Thursday, December 09, 2010

Burden, Burden, who's got the burden

This is Raply McInerny's essay arguing that, contrary to popular opinion, the burden of proof is really on the atheist.

I know Keith Parsons responded to this, and I linked to him earlier. But I would like some responses to this essay, first. 


Anonymous said...

Good luck. Atheists, particularly internet atheists, avoid burdens of proof like the plague. Even the popular Big Names of atheism go out of their way to try and insist that they're technically agnostics. (They just happen to be agnostics who think that, despite being able to prove or disprove the existence of God, they can be 99% certain God doesn't exist. Go figure.)

Even if McInerny is right, as I think he is, it will be denied up and down. The last thing most atheists enjoy is being put in the position where they'll have to make claims against aggressive skeptics. Being on defense takes the fun out of atheism.

GREV said...

I recall reading some arguments from this author awhile back. Good to see it available in a full length article.

I will try to comment more later. Suffice to say I do believe this Burden of Proof charge is a smokescreen thrown up by many to duck the arguments.

Often it is coupled with the standard line that the theist just does not understand the worldview of the opponent.

steve said...

The existence or nonexistence of God is not a self-contained issue, for either proposition has its share of metaphysical commitments and entailments. The world in general will be different given the existence or nonexistence of God. It's not as if one can eliminate God, but leave everything else intact. So in a debate, neither side can treat his position as the default assumption. Each side must ultimately justify all of the collateral assumptions or implications that are bound up with affirming or denying God's existence.

Anonymous said...

Concerning Burden of Proof, note how C.S. Lewis ended his essay “Religion and Rocketry”:
"What [Christians] believe always remains intellectually possible; it never becomes intellectually compulsive”.

It occurs to me that, ironically, intellectual compulsion is precisely what the "skeptic" is asking for. I am aware that hard core atheists bristle at the term "fundamentalist", when applied to their own world view, but in the end it is a quite fair labeling. They consider their case to be so compelling that only a fraud, lunatic, or ignoramus could conceivably think otherwise. The possibility that a Christian could be comfortable in his beliefs while maintaining (indeed, while championing) intellectual integrity either does not occur to them, or is vehemently denied.

Walter said...

Should not the burden be on the one who is making a claim that he wishes another person to believe? If I wish to convince another that my worldview is correct, then I would expect to present some arguments and evidence for my position. But what if someone does not care to convince anyone else of their views? Should the burden be on them to justify their unbelief in your worldview, or can they not simply claim that you have as yet failed to convince them?

I would think that a true agnostic would simply withhold judgment. Of course, even a agnostic will lean one way or the other: that is why we have agnostic theists and agnostic atheists.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Walter,

The Burden of Proof lies squarely on the one doing the proselytizing, whether they be Christian or atheist.

However, if one is merely responding to a query by a curious person, or taking part in a discussion (either face to face or online), there is no requirement to prove anything.

brenda said...

"The theist can accept this model of justification and blandly add that 'God exists' is one of his basic propositions. Why not?"

Because existence is not something which is a given. It is a fallacy to simply assume as true that which you propose as true. Existence is not something which is a given.

I can say all I like that "Unicorns exist" is one of my basic propositions all I like but all the same it would be a fallacy to then assert that unicorns must then exist because I said so.

"The upshot is then to claim that the believer and his critic are in the same boat. They agree on some formal account-that there are basic propositions and propositions derivative from them-but there is no way to adjudicate claims as to what propositions, materialiter loquendo, can function as basic."

I don't think existence is one of them. Other basic propositions such as the law of identity or the law of non-contradiction are basic, but not existence.

"Why not put the burden on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being?"

Humans are not rational agents. It is a fallacy to assert that because others, even for generations, believed in a proposition that it therefore must be true.

"There is a way in which it is natural for human beings to believe in God."

The naturalistic fallacy.

"Does not the burden of proof then fall on the shoulders of the skeptic?"

Atheists are not skeptics, they deny that god exists. True skepticism is the default position.

brenda said...

Bob said:
"I am aware that hard core atheists bristle at the term "fundamentalist", when applied to their own world view, but in the end it is a quite fair labeling."

I agree that some atheists are fundamentalist in their ideology. It seems to me that this doesn't help you much. The alternative to fundamentalism is pluralism. Which asserts that are a plurality of beliefs that are on equal footing and are all equally valid. That there is no one single truth above all other truths. Under this view both atheism and theism are true. Or... the world is such that it allows for multiple contradictory perspectives to exist together.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bob I don't think many atheists are really like that, you are spending too much time on the interblogs :)

Anonymous said...


Although I would agree with you that generations of belief, in and of itself, has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of a proposition, my agreement is strictly limited.

Let me preface my next comments with the (radical) statement that in my opinion the Argument from Authority has for too long gotten a bad rap. Here is what I mean. The fact that such and such an authority holds a particular belief may not be PROOF of that belief, it nevertheless has (at least for me) tremendous weight, if I have any respect for that individual’s thoughts, actions, character, etc. I will not lightly (even in the absence of cooborating evidence) disregard that authority’s position, or at least not without definite contrary evidence.

So: as far as the question of “the existence of God” goes, I am extremely loathe to say that the overwhelming consensus of nearly every single great mind in history regarding this issue is in error. For me to disbelieve in God means I have to say that little ol’ me knows better than Homer, Hesiod, Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Daniel Berrigan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, St. Thomas of Canterbury, Copernicus, St. Dominic, St. Francis, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Augustine, Andrei Rublev, Giotto, Gustav Mahler, Graham Greene, Siddhartha, J.R.R. Tolkien, Anton Bruckner, Sir Isaac Newton, etc., etc., etc.

Any single one of these intellects could think me under the table in their sleep, and I am supposed to know better than all of them COMBINED??? Before I ever consider going that route, someone had better present me with a damn good Burden of Proof that they are wrong.

Anonymous said...


Actually, this is the ONLY non-astronomy related blog I regularly visit on the web. And I would never have known about even this one, were Victor and I not friends for almost 40 years now.

David Parker said...

I think several varieties of "the burden is on you" are evident:

1. William Lane Craig often starts his debates about God's existence by saying "I'll give 5 arguments for God's existence, and then my opponent will have to tear those down and also present a case for why God doesn't exist." This wouldn't seem to work if the debate were titled, "Is there evidence for God's existence?" or "Should we believe God exists?"

2. The article is discussing Plantinga's view of properly basic beliefs...but little is said in these conversations about what the criteria for a belief properly basic actually is. It's not as if we can just proclaim "God exists" as a basic belief and then challenge the atheist to proof otherwise. I think Plantinga's view only applies to those who already accept theism's truth...we are warranted in believing God exists. But I don't take him to mean we can "show" anyone else such a thing without argument.