Proof And The Onus Of Proof

There are many works that have been written to assert the atheist position, both in the past and more recently. These have been rational attempts to deny the intellectual viability of belief in God, most specifically the Christian God. Some of these works have sought to take a positive stance in declaring there is no God. Most however have settled for the more modest position of a negative atheism, which claims only that belief in God is withheld, the evidence being insufficient to warrant such belief.

This is the position, at least in theory, of men like George H. Smith in ATHEISM The Case Against God, B.C. Johnson in The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, and Antony Flew in God, Freedom, And Immortality. These men do not seek to claim the evidence is sufficient to warrant an absolute denial of theism, but simply that the evidence is insufficient to establish such a position, and hence the rational man will opt for atheism by default.

This last move is based on the assumed reliability of a procedural method Flew calls “the presumption of atheism.” It claims the onus of proof rests with the theist. It stems from the fact that the negative atheism of these writers is not a positive knowledge claim, whereas theism is. Consequently it must lie with the person who makes the knowledge claim to show his belief is grounded in such a way that gives it the credentials of knowledge, and not simply mere unsubstantiated belief. Just as in a court of law a person is innocent until proven guilty, so also the atheist position must be assumed until proven false. 

The Principle Of Agnosticism

Flew adds to this procedural assumption a methodological guideline he calls “the principle of agnosticism.” This is the commitment of inquirers to go only as far as reason will take them, and then be content. A rational man will not say more than his reason will allow him. Flew distinguishes this view of agnosticism from the commonly held view that the term means lack of knowledge of whether God exists. This, says Flew, is to confuse atheism with agnosticism. Flew and his colleagues hold to the negative atheism described above, and it is by definition a lack of knowledge as opposed to a firm assertion of the truth of atheism. So the popular definition of the term agnosticism is negative atheism. Flew points out, the original use of agnosticism was not simply negative, as describing a position of knowledge. It was not a position at all. Rather, it was a procedure. It was the commitment to limit oneself to the bounds of reason, and then be content to admit when one cannot dig deeper, but must conclude that beyond this one simply does not know. Thus, Flew’s negative atheism is the conclusion of his inquiry using the procedure he calls the principle of agnosticism.  It is important to recognise what follows from the above discussion. First, atheism has lost much of its teeth in becoming more rationally honest. It has ceased to be as demanding a position because it has ceased to insist on its truth. It has rather settled for the more comfortable position of not having to argue its case by retreating into ignorance and leaving it up to theism to convince it. This move, “the presumption of atheism,” is its only real argument. Then it merely has to sit back and attack theistic arguments one by one. If none of these succeed in convincing the atheist then he is entitled to continue his retreat into his shell of ignorance, and assume his position is right until a better argument convinces him otherwise. This position, though far from being an impressive attack on theism, is quite impenetrable if the presumption of atheism is accepted as a procedural method.  It is just here that the questions must start. Is this presumption a valid starting point? If it is then the atheist must rest secure until an undeniable proof (whatever that is) comes forth. If this presumption can be shown to be invalid, this will again leave atheism on equal terms with theism, and needing to prove its case. It may then still desire to claim ignorance, but it will cease to have the right to presume its truth. It will become susceptible to arguments that suggest the opposite, that it is more rational to assume theism. This would be a pretty story indeed! What was intended to create a strong defensive edifice could prove to be the cause of downfall. For in taking the stance it has, modern atheism has been admitting it cannot argue its case. It can only claim ignorance and attempt to convince us it is up to theism to convince it. If this can be shown to be a false claim then atheism ceases to be a reasonable position unless it can argue successfully in a positive way.  Ignorance is not a position, it is the failure to take a position. While a person may not have enough evidence to convince her one way or another, other considerations may make it reasonable to commit herself. The presumption of atheism is an attempt to argue one such reason. It being proven invalid, the rational person may well be susceptible to other such arguments that lead in the other direction. But this is to get ahead of ourselves. We must first show this presumption to be false. Only then can such arguments, if they are needed, be brought forth. They will only be needed if, after all the evidence is examined, it is shown the evidence no more favours theism than atheism. If this ends up being the case then theism, like atheism, will be in search of some rational basis for arguing that even though we cannot argue conclusively, we still should assume the truth of theism. This move would be similar to the presumption of atheism in its effect, allowing the rational man to make a reasonable commitment where reason does not allow him certainty. It does not seem anyone can remain practically non-committal. Life requires such commitment. What would be needed in an inconclusive case is a good reason for commitment one way or the other. First, what of the presumption of atheism? 

What Is Proof?

The question seems largely to pivot on a misunderstanding of what would constitute a proof in such a case. The atheist seems to be requiring a type of proof that could not be produced. Both atheism and theism are metaphysical explanations of reality, but one cannot prove a metaphysical theory the way one proves some logical connection of premises and conclusions, such as the proposition one plus one equals two. Such proofs are deduced by starting with undeniable premises from which the conclusion deductively follows. With metaphysics the reverse must be true. In such a case we are not arguing from cause to effect, but from effect back to cause. As such we are looking at reality and asking “What would explain this?” We are trying to determine what is the ultimate existence, given what we see. This is called inductive reasoning. The biggest problem with induction is, while only one effect can follow from a particular set of causes, many different causes can produce the same effect.  A half-empty milk carton sitting where I put what I thought was a full one could have many different possible causes. My wife may have done some baking. It could have a slow leak. The government may have a new regulation protecting citizens from milk spills that requires half-empty cartons. You see the problem? One effect, many possible causes. Inductive logic attempts to move from a present existing effect and determine from the evidence what the cause was. Different possible causes will appear more or less reasonable depending on how the evidence favours their likelihood, and we cannot rule out the predisposition of the investigator in determining this evidence. If he is a strong capitalist who believes government is getting its fingers into everything he will be much more open to the suggestion of government intervention. Many of us would not consider this explanation at all.  Proving whether God exists is like that. It is arguing from an existing effect, the universe and the things we know and experience, back to the cause. But it is here that the first simplification of our task occurs. When we are dealing with metaphysical explanations for the whole of existence we are not faced with many options. At best, it seems reality must be explained either naturalistically or theistically. Either the universe is ultimate, or there is a God who is ultimate and made the universe. Both pantheism and the dualistic view that both God and the universe always existed would fit somewhere in these two categories. These are the only two options. Either the universe is ultimate or God is ultimate. Put another way, ultimate reality is either personal or non-personal (Schaeffer). The choice metaphysically is not between a myriad of possibilities. There are only two possible explanations, and one of them is true.  Given this picture of things it does not seem to ring true the onus of proof lies with the theist and that the atheist has the right to presume his position until theism is proven. First, theism will not be proven in a sense that positively forbids the atheist persevering. This is not the nature of inductive proof. Even if all the evidence points to theism, atheism could after all be true. Inductive reasoning cannot make a conclusion that strong. All this does not mean theism cannot be demonstrated to such an extent that it makes the persistence of atheism seem unreasonable at its best, and morally questionable at its worst. Both views are metaphysically possible, and they are the only possible views. Why should we start out preferring atheism?  The person poised in the presumption of atheism does not seem so different from our capitalist who is convinced the government stole the milk. It is hardly honest inquiry to presume one’s own position. Where the atheist is supposed to differ is that the atheist is not making a positive knowledge claim. He is saying he does not know but the fellow who says he knows should show how he knows. Could not the theist equally suggest she does not believe naturalism is true, and it is up to the atheist to demonstrate it is? Otherwise she must presume theism? Since we are only facing two metaphysical options this seems to be a valid move. This conclusion might suite the atheist fine since all he is seeking is to prevent the theist from making positive assertions before conclusive evidence is in, evidence it appears never can come in. This enthusiasm would be hasty on the atheist’s part because now the onus is on him to prove his case positively. Otherwise, we should assume theism is true and this would require a practical commitment to its implications by the atheist. It does not seem this is quite the conclusion he was looking for. 

God And Elves

The usual way such a presumption of theism is argued to be illegitimate in contrast to its atheistic counterpart is to treat the existence of God as a simple existence claim. The atheist is starting with something we know exists, the universe. He has a right to presume it is there and that it is all that is there. The theist is adding something: God. He must give some reason for believing this extra something exists. Presuming theism is true and putting the onus on the atheist to prove it is not true is like assuming elves exists and then claiming others must prove they do not. How can someone prove non-existence? If elves existed, evidence could be brought forth to prove this belief. If such evidence is not forthcoming surely the reasonable position is to presume a-elfism. Does this illustration not show the priority and validity of the presumption of atheism, and the invalidity of attempting a similar move on theism’s part?  While persuasive initially, this argument shows its colours when we distinguish the difference between an elf and God. When we are talking about an elf we are talking about the existence of one thing among many. Elves do not constitute a metaphysical explanation for existence. Nor do they constitute one of the only two possible metaphysical explanations. When the picture is viewed in this light all the colours change. It is true if God exists he could well give evidence of this fact sufficient to satisfy a mere existence claim, something that has no counterpart in atheism. There is no one there to give evidence that there is no one there. There is much evidence to suggest God has done just this historically. All such action on his part aside, God also can be seen to exist because the evidence supports, inductively, the theistic metaphysical explanation. On this level theism has as much right to be presumed true as atheism does. In a word, none. 

No Stacked Deck

The deck is not stacked in anyone’s favour. Over and over again atheist writers attempt to throw the burden of proof on theism, requiring a form of proof that is not attainable. The burden of proof does not land on any one position; it lands on all positions. There is no way to favour from the start one particular theory of the missing milk. To do this would be to bias the investigation and taint the conclusion. All theories must be examined and eliminated by their own merits and demerits. A deductive conclusion is impossible and the atheist is no fairer in requiring this than a person making an existence claim is in requiring a falsification of his claim. We must infer inductively. There are only two possible explanations for what exists. Only one is true. Which seems more likely, given the evidence? This is the view the rational person will prefer.  What of the principle of agnosticism? Should we commit to something if we do not obtain deductive certainty? This is of course the beauty of an argument like Flew’s. He is not trying to assert atheism, he is merely denying the evidence is good enough for theism and then stopping where his reason stops. It seems the theist is too stubborn to let go of a view his mind cannot substantiate. It is important to state here “I don’t know” is not a real position and since the presumption of atheism is invalid, we are left needing to decide which way to commit ourselves. Whether we obtain certainty or not it does not seem we can truly remain neutral. Life often requires our commitment in the face of inconclusive evidence. It rarely allows neutrality. One might even say the case at hand would require some form of commitment as a moral imperative. The issue is too important to leave undecided. Even if all the evidence did not weigh favourably one way or the other, we still would seem to be obligated to make the best decision we could. Inaction is also action, morally. Such indecisiveness would only occur if the evidence weighed evenly. I hope to show this is far from the case. The inductive evidence is so overwhelmingly in favour of theism one is left asking for one good reason not to believe in God. Only one good reason has ever been suggested, the problem of evil. It only succeeds in attacking God’s character, not God’s existence. A successful response to this problem, even if such a response is only a possible answer to the difficulty, would suffice to offset its effect. Now we should be ready to examine the arguments for and against naturalism and theism. We approach them with no privileged argumentative position. Each view must stand or fall by whether it constitutes a good inductive argument for explaining the evidence which existence gives us. Always before our minds should be the fact that one or the other is true. Keeping this uppermost allows us a greater ability to ask ourselves which seems more likely to be true. Admittedly, we will not escape our own predispositions in examining the evidence, nor our own ability to discern likelihoods, be this skilled or amateur. All this taken into account, it should be possible to draw a conclusion that is reasonably satisfactory. Of course there will always be dissenters. Since induction is not absolutely conclusive the opposite view could still be true. How likely it is will depend on our conclusions. We must now weigh the evidence.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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