I was in a discussion today with an atheist, and the subject turned to the idea of burden of proof. It is a common claim that Christians own a burden of proof to prove that God exists, but that atheists do not own any burden at all. Here’s my response, that outlines the reason I disagree with this:
Many (and probably most) atheists will say they have nothing to prove at all, because atheism (a-theism) is merely being without a belief in the existence of any gods. Therefore, the only *positive* explicit assertion they are making is about their belief, and not about the actual existence of any god. That is, they aren’t necessarily saying “God does not exist” (although some do), but rather “I don’t believe there are any gods because I have not seen sufficient evidence to lead me to believe any exist.”
This position of not having a burden of proof is fine until one considers that holding any position whatsoever – even one of skepticism – implies a lot of things about reality, knowledge, possibly ethics, etc. That is, everyone (including the atheist) has certain assumptions (let’s call them “basic beliefs”) that they are leaning on in order to make any sort of claim, including the claim “I don’t believe in God.” Stated differently – nobody is neutral. We all have a network of basic beliefs we rely upon.
So, the challenge for the atheist comes when they are presented with the question “Do you believe *the God of the Bible* exists?” Notice the question isn’t simply “do you believe in any gods?” Instead, the question is about a specific type of God – the Christian God of the Bible.
Now, if the God of the Bible was like any other god, they could get away with saying “no” and leave it at that – no burden of proof. However, the God of the Bible isn’t like any other God. He claims that everyone knows he exists. He claims that he created the world. He claims that his existence is necessary for knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, etc. In short, he makes a bold claim about everyone’s ability to reason, weigh evidence, draw conclusions, etc. He claims that none of those actions that we all do on a daily basis would be possible unless he existed as described in the Bible.
So that opens up an interesting challenge to the atheist. They aren’t explicitly denying the existence of God when they say “I don’t believe he exists”, but they most definitely are *implicitly* denying his existence. Why is this? Well, it is because they are doing all these things that the God of the Bible claims ownership to, while at the same time they are saying “I don’t believe he exists.” They are relying upon all these basic beliefs that the God of the Bible claims *only* make sense if he exists.
To say they don’t believe he exists is to say that it is *possible* to do these things (reason, weigh evidence, etc.) without him existing. But God says it is not possible to do them without him existing. Therefore (by implication) they are saying “This kind of God *does not* exist”.
It isn’t an explicitly positive claim that God does not exist, but is rather an implicitly positive claim. Either way, it is a positive claim, and therefore they own a burden of proof.