Bob: “Did you know that there is a teacup orbiting the moon?”
Jim: “What? Why would you think that?”
Bob: “Well, can you prove that there isn’t a teacup orbiting the moon?”
Jim: “No, but I’m not the one who brought this up. Why do you think there is one?”
Bob: “Well, I just haven’t heard any compelling arguments against it.”
Jim: “That’s probably because you just made it up.”
Bob’s problem is that he holds the entire burden of proof. He is making a positive claim to a person who holds no position on the issue. Jim doesn’t need to prove the nonexistence of the teacup because he hasn’t heard any evidence for a teacup. Jim can simply say he lacks the belief that a teacup is orbiting the moon, and Bob must make a compelling argument to change that.
What is Atheism?
Atheists will often try to put themselves in Jim’s position. They will speak as though atheism entails agnosticism. Agnosticism is the lack of belief in God. That would mean that atheists are not necessarily making a claim on the God question. This is their attempt to distance themselves from the burden of proof. They want to say that they lack the belief that God exists – seemingly removing their need to defend a position.
If this were true, would we expect to find as many books arguing for atheism as we do today? If the atheist has no position on the God question, then how are they filling so many pages in so many books? Rocks also lack a belief in God. Are atheists honestly considering their position on the God question to be the same as a rock? I don’t think so. They do not act, think, or behave as someone who does not claim a position on whether or not God exists. I do not think most atheists are being honest when they say they merely lack a belief.
Asking the right question
Here is one question that can help cut through the definitions and get to the heart of the matter. We should ask the atheist who is trying to get out of the burden of proof: “Does God exist?” There are only three legitimate ways to answer this question. You can say yes, no, or you can withhold judgment. The only way to avoid the burden of proof is to withhold judgment. Both the yes and no answers are a claim to a position. The atheist has to make a choice to either accept a share of the burden of proof or become a true neutral on the topic.
If the atheist answers no, then ask them why they think that. It’s a perfectly acceptable question, even when someone is defending a negative position. If they answer that they don’t know, then you have to hold them to that. If you find that they are not open to considering valid evidence, remind them that they said they were neutral on this question. Why would someone who was neutral on a position be so adamant against a valid argument? If they have arguments against the existence of God, then they should offer them as evidence for the negative position, and accept a share of the burden of proof for that argument.
Sharing is caring
In trying to get the atheist to share the burden of proof, we can have honest conversations about the worldview that is entailed in atheism. They will have a lot of work to do to construct a coherent understanding of things like morality, purpose, and even the existence of the universe itself. Only when they begin to see that atheism is a piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle of reality are they going to be willing to consider theism as a legitimate alternative.