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The Presumption of Atheism

In a court of law the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. There are a myriad of beliefs out there in the world – some weird, some sensible, and some downright absurd. What is the typical approach when faced with a new claim or a new belief? Do we at first assume that the belief is true until proven false? It seems clear to me that this is not the way we typically behave when faced with a new belief.

Suppose that I tell you that unicorns exist. Is your first reaction going to be – “Okay, I will assume that you are right until I can prove otherwise?” Of course not. The way that we approach new and not self-evidently true claims is by holding off believing in the claim until it can be demonstrated to be true. As for unicorns, I will not believe in them until I see positive evidence for their existence. In this sense, the approach to all new beliefs should be one of skepticism first and then belief next only on the condition that there is sufficient evidence to support that belief.

In general this can be called The Presumption of Skepticism.

Unfortunately, it seems that some people forget that this applies to any belief, including belief in god. Thus, the theist asks – “How can you be an atheist if you can’t prove that god doesn’t exist?” Given the presumption of skepticism, one should remain skeptical (and therefore, an atheist) in belief in god until it can be satisfactorily shown that god exists.

An atheist taking a presumption of atheism does not need to prove anything. His or her atheism is justified by an absence of evidence for the existence of god, just as our skepticism of the existence of unicorns is justified by an absence of any evidence that unicorns exist. If one cannot positively support a belief, the only other sensible option is to decline that belief – put it off or on hold until evidence or proof can be found.

The Presumption of Atheism has been rigorously defended and described by the philosopher Antony Flew. In writing about the presumption of atheism, Flew wrote:


It is by reference to this inescapable demand for grounds that the presumption of atheism is justified. If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so. Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic. So the onus of proof has to rest on the proposition.

The Burden of Proof

A related question is that of the burden of proof. That is, who should be responsible for providing proof or evidence? The simple answer is – the person who makes a positive claim. In other words, it is the person who makes the claim that must provide the proof, not that person who is skeptical or unconvinced of that claim. In sum, the burden of proof rests on anyone making a positive
claim as opposed to a negative claim. Here are some examples of positive and negative claims:

Positive Claims (Carries the Burden of Proof)

  • I believe that god exists.
  • I believe that god doesn’t exist.
  • I believe that angels exist.
  • I believe that the world will end next month.

Negative Claims (Does not carry the Burden of Proof)

  • I don’t believe that god exists.
  • I don’t believe that angels exist.
  • I don’t believe that the world will end next
    month.

Notice the subtle difference between these two statements: (1) I believe that god doesn’t exist and (2) I do not believe that god exists. Number (1) is a positive statement and thus, carries the burden of proof: God does not exist. Number (2) is a negative statement and a position of skepticism and does not carry the burden of proof: I am not convinced that god exists. It is quite easy over the course of a conversation or a debate to over look this distinction and mistake number (2) for (1).

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:15 pm

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