Atheism and the Burden of Proof by Paul Copan

By Paul Copan

In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?”

Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.”1 Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?

First, define your terms — especially atheism. Understand the terms you are using. You can clear up a lot of confusion here and keep the conversation with a professing atheist on track. Ask your friend, “How do you define atheism?” According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the historic definition of “atheist” is one who “maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence God exists expresses a false proposition.”2

The late atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew, defined atheism as“rejection of belief in God” — not merely the absence of belief in God.3 Likewise, Julian Baggini, in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, asserts that atheism is “extremely simple to define.” It is “the belief that there is no God or gods.”4 By contrast, central to theism is that an infinitely good, wise, self-existent, and powerful personal Creator brought into being a creation separate from himself, though He sustains all things in being. This creation is comprised of things visible and invisible. And God uniquely made human beings with distinctive moral, spiritual, intellectual, and relational capacities.

Second, the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.” Keep in mind: The atheist is actually making a claim to knowledge just as the theist is. So rather than shrugging off any burden of proof, the atheist should understand that both claims needs justification, not just the theist’s. If you make a claim to know something, you should be able to justify that claim when challenged. The atheist — if he or she is a true atheist — says that God does not exist. But we can ask, “Why think this? What positive arguments are there for this claim?” To date, there just has not been any argument coming close to showing how this is so. Some might say, “Arguments for God’s existence do not work.” But that is not enough. You need to show why God does not exist (more on this below). In my experience, the “atheist” more often than not turns out to be an agnostic.

Third, look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief. True agnostics affirm they do not know whether God exists or not. By contrast, atheism is a strong claim and is actually a fairly difficult position to defend. As noted, many professing atheists are not true atheists — that is, one who disbelieves or rejects belief in God. Rather, they are more like “agnostics” — unbelievers. What they mean by “there is no God” is more like “I lack belief in God.”

In April 2001, I was speaking at an open forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. A student told me during the Q&A, “The reason I am an atheist is because the arguments for God’s existence do not work.”

I replied, “Then you should be an agnostic, not an atheist. It is logically possible that God could exist even if the available arguments for God do not work. So, you should be an agnostic, in that case. You have to do more than say the arguments for God do not work to be an atheist. You have to show why God cannot exist. You see, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The person who claims to be an atheist but simply lacks belief in God is blurring the historic distinction between agnostic and atheist.5 We should gently press him on this question: “What makes your position different from an agnostic’s?”

Fourth, distinguish between the two types of agnostics — ordinary and ornery. You have seen the bumper sticker: “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you can’t know either.” Notice what this agnostic’s position is. He is not simply confessing, “I just don’t know if God exists” (and perhaps he would like to know). This is the ordinary agnostic position. No, he is taking the ornery agnostic position. He is confidently claiming to know something after all — thatno one can know if God exists.

I was at a local philosophical discussion recently (I am organizer and moderator of a Socrates Café),6 and one participant exclaimed, “You can’t know that God exists.”

I gently replied, “But how do you know that you can’t know?” I then pressed him: “I can understand that you obviously speak for yourself about not knowing if God exists. But how can you say that no one else can truly know that God exists? That just sounds presumptuous to me.” The militant agnostic speaks for all people, claiming to know that no one can know God exists. But how can he support the claim to know this? Like that atheist, the militant agnostic must justify his claim as well.

Fifth, distinguish between “proof” and “good reasons.” In the past, Christian philosophers and theologians have talked about “proofs” for God’s existence. To many, however, this suggests 100 percent, absolute, mathematical certainty — with absolutely no wiggle room for other explanations or alternatives. I have met plenty of people who claim that, even if an alternative to a “God-answer” is logically possible, then they do not have to take God seriously. “It is logically possible that the amazing finely tuned, life-permitting, life-producing, and life-sustaining universe came about by nonconscious, material, unguided processes.” Do we make important decisions or judgments in any other area of life on the basis of the slimmest of possibilities? Just because something is possible does not mean it is even remotely plausible. I have talked to skeptics, agnostics, and atheists who seem willing to risk everything based on the remotest logical possibilities — a very thin thread to hang everything on. It is logically possible that the universe is just an illusion too, but so utterly counterintuitive and implausible. Clearly, plenty of alternative possibilities need not detain us from taking seriously more substantive explanations.

Here is the point: We do not need 100 percent certainty to truly know. After all, we cannot show with 100 percent certainty that our knowledge must have 100 percent certainty. We believe lots of things with confidence even though we do not have absolute certainty. In fact, if most people followed the “100 percent rule” for knowledge, we would know precious little. But no one really believes that.

Now, if our only options were either 100 percent certainty or skepticism, then we would not be able to differentiate between views that are highly plausible, on the one hand, and completely ridiculous, on the other. They would both fall short of the 100 percent certainty standard and so both should be readily dismissed. But that is clearly silly. We know the difference. And what about those who seem to know with 100 percent certainty that we cannot know with 100 percent certainty. Interestingly, skeptics about knowledge typically seem quite convinced — absolutely convinced — that we cannot know.

Also, we know some things even without evidence — say, that the earth is older than 15 minutes and that other minds exist. These beliefs are, as some philosophers say, “properly basic.” They simply arise from our experience, and we have no reason to doubt them. We cannot show that the earth is older than 15 minutes or that other minds exist. Now it is logically possible we could be wrong, but we can know these things quite confidently, even if we do not have absolute certainty.

Sixth, we have good reasons for belief in the biblical God, but not in mythical beings like mermaids, elves, unicorns, the tooth fairy, or flying spaghetti monsters. When people say that belief in God is like belief in the tooth fairy or Easter bunny, this is a philosophical blunder, a misguided comparison. These cases are quite different. We have good reasons for thinking tooth fairies or Santa Claus do not exist. For example, we know that parents typically replace their child’s extracted tooth under the pillow with some surprise; we know where Christmas presents under the tree come from — and it’s not the North Pole. By contrast, belief in God is far different, and today we live in an age in which arguments for God’s existence are being taken seriously and are ably defended. (View the many debates of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig at

To read on, click here:


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