When debating the existence of God, a fundamental question driving the discussion is, “Who has the burden of proof?” My very simple answer is this – it depends.
The burden of proof is carried by the theist and non-theist alike given the various truth claims being made by either interlocutor. We have all heard the atheist assert that they have no burden of proof whatsoever, that atheism is not a belief system, and that atheism is the lack of belief in a deity not a positive assertion about reality. The first position, that atheists have no burden of proof whatsoever, is relatively accurate but not entirely true. If the atheist is discussing the question, “Does God exist,” then it would be correct, in my view, that they do not carry a burden of proof with regard to demonstrating the non-existence of God. However, they do have a responsibility in attempting to demonstrate the implausibility of God’s existence, a contradiction in the attributes of God, flaws in the theist’s arguments, or other violations of the laws of logic within the theistic worldview. So understood, this may be called the weak burden of proof, whereby the atheist must, at the very least, demonstrate rational and/or evidential implausibility of their opponent’s position. The latter claim, that atheism is only a lack of belief rather than a positive assertion about reality, is incorrect. Atheism contains at least one belief, which is the positive assertion that God does not exist. Consider the term “asymmetrical.” If I were to say that a shape is asymmetrical, I would not be making the claim that I merely lack belief in the symmetry of said shape under analysis. I would be claiming that the shape does not possess the attribute or property of symmetry. Similarly, this is what the atheist is claiming about reality when discussing the existence of God with a theist; that reality does not include the existence of God. Simply stated, there is no God on the atheistic account of reality. Agnosticism is different from atheism in the sense that we do not, nor will we ever attain knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence, therefore we must withhold judgment on the matter. The agnostic claim is that we lack belief because we cannot know. Atheism and agnosticism are two different claims about the ultimate explanation of existence, and the fundamental features of reality concerning the existence or non-existence of God.
Atheists will also claim that the non-existence of God should not be associated with a belief system; that atheism contains no truth claims about reality other than the negation of a belief, which I have already shown to be mistaken. Again, this claim is close to accurate, but needs to be reformulated in order to make sense. What the atheist should say is that atheism is only a derivative claim based on prior metaphysical and epistemological views, and carries little weight when thinking about various philosophical and scientific questions about reality. For example, when a scientist who happens to be an atheist is attempting to solve a problem or answering an important question about nature, they have very little concern with the derivative element of atheism contained within their worldview. They may not even be all that worried about their metaphysical or epistemological beliefs, other than how they provide the appropriate motivation to pursue what they are interested in; they are not thinking about naturalism or scientism at that particular moment. The scientist is simply focused on doing science. Atheism is a result of their prior, more important intellectual philosophical commitments, and not the central focus of these commitments. Understood this way, the atheist, it seems to me, is potentially justified when saying their atheism is not a belief system. Despite this justification, they are not unburdened from the fact that they do have a much broader belief system in what is most likely a commitment to metaphysical naturalism/materialism, epistemological scientism, or some variant kind of positivism. These other truth claims about reality – naturalism/scientism – must be defended by the person claiming to be an atheist. Within this conceptual framework, they most certainly carry a strong burden of proof with regard to these various inner-workings about reality as such.
To further demonstrate this point, let’s say a theist said something like this, “My theism is only the lack of belief that nature is all that there is. I am utterly unconvinced by the arguments made by a naturalist. All of their arguments are lacking evidential and philosophical persuasion, and the epistemological views of scientism are self-defeating. My theism is merely a lack of belief given the claims of the naturalist, and I am under no burden of proof otherwise. I am merely an a-naturalist, which again, means that I only lack a belief in the claims made by the naturalist.” Would an atheist accept this? Upon hearing this explanation, would they concede that the theist is correct, and they, the mild mannered atheist must carry all of the burden of proof upon their shoulders? I don’t think so. The atheist would properly identify the above explanation as a bit of robust sophistry, and with good reason reject these claims. And they should reject these claims for the same reasons the Christian rejects them when espoused by the atheist. The “a-naturalist” is not making claims only about their lack of belief in a differing metaphysical world picture, they are saying something that is derivatively attached to a broader view of the world that does in fact state something positive, which is that God exists.
When debating the question, “Does God exist,” the atheist might be said to have a weak burden of proof. It would follow then, that the theist has a strong burden of proof, and it is their responsibility in this dialogue to demonstrate the truth of their claims. The theist must provide good philosophical arguments proving the existence of God by way of deductive, imaginative postulation. Moreover, it is arguably prudent to also put forth evidential arguments to inductively support the broader deductive claims about reality. Although prudent, this is not the primary or strongest element when arguing for the truth of God’s existence. In fact, I would argue that these inductive arguments which usually concern the modern discoveries of science should only be made with the goal to demonstrate the frailty of the naturalist claim, and not for positive proof of God’s existence. The existence of God is not dependent upon the claims of science, since any and all scientific discoveries made requires an ordered universe created by God. For example, the theist will argue for a universe that is teleological, that is, the universe is imbued with a purpose and is directed toward a final end, namely, to glorify God the Creator. Is there any scientific evidence that can raise the plausibility of this metaphysical claim? Has the scientific community discovered any evidence for a teleological universe? I think the answer to this question is in the affirmative. These discoveries do not prove God exists, but they certainly throw a wrench in the naturalist claims of purposeless, anti-teleological natural selection guiding the modern atheistic mind. I want to emphasize this point, however, because I think a lot of apologists have mistakenly staked their claim on the prestige of science to defend theism – science should only be used to undermine the case of the naturalist and not as positive proof for the existence of God. The arguments for the existence of God can be found in the tools of natural theology (rather than the natural sciences) and the imaginative literary descriptions of an aesthetic worldview explained by theism. What is popular in the scientific community one day can become old hat the following. The flimsy authority of “scientific consensus” should not be a standard for Christian theological and metaphysical truths. Christ is our exemplar, not the prestige of scientific journals.
Although the majority of the time the debate focuses on the question, “Does God exist,” we can consider a different debate question, which will further assist my purpose in claiming that the atheist and theist both carry a burden of proof. If the debate question were, “Is Metaphysical Naturalism True” or “Which Worldview Best Describes Reality: Naturalism or Theism” we can detect a potential shift in argumentative burden. Within this format, the theist now has the weak burden of proof while the atheist/naturalist will have the strong burden of proof. Everything I said above will now be reversed, so to speak, and the roles would have changed. The atheist now must present deductive and inductive evidence for their claims, while the theist will only need to show implausibility and/or find a contradiction in the claims of the naturalist.
So who carries the burden of proof in the debate over the existence of God? It depends.
– Lucas G. Westman