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Theists vs. Atheists: Who Has the Burden of Proof?

Photo credit: Postman85, via Pixabay.

A common refrain from those atheists who are willing to debate theists is that theists, not atheists, have the burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence.

Internet atheist Matt Dillahunty made this claim in our recent debate. Regrettably, it looks doubtful that Dillahunty and I will debate again. He didn’t fare well — he had no real understanding of any of the ten classical proofs of God’s existence — and in the wake of his confused and rambling attempts at exculpation he refuses to debate me again.

His reluctance is understandable — he was clearly shaken by the revelation that his rejection of the proofs of God’s existence isn’t based on any actual understanding on his part of the arguments. Like all other Internet atheists I’ve encountered, Dillahunty is ignorant of the overwhelming evidence for God’s existence and is unwilling to admit his ignorance or correct it.

So, because I can’t do it in a debate format, I’ll address Dillahunty’s claim — that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence — in this post.

Few and Weak

Dillahunty said: “Normally I point out in these debates that I’m not here to defend a no because the burden of proof is on those who say there is a yes. It’s not up to atheists to prove that a God doesn’t exist.”

Atheists’ own arguments against God’s existence are actually few and weak — for example, Dillahunty’s favorite argument against God is the argument from Divine Hiddenness, which I discuss here. The argument boils down to this: if God exists, He would make atheists believe in Him. Atheists don’t believe in Him, so He doesn’t exist.

By this logic, atheists could make God exist by agreeing to believe in Him, and they could make Him go into and out of existence on alternate days if they believed and disbelieved in unison.

To Elide the Obvious

In order to elide the obvious conclusion that they don’t have any good arguments, atheists claim that, in a debate, the burden of proof is always on the “yes” side, not the “no” side. Their argument is that it is difficult to prove a negative. But that is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence because both theists and atheists make positive assertions. The fundamental question is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Theists say God is the ground of existence and atheists say Nature is the ground of existence.

A negative claim by atheists — “We have no idea why there is something rather than nothing” — is a proclamation of ignorance, not an immunity idol. That is, it confers no “tribal immunity” from responsibility to provide evidence and reason in support of the view that the universe exists without God. “I’m ignorant” is no substitute for a reasoned argument supported by evidence.

Ordinarily, both sides in a debate have an obligation to present evidence and logic to support their views. Under what circumstances would a participant in a debate really have no burden of proof?

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



atheistsdebateDivine Hiddenness argumentevidencefaithground of existenceignoranceimmunity idollogicMatt Dillahuntynaturetheiststribal immunity