Who Has the Burden of Proof in Matters of Religion?

Knowledge-Reid-HighsmithIn his post "Who has the Burden of Proof? Atheism vs. Theism" (update: link no longer active), Austin Cline provided us with an outstanding discussion of something every atheist (and every religious believer) should understand. Atheism (i.e., a lack of belief in gods) is the default position, the place from which everyone begins. This means that the burden of proof always lies with the religious believer. Why? Because the religious believer is the one making the claim (i.e., that some sort of god or gods exist). It really is that simple.

It is not necessary for the atheist to claim certainty that no gods could possibly exist to be an atheist. Atheism requires no such certainty. Typically, the atheist's position is simply that the religious believer has failed to meet their burden of proof. If that were to change (i.e., a religious believer comes forward with sufficient evidence to support god-belief), rational atheists would quickly abandon atheism.

The religious believer is making a specific claim that a god or gods exist. Such a claim requires supporting evidence if it is to be accepted rationally. Without such evidence, it is not rational to accept it as true. This is why appeals to faith are offered in the religious context; however, it is important to note that such appeals are not accepted in any other context. If I tell you that I communicate with my dog telepathically, you'll ask for evidence. If I provide none but merely insist that you have to have faith that what I'm claiming is true, you'll rightly laugh at me. I see no reason why this shouldn't be the case when it comes to claims about gods.

It is not up to the atheist to prove that no gods exist. It is also not up to the atheist to somehow provide proof of atheism. It is up to the person making the claim that gods exist to provide evidence sufficient to support their claim. As long as the religious believer fails to do so, atheism is the only rational position. Remember, most atheists are not 100% certain no gods have, do, or could ever exist; most of us are merely waiting for the religious believer to meet their burden of proof. And we have been waiting a long time.

An early version of this post appeared at Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was updated and expanded in 2018.