The Presumption of Atheism on Trial


 It’s become fashionable to say atheism has no burden of proof. It’s said atheism is the default assumption and the onus is on the theist to prove, not on the atheist to disprove.

While this idea has the superficial gloss of rationality, under a critical cross-examination it falls apart. Rather than promoting rational methods, it achieves the opposite.

The main source of the idea is a 1976 article by the philosopher Antony Flew, titled The Presumption of Atheism. Flew says,

“…the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from a presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie on the theist.”

The general idea sounds reasonable, no one disputes we should have good reasons to think something is true. We also don’t have an obligation to disprove any idea someone comes up with.

But to apply those basic rational principles to atheism in particular, requires a specific and idiosyncratic definition of atheism. As Flew says:

“The word ‘atheism’, however, has … to be construed unusually. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist.”

Defenders of this idea explain that atheism means lacking a belief God does exist, not having a belief God doesn’t exist.

Confused at the difference? Well as it happens, that confusion produces unfortunate mistakes about the rational method and how to assess the truth of claims. What are the problems it creates?

We lose the ability to talk about truth

The first thing to notice is, if we talk about beliefs we lack, rather than beliefs we have, we lose the ability to talk about truth. A belief is a mental state, the state of thinking something is true.

When we define theism as the belief God exists, we understand we’re talking about the factual content of the belief, not the mental state itself. The factual content is the content that can be true or false. In the case of theism, the factual content is: Reality includes a God.

No one engages in debate on theism as if the only thing at stake is whether someone has a mental state corresponding to a belief in God. They debate the factual content, whether it’s true that God does, in fact, exist.

This is a common-sense way of speaking, so what does this mean for our definition of atheism?

If we define atheism as the lack of a belief in theism, we have no belief, only the lack of one. If we have no belief, we have no factual content. If we have no factual content, we have no way to refer to the truth.

With Flews’ definition, atheism is no longer about the truth or a factual claim about reality, it isn’t even a mental state. It’s reduced to something with no substance, a mere shadow of rationality.

It obscures our conceptual categories

There are only 3 possible positions on any factual claim. The claim can be true, or false, or we can’t know if it’s true or false. The first two are about reality itself (metaphysics), the third is about what we can know about reality (epistemology).

When it comes to the claim God exists, these positions are called theism (true), atheism (false) and agnosticism (can’t know if it’s true or false).

If we define atheism as not-theism, we now have only have one word to describe both the false and can’t know positions, atheism and agnosticism. The agnostic doesn’t say theism is true, but they also don’t say it’s false. Their position logically excludes both true and false, their position is we can’t know if it’s true or false.

There are many variations on the details of any agnostic position. It can evaluate the evidence and judge it to be exactly equal with no way to decide one way or the other.

But the more substantial agnostic positions give principled reasons for our inability to know the answer. They’re about issues in epistemology and our methods of gaining knowledge about the world.

Some of the most influential philosophical positions of modern times, for example those of Hume and Kant, are agnostic positions. They give detailed reasons why we’re unable to gain knowledge on certain types of metaphysical questions and what that means for the claim of God in particular.

Understanding those claims requires us to have a clear distinction between the concepts of atheism and agnosticism. To have a clear distinction between concepts requires us to have distinct words which name those concepts.

We find that rather than clarifying our conceptual framework, this definition of atheism obscures our conceptual categories. It creates confusion by giving us only one word to describe two distinct and logically exclusive positions on truth.

It creates confusion about how to think critically and assess truth claims

Skepticism means to doubt. Doubt isn’t a method of finding truth, it’s a method of avoiding error. The rational method aims for truth. It judges the reasons, the evidence we have for any claim. It then apportions our belief, our estimation of what is most likely true, to the preponderance of the evidence.

Defining atheism as disbelief confuses skepticism with the rational method. This misleads us about the method to find truth. To see why, we can look at one of the popular examples atheists use to justify why non-belief has no burden of proof.

Russell’s celestial teapot is a china teapot claimed to be in orbit around the sun. The teapot is too small to be detected by our most powerful telescopes. Skeptics use examples like this to show the burden of proof is on those who claim the teapot exists, not on those who doubt it.

But applying the atheist method of skeptical disbelief leads us to the wrong conclusion on the truth about the teapot’s existence. If we want to know if the world includes a celestial teapot or not, discussing who made the claim or who has the burden of proof is irrelevant. The only thing of importance is what evidence we have available.

And we have a lot of evidence available to judge the truth of the claim. We know a lot about china teapots, they are human made products and fragile. To manufacture and then place such a small teapot into orbit around the sun would take substantial expertise, money and organisation.

We also know the motivations of humans and the usual purposes they would expend that amount of energy in pursuit of a goal. The verdict on the truth of the teapot claim is obvious. If we follow the presumption of non-belief method, it leads us to conclude we shouldn’t believe the teapot exists. But this is the wrong conclusion.

We should apportion our belief to the evidence and believe the teapot does not exist. We should confidently declare the claim is false. It isn’t rational to withhold judgement, to only conclude we won’t say it’s true, but also won’t commit to it being false. Framing our response to the claim as non-belief leaves open the possibility a miniature china teapot is orbiting the sun.

The same point applies to all the usual examples atheists use, Santa, fairies, invisible dragons, flying pasta…. They’re all claims we should be confident in declaring them false rather than merely lacking the belief they’re true.

It sanctions irrationality by presuming non-belief requires no evidence

If we frame the discussion on any topic in terms of beliefs, and then say non-belief has no obligation to disprove, we sanction anyone who doesn’t want to accept a claim the right to irrationality.

A non-believer has no rational obligation beyond expressing doubt toward the evidence. They don’t have any rational burden to justify what is most likely true.

We see this happening with climate skeptics, we see it with vaccine skeptics. The non-believers don’t need to defend any position on the truth of the matter, they only need to express doubt. Maybe the global warming has natural causes, maybe the vaccines have unknown side effects, maybe this, maybe that.

If the focus is on truth, everyone needs to talk about the reasons we have, not vaguely gesture toward the endless possibilities we don’t know about. Without a focus on truth, it’s far too easy to direct skepticism toward any idea we don’t want to accept.

Skeptics don’t need to defend climate change being false, or why the evidence only warrants agnosticism, they only need to say they lack a belief, they haven’t been convinced.

It’s no surprise we find the same thing happens with atheism. It’s not unusual to be told we have the same amount of evidence for God as we have for Santa, or fairies, or flying pasta. But these analogies not only misunderstand what God is said to be, the claim the available evidence is equal could only be accepted by someone who hasn’t even done a cursory investigation of the evidence for God’s existence.

Why would they investigate what God means or the evidence he exists, if they don’t have any burden to disprove? Why would they investigate if they are rational by default and deny they’re making any claims of truth?

They aren’t participants in the rational debate on truth, their contribution is reduced to a heckler who mocks from the sidelines. The commentary of the heckler diminishes rather than enriches the rational debate.

If our focus is always on the truth and the reasons and evidence, we can’t make this mistake. Even agnosticism requires reasons to support why it’s the correct conclusion.

Every position needs reasons and evidence, rational means based on reasons. The rational method is the method we use to reach our conclusion, not the conclusion we reach. To claim some particular position is rational by default is the antithesis of rationality.

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