by Jay Johansen | Mar 7, 2021
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about a common atheist argument, which can be summed up with the slogan, "the burden of proof is on the affirmative". I happened to have a conversation about that argument again recently and a couple of additional thoughts came to my mind.
If you don't want to read my original article, the gist of the atheist argument is this: The burden of proof is on the affirmative. That is, if you make some claim, if you say that X is true or that Y exists, the burden of proof is on you to prove that it is true. The burden of proof is not on the doubter to prove that it is false.
The example they love to give is, Suppose you claim that you have a dragon in your basement. The burden of proof is on you to prove that you do. The burden of proof is not on me to prove that you don't.
Of course they use a ridiculous proposition for the example. If you told me that you had a dragon in your basement I'd probably doubt this too. But suppose they had taken a much more mundane statement. Like, I have a washing machine in my basement. Would anyone seriously say that until the person proves that he really as a washing machine in his basement, the rational response is to assume that he is confused or lying?
And of course their point is that the claim that there is a God is an affirmative statement, and therefore it is up to the Christian to prove it true. It is not the atheist's responsibility to prove it false. In practice, this means that they work on the assumption that the claim that there is a God is false. They don't worship him or attempt to discover what he wants from people. They assume he doesn't exist until the Christian proves that he does. Furthermore, the point of this argument is that the atheist refuses to make any effort to investigate the evidence for the existence of God -- or at least that he is fully justified in doing so, and that it is totally rational for him to do so. It's up to the Christian to prove it true, not up to the atheist to prove it false.
One of the points I made in my previous article was, Okay, you claim that the burden of proof is on the affirmative. That's an affirmative statement. So prove it.
I was in a conversation recently where I made that argument and the atheist replied, "I don't need to prove that! It's an axiom."
To which one can only reply, "Who says? If you can just declare that this is an 'axiom' and therefore doesnt need proof, okay. Then I declare that the existence of God is an axiom and doesn't need proof. And if you quarrel with that, why should I accept your 'axiom' when you don't accept mine?
But along the way a little analogy occurred to me that shows the weakness of this "axiom".
Suppose you got a great new job. A few days into this job you show up for work late. This was never a problem at your previous job. As long as you got your assigned tasks done, the boss didn't care if you showed up on time. But a co-worker warns you that at this job, the boss is a real stickler for punctuality. People have been fired on the spot for showing up 5 minutes late.
So the co-worker has made an affirmative statement: The policy at this company is that you must show up for work on time. Suppose you then make exactly the same sort of "burden of proof" argument that the atheist makes about God? The conversation might go like this:
Atheist: Well, that's an affirmative statement, "this is the policy". So the burden of proof that that's really the policy is on you. It's up to you to prove that it's true. It's not up to me to prove that it's false.
Co-worker: If you don't believe me, it's in the Employee Handbook. Go look it up for yourself.
Atheist: I don't need to look it up. The burden of proof is on you. Until you prove it, I'm going to continue to work on the assumption that it's false.
Co-worker: Sigh. Look, I'm just trying to help you out. But okay, here's a copy of the employee manual. See, right here on page ... umm ... 17 it says that employees are required to show up for work on time and that lateness is grounds for immediate dismissal.
Atheist: Hmph. How do I know this book is accurate? It was probably just written by some punctuality fanatic.
Co-worker: Well, Fred Miller was fired a few months ago for being late. Several people here can tell you that that's true.
Atheist: How do I know that they're reliable witnesses? Maybe they just THOUGHT this Fred person was fired for being late. Maybe he really quit. Maybe there never was a Fred Miller working here. Sorry, you still haven't proved your case.
If you were in such a situtation, would you insist that the burden of proof was on the co-worker who tells you about this policy? Probably not. Assuming that you want to keep your job, I'd guess that you'd work on the assumption that he's telling the truth until you see evidence otherwise. If he's confused or lying for some reason, by believing him you suffer some minor inconvenience making sure you get up early enough to get to work on time. If he's right and you refuse to believe him, you could lose your job.
If you considered getting up early enough to get to work on time a major inconvenience, you likely would not just work on the assumption that the co-worker is lying until he proves otherwise. You would do some research to find out the truth. Check the employee manual. Ask other employees if they knew of anyone who had been fired for being late. Ask the boss. The question is too important to just make assumptions.
Perhaps you see the analogy to Christian claims about God. The Christian says that there is a God, and that if you don't accept his offer of salvation you will spend eternity in Hell. The atheist declares that the burden of proof is on the Christian. He then sets a very high bar for what he will accept as proof.
The question of whether there is a God and want he demands from people is surely far more important than any question about company policy at your job. Losing your job can be a serious problem, but you'll probably find a new job within a few months, maybe a year or two if times are bad or whatever. But if you're wrong about the question of God, you could spend eternity in Hell. Are you really going to demand that it's up to other people to prove it to you? Isn't such an important question worth doing the research yourself to see whether it is true or false?
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