by Jay Johansen | Aug 13, 2016
A common atheist argument lately goes like this: The burden of proof is on the affirmative. If you claim that some statement is true or that something exists, it is not up to the doubters to prove it false. It is up to you to prove it true. Until you do, we must work on the assumption that it is false. They often offer as an example, Suppose you claim that you have a dragon living in your basement. You can't expect me to believe that just because you say so. You would have to provide convincing evidence. Of course the point is to apply this principle to God. You claim there is a God. It is not the responsibility of doubters to prove that God does not exist. It is the responsibility of believers to prove that he does. Until you do, the rational position is to conclude that he does not.
"The burden of proof is on the affirmative." That's an affirmative statement. So by your own standard, the burden of proof is on you. Prove it. I have never once heard an atheist make any attempt to prove this principle. We're supposed to accept it just because they say so.
Because it's total nonsense. No one applies this standard to any other question. I read one discussion that went through the "dragon in the basement" example in detail, and then the writer made an astonishing statement that blew his own argument out of the water. He said, "And of course, the same thing would apply if you said your grandmother was living in your basement." Really? Seriously? If a friend told you that his grandmother had moved in with him, your response would be to declare that until your friend offers conclusive evidence proving this, you will work on the assumption that he is lying or having hallucinations? Surely the point of the dragon story is not so much that you doubt that a dragon could live in a basement, but that you doubt that dragons exist at all. So your position is that if someone tells you he ever had a grandmother, that he was born in the normal way to parents born in the normal way, that you take as your working hypothesis that he was not. You don't know where he came from, but until he proves he had a grandmother, you assume that he did not. Furthermore, you insist that this is the logical, rational position. Anyone who believes that someone has parents and grandparents without first seeing absolute proof is a gullible idiot and an anti-science extremist.
In practice, I think the standard most people apply is that the burden of proof is on the person arguing against "conventional wisdom". We've all observed that we ourselves have grandmothers. While I haven't seen proof that everyone I know has a grandmother, I've met many grandmothers, and I've never met anyone who denied having one. Combine that with some basic knowledge of biology, and I conclude that everyone has a grandmother. (Two actually.) If someone claimed he didn't, I'd say the burden of proof was on him.
Scientists follow the same principle. Scientists have seen that gravity works everywhere they look. So they proceed on the assumption that gravity works everywhere. If you claimed that there is not gravity in your basement, I think they would say that the burden of proof is on you. That is, the burden of proof here is on the negative.
The vast majority of people in the history of the world have been convinced that there is a God or gods. Atheists have always been a small minority. One recent study found that atheists and agnostics have fallen from 19% of the world population in 1970 to 11% today, and those numbers are surely high compared to past centuries. (http://wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf) So by the conventional wisdom standard, the burden of proof is on the atheist.
When I want to know the truth about a controversial question, I consider the affirmative and negative to have an equal burden of proof.
In practical terms, when atheists say they want "proof", what they of course mean is "evidence that convinces me". On this subject as on many others, this is often an impossible standard to meet. An argument that convinces me may not convince you. If you don't want to concede the argument, all you have to do is keep repeating, "no, that doesn't convince me".
Atheists often go so far as to say that theists offer no evidence. This is absurd. Theists have offerred many arguments and lines of evidence over the centuries, from Aristotle's Argument from First Cause to Anselm's Argument from Ontolgoy to the modern Argument from Entropy to fulfilled prophecy to miracles to ... Billions of people have found these arguments convincing. Maybe they are all wrong and the tiny minority of atheists are right. But you can't say we offer no evidence.
I can't wait for an atheist to tell me that the "burden of proof is on the affirmative" rule is true because it's logical or obvious or common sense. Because then I could easily reply, Good point, I concede. And by the same reasoning, I find the existence of God logical and obvious and common sense. So by the standard you just used, I have just proven the existence of God. QED.
© 2016 by Jay Johansen