One atheist, Richard Norman, claims that “the onus is on those who believe in a god to provide reasons for that belief. If they cannot come up with good reasons, then we should reject the belief” (1). Similarly, prior to Antony Flew’s exile from atheism, he most famously urged that the ”onus of proof must lie upon the theist” and that unless compelling reasons for God’s existence could be given there should be a “presumption of atheism” (2).
This I find very questionable for it somehow puts atheism on a pedestal. Here I agree with philosopher Paul Copan that “even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God’s existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true’ (3). Likewise atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen agrees that “To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false… All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists” (4).
Thus to presume that atheism is somehow the default go to position in debate is, what Copan calls, a “rigging of the rules.” Copan articulates, “The ‘presumption of atheism’ demonstrates a rigging of the rules of philosophical debate in order to play into the hands of the atheist, who himself makes a truth claim. Alvin Plantinga correctly argues that the atheist does not treat the statements ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ in the same manner. The atheist assumes that if one has no evidence for God’s existence, then one is obligated to believe that God does not exist – whether or not one has evidence against God’s existence. What the atheist fails to see is that atheism is just as much a claim to know something (‘God does not exist’) as theism (‘God exists’). Therefore, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence needs just as much substantiation as does the theist’s claim; the atheist must give plausible reasons for rejecting God’s existence…”
So, in the absence of evidence for a god’s existence it is “agnosticism, not atheism, [that] is the logical presumption. Even if arguments for God’s existence do not persuade, atheism should not be presumed because atheism is not neutral; pure agnosticism is. Atheism is justified only if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence” (5).
However, this unwarranted assumption of presuming atheism remains at the core of many atheists reasoning, as Steven Lovell explains, “Time and again I’ve heard people say that they don’t believe in God because they think there is insufficient evidence for His existence. If the person saying this is an atheist (one who thinks that God doesn’t exist, that ‘God exists’ is a false statement), then they imply that they do have enough evidence for their atheism. Clearly, if we reject belief in God due to (alleged) insufficient evidence, then we would be irrational to accept atheism, if the evidence for God’s non-existence were similarly insufficient. It would be a radical inconsistency. If theistic belief requires evidence, so must atheistic belief. If we have no evidence either way, then the logical conclusion would be agnosticism” (6).
Thus to be an atheist one needs to have reasons for her atheism. To show that there is insufficient evidence for God (a challenge I answer more directly here) simply does not warrant the belief that God does not exist; thus belief in atheism, as a result of insufficient evidence, is not warranted. My personal view, however, is that the burden for the atheist is simply too heavy to bear; I believe this would well explain her redefinition of her atheism to be “a lack of belief in God” (a challenge I answer elsewhere).
1. Norman, R. 2004. On Humanism. p. 16
2. Flew, A. 1976. The Presumption of Atheism. p. 14.
3. Copan, P. 2009. The Presumptuousness of Atheism. Available.
4. Nielsen, K. 1971. Reason and Practice. p. 143–144.
5. Copan, P. ibid.
6. Lovell, S. Evidence and Atheism.