Possible Flaw in Theism's
Burden of Proof
I was recently re-reading your statements about placing the burden of proof on the theist who makes claims of a god existence, and while I am a strong atheist (who happens to agree that the weak atheist definition is preferable), I do have concerns about the complete validity of this practice. Oh, certainly it is likely to work in diffusing or resolving (or just making a point in) a lot of situations, but I'm not completely convinced that the burden of proof is entirely upon the theist in our society. Since we live in a society which generally (and in my opinion quite erroneously) assumes the existence of a god entity, it perhaps lies upon us, at least to some degree, to contest this belief (certainly to contest the absolute nature in which this belief is portrayed as being true and self-evident).
The best example of this I can think of is to consider the abstract theory given by some that our perceptions of the universe are all that truly exist... in the extreme: that there is no real universe, and our sensations are merely the product of something else. I would say that most people would consider the idea that we do not actually exist to be rather extreme, and if someone were to claim this in a discussion, most of us would place the burden of proof firmly at the feet of the person who had claimed such a thing (and probably rightly so?). However, when you examine the nature of their "claim," you may notice that they are actually claiming simply the possible absence of a thing (or, the absence of just about everything), while we are making the claim of the existence of everything. (so by this example, if the common assumption is the existence of a thing, then to disagree with the idea of said existence would require at least some evidence to be credible). The credulity of the idea (an invisible man in the sky?) doesn't really enter into this, as there are many who would honestly believe that the idea of there being no god-entity is incredible.
What this all boils down to is the idea that in any particular society, the burden of proof, the real, concrete burden of proof, lies at the feet of whoever challenges the widely accepted view of things (not necessarily the person who claims a thing exists).
I don't mean to imply that we, as either weak or strong atheists, should have any real burden of proof placed upon us either (really, a person's religion or lack thereof should be his or her own personal affair and no proof should be necessary in any fair circumstance), and I do wholeheartedly agree that if a person is attempting to sway a person to his or her beliefs, that person should of course assume the burden of proof.
I could be misinterpreting your statements about this entire subject as well (it is possible you are only saying exactly what I just did: that if a person is trying to convince you of something then obviously it is up to them to prove it), but I got the impression that you were stating that the simple claim that something exists (as opposed to the claim that something may not exist) is inherently more in need of proof than its opposite, which seems to be a slight logical fallacy, certianly if you agree with my above example (which I hope I did not make any logical mistakes of my own in citing, and will readily admit to if you show them to me).
I'll close by stating that I do not mean this as criticism, but simply to point out a possible flaw in the still-beneficial practice of placing the burden of proof upon the theist.
Aspiring writer, Literature Student (in Calgary, AB), and
Proud Atheist since I learned to apply reason to my existence.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
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.
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.
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-
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.
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