When people find out that someone is an atheist, they usually have a lot of questions. I’ve seen, in my experience, that most of these questions take the offensive stance and are often accusatory. Atheists are used to hearing things like, “Where do you get your morals from?” and “Why do you hate God?” One of the most common of these quips is “How do you know for sure that there is no god?” which also takes the form of “Well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, so disbelief is illogical.” These statements are the embodiment of the theist’s attempt to flip the burden of proof.
I’ll make a disclaimer before I go on. Many times here on this blog, people tell me that they identify as gnostic atheists, and personally, they are sure that there is no god. They say, “I believe that there is no god.” (So they are making a claim that there is no god.) I, on the other hand, identify as an agnostic atheist, and I assume this negative, agnostic atheism as the default atheist position. Therefore, I always say “I don’t believe there is a god.” (So I am not accepting the claim made by the theist that there is a god.)
I’ve always thought of these as linguistic technicalities, but depending on what you’re talking about, like here where I’m going to dive into the burden of proof, it’s good to be clear on whether you’re doing it on a basis of positive or negative atheism. Here, I assume negative atheism. Even if you identify as a gnostic atheist, keep this in mind as you follow along. By the way, shout out to Antony Flew for introducing the idea of negative atheism in his book The Presumption of Atheism.
Simply put, the idea of the burden of proof is that if Person A makes a claim, they must defend their claim. If Person B doesn’t believe them, it is up to Person A to try to persuade Person B that their claim is true. It has its roots in the court of law, and it can be summed up in the concept that someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. In the case of the existence of god, it is sometimes said that he is innocent (of existence) until proven guilty (of existence), so you can assume that he does not exist until it has been proven that he does.
I don’t think that this completely works, because it’s pretty much impossible to absolutely prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, especially the existence of a supernatural being, but I do think that it’s fair that you can’t expect me to believe in god until you have at least some evidence. Or good arguments. Neither of which I have yet to encounter. But I digress.
I’ve always thought that the burden of proof is more easily understood with examples rather than definitions. Popular concepts within the burden-of-proof discussion are the idea that we can’t prove that there’s not a teapot orbiting around the Sun, and we can’t prove that there isn’t a Flying Spaghetti Monster out there, blessing people with his Noodly Appendage. I’ll add that you also can’t prove that your pet cat doesn’t transform into a rainbow lizard every time he’s our of your sight, morphing back into a cat whenever you’re around.
Most people, when they hear these “You can’t prove…” examples, they say “Well, of course that would be ridiculous to believe” and go on to say that their belief in their religion is different. I guess I can’t prove that donkeys and snakes can’t talk.
But occasionally you’ll run into a smart-ass who says “You’re right. There is that tiny possibility that there’s a teapot orbiting around the Sun. I don’t have a way to disprove that, technically.” It’s fine to technically be an agnostic about fantastical and un-disprovable claims like this, but I think that if you really think this way, it easily borderlines on absurd.
I was only able to come with one example of my own, but there is basically an infinite amount of crazy things you could claim that you can’t prove or disprove. And if you say you have to be open to anything because it’s un-disprovable, then I imagine that you must have a constant headache from the absurdity. After all, Ockham’s Razor really makes me second guess any concept that something should exist when there is no reason to think it does.
In the comments below, feel free to help me out with any other absurd ideas that you could potentially believe because you can’t disprove its existence!