The Burden Of Proof Is On Theists
Updated: May 15
“Why don't I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this.”[i]
- Ricky Gervais
The idea of the burden of proof in a criminal court is that the prosecutor has the responsibility to prove the person they’re charging with a crime is actually guilty. If someone is accusing you, they must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt and you’re assumed to be innocent until they do. You don’t even have to testify in your own defense. For your protection, the accuser has the burden of proof.
In a civil law case, the standard of proof is less. The plaintiff (accuser) only has to prove that it’s more likely than not that you’re at fault. The threshold of the burden of proof is lower, but they still have to prove their case.
In a debate (an organized argument) there is also the idea of the burden of proof. The person arguing for a change to the status quo (the way things are) must prove there is a need for change and that their plan for change will work. However, in a debate, the person arguing against change had better say something because silence is seen as forfeiting the argument. The one arguing for change technically has the burden of proof, but if you’re silent they’ll win.
Who has the burden of proof about God?
When it comes to the question of the existence of God, who has the burden of proof? Ricky Gervais, the actor, sees nothing morally “wrong” with believing in God. He sees it as harmless.[ii] However, he places the burden for proving God exists squarely on people who do believe it.
Gervais is not alone. For decades, philosopher Antony Flew contended it was people who believe in God who must prove God’s existence. However, he went one step further by claiming the non-existence of God must be the assumed starting point.[iii]
Many atheists then add to this challenge the following idea from an essay published by W.K. Clifford in 1879:
“To sum up, it is wrong always and anywhere to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence”[iv]
So, the general idea is that people who believe in God must prove God’s existence and the evidence must be overwhelming. And, if they can’t provide overwhelming evidence, atheism is true!
Wow. Where shall we begin?
1. The starting point – the presumption of atheism as true hardly seems to be in the spirit of an honest search for truth. Saying that “I’m right unless you prove me wrong” seems a bit odd. If the view that God exists is a hypothesis, the view that God does not exist is also a hypothesis. Only saying “I don’t know” (an agnostic view) is not a hypothesis and requires no evidence.
2. The need for evidence – the need for evidence to establish a belief seems to be a valid requirement. However, what type of evidence and how much may depend on what you’re seeking to prove. Matt McCormick, a philosophy professor, rightly says that if atheism or theism make the most sense, it will be in light of many disciplines – not just science.
“So ultimately, the adequacy of atheism as an explanatory hypothesis about what is real will depend upon the overall coherence, internal consistency, empirical confirmation, and explanatory success of a whole worldview within which atheism is only one small part. The question of whether or not there is a God sprawls onto related issues and positions about biology, physics, metaphysics, explanation, philosophy of science, ethics, philosophy of language, and epistemology.”[v]
- Matt McCormick
One of the reasons why intelligent people may disagree about the existence of God is that it’s a big subject. You can’t just do a simple lab experiment and prove or disprove it. The existence or non-existence of God will make sense in light of everything.
Can a coherent case be made for God?
Can a compelling case be made for God’s existence? Can we look at a wide range of disciplines and reasonably conclude God exists? Based upon the conclusions of prominent former atheists, it seems so.
Francis Collins, the Head of the US National Institutes of Health, concluded that God exists while studying medicine. Compelling factors for him were moral law, the big bang, mathematics, and the order and expansion of the universe.[vi]
Edward Feser, a philosophy professor, changed course and accepted the existence of God after pondering philosophical arguments.[vii]
Alister McGrath, who holds a PhD in molecular biophysics, saw science as unable to answer questions of meaning and purpose. After exploring the philosophy and history of natural science and what Christianity actually teaches, he concluded God does exist.[viii]
Ian Hutchinson, a plasma physicist and former head of nuclear fusion research at MIT, concluded that God exists while studying at Cambridge. Especially important to him were morality and the historical evidence for Jesus.[ix]
Allan Sandage, one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century, concluded that God exists at the age of fifty. For him, the mystery of the universe’s existence could only be answered by God.[x] He saw the big bang as a miracle.[xi]
Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who placed the burden of proving God’s existence on theists also changed his mind. For him, it was science – the big bang, fine-tuning, laws, language and purposeful information in DNA, and purpose in nature.[xii]
Will we find God only in a test tube or a lab experiment? Likely not. What kind of proof are we seeking? Would God be evident in the origin, intelligibility, structure, laws, complexity, and beauty of the universe? Would God be evident in the languages of mathematics and DNA? Would God be evident in purpose, value, meaning, and morality? And, what about consciousness and love? Do these things make more sense with or without God?
Evidence for God abounds. Yet Carl Sagan, an agnostic, suggested that even if God had written the Ten Commandments in large letters across the surface of the moon, people would still look for another explanation.[xiii] Are we actually looking for truth or are we merely seeking to justify long-held positions?
Is it only about winning a debate?
If we are all genuinely searching for truth, it makes sense to pursue truth fairly and honestly. Perhaps that way, when we do claim to find it, others will listen.
About Ricky Gervais:
Ricky Gervais is an accomplished English stand-up comedian, actor, writer, director and producer. His comedy is often highly provocative and satirical. He is outspoken in his atheism and is a critic of religion when he sees it as imposing beliefs on others. However, he sees nothing “wrong” with belief in God.
Copyright 2022 by Patrick Prill
Photo purchased from iStock.
[i] Ricky Gervais, Why I’m an Atheist, The Wall Street Journal, December 19,2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-SEB-56643 [ii] IBID [iii] Antony Flew, Atheistic Humanism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 17-38. [iv] William Kingdon Clifford, Lectures and Essays, (London, England: MacMillan & Co., 1879), 186. [v] “Atheism” by Matt McCormick, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/, May 28, 2020. [vi] Francis Collins, The Language of God, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), 30, 67, 71-75, 93. [vii] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2008), 7. [viii] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2004), 178. [ix] Ian Hutchinson, Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles?, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 5-6. [x] Sharon Begley, Science Finds God, 1998, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/science_of_god/scienceofgod.htm [xi] Greg Easterbrook, Meaning Makes a Comeback, in the collection edited by Russell Stannard, God For The 21st Century, (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 33. [xii] Antony Flew, There is A God, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007), 98, 107, 111, 114-115, 124-126, 128-129, 141-145. [xiii] Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, (London, England: Penguin Books, 2007), 167.