Possible Flaw in Theism's
Burden of Proof
Chris Neilson

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Chris Neilson"
Subject: Re: Possible Flaw in Theism's Burden of Proof
Date: November 30, 2003 2:33 AM

While the theist has the burden of proof logically (being the one who is making the existential claim), you are right in a practical sense -- so right that you come close to prompting me to do an about-face in my position (indeed, in several positions). This has happened numerous times on this web site, and not just to me, but to many of us who visit and spar and learn and contribute. To change gracefully is the mark of a true philosopher as well as an honest thinker and a respecter of scientific method.

You have a point that we are obligated to make our case if we expect theists to change, and that this change must take place before we can expect to be accepted as atheists in this society.

Now, by "expect ... change" I do not mean that we won't see change unless we speak out. I only mean that we cannot expect to see it unless we are willing to work for it. I think we "will" see it, but I don't demand dignity simply because I, personally, do not work for it. I am too busy making observations in the hopes of discovering some things that might help us work more effectively; this is what I think my role has been.

While I am not ready to assign this to all theists, I do think that many will respond to our attempts to make our case for nontheism. And no, this usually doesn't happen all at once, but, as Evangelical Christians are wont to say, "seeds are planted." These seeds, of course, do not grow because of "The Lord," but because it is natural for the human mind to seek what is true, and unnatural for the human mind to succumb to falsehood; this is why religion usually reqiures its adherents to attend weekly propagandizing sessions and to routinely endure religious ritual. After all, "seven days without prayer makes one weak" as far as religious faith is concerned. Thus, what does not come naturally must be instilled by rote.

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We saw the ravages of two World Wars over Europe, the first occurring within the lifetimes of not a few who had witnessed the final gasp of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Today, even those countries who are said to be very religious (such as the North of Ireland) are arguably not as religious as some would have us think. Indeed, a professor from Queens lectured here recently, and after mentioning a letter I'd received from an Iranian who told me that fully 40 percent of his fellow countrymen were atheists of the "there is no God" variety, after discussing letters we'd received from Greece discussing the affiliation with the Orthodox Church as a mark of cultural identity, very few actually believing the theology, the theism, I asked The Good Professor how many there "actually believe in God, as opposed to those who simply use their respective religious affiliation as a political anchor." The Professor hemmed and hawed and could not (or, rather, would not) venture even a guess -- not even a personal speculation! This from a man who would not give his last name before or during the lecture!

Europe's religious faith is essentially dead.

America's religious faith, according to two very extensive surveys by the City University of New York, dropped from about nine percent of adults identifying themselves as "not religious" to a little over 14 percent (by raw figures: more if you consider what those figures probably mean; that is, how they ought to be interpreted, according to the researchers and statisticians who prepared and then analyzed the survey).

America's love affair with the Christian religion, I suspect, will go its own way naturally, without our help. However, I think I've been mistaken in leading my readers to believe that this is the only influence that will effect change: this is not true. And I am definitely mistaken in suggesting that it is the only influence that we ought to depend upon in our struggle to see an improvement of atheists' lot in life. No. We need the Reginald Finleys as well as the Cliff Walkers, the outspoken advocates as well as the softspoken thinkers.

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As for the Burden of Proof, you are right in saying that there are times when the one challenging the most widely accepted hypothesis is the one burdened with proving his or her case to the contrary. However, in the case of claiming that a thing exists, such a claim becomes controversial if and only if the claim's subject is not widely held to exist. You would never give ear to someone if she or he were to walk up to you and claim, for example, that the Sun exists. Neither would The Royal Society or The National Academy of Sciences give such a claim more than a wink and a smile!

This is how the Burden of Proof works, logically. I explained this in depth in 2000, a Letter-turned-Print Edition feature-turned-FAQ piece titled, "Reason And Faith: Apples And Oranges" with Todd Smith. In a subsection called, "George H. Smith's Explanation of the Burden of Proof," I summarized a wonderful chapter he has on this subject, which contains some very original thinking on why it is necessary and good even for the theist that she or he is obligated to be the one who brings forth evidence and strong argument in support of his claim that a god exists.

The most compelling reason that the Burden of Proof "is about as clear and incontestable as any philosophical procedure could possibly be" is easily seen when we examine a claim while pretending that there is no such thing as the Burden of Proof. Without it, says Smith, the very fact that we cannot disprove their claim would become proof itself that their claim has merit! Since such a claim could not be falsified (a crucial component of any scientific claim), it would become more and more reasonable as it became less and less vulnerable to falsification. Smith concludes: "The fact that a belief could not be proven false under any circumstances would bestow upon it the same cognitive status as a belief that could be proven true."

Yes, the one trying to change how the majority sees things (such as the popular view that the Christian god-claim is valid) has the Burden of Proof in popular discussion and in many scientific discussions. However, whenever the discussion seriously examines the existence of something, the one claiming the thing's existence de facto has the Burden of Proof. This is because the any serious discussion along these lines would be premised upon the fact that the existence of the thing claimed is not self-evident; therefore, the belief that the thing exists would always be the minority viewpoint.

I would be interested in any thoughts you have on this angle regarding the self-evidence (or lack thereof) of a thing's existence.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight years of service to people
    with no reason to believe

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