One of our authors, Davidian, here at Answers in Reason recently published an excellent article discussing the burden of proof on beliefs. The response to this article by many atheists and sceptics on Twitter was interesting to say the least. It received an awful lot of pushback, with many arguing that Davidian did not understand what an atheist was, what atheism was, and what the burden of proof was. The results were the same when I tried to get into discussions with some of them. Some of those atheists and sceptics even went as far as calling us both theists, which was kind of amusing. One of the major problems with trying to discuss it was that none of the sceptics and atheists arguing against the position were actually willing to listen, or to get involved in a reasonable discussion. This article is an attempt to address much of what was said about the article, and the counterarguments against it made by various sceptics and atheists. It is meant as a complimentary piece to Davidian’s original article, so it is recommended to read that piece before this one. Though it is not a necessity in order to understand the arguments being put forward here.
The first thing to understand is what is meant by ‘burden of proof’ with regards to beliefs that one holds. This is described in Davidian’s original article, but for the sake of clarity it will be explained again here. A belief is simply some proposition we hold to be true. The proposition describes some state of affairs about the world, and when we think those state of affairs are the case, we hold that belief. There is no necessity for the state of affairs to be true in order to be considered a belief, it is sufficient that we think it is true. It would be different if we were speaking of knowledge of course, because knowledge must necessarily be true. Knowledge also holds a different burden of proof to a belief. With regards to knowledge we must be able to show it is true, whereas with a belief there is no such burden. Instead, the burden with beliefs regards rationality. If we want to declare that our belief is rational, we have to justify that it is both a rational belief and that we have rational reasons for thinking that state of affairs is the case.
The Burden of Proof counterargument
The above summary is a brief one, but it is enough to get a basic understanding of what a belief is, and how it is different from knowledge. It is also enough to get an understanding of the difference between the levels of justification for a belief, and for knowledge. More clarity will be added as we go along and examine some of the counterarguments put forward in response to Davidian’s original article. We will begin examining the counterarguments with one that many sceptics and atheists made, and often make outside of this context too: ‘the burden of proof is on the one making the positive claim’. Many of us have probably heard this argument, and some of us may even make it. There are a couple of problems with this as a counterargument to the idea that beliefs have a certain level, and type, of burden of proof. The first problem is that the counterargument is itself wrong, in that it is an erroneous claim about burden of proof. The second problem is that the context is wrong, because it is arguing about a different kind of burden of proof.
So whilst someone making a positive claim DOES have a burden of proof, it is erroneous to suggest that in the context of holding a belief, or even lacking one. The burden of proof is far more complicated than that, however in its simplest form as it relates to discussions like this the burden of proof simply lies with anyone making a claim (Cargile, 1997; Hahn and Oaksford, 2007; Wiki, 2020). As stated, burden of proof is far more complicated than that, but for the purpose of simplicity we will go with that definition, and where possible even try to use the ‘positive claim’ definition. So, if Person-A claims a bus arrives at 5:00PM, and Person-B disputes that, then it is up to Person-A to provide proof that the bus does indeed arrive 5:00PM. Things can get slightly more complicated than that though if Person-A claims a bus arrives at 5:00PM and Person-B not only disputes that, but also claims that the bus arrives at 5:30PM. It is then up to Person-A and Person-B to provide evidence of their own claim. Why is this relevant though?
Arguments are organic
It is relevant because understanding this idea can help with understanding the burden of proof on a belief that little bit better, which will help to understand second problem slightly better also. The example shows that the burden of proof in this context is not something that is completely static in an argument. It is something more fluid, rather than simply being the burden of the original claim, and the burden of a single interlocutor. So, arguing that the burden of proof ‘is on the one making the claim’ (or even ‘making the positive claim’ as some argue) does nothing to relieve the atheist of their burden of duty during a discussion. It also does not relieve the one making the original claim of their burden of proof of course. What it means is that discussions of this nature are organic, and more than one claim is usually made during a discussion. Claims are made in counter to the original claim, and those counter claims incur a burden of proof also. Examining one of the common arguments made against Davidian’s article may help to expand on this a little.
The ‘No Evidence’ counterargument
An argument brought up by many arguing against the article, and arguing against myself, was that theists provide no evidence for their claims, and that was all the justification necessary for rejecting their claims. Those making this argument behaved as if this was the end of the argument, the idea being that their burden of proof for their position was met by rejecting the theist’s claim based on a lack of evidence. They are right in that ‘the theist providing no evidence’ would be a reasonable justification for not accepting their claims, and for dismissing their argument. However, the justification does not end there, as those arguing this position seemed to think. This justification brings with it the need for more justifications, for within that original justification is a claim. That claim being that the theist in the discussion specifically, or theists in general, present no evidence, and that claim brings with it a burden of proof. The burden being the need to prove that the theist/theists in general present no evidence.
This is only holds true if you are making the ‘lack of evidence’ claim of course, and there are those that accept that the theist is indeed offering at least some form of evidence. There are those that argue that they are simply not convinced by the evidence, or that the theist has failed to prove their god’s existence. Does the person simply rejecting the claims of the theist incur a burden of proof? After all, the atheist that simply rejects the claim is not making a claim themselves, they are simply unconvinced. If the burden of proof is on the one making the claim, and the atheist is simply rejecting the claim and not making a claim the theist is wrong, then surely there is no burden of proof on their part?
The Rejection of a Claim counterargument
There were those that responded to Davidian’s article in this way, and responded to myself this way too. The argument they made was that they were not making a claim, they were rejecting a claim. Theistic arguments had failed to convince them, that is all. They were adamant that this relieved them of any and all burdens of proof. It is the theist that has something to prove, not the atheist that is simply rejecting theistic claims. Many others even agreed that this was a strong argument disproving the idea that atheists had a burden of proof, because this shows that it is a rejection of a claim and not a claim or belief in and of itself. Well, this brings us back to the second problem mentioned above; that this is a different kind of burden of proof. How is it a different kind of burden of proof?
A Different Kind of Burden of Proof
In order to understand how it is a different kind of burden of proof we must look at it from a couple of different angles. We will use the same scenario, as well as use the same rejection of the claim by the atheist. What will change will be what comes after the rejection, as this shows us where the burden of proof comes in, the kind of burden of proof it is, and why the burden of proof is necessary on the part of the atheist. So, imagine the same scenario, the theist presents the atheist with the reasons why they feel the atheist should believe that God exists. The atheist responds in the same way, by rejecting the evidence saying that the evidence presented has failed to convince them. The theist then asks ‘Why?’.
Is This Particular Atheist Rational?
The response to this question is important, and the response to this question gives us some indication of what it means for an atheist to have a burden of proof. Consider the atheist now who simply responds, ‘I just do not believe you, you have failed to convince me’. The theist once again asks ‘Why?’ once again, and the atheist responds once again with ‘I just don’t believe you, your argument is not convincing’. To any question the theist asks about why the atheist does not believe the argument, or is not convinced by the argument, the atheist simply responds, ‘I just do not believe you’. Now, before the accusations of a strawman fallacy are thrown this way, it is not being claimed here that this is how atheists respond, nor does the argument rest on the idea that this is how atheists respond. This is being proposed simply as an example to get the reader thinking about a particular idea and question. In those circumstances, would we consider the atheist to be rational, and would we consider them to have good reason to reject the theist’s argument? Do you?
No, That Particular Atheist is Not
If you said no, then consider why you said no. One would imagine that the reason was something along the lines of the atheist not being rational, because he was rejecting the theist’s argument without any good reason. The atheist was rejecting it simply for the sake of rejecting it. If a person was to reject some other argument without good logical reasons and arguments, we would consider them to be irrational. For example, if somebody was to claim that they do not believe the world to be a globe, and their reason for not believing it was a globe, even after being presented with what we believe to be good evidence, we would consider them to be irrational, and unreasonable. The atheist in this example is behaving in a similar manner. They are rejecting what the theist believes to be good evidence. An argument could be made here that the evidence the theist brings, and the evidence that the globe example brings, are very different beasts. However, that is further reasoning that goes beyond what the atheist in the example has. The atheist does not reject the theist’s evidence with that kind of reasoning, they just reject it.
Regardless of the scenario, when someone rejects an argument, we expect them to have at least some reason for rejecting the argument before we consider it to be a rational rejection; and we should. We should expect it because a big part of being rational is behaving in a way that is in accordance with reason and logic. If we act without reason and logic, then we cannot be acting rationally. It is possible for the atheist to just throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘yeah so what if I am acting irrationally’ of course. However, if the atheist wants to be able to call themselves rational, as a lot of atheists do call themselves, then they cannot do that. They must fulfil the conditions of being rational in order to call themselves rational. The same is true of beliefs too. If we are to consider ourselves rational, our beliefs too must be rational, and we must be able to show they are rational. One could even say that we had a burden of proof for why we reject an argument, and a burden of proof for why we accept an argument. As stated previously, it is a different kind of burden of proof. It is a burden to justify ourselves as rational agents, and that our acceptance and rejection of various beliefs and arguments are rational.
It is also important to remember that most of the time when we accept or reject an argument, it is based on a chain of reasoning. We have reason A for thinking reason B, we accept reason C based on reason B, and we reject or accept P based on A->B->C. This is not to say that it always singular reasons, there may be a cluster of reasons in A, B, or C. The example is put this way for simplicity, and ease of understanding. This is what the burden of proof on beliefs entails, being able to show that our beliefs, and our accepting and rejecting of various arguments and beliefs, is based on sound reasoning. As stated, one could of course just hold their hands up and so, yeah, I am irrational, so what. It is obviously a much simpler stance. If you want to be able to argue that you are also a rational agent though, then there may be something of a paradox in your stances.
Yes, That Particular Atheist is Rational
Before we conclude the article, there is something else to cover first. What about those that said the atheist in the example is rational, and does have good reason to reject the argument, even if they are simply rejecting the argument for the sake of argument. Those who would answer that the atheist is still rational should consider the argument made above, as well as their own reasons for believing the atheist is still rational. What reasons are there for still considering the atheist rational? One reason could be that the conclusion the atheist came to, that the theist’s claim should be rejected, is rational, and there are good reasons to reject the theist’s claim even if the atheist is unaware of them. All that matters is when judging the atheist’s rationality is that the conclusion they came to is rational. So, there is no burden of proof on the atheist’s part, they do not have to prove their reasons for rejecting it are rational so long as rejecting it is rational.
All that has happened here is the burden of proof has been pushed back slightly, it has been shifted from the atheist to the person claiming the atheist has behaved rationally. That person has made several claims. The person has taken on a burden of proof to show that the atheist has behaved rationally, that there are good reasons to reject the theist’s claims even if we do not know those reasons, and that they are in fact good reasons to reject the theist’s claims. Even if we go by the definition that ‘the burden of proof is on the one making the positive claim’, this burden of proof still stands, because these are all positive claims. So, there is still a burden of proof on the atheist’s belief, all that has happened here is that the responsibility has been move to another person.
To conclude, those arguing that there is no burden of proof on beliefs, or on the atheist’s rejection of theistic claim, or on atheists at all, should rethink their stance. At least if they want to continue to claim they are behaving rationally, or that their rejection of theistic claims is rational, anyway. As argued above, the burden of proof is on the one making the claim. In this case, the claim is that their behaviour is rational, or that their beliefs are rational, or that their rejection of theistic claims is rational. This means that the atheist making these claims has a duty to justify them, they have a burden of proof to show these claims are accurate. This involves showing that their line of reasoning for rejecting the theistic claims is rational, and that each link in the chain of reasoning is rational. Well, that or hold their hands up and claim irrationality and be done with it.
Cargile, J. (1997) ‘On the Burden of Proof’, Philosophy, Vol. 72, No. 279, pp. 59-83.
Hahn, U. and Oaksford, M. (2007) ‘The Burden of Proof and Its Role in Argumentation’, Argumentation, Vol. 21, pp. 39-61.
Philocentric (2010) ‘Burden of proof (philosophy)’, Wikipedia [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burden_of_proof_(philosophy) (Accessed 13 May 2020).
Hi, I’m Dave. As you can already tell, I’m one of the authors at AiR, as well as a member of the podcast. I’m also the Dave you see on our live streams on Twitch and YouTube. I am an atheist. I don’t use the ‘lack of belief’ definition though, and use the ‘belief God does not exist’ definition for me. I have always been an atheist, and have never been part of a religion.
While I do enjoy discussions around the existence of God, I try to post a wider range of content here. My focus is mainly on philosophy, as that is the topic I enjoy. I have a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, and am waiting on the results for my MA in Philosophy. Will find out in December whether I have been awarded the degree!
This is why my posts tend to focus more on the philosophy side of things. I try to post a wider range of topics than just those surrounding theism and atheism. You will also find articles discussing arguments from atheists that I find to be lacking, or poorly argued. This is mostly because I want to see the atheist community improve its arguments, and to see atheists give stronger and better arguments.
Hopefully you will enjoy some of my content, and I hope even more that it makes you look at certain arguments and ideas in a different way. Plus, hopefully some atheists that dismiss philosophy out of hand might actually see it’s more interesting than they first though. Philosophy is an awesome subject!
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