I had a recent debate with an atheist friend who claimed that those who believe in God have the burden of proof to support their claim. I would like to hear your thoughts on this question. Also, I came up with my own response shortly after debating my atheist friend. It attacks the prolific misuse of the “Burden of Proof” and (assuming the proof holds) shows that atheism is impotent to evidence its claims.[Note: the article the questioner wrote is found below my response to his request for comment. J. O.]
One approach is to say that the one making the claim is the one who has a burden of proof. For example, if someone says that the Bible is historically fraudulent, then the burden of proof would be on them. If someone else said that the Bible is accurate history, then the burden of proof would be on them.
I have thought a fair amount about “burden of proof.” Sometimes “burden of proof” arguments are valid, but usually they are not. For example, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, I believe it is perfectly reasonable to say that the burden of proof for the resurrection is on the believer, not the unbeliever. However, for the existence of God, the burden of proof argument is not valid, in my opinion.
I agree you in broad terms but I also will stick to the claim that there are cases in which the “burden of proof” lies more strongly with one side than another.
If I claim I saw a five-legged cow and a friend claimed that I did not, then the burden of proof would lie with me because this is on the face of it a patently unlikely claim. Similarly, if I claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and some random person out there said that he was not, logically, I would have a stronger “burden of proof” because my claim is so far outside normal human experience. If I claim that there was a massive world-wide flood that destroyed virtually all life several thousand years ago and someone out there claimed that there was not, then the burden would fall more strongly on me than on the other person for similar reasons.
However, I believe that the burden is logically essentially equal in the existence of God question, and agree that the burden of proof argument there is bogus (and that your claim that this is special pleading is valid). It is not obvious or clearly more logical or likely that God exists or that he does not exist, so in this case I would suggest a level playing field. I would apply the level playing field argument to the question of the inspiration of the Bible or the historical accuracy of the Bible as well. There is no logical or obvious reason to exclude either side of these questions.
A fun discussion.
This is the article from the person who submitted this question:
The Burden of Proof Fallacy
Perhaps the most popular trend among internet atheists is the (false) accusation of burden of proof. There are several problems with this accusation, I will address two in this post.
First Problem: The abuse of the word “proof.” Is evolution proven? Is the Big Bang Theory proven? Is there any proof that you are not in the Matrix? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The only thing that is ever proven are logically consistent proofs and even those fall into the debatable by questioning their premises.
For example the Pythagorean theorem is only true on absolutely flat spaces, the earth is round, therefore the Pythagorean theorem is not true on earth. This will strike everyone as weird. The Pythagorean theorem is approximately true on earth because the triangles we can draw are far too small to notice the curvature of the earth so they seem, to us, flat. However, as you can see, even something that is generally considered iron clad can be debated.
In light of the fact that nothing is ever truly proven, why do atheists continually claim that Christianity is wrong even though the amount of historical evidence is beyond overwhelming? I’ll leave that question to the reader. It should be noted, however, that “proof” is not a prerequisite to belief, otherwise we could not trust science, religion or our own five senses.
Second Problem: Atheists that fall into the Burden of Proof accusation are committing their own logical fallacy, The Special Plea (often called The Double Standard.) The Special Plea is when someone applies a set of rules to one side of the argument but absolves the other one from having to meet the same criteria.
By definition The Burden of Proof is the logical fallacy of a person making the claim assuming it is true until the opposing side proves it false. “God exists” and “God does not exist” are both claims. The atheist misinterprets this definition to mean that the person with the “God exists” claim is responsible of proving God’s existence and that he (the atheist) will remain in his “God does not exist claim” without needing to justify it until the theist proves himself correct. In other words theism is subject to a rule that atheism is not, by definition this is a Special Plea.
The correct interpretation of The Burden of Proof is that theism and atheism are both subject to proving or at least providing evidence of their own claims (something that I will shortly show to be impossible in atheism’s case.) The only claim that that does not need to justify itself is that claim of neutrality. “God may or may not exist.” This claim, if it can so be called, does not need to provide evidence since it doesn’t have anything to defend.
Keep in mind I have not proven that there is a God, nor that if a God were to exist it would be the Christian God. That is not the scope of this post and will not be considered here.
As promised I will now show that atheism can never provide any sort of evidence for it’s claim. First I will give the main premises.
1.This argument only holds for an omnipotent, truth telling, single deity.
2.We will also assume that lack of evidence is not negative evidence (ie 0 is not less than 0) which should be obvious.
I will try to steer away from being too technical but still remain formal.
In the cases for existence there is no such thing as evidence for the non-existence of something. Evidence for existence is generally a mark that the thing in question left. If X left a mark, that is evidence X exists or existed. However, if there is no mark then we have no evidence, by premise 2 this is not evidence of non-existence (ie we have 0 evidence not negative evidence). Atheism is already at a disadvantage but let’s press on.
Evidence against must then be evidence in favor of a mutually exclusive case. For example: when the Big Bang Theory was first proposed it was laughed at (the name “Big Bang” was originally a mockery) because there was no evidence for it. The equally unsupported Steady State Theory (universe had no beginning and it’s density remains constant always) was popular though. Evidence for the Big Bang would be an explosion afterglow (now known as the Cosmic Microwave Background or CMB) and evidence for the Steady State Theory would be detection of particle creation that would keep the expanding universe’s density constant. At this point we had 0 evidence, then we discovered the CMB which was evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory. Is the CMB evidence against Steady State? No, it attacks Steady State by supporting a mutually exclusive case, namely the Big Bang.
What, then, is a mutually exclusive case to an omnipotent, truthful and unique deity? Since the deity is omnipotent only something that the deity couldn’t remove would qualify so only another omnipotent deity would be mutually exclusive. It can’t be removed by the first deity’s omnipotence and negates the uniqueness of the first deity as well as its truth telling since it is no longer telling the truth when it says it is all-powerful and unique. So in order to evidence atheism we have to evidence polytheism, few contradictions are this blatant.
If follows that the evidence supporting the non-existence of the deity in question is 0. We then get the following inequality:
Evidence against < or = Evidence in favor
If equality holds then agnosticism is the rational position. If inequality holds then theism is more rational than atheism. It follows that it is impossible for atheism to be the most rational stance, and it is clear that the burden of proof either applies more to atheism than theism or both of them equally. Is there evidence for deities described in premise 1? The Christian God falls into that category and as evidence we have the Transcendental Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Argument from Aesthetic Experience, the Axiological Argument, the Ontological Argument, the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Religious Experience and the Anthropic Argument, just to name a few. While none of these constitute proof, it is pretty clear that the evidence in favor of God’s existence is greater than 0. If follows that Christianity is a more rational stance than atheism.
Disclaimer: this is not a proof of the existence of God and it is not a proof of the identity of God (Christian or other) it is merely a demonstration as to why we can say that the evidence points toward theism.
Warner Wallace, J. Cold Case Christianity, Chapter 2 eISBN: 978-1-4347-0546-4