Who has the burden of proof on the God question—atheists or theists?
I say neither because, when you raise an existential question, the truth is the whole. Nobody gets a free ride or has a prior right to win an argument by simply remaining silent. Instead, you look out at the world that you find yourself in and are forced to come up with some positive thesis: “Hmm, how do I account for what I see around me and my own existence? What’s my theory?”
If you’re a theist you say, “God did it.”
But if you’re an atheist, your response is also some sort of positive claim:
Hmm. Maybe God didn’t do it. Maybe atoms rustling in the void account for all there is.
Or, to flesh this out a bit, if you’re an atheist, and as a matter of logic, you believe at least three highly implausible “credal” things about the universe:
- All that is came from matter and laws of physics that are eternal or derived, quite astonishingly, from nothing.
- Matter preceeded mind, produced mind as an epiphenomenon of matter, and continues to be responsible for producing minds.
- The universe arrived at its current physical laws and conglomeration of atoms by a contingent process (perhaps from a prior series of birthing multiverses or just the dumb luck of a single big bang draw).
If you’re an atheist, can I get an amen on these?
There are, in other words, positive assumptions functioning in any declaration that one is an atheist, with at least three of them (the three mentioned above) bearing these characteristics:
- They are claims absent evidence.
- They are as jaw-dropping as theist claims (that matter and the laws of physics are eternal or perhaps came from nothing; that we may live in a multiverse; that matter, like an apple tree bearing apples, just happens to “apple” conscious minds, etc).
- They are, as a practical matter, not really subject to falsification. If you’re determined to believe them, it’s hard to know what possible counter-evidence—absent the return of, say, Jesus in the clouds—could be offered that would dissuade you.
Now, do you still want to give a hardy amen?
Having said this, however, it doesn’t mean that atheism’s weaknesses strengthen the positive case for theism. Theism, obviously, has similar problems of sense and evidence. Unfortunately, we’re embedded in the system we’re trying to account for and we live in an ontological mystery which is so strange that any pat and definite explanation of it (God did it; time and chance did it) invariably drives one into question begging:
- How does something come from nothing?
- How do laws of physics just happen?
- Who made God?
- How could mind ever come from matter?
- What evidence do we really have that the multiverse bears a mechanism for variation and multiplies—or even exists?
In other words, theism and atheism, when affirmed, both reach horizons of nonsense and paradox.
To my mind, the lack of ultimate sense and evidence on both sides signals (or ought to signal) caution, and, therefore, agnosticism.
Here’s the mathematician David Berlinski (who is also an agnostic on the theist-atheist question) talking to his daughter about the exceedingly complex Thing we find ourselves in: