolutely prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, especially the existence of a supernatural being, but I do think that it’s fair that you can’t expect me to believe in god until you have at least some evidence. Or good arguments. Neither of which I have yet to encounter. But I digress.

I’ve always thought that the burden of proof is more easily understood with examples rather than definitions. Popular concepts within the burden-of-proof discussion are the idea that we can’t prove that there’s not a teapot orbiting around the Sun, and we can’t prove that there isn’t a Flying Spaghetti Monster out there, blessing people with his Noodly Appendage. I’ll add that you also can’t prove that your pet cat doesn’t transform into a rainbow lizard every time he’s our of your sight, morphing back into a cat whenever you’re around.

Most people, when they hear these “You can’t prove…” examples, they say “Well, of course that would be ridiculous to believe” and go on to say that their belief in their religion is different. I guess I can’t prove that donkeys and snakes can’t talk.

But occasionally you’ll run into a smart-ass who says “You’re right. There is that tiny possibility that there’s a teapot orbiting around the Sun. I don’t have a way to disprove that, technically.” It’s fine to technically be an agnostic about fantastical and un-disprovable claims like this, but I think that if you really think this way, it easily borderlines on absurd.

I was only able to come with one example of my own, but there is basically an infinite amount of crazy things you could claim that you can’t prove or disprove. And if you say you have to be open to anything because it’s un-disprovable, then I imagine that you must have a constant headache from the absurdity. After all, Ockham’s Razor really makes me second guess any concept that something should exist when there is no reason to think it does.

In the comments below, feel free to help me out with any other absurd ideas that you could potentially believe because you can’t disprove its existence!

Read next:

atheism vs agnosticism

16 Replies to “On the Burden of Proof”

  1. I am agnostic. I was raised in a Christian household. I don’t think Christians think often about proof. They start with the assumption that the bible is true and then just read it. I fell out when I looked hard at where the bible came from and Christianities origins. The belief in the bible as absolute truth, while simultaneously divorcing it from it’s cultural and historical roots is something I and all practicing Christians are guilty of. As an example: It’s absurd to say the bible is truth and God is truth while ignoring that historically Jewish people thought the world was flat (Most verses support the flat-earth view.) It’s important because Traditional Jewish thought was that the sky was solid and covered with water. There was supposed to be a hole in the top that lead to heaven. That’s why Jesus ascended into the sky. It’s also why God had to destroy the tower of Babel. Jesus and the men from Babel were going to live on-top of “snow-globe” in heaven. (Hope that made sense.)
    I lost a lot of years studying the bible.
    I like Pastafarianism now and Blog about raising kids with science and honesty.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Interestingly, coming from a culture where atheists are the mainstream, I’ve heard the reverse questions going to the people who are religious. One of the reasons that I identify as a pure agnostic is that I truly don’t know enough to hypothesize (until I do some extensive study) and I’m fine living without the knowledge right now. Thank you for introducing me to “the burden of proof”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello all. I’m probably going to repeat things that others have said, but here we go. I think it’s logical and rational for the person who says they believe in God to bear the burden of proof. Person who says that they don’t believe in God really has nothing to prove. I’m a pretty simple person, but to me, it’s that simple. But I do think everyone had some good comments. I grew up as a Christian. Believed in God and the basic inerrancy of the Bible, heaven, hell, etc. I went to college then to Bible school and then went into the ministry. After several years, I went through a season of questioning why I believe what I believe. After long, in-depth study of the Bible, the history of the Bible and the church, and examining my own experience as a believer in the Christian God, I decided to walk away from it all. I had many feel good experiences in my Christian life, but I couldn’t find any solid proof that God exists. At least not the way I was taught that God exists. And if there is a God, I have serious doubts that he/she/it is like the Christian God that I learned about. I have to admit, I’m much happier and less worried in general since my beliefs have shifted to where they are now. I’m glad I went through my experiences in Christianity, but I think I’m more glad I’m where I am now. Just my two cents from my life experience thus far.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A response to the, “Where do you get your morals from, if you don’t believe in God?” that I’ve never been able to use – If they’re correct…. (I don’t think they are but, if they’re correct) I get my morals from the God that they believe exists.
    The question itself seems to be some kind of admission that God may not exist. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “but I do think that it’s fair that you can’t expect me to believe in god until you have at least some evidence. Or good arguments. ”

    I agree wholeheartedly with you here CA. I think that both sides of this “is there a god” debate have some evidence for their side as well as good arguments. In the end, whether you are a theist of some kind or agnostic /atheist comes down to how you view those arguments, and which you find more compelling.

    As someone who is not an atheist, I completely get and understand why others are not theists of some persuasion.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “They say, “I believe that there is no god.” (So they are making a claim that there is no god.)”
    No they are not, they are making a claim that they do not believe there is a god. The difference is important.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Simply put, the idea of the burden of proof is that if Person A makes a claim, they must defend their claim.

    People talk a lot about claims and burden of proof. But I think those concepts are only appropriate in situations such as a court hearing and a formal debate.

    In ordinary life, people mostly express opinions rather than making claims. And in ordinary life, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to convince others.

    … it’s pretty much impossible to absolutely prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, …

    We are all human. I might be convinced of something beyond a shadow of doubt, yet still be wrong.

    Proof is for logic and mathematics. In ordinary life, we construct logical models and then prove things within those logical models. But there’s still the possibility that our logical model doesn’t actually work very well, so the conclusions might be wrong even though they have been proved.


  8. “…if a person makes a claim, they should be able to defend it…” And, right off the bat, faith is not a defense. Believe all they want, so what? Gods? Everyone has some, I suppose. The kicker for me is resurrection. A most improbable, unlikely, and I believe impossible trick to pull off. People don’t want to say good bye to their memories, so they dream up an immortal soul and an afterlife. We have to get real folks! GROG

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “…if Person A makes a claim, they must defend their claim…”

    Basically, yes. But I think there’s also a factor of “how important is the claim?” If my neighbor claims he played baseball in high school, I don’t care if he can prove it or not; it’s not an important claim to me, nor is it a fantastical one. Even if he claims he won the State Championship and the MVP trophy, which is much more of a fantastical claim (it would require proof before I believed it), it still isn’t that important to my personal life.

    But a religious person’s claim typically involves Heaven/Hell scenarios (at least in my life in the U.S.), which — if true — would be the single most important thing ever. So yeah, they’re going to need to provide some outstanding evidence/proof of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. While I can’t help with examples (I use obvious ones in discussions), I enjoy this topic (a lot). I commend your choice. However, ‘proof’ is not why I identify as atheist, nor was it ever why I claimed to believe. Things have changed because today I ask for proof for me to acknowledge any god’s existence. Imagine that: life with proof. The word atheist would die out.
    I read a Pew religious landscape study thingy the other day (data was only for Texas) wherein they report that 69% responded that they believe in god and are absolutely certain. Only 6% reported they did not believe and certainty was not mentioned for them. I contend that any burden of proof is on the 69%, and not any of the other 31% due to their lack of certainty either way. Disclosure: I am fond of saying ‘there are not gods.’ Of course I can’t prove it, but am I addressing the 69%?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. For my entire life I’ve been told and believed I have a soul. That statement is weird. Who or what is the ‘I’ that possesses the soul? Maybe better put is that there is a body, the brain/mind and the soul, which exists simultaneously in symbiosis. The Trinity? Father, Son, Holy Ghost? I can easily prove two of the three as I sit here in this chair. The third, which I’ve read about, been told exists by priests-Zen masters-gurus and my parents, I can neither prove nor disprove. Strange that people put so much emphasis on this soul thing. Hmm..??

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is one talk I’ve heard by Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist, that’s come the closest to debunking the idea of a soul. If I understand him correctly he says that they have now discovered every molecule, atom, particle, quark, up quark, down quark, protons etc that make up this world including humans. There is no unanswered question, no missing theory and they’ve not discovered energy or particle that could be classified as a soul. No entity that hovers within us driving us around like a soccer mom. If there is a soul-energy then it must be so weak that it doesn’t interact with any particles that make us.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The only reason the orbiting teapot sounds fantastical, but talking snakes don’t is because they didn’t grow up hearing that story from birth. Whether you are raised in Christianity or not, if you live in a country where the religion is common, the adam and eve story will be known to you. Even if you don’t believe in Christianity, it is a familiar story and thus takes on an air of normalcy as opposed to a story you’ve never heard before.

    The problem with an orbiting tea pot is that there isn’t a whole lot of story attached to it as there is to the bible. Talking snakes is part of a grander narrative, which also makes accepting the less believable parts more believable.

    Interestingly if you’ve read the book Life of Pi, the author does a very similar thing. I saw the author give a talk about the book and he says that he intentionally pushes the envelope of the story to see how much belief you will accept of the fantastical. And without giving away too much at the end he wants you to consider two versions of a story, one far more enjoyable than the other, and thus which one we’re going to accept and conveniently call the truth. Weirdly I believe the author is religious, but I’ve always felt that the book itself sort of looks at our willingness to accept fantastical claims for the sake of a good story. Personally I don’t find the Christian one particularly great story telling, but I think that’s another reason why counter examples like the FSM or giant teapots don’t carry the same weight in the mind of the theist. Even though in reality the story is just the fluff of an unsubstantiated assertion. and is on the same burden of proof grounds. I think it’s still an argument worth making, because without proving the existence of God there is nothing that differentiates the story of Yahweh and his Son from the Life of Pi or any other work of fiction.

    Liked by 5 people

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