God and the Burden of Proof

I have a thought that I’ve tried to express in the past, about who has the burden of proof when it comes to talking about whether there’s a God. I think my suspicion is correct, but for some reason I’ve never been able to articulate it in a way that seems to convince even other theists to get very excited about it, let alone persuading any of my less theistic friends. Here’s another attempt.

“Burden of proof” is not a terribly philosophical way of speaking of the world, for the most part, but it’s a phrase that gets bandied about in these conversations quite a bit, so I think it’s worth discussing. I believe “burden of proof” language comes from a legal context originally, where “presumption” comes into play, as with presumption of innocence, for example. You’re typically presumed not guilty (in many legal contexts, at least), meaning that if someone wants to see you convicted of a crime then the burden of proof is on them, and if they can’t manage to prove it then you are taken to be innocent even if there is no actual positive proof of such innocence.

Atheists sometimes say that there should be an analogous presumption of atheism in discussions about God, where if God cannot be proved, then we take it that there is no God, even if we have no actual proof against a divinity.

They claim that this is just the way we would treat anything else. Do you say there are penguins? Prove it to me. Do you say there are unicorns? Prove it to me. It’s not my job to prove the non-existence of unicorns. How would I go about doing that?

In the same way, so the argument goes, I don’t have to prove the non-existence of God, but it is instead the responsibility of theists to prove that there is a God. It would be illogical to assume there is not a God, of course, but just as much it would be illogical to assume that there is a God. The most reasonable assumption is that there might be a God, and thus that we can give our assent to God’s reality as soon as a compelling piece of evidence is presented to establish that reality.

So far, this seems sensible enough. However, there is a distinction here that we need to draw.

  • Let us call a thing “contingent” where, if it is possible, then by definition it might not exist.
  • Let’s call a thing “necessary” where, if it is possible, then by definition it can’t not exist.

The great majority of the things we encounter fall into the former bucket, so it is not surprising that we are habituated to act with the assumption that all things must act like those do. Penguins are possible, and so they might exist or they might not. Thus, the burden of proof, if it falls to anyone, falls to the person wanting to say they exist.

But it is standard in philosophy to speak of God as belonging not in the former but in the latter side of the division, as (by definition) necessary, not contingent. God’s necessity means that if God is possible, then God will exist, indeed must exist, in every possible world, by definition, just because of what it means to be God.

Clearly, this means we can’t treat God like penguins and unicorns. We can’t say, “Well, there might be a God, but you’ve gotta show me before I accept it.” Instead, as soon as we’ve said there might be a God, we’ve already said that we accept that there is, and must be, a God.

This means that it doesn’t make sense to speak of the burden of proof resting with theists, despite what we hear so often. When we say that the burden of proof is on the people who affirm there are penguins or unicorns, we are tacitly admitting that we agree such things might exist, even if we are withholding assent on the question of whether they in fact do. For an atheist to make such an admission in the case of God, though, is equivalent to having lost the argument before it’s even begun.

So then, does this eliminate the burden of proof entirely as a consideration? It does not quite do so, actually, because now the atheist comes to be in the position of having to assert not only that God might not exist, but that God cannot exist (because if God can, then God does) — and that’s a much harder argument to defend than simply sitting back and saying, “If there’s a God, where?”

If we allow the standard assumption to prevail, that God might exist, just as penguins and unicorns might, then we find ourselves having to become by default, not atheists, as we expected at the beginning, but theists! The person who is arguing against the default position, then, is the atheist. In this way, the burden of proof has actually shifted to atheists, who will have to make a positive case that it is impossible for there to be a God, a claim which is not at all obvious and which will demand some sort of argumentation, some sort of real proof.

Now, let me straightaway deal with an objection that is not really an objection. “If we can say God is necessary, why can’t we also say that unicorns are by definition necessary and the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe in unicorns? Why can’t there be necessary worm-buffalo-trees? That’s ridiculous. Once you open the box, you can never stop the parade of ludicrous conclusions. Thus, it just doesn’t work to say that God is necessary.”

Now for one thing, this common objection shows some ignorance about the argumentation in classical theism that leads to the definition of God as necessary. The argument doesn’t say, “Well we really want to believe in God so what if we expand the definition of God to say that God is necessary then maybe we can keep on irrationally believing!” Rather, the argument says that on account of divine aseity, God must be absolutely simple, and this simplicity entails by definition the identity of God’s essence and existence, which is to say, it entails God’s necessity. There is absolutely no reason for thinking that having gotten this far on the classical account we’ve also had to throw the door open for people asserting the necessity of worm-buffalo-trees and the like.

However, even leaving that aside, this supposed objection is really only an attempt to win the argument by changing the subject. I’m not saying it’s done in bad faith — very often, in many different discussions, such illogical leaps are committed with great sincerity. They’re still quite illogical.

The theism question isn’t about whether there are necessary unicorns or necessary perpetual motion machines or necessary goblins. Each of those is another question, its own question, and even though we can generate an infinite number of such questions, that does not tell us anything about what we are currently focused on. Maybe there really is an infinite variety of necessary beings hidden away somewhere. Or maybe there’s not — but in any case, the people who are arguing about God do not need to care one way or the other, while speaking about God. Even if we could give a positive reason for thinking that all the other beings can’t be necessary, we are still left with the question of whether God can be.

Then again, if the rebuttal against all necessary beings does not consist of something like, “How silly! Who could believe that?” but actually has specific arguments which would include why all necessary things (including God!) cannot be possible, then great! Let’s hear it. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s exactly the sort of rebuttal the atheist now needs to find, because by definition God is necessary, and so the burden of proof, if it is going to be on anyone, is on atheists, and so they must begin their search for arguments to support their position.

The fact is, theists, who (I’ve argued) do not bear the burden of proof, nonetheless have piles of proofs, millennia of demonstrations, mountains of arguments showing how inescapable it is that God must exist. (My personal favourite is the Platonists’ account of the One; more on this in a future post.) We have an overabundance of proofs even as we have no burden to provide them. Atheists, on the other hand, have always had very little more available to them than attempts to shift the burden of proof, and so when the burden of proof is restored to its proper side of the argument, as I have just showed, their predicament is made precarious indeed.

The arguments against God are few and they are weak, as we quickly notice once we accept the correct placement of the burden of proof. The arguments against God were never designed to be able to support the entire weight of atheism. This is exactly why we hear the common refrain, “You have to prove God’s existence to me — how would I possibly prove a thing’s non-existence? That’s absurd!”

The best-known attempt to argue against God’s reality is probably the problem of evil — how could a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow there to be evil or suffering in the world? And yet this argument has been flayed from every side, exposing its abundant, innumerable problematic assumptions. And beyond that solitary, limping line of reasoning against God, what else is there for the atheists to draw on?

The answer, I’m afraid, is that there’s really not much.

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