“The burden is on the claimant!”, “I only lack belief so I have no burden”, “I don’t hold a belief as that is a claim” and other phrases are touted by many fellow atheists on the internet. Is this correct, or are we missing some of the picture?
This article hopes to discuss
- What is the burden of proof? (aka BoP)
- To whom does the burden of proof apply?
- What do we mean by claim?
Before we start, I feel we should clarify what we mean by atheist here, and the topic we are discussing.
Whilst I prefer the more classical definition of atheist, we will use the internet/American lead definition of atheist which includes all forms of non-theist as an atheist.
In regards to the topic, we are discussing the BoP and belief positions.
What is the Burden of Proof?
The burden of proof (Latin: onus probandi, shortened from Onus probandi incumbit ei qui dicit, non ei qui negat) is the obligation on a party in a dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.
So like the big bang was more of an expansion and the name stuck, so too the Burden of Proof (or BoP) is simply an obligation to justify your position.
What do we mean by justification?
Simply put, we are making whatever position we hold rational. We use logic and probability theory to consider if we accept the position. We make sure there is no contrary evidence.
The level of justification has to match the claim. Believing someone’s name is what they tell you is different to believing unicorns exist.
Who does the Burden of Proof apply to?
“The burden is on the one making the claim” is a common phrase we hear and whilst it is true that if you are asserting something is true, you have to fulfil a burden to prove it to be true, that is not the only thing the burden of proof applies to.
The short answer is, it applies everyone in every situation. The point is we all owe a level of justification for our position, even if the position is that we simply “lack belief”.
This worries many fellow atheists as they think the BoP means you have to definitively prove your position. They also conflate holding a belief with making a claim, which is why they hide behind “lack of belief” assuming that is free of the burden.
This is also wrong. Remember the BoP is just adequately justifying your position, whatever the position may be. That is the only burden.
Recap: You don’t have to prove there is no god, just justify why you don’t believe one exists.
What do we mean by claim?
As mentioned previously, many folks seem to conflate holding a belief with making a truth/knowledge claim. This is not true.
A belief is simply; something we hold as true, think most probable etc.
“I believe God exists”, “I think the bridge will hold my weight”
A claim is something we assert as true. We will usually believe what we assert as true, but simply take it to a higher level of certainty. It is something we say IS rather than something that with think has a high probability.
“God Exists”, “The bridge will hold my weight”
What is the difference between the burden on a claim and on a belief?
As explained previously, there is a certain nuance between the terms. One is simply something you think is true and the other something you are saying is true.
In both instances, we want to make our position rational, but there is a definite difference to the level of justification between something we think is true and something we claim is true.
So for a belief, or something we think true, our burden is to show that we have used logical reasoning and there is no strong conflicting evidence against the position.
For a claim, we are saying it IS true. This steps out of the realms of pure thought and into reality. Thus requires a heavier burden.
The Burden on The Belief Gods Do Not Exist
This is much simpler than folks think to fulfil, but this is why I believe gods do not exist.
- Overwhelming lack of credible convincing evidence for any gods existence.
- Multiple different god claims.
- No coherent and consistent definitions of gods, even those within a particular religion discussing the same god.
- Contrary testimony.
- Errors in holy books, be they scientific, historical, or moral.
- Models that work without the need for a god.
- All arguments put forward for gods contain some level of presupposition or fallacy.
OK so what about a ‘Lack of Belief’, does that have a burden?
Having discussed belief, e.g. thinking gods do or do not exist, what about folks who say they lack belief in gods existing but don’t hold a belief gods do not exist? (e.g. they lack belief in both god existing and not existing) – what is their burden?
It’s exactly the same as a belief, they simply need to justify their position. You could argue that not only do they need to justify why they do not believe in gods existing, they also have to justify why they do not believe gods do not exist. Yup, the “lack belief” in both belief positions actually carries a burden in both directions.
You could start with my list above for why you don’t believe a god exists, but then consider why you don’t believe a god does not exist either. Whilst I should not do this for you, as it is not my position, it could be a number of things like:
- There are still things yet to be explained by science.
- We do not have knowledge of everything.
- Human reason has been shown to be fallible on a number of things.
- You are unsure on if a god exists or not so don’t believe either way.
- You do not believe the senses are reliable enough to determine the truth.
And I am sure there are many other things you could add as to why you don’t hold a belief a god does not exist.
Belief/Lack of Belief Confusion
Classically speaking, a theist believes a god exists and therefore lacks belief in god not existing. (BP & ~B~P) [B = belief, P = proposition, in this case god exists, ~ = not, so ~B = not belief or lack belief]
An atheist was the opposite, holding a belief god does not exist, therefore lacking belief in a god existing. (B~P & ~BP – also known as disbelief in P)
The third position on the belief spectrum was remaining agnostic, lacking belief in both a god existing and not existing. ( ~BP & ~B~P – also known as unbelief or nonbelief in P)
This third position has now been classed on the internet and in the states as another form of atheism called agnostic atheism. The issue here is, holding a belief is not making a knowledge claim, so someone who believes god does not exist, rather than lacking belief in both positions, is not a “Gnostic Atheist” nor are they an Anti-Theist (someone who is against anyone believing in a god). It sort of leaves the classical atheist with no real position anymore, and folks telling them what they believe.
This is indeed another issue with these modern redefinitions of words that used to follow the rules of logic, but no longer do.
I think because people don’t consider what they do believe, conflate having a belief with making a claim, don’t fully understand the burden of proof, and have various definitions of words that have evolved that don’t necessarily match the philosophy and even have different definitions in various dictionaries, you end up getting into silly semantic arguments.
This indeed can become frustrating on the net, especially when folks are making poor arguments off of the back of illogical definitions, or saying there is “only one definition”.
Atheism is polysemous, that means it has many definitions. It is wrong to call any wrong, but some are definitely less logical than others.
Language is defined through use, so when on the internet we have to accept that most will be using the less logical definition and that any form of non-theist is regarded as an atheist.
So What About Theists that Say they KNOW God exists?
A theist has a tough job to make their belief in a deity rational as it is, especially if they follow a holy book like the Bible filled with historical, scientific, and moral errors and they suggest it is literally God’s word. It’s almost impossible for a belief like that to not be somewhat irrational.
It becomes even harder when they say they KNOW their god exists. If we think about this in difficulty levels, a belief position is easy mode, especially for an atheist or agnostic, less so for a theist and for a religious theist it is even harder as you have to validate the doctrine, and so many texts have things that are erroneous in them.
Knowledge then carries a much tougher burden. Whilst you might not always need to verify something for it to be knowledge, the greater the claim of knowledge, the greater the justification required. When the best justification is arguments that rely on presuppositions or assertions like “god is self-evident” or you “feel it is true” then it’s hard to even justify a belief as rational let alone call it knowledge.
That said I would feel comfortable saying I know certain gods do not exist. For example, the God of the Bible can’t exist as described, and though I am open to that God being based on a real god, it is described in such a logically inconsistent way throughout the book and believers that I think it can’t exist.
A loving, all-knowing, all-powerful being, created angels and people in a way that would commit original sin and he would be “disappointed” in them and “had” to commit mass genocide? Of course, there are the standard excuses of not knowing gods plan and as he knows all that was the best way to do things, but do you really think an all-powerful and all-knowing god didn’t have the power and knowledge to give humans free will without all the plagues and genocide? That he couldn’t give us a bible not corrupted by man and filled with errors? That we couldn’t be given a perfect set of morals in the bible from the start? If they needed updating every few hundred years, where have they been the last how long? This is just a short block on the logical inconsistencies with the Bible and there are so many more.
I can equally think of many excuses that can be made on behalf of this God and they all seem to rely on a level of presupposition or fallacy that makes them irrelevant to the conversation.
But whilst I might say I know that particular god does not exist as described I don’t know for if there are no gods, nor do I know any god from any holy book wasn’t based on something “real”.
For the sake of the conversation around a god’s existence, which I’ll be honest I care less and less about as I have never heard a theist make a strong coherent case for any god, I think we need to define the god in question, the characteristics of that god and see if it holds up to scrutiny. If it does not then it is more than fair not to believe in it. If the god described is logically impossible, I think it is fair to say you know it does not exist, at least as described without some modifier like “oh, but God is also a psychopath“.
Summary of the Burden of Proof
- Whilst the burden IS on the person making the claim to support their position, you equally hold a burden to make your position rational for not believing them.
Note, your burden is not to prove a god does not exist, just why you do not believe their claim, and part of that can be they haven’t supported their position to be a rational one.
- Believing something is true is not the same as claiming something is true.
- A belief is just a positive attitude towards a proposition, something you think is true or most probable.
- There is a burden on all belief positions, even lack of beliefs.
- The BoP is a simple justification to make the belief rational.
- To make something rational you use logical reasoning (and therefore no logical fallacies), probability theory, and have no conflicting evidence.
- There is no doubt in my mind that a theist has a harder burden to make their belief rational, and most make a claim on top of that.
- The theist should also not shift the burden of proof (e.g. it is not up to you to prove their god does not exist, it is for them to support) however you should remember you do have to justify your position for it to be rational.
- If you are happy holding an irrational position, you by no means have to justify yourself. Atheists, like anyone that holds a belief, can do so rationally, irrationally, or arationally.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Epistemology
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Belief
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Truth
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Atheism and Agnosticism
- Why should we use the rules of logic?
- CMT5 – I Don’t Believe
- CMT2 – Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism
- Fresh AiR – Atheists and Atheism
- Fresh AiR – Reason and Rationality
- Fresh AiR – Knowledge, Truth and Belief