An argument for atheism that doesn’t work as well as its arguers seem to think

The, like, three of you who inexplicably read my blog may remember last year when I made it a Lenten discipline to write things and post them. I’m not officially doing that this year, but I am using the fact that it’s Lent to motivate me to post more often.

Quite a few of my friends are atheist or agnostic. Most of the ones who would say they’re agnostic are, for all intents and purposes, actually atheist, but that’s neither here nor there. Some of my atheist or agnostic friends are more tolerant of those who are religious; others are more militant in their atheism, or at least more insistent that those who don’t share their point of view are less intelligent. But there’s an argument that I’ve heard several of them use at one time or another to support their atheism or agnosticism which has always bothered me–not because I disagree with their position, although I do, but because the argument itself doesn’t sit right.

The argument goes more or less like this:

“I believe in science and reason and in what can be proven by rational or scientific means, and only in those things. If the existence of God is proven scientifically or rationally, I will consider accepting that God exists, but until that happens, I will not.”

(I should note that, by “God,” I mean more or less the supernatural creator and lawgiver of the Abrahamic religions; for my purposes here, I don’t need to get more detailed than that.)

My friends who make this argument, or versions of it, are generally proud of their commitment to reason and science and of their intellectual orientation to life, and in fairness to them these are traits worth being proud of. Most likely they are less uniformly committed to science and reason in practice than this argument would suggest–most of them would be pretty upset if they were forced to acknowledge love as nothing more than a biochemical reaction, for example–but that’s not really why I have trouble accepting this argument.

No, my main problem with this argument is that it puts the burden of proof entirely on God.

In an American court of law, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. That is, a person accused of a crime doesn’t have to prove that she didn’t do it; she just has to show that the prosecution’s case is faulty. It’s the person who accuses her who has to prove that his accusation is well-founded. The rationale is that, if we make her accuser prove her guilt, she’s less likely to be convicted of and punished for something she didn’t do than it would be in a system where the accused had to prove her innocence. Thus there’s a good reason to put the burden of proof on the prosecution in a legal case: it protects the rights of the accused, especially the ones who are innocent.

But in the argument for atheism cited above, the rationale for putting the burden of proof entirely on God (or at least on those who believe he exists) is less clear. See, the problem there is that neither the existence of God nor the nonexistence of God has been scientifically, rationally proven. There are arguments on both sides, sure, but nothing amounting to conclusive proof. So why is only one of those propositions tasked with proving itself, and why is the other exempt?

“God exists” is a truth claim. But “God does not exist” is also a truth claim. Sure, you can interpret those two statements as opposite propositions; we’ll call them p and ~p, respectively, since the second is in effect a negation of the first. The thing is, this particular ~p is also a proposition of its own.  We’ll call it q and its opposite ~q. That is, the proposition “God exists” is both p and ~q, and the proposition “God does not exist” is both ~p and q. Both statements say something about the universe: the former posits that it has a creator and lawgiver, while the latter posits that it exists and operates without one.

But neither p nor q has been proven or disproven. And that means that, strictly on the basis of logic, there is no rational basis for preferring one over the other–and no rational basis for putting the burden of proof entirely on one side or the other.

Now, at this point my atheist friends would argue that it is, in fact, somewhat more rational to demand proof for the existence of a thing than for its nonexistence, although for the reasons given above I have trouble seeing why. Nonetheless, I’ll offer a counterargument. And I’ll offer it not to place the burden of proof on the atheists–I believe theists and atheists should both be responsible for arguing their own cases as far as they are able–but to undermine the atheists’ argument that the burden of proof should rest solely with the theists.

Here it is:

“For most of known human history, the overwhelming majority of the world’s people–and the vast majority of the world’s people today–have believed in some sort of gods or supernatural beings. Their beliefs have varied, certainly, but those who say the natural world is all that exists have always been far outnumbered by those who say it’s presided over by some deity or deities. So is it more rational to put the burden of proof on the vast majority of humans throughout history, or is it more rational to make the relatively small minority prove their case against the majority whom they say are wrong?”