The burden of proof, one of the favorite topics of both atheists and believers, with each side claiming that the burden lies with the other one. It may not be suprising what my opinion is, but let me try to make it clear and also explain a problem I see quite often in discussions about this topic .If you still disagree after reading this, you can, of course, voice that opinion in the comments…
First of all, while there might be a „scientific“ defintion of the word „atheist“, in reality people can mean at least two things when claiming to be one. In a purely academic discussion, only a precise definition would suffice, but let’s be honest, most of us are amateurs, so we have to accept that people don’t always use the most precise meaning of a word.
- „I don’t believe in any gods.“ or
- „I believe that there aren’t any gods.“
It should be clear that these two statements are not the same. Let’s start with the first one, which can be called „Absence of Belief“. Obviously, this statement doesn’t need any proof, as it’s simply about the personal feelings of a person, not a statement about reality. Asking for proof here would be like answering „Proof it!“ to the statement „I don’t like chocolate!“. If someone doesn’t feel any belief, he/she doesn’t claim that no god exists, but only that he/she doesn’t feel any belief torwards such a being. If should be noted, that this definition is quite probably not the „official“ one (used by people who do for this a living), most people tend to think of definition 2, when talking about „atheism“, but nevertheless it should be understood that some people use definition 1 – if only to avoid confusion by conflicting definitions.
So, the first part was easy, let’s go to the second one, which can be called „Belief of Absence“. This is, admittedly, a little bit trickier, as it really is a statement about reality. Of course, atheists tend to simply say „There’s no evidence for god, so I believe he doesn’t exist.“. Believers are, correctly, quick to reply with: „Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence.“. This is, true. But the real problem here is a word: „Belief“. People use it to express different things. For many atheists, „I believe…“ can be read as „I assume…“. And suddenly it becomes clearer, because „Absence of Evidence is enough to Assume Absence“. No evidence isn’t enough to say without a doubt that something doesn’t exist, but it’s more than enough to assume its absence, as long as no evidence is found. Let’s have an example:
Imagine being a judge. In front of you is one Col. Mustard, who is accused of murdering Mr. Boddy in the ballroom with a lead pipe. So, of course, you have one question: „What evidence is there that he did it?“ If the prosecutor has to admit „There is no evidence, your honor.“, what would you conclude? Of course, no evidence doesn’t prove that Col. Mustard is innocent: He could have done it, sure. But, it is more than enough to assume his innocence. It is possible to (almost) prove Col. Mustards innocence, for example by showing that he was involved in a game of poker in the library with Rev. Green and Prof. Plum, but that’s no requirement for us to assume his innocence.
So, if someone wants to say „I assume that there is no god“, then the lack of evidence for a god can count as enough reason. Let’s face it, believers do this all the time: Every Christian assumes that Zeus does not exist, nor Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They just make an exception for their god – as do most religions (polytheistic religions tend to be more open than monotheistic ones).
But of course, there are also atheists who really want to say „I know that there is no god.“. Well, simply put, they are wrong, sorry: You can’t know that, because god is defined in a way that is not „falsifiable“. In other words, there is no way you could prove that god does not exist. Imagine the worst thing happening – believers will simply state „God works in mysterious ways“ and not accept it as a proof that there is no god (and this has happened for pretty bad things already). There is simply no test that you could use to determine if there is a god or not. But that isn’t a point for god, it is a point against him. I can invent a dozen things that are not falsifiable – every idiot can do that – but that doesn’t make any one of them plausible or real. So while it’s wrong to say you know that there is no god, it is still pretty safe to assume that there isn’t one (exactly because there is no way you could proof that he doesn’t exist).
So, back to the original topic: Who has the burden. Simple: If you want me to have the burden, I now welcome you to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – as then, obviously, you have the burden to proof that it doesn’t exist. We’ve got a beer volcano and a stripper factory! Let’s get serious: If you claim that you have an invisible friend, it’s up to you to prove it and not up to all the other people who – reasonably – assume that you’re simply some pieces short in your Cluedo game. No, their „belief“ that there is no invisible friend is not the same as your belief there is one. They can safely assume that there isn’t one while you should at least have some sort of indication to claim there is one.