Should The Atheist Have to Prove There Is No God?


This is to addresses a Frequently Asked Question/Frequently Offered Claim that since the Atheist claims there is no God, they should prove it.


Should the Christian be required to prove there are no Hindu Gods? Should anyone have to prove that something does not exist? Proving a negative is problematic. To prove something is not there or proving a negative requires iterating through all possibilities and ensuring that if it were possible to prove it, it could be proved. For a closed system or a system where the parameters are well defined it would theoretically be possible, but not practical. For an open system or a system with parameters not defined, it should be impossible. In Informal Logic this is called an Argument from Ignorance.

Typically when someone is expected to prove something they are expected to prove a positive. Plaintiffs are expected to make a case and prove it in court. Citizens are usually considered innocent until proven guilty. Cases where citizens have been considered guilty and required to prove their innocence haven't turned out very well. The Salem Witch trials, McCarthyism and political mud-slinging are all examples of the problems with having to prove a negative.

So now how does one go about proving that God doesn't exist or that anything doesn't exist? One way to do it is to turn it around, inventory what you know and come up with some expectations and test for them. Find something that makes some positive claims and test them. In the case of God, the Bible makes many testable positive claims. Some of them have been verified and some of them have not. Some of them suggest something completely different and weaken those testable claims. Christians make a lot of claims about their experience. As these claims are iterated through, we can get a better idea of what is valid or not. As we go through this process, we gain knowledge and come to a point where we can come to a reasonably sound conclusion.

To assert that someone should prove a negative is to place an extraordinarily high burden on them and history has shown that the process does not have a high rate of success. This is one reason why it is not generally considered a reasonable demand to be placed on anyone. Since, if a thing exists, there should be evidence of its existence, it should be easier to find the evidence of its existence than the evidence of somethings lack of existence.

Since the Christian God is one of many throughout the ages, the default position should be neither for or against and the party making the positive claim should handle the burden of proof. In fact, Jesus reportedly did not tell his disciples to be convinced, he told them go convince (Matt. 28:16-20).

7 comments:

live-n-grace said...

The best is to start at the beginning of the world. It seems by faith and by logic that God created the world, and that this all didn't come to be by chance. Once that is excepted then you can see the differences between Christianity and all other religions. Well actually between God and all the other gods. There are huge, well actually monstrous differences.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi l-n-g,
since I'm on this 'general principle' kick these days...

What is the general principle that leads you to expect that god created the world?

Anonymous said...

Hi LnG & Lee
only those people who do not think, will simply claim what the bible said that god created the world.

since you are comparing other religions, I simply think buddhism explained much better than christian.

The Buddhism explained the origin of the universe corresponds very closely to the scientific view. they describe the universe being destroyed then re-evolving into its present form over a period of countless millions of years. The first life formed on the surface of the water and again, over the countless millions of years, evolved from simple into complex organisms. all this processes were, the Buddha said without beginning or end, and are set in motion by natural causes.

Rgds/Henry-C

live-n-grace said...

So, how does life come from nothing? How did it work? If it was so simple, shouldn't have we had created life already? The list goes on and on of if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, if, throw in a few billion years, and wallaw, here we are today.

Anon: Look into what beliefs Buddhas hold

Lee Randolph said...

Hi l-n-g,
can you explain to me the details of how your computer works? I doubt it. that doesn't mean it has a supernatural origin.

Not knowing is simply not knowing. To say that I don't know how life came about therefore I know it must be god is dishonest or at least hasty isn't it?

Wouldn't it be better to say something like "I had god over for tea yesterday and after he did me the favor of getting rid of all the dust and dirt laying around in my house by just thinking it, he told me how life arose on the planet".

(think sense of humor...)

anyway, my point is that when we only have the physical to work with in coming up with a mechanism for how life arose, we have to 'reverse engineer' it so to speak.

It is a more rational process of reasoning to a conclusion to say that I know something because I have this data that follows this general principle which leads to this conclusion.

Look at my triscuits example from earlier in a different post,
I have seen mike getting into my triscuits (which is okay with me) but I have not seen anyone else.
Since I know that I always roll the bag up, and I know that bags do not unroll themselves as a general principle, then by elimination it is likely to be mike or someone that I haven't seen yet that is leaving it open for the trisuits to get stale.

I could say it is god but that kind of hasty conclusion does not follow a strictly rational process.

And to insist that "if life is so simple we should have duplicated it already" is not fair. It took life millions of years of trial and error to arise but scientist have not had the tools or the means to work on it that long. I am sure as I am writing this that if we survive a million years after this, that we will have figured out to create life from molecules. My general principle for that conclusion is that science has solved and discovered so many other counter-intuitive things and I see reason why they would stop so I presume (not assume) they will keep on doing it wherever they apply themselves.

gwc said...

"To prove something is not there or proving a negative requires iterating through all possibilities" reminds me alot of proving non-existence in mathematics. But like you say later, this is only one way of proving non-existence; for practical reasons it's basically never used except when there is a very finite number of possibilities to check.

I think what you're saying in the second half is related to the contrapositive?--that if you can be 100% assured that one statement implies another, then if you can prove the 2nd statement false, then the 1st statement must also be false.

for example, if we were 100% sure that the existence of god necessitates biblical inerrancy, then if the bible is not inerrant, god does not exist.

(of course this is just an example: we are not 100% sure that the existence of god implies biblical inerrancy.)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi gwc,
I'm not a logician, just an enthusiast, so I've never heard of the mathematics you are talking about.

In your second paragraph I think you are referring to a modus tollens. I am careful to avoid absolutes because they are so rare and so easy to attack in an argument. I would say that to prove b false or unlikely, implies that A is also false or unlikely. Since we are dealing with a god that has not been defined then it is hard to say what is and isn't implied by one instance. I depend on modus tollens in a general kind of way to create a preponderance of evidence which weakens the arguments for the validity of the bible, which weakens the validity of the christian god (the process can be used for any other religious scripture you choose) to argue that the bible is unlikely, therefore the christian god is unlikely. I haven't figured out a way to get around the god thing, except to say that none of these things are not like the other, therefore they are likely the same therefore all gods are myth.