Thursday, December 7, 2017

False Equivalency and the Burden of Proof

Time and again theists argue that, since atheists claim that God doesn’t exist, it is actually the atheists who have the “burden of proof” to show that God does not exist as they claim. When this happens, most atheists respond by saying that atheists in general “merely” lack a belief in God (or gods) and that they don’t actually make any claims that need to be proven. Theists, they say, are the ones who go around claiming that God does exist, and atheists simply say, “I don’t believe you” or perhaps even, “You have not provided me with any good reason, any compelling evidence or argument, to accept that your claim is true.”

Now, this is certainly true as far as it goes, but it often comes across as just a way to avoid the burden of proof by putting it back onto the theists without actually contributing anything to the discussion aside from saying, “I don’t have to prove anything, you do!” And some atheist take this a step further by actually acknowledging that atheists would indeed bear the full burden of proof of establishing that God does not exist if, in fact, they actually asserted that He didn’t exist instead of just stating their lack of belief.

Well, this is all well and good for atheist who really do just lack a belief in God, but it makes those of us who actually assert that no gods actually exist seem a bit irrational (which is, of course, exactly what the theists have in mind when making their claim about the burden of proof in the first place). Are we irrational to assert that no gods exist? Perhaps, but there are two important things to understand here:
  • “Absolute proof” only exists in the realm of pure mathematics in the first place, and the best anybody can ever actually be expected to provide is compelling evidence of whatever it is they happen to be asserting as true. Many theists actually seem to acknowledge this fact by claiming that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved (as a way of avoiding their own burden of proof) right before attempting to shift that supposedly impossible burden of proof onto atheists. Yes, they want to have it both ways: “God’s existence can be neither proved nor disproved, but it if it could be then it would be the atheist’s responsibility.”
  • While the “burden of proof” is on the person making a claim about something, not all burdens are equally onerous! In other words, there is a false equivalency in asserting that the burden of proof of somebody claiming there is no God is exactly the same burden of proof of somebody claiming there is a God.
Let me address these two points individually. 

1. Can the Existence of God Be Proved or Disproved?

Is it actually the case that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved? Well, again, if you are talking about “proof” as in the the absolute certainty only available in the realm of pure mathematics, then of course it is true. But that’s not really what most people mean when they talk about proving something. If asked to prove whether I have an apple in my hand, I can do so for all practical purposes by opening my hand and showing the apple that I’m holding. Nobody claims that the apple could just be an illusion, that perhaps our whole existence is merely a dream or a simulation. When somebody asks me to “prove” that I have an apple in my hand, they are merely asking for compelling evidence that I have an apple in my hand, and I can provide that compelling evidence simply by showing the apple.

Similarly, if asked to prove that I don’t have an apple in my hand, once again I can provide compelling evidence simply by opening my hand and showing that it is empty. This is what most people mean and expect when discussing proof in everyday life, and requiring something beyond compelling evidence when discussing the existence of God is nothing more than a dodge on the part of those people who know full well that they cannot provide any compelling evidence for their assertion. So the real question is not whether the existence or nonexistence of God can be “proved” but instead whether any compelling evidence can be provided as to its existence or not. 

2. Is the Burden of Proof the Same between Theists and Atheists? 

So, just how heavy is the burden of proof when it comes to providing compelling evidence for the non-existence of God and is it really the same as the burden of proof when it comes to providing compelling evidence for the existence of God? The answer to this can be summed up in a phrase made popular by the astronomer Carl Sagan, to wit: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." When somebody makes an extraordinary claim (such as, say, that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving intelligent being who created the universe, appeared before various people, provided moral guidelines, performed all sorts miracles, made lots of promises about future events, etc.), the burden of proof becomes extraordinarily high.

It’s not enough, for example, to simply provide an argument that suggests that something must be responsible for the formation of the universe or to claim that, since “science” can’t currently explain some aspect of the natural world that therefore the particular God somebody happens to worship “must be” (or even “possibly could be”) the actual explanation. It’s not enough to point to anecdotal stories of people who occasionally received something they prayed for (especially when ignoring all the times they didn’t get what they prayed for). It’s not enough to point out cases where holy scriptures written by ignorant and superstitious Bronze Age desert tribesmen supposedly mention something that, if interpreted in just the right way, kind of, sort of reflect knowledge that people living at that time may not have been able to discover on their own (especially when ignoring all the rest of the text that completely disagrees with what we now know about the universe). Theists who claim that God exists have a very, very large burden of proof to provide compelling evidence that the God that they actually worship (as opposed to some sort of “hidden” God who created the universe and is now wholly imperceptible by any means) does, in fact, exist.

And what of the burden of proof for those of us who claim that no such God exists? Given the extraordinary high burden of proof theists bear in the first place, all we need do is point out that the sort of God actually worshiped by theists would necessarily leave behind plenty of compelling evidence of its existence, which makes the lack of any such compelling evidence is, in itself, compelling evidence that such a God does not exist (see Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence). If further compelling evidence is required, we need only point out the logical contradictions inherent with the theistic concept of God in the first place (see The Logical Impossibility of God).

Now, keep in mind that atheism does not exist in a vacuum, but is instead a response to a claim made by theists. Atheists didn’t just come up with the idea one day that “no gods exist” and then start running around telling everybody this. Instead, it was theists who made the original claim that gods do exist and then tried to covert everybody else to their belief. Which is to say that, even if an atheist does bear some burden of proof for claiming that no gods exist, that in no way removes the much larger burden of proof that theists bear. For more on this, see Atheism Without Theism?.
Another thing to keep in mind when weighing the relative burden of proof is that there’s a difference between denying something for which there is compelling evidence and denying something for which there is no compelling evidence. If somebody claimed, for example, that the moon was an illusion and didn’t really exist, then that person would bear a pretty hefty burden of proof to back up that claim since there is plenty of well-accepted evidence that the moon does, in fact, exist (we can see it, we have measured how it affects the tides, we have actually landed on it, etc.). Compare that with somebody who responds to a claim that a 10-mile wide cloaked alien spacecraft is currently hovering over downtown Manhattan, poised to obliterate the Empire State Building, by claiming that no such craft exists because there is absolutely no evidence of it even possibly existing (let alone actually existing). Sure, the person denying the existence of the moon and the person denying the existence of the cloaked spacecraft are both making a claim, but the burden of proof is not equal between these two claims. Similarly, atheists are not in the position of denying something for which there is compelling evidence, but instead in the position of denying something for which there is no compelling evidence, and as a result their burden of proof is much less than theists would have us believe.

Some theists, by the way, attempt to wiggle out of their burden of proof by saying that they merely “believe” in God without actually “claiming” or “asserting” that God exists (much the same, supposedly, as how many atheist claim that “lack of belief in God” is not the same as “asserting that God doesn’t exist”). Sure, there are undoubtedly some theists who don’t actually claim that God exists just as there are some atheists who actually do claim that God does not exist, but the typical dynamic is for theists to claim that God does, in fact, exist (and they have evidence and arguments to prove it), since most theists apparently understand how irrational it would be to believe in something you don’t actually claim exists in the first place. Seriously, how ridiculous would it be to go around saying stuff like, “I believe that grass is green and rain is wet, but I’m not actually claiming that grass is green and rain is wet”?

The point of all this is that many atheists have allowed themselves to be convinced that the “burden of proof” is a bad thing that should on no account ever be accepted when it comes to the existence of God, and this just allows theists to claim that, while it may not be possible to prove that God does exist, it’s just as impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist and therefore atheists are as equally irrational as theists for believing in something that cannot be proved. Once we realize, however, that “proved” in this context just means “has compelling evidence to support” and that the burden of proof on theists is significantly higher than that on atheists, we should stop being afraid of the burden of proof and feel confident asserting without reservation that no God of any sort worshiped by anybody actually exists.

Oh, and with regard to the so-called “Deist” God who created the universe and then promptly disappeared without a trace:

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