Atheists v. Theists: In Debate, Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

In a free country’s courts of law, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This burden of proof rests with the accusers because a free society has a vital interest in protecting the rights of individuals. When one makes a claim against an individual that would deprive that person of freedom or property, it is a grave matter (because human rights are a grave matter). The claim must be accompanied by good reasons and evidence. That’s what a burden of proof is: the requirement to provide good reasons and evidence for a claim.

But when you take the idea of the burden of proof out of the courtroom, the concept becomes dubious as a debating point between contending views (as in, “Who has the burden of proof concerning a religious claim?”). The reason is that no claim, for a rational individual, is ever presumed innocent. If one is rational, it follows that you will expect four things of any claim that you adhere to (or are asked to adhere to):

  • The claim is accompanied by evidence.
  • If evidence is not explicitly present, you at least have good reasons for believing the claim (inductions, deductions, plausible analogies and associations, appeals to expert consensus on a matter, etc).
  • The claim is coherent. In other words, it agrees with the other things that you think you already know about the universe; it coheres with your background knowledge.
  • Out of a series of competing claims, your claim appears to be the best of the bunch. If it is a broad hypothesis about a matter, it is not just a pretty good hypothesis, it is the best hypothesis. Reasoning to the best hypothesis is known as abduction.

Here’s a simple example of a belief accompanied by supports: if a woman surmises that her husband is cheating on her, she may acquire such a belief because there is some combination of the following: 

  • explicit evidence (she has found a cryptic message to another woman in one of his jacket pockets);
  • good reasons (he’s unusually quiet around her; he never sleeps with her anymore);
  • it coheres with her background knowledge (he is a narcissist and travels a lot for business); and
  • it is the best explanation of his behavioral patterns given all that she knows about him (he might just be out with the boys at a bar after work, or making extra-money on the side to buy her a new car, but these seem implausible to her. An affair, in her estimation, is most likely). 

When you take the burden of proof out of the courtroom, and make no claim “innocent,” then you realize that the burden of proof always rests on you (because you never want to believe or reject a claim that you can’t justify with a demonstration of evidence, good reasons, coherence, and some process of abduction to the best hypothesis). If the matter is of genuine concern to you, then nothing is left presumed. When somebody claims, for example, that an invisible gremlin is in the lightbulbs of a room, making them shine, it’s not so much the burden of proof upon that person that leads you to reject the claim—it is, rather, the burden of proof that you’ve already assumed for yourself: you have already arrived at a good theory concerning why lightbulbs work, and it’s not just a good theory, it’s the best one, to your knowledge, on offer. Your theory is based on good reasons and evidence, and it coheres with your background knowledge. You’ve been given no good reasons (presumably) to entertain the gremlin hypothesis of lightbulbs.

And so, in the conflict between atheists and theists (one advocating naturalism; the other supernaturalism), neither side is accorded a presumption of innocence. Both must account for themselves in precisely the same way: with evidence, reasons, background knowledge coherences, and hypothesis testing. Each has to look at the whole (for the truth is the whole) and decide which Weltanschauung—worldview—in the end, makes the most sense. Nobody gets a free ride in the intellectual effort required here (unless you don’t care enough to make the effort, and have decided to be an irrationalist and just believe whatever you want).

Of course, rational people, having different temperaments, will draw different conclusions about the murky matters surrounding God’s existence. Here, for example, is the kind of puzzle that has no obvious answer, but that divides atheists and theists:

Did the material universe and its physical laws just come into existence out of nothing, have they always been here, or did a mind—the mind of God—preceed matter and the laws of physics?

Who has the burden of proof on such a question? Obviously, a paradox of the profoundest mystery rests at the heart of existence. Neither naturalism nor supernaturalism possesses the obvious default answer to the question of whether we live in one world or two.

And so, to my mind, the burden of proof question is a red herring, and, with regard to atheism v. theism, comes down to these two questions:

  • Which is the first thing to exist: mind or matter?
  • Does mind reduce to matter?

To pretend that we know the answers to these questions is to live in falsity. The truth is that we don’t know, exactly, where we are or whether we are operating under the right set of premises. A lot of what we conclude about our existence is guesswork. The burden of proof, therefore, rests with one and all, and each of us has to decide what makes the most sense to us. Since the answers to our questions of ultimate concern (such as whether mind might have preceded matter in the universe) are not obvious, intuition, invariably, must also come into play (and so gets added to evidence, good reasons, coherence, and hypothesis testing). In other words, we have to lay bets and hope that we have laid them well, and have some sympathy for those who put their bets on different parts of the table. Part of making a bet entails going with your gut. It always has.

I like what Damon Linker recently wrote about post-9-11 atheists (such as “gnu atheist” Jerry Coyne) v. post-World War II atheists (such as Albert Camus):

The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.

Ask not for whom the burden of proof tolls. It tolls for thee.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Atheists v. Theists: In Debate, Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

  1. I think you have somewhat of a point in about a first-cause discussion, but I’d still say the more metaphysically minimal explanation remains more plausible in that case. I don’t buy that burden of proof is always irrelevant outside of a court though.

    I don’t think it’s ever reasonable to make unsupported assertions and then demand that anyone who disagrees prove otherwise. Any of the usual atheist examples will suffice in this case. Can you prove that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not the first cause? If I claim that it is and you disagree, is the burden of proof distributed equally between us? I think not.

    As to the origin of the universe, it seems to me that the individual claiming to have specific knowledge about it is the one burdened with providing evidence. I don’t know how the universe began. It seems to me that someone claiming to know can be reasonably said to bear a burden of evidence, if not exactly proof.

    • santitafarella says:

      Key of:

      Proof is the wrong word, in my view, to use with regard to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nothing in logic precludes the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But I can conclude with great certainty that the FSM is not a plausible hypothesis concerning the first cause. The reason is that the FSM-as-God hypothesis is less plausible than simpler hypotheses: an unspecified first cause, for example. An unspecified first cause is more likely than one we attempt to specify. The question then becomes this: is there a first cause, and if so, does mind or chance attach to it? From that question, neither the atheist nor the theist can run.

      If you say, as you did, that you don’t know how the universe began, then agnosticism—not atheism or theism—is where it seems you ought to be stuck. I’m stuck there, too. How does one proceed, existentially, with life in such a fog? Wait for Godot?

      Coin flip?


      • I brought up the FSM because it’s just as impossible to prove its non-existence as a first cause as it is to prove the non-existence of anything. I think you’re correct in saying that plausibility is where a reasonable discussion will turn.

        My conclusion about a personal god mirrors your conclusion about the FSM: I find it an implausible and unproductive position. Everything we know about consciousness suggests that it is a function of physical systems. The failure of dualism renders the idea of a non-physical consciousness also nonsensical.

        I consider myself atheist because I do not believe in a god. On the specific question of first causes I suppose I am technically agnostic, though atheistically so. I don’t think religion shows much promise for useful innovation in that area.

        I don’t find that this lack of certainty clouds my life in the least. There is plenty to learn and plenty to do without pretending to know the unknowable. The precise nature of the origin of the universe is fascinating to me, but it isn’t a moral or existential concern.

        I am concerned with living the best life I can according to a basically trait-utilitarian/altruistic-hedonist world view. It’s working fine so far.

      • santitafarella says:

        Key of:

        I’m dubious of the old “you can’t prove a negative argument, therefore I won’t try to answer it.” Every person has a positive hypothesis on which they function with regard to God belief (and anything else for that matter). Here are the positive theist and atheist hypotheses: “God exists,” and “God does not exist.” The way to undermine, in my view, the canard of “you can’t prove a negative, so I won’t respond to your supernatural hypothesis or speculation” is to ask the person for her hypothesis, and why she holds it. That forces the person to, ultimately, engage in a positive act of abduction, telling the other person why, exactly, she has concluded that, among the hypotheses on offer, hers is best.

        Of course, you did that in your response above, concluding that the God hypothesis is simply too complicated and you see no reason to think that mind can ever be divorced from matter, or is divorced from matter.

        And, as you implied, abduction is in the family of inductions, not deductions. Arriving at the apparently best hypothesis is always a matter of probability, not absolute proof (as with a deduction—“If A and B are true, C must, logically, also be true. . . .”).

        As for your pragmatism in the face of uncertainty, that’s fine. I wish I was temperamentally wired to fret less existentially.


      • eneraldocarneiro says:

        It depends on what you mean by “know”. We don’t know lots of stuff but some things are less likely than others, some things are less plausible.
        It seems to me that the hipotesys: Mind precedes matter (AND energy) is way less plausible than the opposite. Unless you define mind in a way that it suit your needs to make ‘mind precedes matter’ necessary or even plausible. It looks like that’s preciselly what theists do as far as i can tell.

  2. I am not sure why first cause is the root of the issue, although maybe it is because I perceive the argument differently than you do. The argument is the natural world versus the supernatural world – which implicitly makes the edges blurry. A brief look back over history shows how the natural world has cannibalized the supernatural. 2000 years ago, we had no idea why earthquakes occurred. To most, it was supernatural. We now have plate tectonics and what was once part of the supernatural is now part of the natural. There are innumerable examples of this.

    Throughout human history, the unknown has always been explained as supernatural. It is fairly recent that many people have started to see things differently – that there is an explanation through the natural world for all things that we do not understand. Our lack of understanding is simply our present state. If we can keep from destroying ourselves and keep advancing, then we may, someday, explain every unexplainable thing.

    Origin is no different. There are actually some great new theories (very young theories) about origin. Everything from a holographic universe, to black holes and a multiverse, to a universe from nothing. (I am a Krauss fan, thus my plug :))

    If there is one thing that the last 1000 years of history has shown us, it is that lack of an explanation does not mean God, the supernatural, the FSM or anything else. All it means is that we do not know.

    As I was writing this, I was pondering WHY I have an inability to believe and why others have a need to believe. Many people NEED to know. I think that is one of the primary appeals of religion. I wonder what the psychological factors are that spur a person one direction or another in terms of religion. I have a lot of code to write this AM, but might do a blog entry on this later.

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    I think that your legal analogies (‘burden of proof’ and ‘presumption of innocence’) are the real red herrings here.

    If we were to debate a contention by you that there are fairies living at the bottom of my garden, I’m sure we’d agree that there is no ‘burden of proof’ on you. (I might of course conclude that you were an idiot).

    Equally, however, I’m sure that we’d agree that you did carry the burden of proof if you were using that contention as an argument to prevent me from cutting down the trees in my garden.

    The problem I have with Linker’s attacks on us atheists is that, as far as I can see, he is talking about tolerating the impositions on us of Believers and their Gods, and not about tolerating the debates of philosophers and their gods.


  4. Antony Flew wrote about exactly this question in “The Presumption of Atheism”. He writes very clearly for a philosopher, i was quite impressed.

    Unfortunately I haven’t read enough of it to contribute to this, except, obviously he concluded that to assume atheism and let the burden of proof rest on theists is the correct way to go.

    I’m now working through Flew’s “Why I’m now a theist” book for the second time.

  5. Colin Hutton says:

    Spritzo – Flew sounds interesting – I’ll have to add him to the list of authors to read if at all possible in the time still available to me.

    Santi – I have dropped enough hints around the family to be quite confident that Santa will present me with a copy of Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” on Saturday.


    • santitafarella says:


      Ridley’s book is exceptional—and a source of holiday cheer (because optimistic about the human future). It gives one rational hope in the midst of North Korean nutters, Iranian mullahs, and Sarah Palinistas.


  6. Christ's Angel says:

    Burden of proof is the tax of the wicked.

    • I am glad to hear that. Please join me in our worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was his noodley appendages which create the universe and all life. And when our time on this planet is done, we will join him in pirate heaven and drink from the beer volcano.


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