Normally when engaged in discussion with others, there is a rule called the “burden of proof” that keeps the conversation honest and profitable. The burden of proof is a principle that states that the person who asserts a proposition has the burden to defend it by reason or evidence. Notice here the person who has asserted the proposition must prove it true. Then and only then does the other person respond to the substantiated claim with counterevidence or a counterargument (which is called the burden of the rejoinder). The point here is that if you assert it, it’s your responsibility to prove it. And the converse point is, you don’t have to disprove what is unproven. There’s no need to go about disproving wild unsubstantiated claims.
Now I think this is a fair thing to ask of the atheist, that is, asking him to bear the burden of proof. If God’s existence is impossible, improbable or simply fortuitously untrue, it seems common sense dictates the atheist should give evidence for these claims. At least you would think.
At this point, modern atheists have one more trick up their sleeve, one that supposedly counteracts the burden of proof. The issue has to do with the etymology of “atheism,” defined not as a positive belief in the non-existence of God, but simply a lack of any belief in God. The prefix “a-“ is understood as “without,” and “theism” (as you well know) means “belief in God.” So they will argue, the atheistic position is not one of positive affirmation in God’s non-existence, but rather simply a lack of belief in the existence of God. Atheists are without, or lack belief in God. So because the atheist has asserted nothing, she has nothing to prove. She does not have to prove the non-existence of God, because she never positively asserted God’s non-existence. She simply has to shoot down arguments by theists, since they do make a positive claim and must bear the burden of proof.
If you sense something has gone amiss, you are correct. I think this is an unfair ploy designed to shift the burden on the theist while allowing the atheist to continue taking the offensive. It’s much easier to tear down others rather than erect an edifice of one’s own. And many times, rhetorically the aggressive person seems like he is winning.
Here are a few good responses to this ploy:
1. First, if you wish, you can play the same game. That is, refuse to give in to this unfair tactic by turning it around back on them. How this is done is you take the positive affirmation of atheist (which they must have, since a belief system cannot be purely negative) which is the materialistic thesis that claims, “all things are explainable in terms of physics and chemistry” and simply add the prefix “a-“ to it. So instead of claiming to be a “theist” (which would be a positive claim), one can claim to be an “a-materialist.” That is, one simply fails to manifest the materialistic thesis. And of course since a lack of a belief (according to the atheist) does not require proof, the a-materialist (theist) can sit back and fold his arms smugly knowing he has not violated any principle of argumentation.
This is more of a touché maneuver to show the unfairness of the atheist’s ploy. The point here is to show him that you can play the same burden of proof game too. Of course the objective of this response is not to end in a stalemate, but a simply to show the atheist his flaw in thinking, and encourage him to take up the burden of proof again. In effect you’re saying, “if you’re view does not require proof, than neither does mine given the same rationale. Oh, you don’t like that? Then let’s do away with this game and get back to proving our claims.” This can be returned to any time in the course of conversation if the atheist reverts back to his atheism-is-a-lack-of-belief-so-I-don’t-need-to-prove-it position.
2. One can simply ask the atheist if she would answer “yes” or “no” to the question “Do you believe that God exists?” Either answer to this question would be considered a positive assertion, and would therefore require argumentation and evidence. Now it is possible that the atheist at this point still could refuse to answer “yes” or “no” and instead repeat the tag line of the ploy, “I simply do not have a belief in the existence of God, therefore my position does not require proof.”
If this happens, there are two more ways the conversation can go. Either they still want to stay engaged and discuss your positive evidence for God’s existence while shirking their responsibility, or they will want to disengage completely from the topic. If the atheist takes the latter position, then you can once again reassert (1), that you can play the same game too, and since you can, atheist is not any more rational than your a-materialism. A position is considered more rationally justified if its grounds are more certain than other competing positions. If atheism and a-materialism have identical epistemological grounds, than one is no more rational than the other. The retreating atheist satisfied with his ploy must accept this point. That would be my parting shot to that kind of atheist. But I doubt any thoughtful atheist would be satisfied knowing his atheism is as rationally justified as my theism, for the very point of argumentation is to show your opponent’s position as rationally inferior.
If the atheist is of the former variety that still wants to engage, I would kindly explain how his tactic is unfair (since he wants me to do all the proving while he does none) and stipulate the conversation will only progress if he bears the same burden I do. That is, let’s keep the conversation fair, since both sides actually do make positive affirmations (with atheism at least positively asserting materialism, and very probably asserting God’s non-existence). Atheists make bold claims about God, and many actually harbor feelings of hatred against him. How someone can hate or ball their fist up against an entity that apparently enters into none of the propositions one believes is beyond me. My point here is that an ultimatum is set, fair conversation or none at all. And if the atheist is not willing to bear the burden of proof, I feel very comfortable ending the conversation. Don’t throw your pearls before swine.
3. I think this point of logic I’m about to raise is one that is rarely understood by the atheist. For example, let’s say I do in fact give five good arguments for God’s existence. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, the atheist has successfully rebutted or refuted all five of my arguments for God’s existence. The question is, does this mean God does not exist? Does my failure to provide evidence of God’s existence prove the opposite point, his non-existence?
No, not at all. An unsubstantiated claim is not a false claim. Epistemologically they are different. Even if all my arguments fail, all that proves is that I have bad arguments or may be a poor apologist. It does not prove God does not exist. And it does not entail that no one has good arguments for God’s existence. At worst, my failure would leave the issue of God’s existence a question mark. That is, maybe he does exist, maybe he doesn’t. You see, this is the point where the atheist is supposed to step up, and argue from uncertainty to the positive claim of God’s non-existence. But if he is not willing to bear his share of the burden, then God’s existence is neither impossible, improbable nor fortuitously untrue (and this is the case even if all my arguments have failed). And if the atheist has shown none of these, I reckon he’s a rather poor atheologian, since God’s existence is still left on the table as a very real possibility.
4. This last point may be a more complicated one. It may be the case that the atheist’s ploy in self-contradictory. That is, there is a logical difficulty in asserting a lack of a belief (here I will use “knowledge” and “belief” interchangeably for this point, which is think is fine for present purposes). I know we do so all the time in common parlance, but strictly speaking this may be impossible, since you have to at least know something about what you’re denying knowledge of. So to totally lack knowledge of something and to assert that at the same time would seem to be contradictory.
Now there’s a weaker sense in which we can assert our ignorance of certain issues. But in these cases its arguable that the assertion of ignorance is one of lesser knowledge to greater knowledge, that is, one of degree. We know a bit and we wish to know more. The problem with the atheist’s ploy is that it is not this type of degreed claim, but a non-degreed claim of a total lack of knowledge. It’s hard to believe that anyone can assert their lack of belief in things that don’t enter into any of the propositions that one holds. How can you affirm you lack a belief unless you first know the belief that is lacked?
This is more clearly illustrated by employing what philosopher’s call propositional or doxastic attitudes. For any proposition, there are three epistemological stances or attitudes that can be taken towards it, 1) affirmation, 2) denial or 3) withholding of judgment. Notice there are only three propositional attitudes. The proposition under consideration is that of “God exists.” If you affirm the proposition, you are a theist. If you deny the proposition, you are an atheist. If you withhold judgment, you are an agnostic. Notice there is no propositional attitude of “lacking a belief.” Affirm God, deny God, or throw your hands up in the air and say you don’t know. But it is unclear on this very standard account of propositional attitudes where “lack of a belief” would fit in. So at best, “lacking a belief” is an extremely queer concept, and at worst it is self-contradictory.