Lack-of-Belief Atheism Has the First Burden of Proof: Part 2

The Reconquista Initiative


Lack-of-Belief Atheism Has the First Burden of Proof: Part 2

In the previous essay titled “Lack-of-Belief Atheism Has the First Burden of Proof”, it was pointed that if unbelievers wish to play the game of avoiding their part of the burden of proof by claiming that they merely lack a belief in God, thereby placing the full onus of proof on the theist given that the theist is making the positive claim that God or gods (hereafter just God) exist, then the theist can play a similar game by arguing that he just lacks a belief in the existence of people who genuinely lack a belief in God. Consequently, before any debate about God even starts, the unbeliever thus needs to prove the genuineness of his unbelief. Indeed, since certain forms of theism posit that the Suppression Hypothesis is true—and note that the Suppression Hypothesis posits that neurologically-typical unbelievers actually do believe in God but, for various psychological and/or moral reasons, they suppress that truth via various defensive mechanisms such as denial and suppression—then, in light of this plausible view, a theistic believer who is agnostic about the truth of the Suppression Hypothesis can thereby demand that any self-proclaimed unbeliever prove the genuineness of his unbelief before discussing the issue of God’s existence. And until and unless the unbeliever does so satisfactorily, there is indeed no point discussing the issue of God’s existence because it has not yet been established that any neurologically-typical person truly does deny the existence of God.

Now, in response to this ‘burden of proof’ tactic on the part of the theist, the atheist can try to reverse the situation and claim that he is unsure of the actual existence of sincere believers; indeed, the unbeliever can claim that perhaps believers are simply suppressing the truth concerning the non-existence of God, and so they must therefore prove the genuineness of their theistic belief before the unbeliever will accept it. And commentator ‘KR’, writing in response to the last essay on this topic, articulates this objection well when he says:

[QUOTE] Can you prove to me that you believe in God? You see, I have this theory that there are no actual theists. Deep down, all self-proclaimed believers sense that their interactions with this God is actually their own minds playing tricks on them and that the most parsimonious explanation for why God doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything is that He simply doesn’t exist. However, the thought of there being no afterlife and no prospect of seeing their departed loved ones on the other side is unbearable to them so they suppress this insight. Of course, there is also the threat of Hell and the risk of being ostracized by the other people who profess to believe. I find it interesting to watch deconversion stories on YouTube. No-one claims to have made a decision to give up their faith, in fact they all try desperately to hold on to it (i.e. suppression). Eventually, they just seem to accept at some point that they don’t believe – the suppression simply couldn’t be upheld anymore. Even the most devout (professed) believer can still have doubts – that’s just the cracks in their suppression starting to show. [UNQUOTE,

And so, the unbeliever can indeed mount such a burden of proof objection against the believer’s own claim that the atheist has the first burden of proof. But is the above objection valid? Does it really negate the unbeliever’s burden of proof? These are questions that need to be answered, and they can be through a number of different responses.

Response 1 – The Unbeliever Still Has a Burden of Proof.

The first response to the above objection is to note that merely arguing that the theist has a burden of proof concerning the genuineness of his belief does nothing to negate the unbeliever’s burden of proof in this regard. Indeed, just because the unbeliever is engaging in a sort of tu quoque maneuver, this does nothing, in the end, to remove the burden of proof from him (so long as the burden of proof is construed as belonging to any person who makes a positive claim, whether that claim is implicit or overt). At best, all this objection shows is that both the believer and the unbeliever have a burden of proof to demonstrate that they hold their positions in a genuine and sincere sense. Now, would this mean that the believer and the unbeliever are at logger-heads, with neither one really at an advantage when it comes to the initial burden of proof? Perhaps, and perhaps this is an undesirable scenario, but the fact that it is again does nothing to remove the burden from the unbeliever in this case.

Response 2 – The Unbeliever’s Objection is Potentially Ad Hoc.

The second response to the aforementioned objection is to note that it appears to be ad hoc in nature, meaning that it has only been posited as a way to respond to the theist’s argument, and thus that it is simply a spur-of-the-moment opportunistic creation meant to protect the unbeliever from the theist’s argumentative attack; this is unlike the theist’s claim concerning the Suppression Hypothesis, given that the theist’s Suppression Hypothesis has a long history and was posited as a hypothesis well before the advent of modern psychology and well before the advent of modern lack-of-belief atheism. Thus, whereas the theist’s Suppression Hypothesis is a genuine idea grounded in ancient writings and thought of before there was a real need for it, the atheist’s version of the Suppression Hypothesis—as above—seems to have been created merely as a way to counter the theist’s own Suppression Hypothesis. And the reason that this fact is important is because an ‘ad hoc’ hypothesis is usually one which is not really believed by the person offering it, and thus it is not being offered in a genuine way; and so, in light of these facts, an ad hoc hypothesis is not a hypothesis that needs to be taken seriously when in a burden-of-proof debate because the person making the hypothesis does not really believe that it is the case.

However, although it can be argued that the unbeliever’s version of the Suppression Hypothesis is indeed ad hoc in some cases—or even most cases—the fact remains that there very well may be unbelievers who genuinely hold to some version of this Suppression Hypothesis concerning theistic believers, and so merely noting that the hypothesis is ad hoc in many cases is not sufficient to undermine the general challenge of this objection. Consequently, another response is still needed.

Response 3 – Lacking an Air of Reality.

Yet another response to the unbeliever’s own Suppression Hypothesis is to note that it lacks an ‘air of reality’. Now, an ‘air of reality’ is a legal term which holds that unless a defense has some type of evidentiary foundation or evidentiary basis, it cannot be offered to the court as a means of arguing for an accused person’s innocence. So, for example, if a person is accused of murder, the person’s lawyer cannot claim that perhaps aliens actually killed the deceased person rather than his client doing so, for the ‘alien defense’ has no evidentiary foundation to it and has thus been made out of whole cloth; and because of this, the court could legitimately discard this defense without even considering it. By contrast, if the person accused of murder had connections to the mob, then there would be an evidentiary basis for claiming that such a person had been framed for the murder which he was accused of committing, and thus the court would have to seriously consider this possibility. Now the reason that this idea of an ‘air of reality’ is important is because without it, a defense lawyer could simply mount countless ad hoc defenses as a way of trying to get his client off. Thus the ‘air of reality’ test helps to determine which ideas are merely possible in the logical sense and thus do not need to be taken seriously in reality, and which ideas are reasonably plausible and thus do need to be taken seriously in reality.

Now, the reason that the ‘air of reality’ test is important in the case of the Suppression Hypothesis is because whereas the hypothesis that unbeliever’s are suppressing the truth about God does have an evidentiary basis—as evidenced in the last essay on this topic—it is questionable whether the hypothesis that theistic believers are suppressing the truth about the non-existence of God actually has an evidentiary foundation. After all, it is possible to posit that believers are motivated to believe in God as a form of wish-fulfilment and that they suppress the truth about atheism, but is there any evidentiary basis for this claim? And until and unless there is—indeed, until and unless there is an air of reality to this claim—it does not need to be taken seriously.

Now, in response to this ‘air of reality’ challenge, an unbeliever might respond that theistic believers have indeed articulated the fact that they want theism to be true and that theism is a form of wish-fulfilment. But note that merely having this one fact is not enough to support the unbeliever’s Suppression Hypothesis, for the unbeliever’s Suppression Hypothesis is not just saying that theists believe on the basis of wish-fulfilment, but that they do not really belief in God at all. But these are two different things. A person could wish that God exists and yet still genuinely believe that He does. Thus, for the unbeliever’s version of the Suppression Hypothesis to have merit, the unbeliever needs to show some evidentiary basis for the idea that believers genuinely do not believe in God’s existence. For example, does the unbeliever have evidence that people who call themselves theistic believers in public actually admit to a lack of belief in God in private? Or does the unbeliever have evidence that the involuntary behavioral responses of theistic believers go against their verbal responses when they are asked about their belief in God? Now, although the answers to these questions are presently uncertain, I would posit, in fairness, that the unbeliever can indeed acquire such evidence, thereby meeting the air of reality test. And even if the unbeliever could not do so, let us, for the sake of argument, consider that he can. So, in light of the assumption that the ‘air of reality’ challenge can be met, what do we do then?

Response Four – Meeting the Burden of Proof.

If the unbeliever’s Suppression Hypothesis can overcome the issue of being ad hoc as well as answer the ‘air of reality’ test, then this leaves us back where we started, meaning that both the believer and the unbeliever have a burden of proof concerning proving the genuineness of their belief and unbelief respectively. But does that mean that both hypotheses are on equal footing? Not at all. Why? Because the very evidence which renders the idea that unbelievers suppress the truth about God’s existence plausible also makes it very easy to hold that actual theistic believers exist. For example, and as explained in the last essay on this topic, the fact that there is scientific evidence to show that human cognitive faculties are naturally wired for supernatural and theistic beliefs means that it is very easy to believe that theists genuinely believe that God exists, for doing so is entirely in line with the natural state of their cognitive faculties. By contrast, atheism seems to be strongly counter to mankind’s natural cognitive state, and so whereas it is easy to believe that there are such things as genuine believers, it is harder to believe that there are such things as genuine unbelievers. Thus, whereas this fact, combined with a believer’s testimony concerning the genuineness of his theistic belief, is sufficient to meet the burden of proof that he is a genuine believer, it is precisely the aforementioned fact which gives us the grounds to doubt the unbeliever’s testimony of his own unbelief; for in the theistic case, the scientific evidence of the naturalness of theism supports the theist’s testimonial claim, whereas it is in tension with the atheist’s testimonial claim.

Furthermore, the fact that atheism may be linked to neurologically-atypical conditions such as autism, whereas the theist is generally seen as neurologically-typical, again means that it is much easier to accept that belief in God is both genuine and a product of neurologically-typical cognitive faculties. And so again, whereas the fact of the neurological-typicality of the believer, combined with his testimony of his genuine belief, is enough to support the genuineness of the believer’s belief, the fact that atheism may be linked to autism thus undermines the atheist’s own testimony of his unbelief, for that very unbelief may be largely due to the atheist’s neurologically-atypical cognitive faculties. And so, the point here is that certain facts that are reasonable to believe about belief in God—namely, that it is natural, that humans are even wired for such belief, and that believers are generally neurologically-typical—means that when a believer offers testimony of the genuineness of his belief in God, that testimony, combined with the facts just mentioned, would be sufficient to convince a reasonable person (in the legal sense) of the genuineness of the believer’s theist belief. By contrast, certain points that are reasonable to believe about non-belief in God—namely, the such unbelief goes against our natural human mental wiring and that such unbelief may even have a causal link to neurologically-atypical cognitive faculties—means that an unbeliever’s testimony for the genuineness of his unbelief (at least as a neurologically-typical individual) is not sufficient to meet his burden of proof. And so the unbeliever must present more evidence—evidence that is greater than his mere testimony—to convince a reasonable person that his unbelief is not due to cognitive issues like autism and/or that it is genuine.

And so, the long and short of it is this: even if the unbeliever’s own version of the Suppression Hypothesis is a legitimate challenge which the believer must meet, the fact is that the believer can meet this challenge relatively easily, whereas it is much harder for the unbeliever to meet the burden required by the theistic’s Suppression Thesis. Thus, the challenge of the Suppression Thesis remains a problem for the unbeliever, and it is a problem that he cannot overcome by the mere testimony of the genuineness of his unbelief. And so, at the end of the day, the unbeliever not only has a burden of proof to prove the genuineness of his unbelief, but it is still the first burden of proof that must be addressed in the debate over God’s existence. And theists should not let unbelievers forget this fact.

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4 thoughts on “Lack-of-Belief Atheism Has the First Burden of Proof: Part 2

  1. The burden of proof for any claim is adopted by the positive claimant. If one is attempting to convince another that X, therefore Y, then the burden of supporting X falls on the persuader.

    If one sets out on the purpose of religious evangelism– for example, a Christian trying to fulfill the Great Commission– then that person is attempting to persuade others to the truth of his religious claims. The burden of proof for that rests squarely on his shoulders.

    Similarly, if one is trying to spread an anti-religious or anti-theist belief– for example, as does someone who argues that “all religion is bad” or that “you should not believe in gods”– then that person adopts the burden of proof for supporting her claims.

    I’m not evangelizing for unbelief. I’m not trying to convince you that my unbelief is genuine. If you claim that God exists, and I say that I don’t believe your claim, you are perfectly free to disbelieve my lack of belief. Just don’t expect me to change my behavior based upon that, just as I do not expect you to change your behavior simply because I do not believe your claims.


    1. Boxing,

      I don’t expect anyone to change their behavior. The point is simply to show that even the individual who allegedly ‘lacks a belief’ in God still has a burden of proof in a debate about the God question, and he has the first burden of proof. Thus, until and unless his burden is met–showing that he genuinely lacks a belief in God–then there is no point debating the existence of God with him. Thus, again, the point is to throw the burden of proof back on the unbeliever and show that in the debate over God, the unbeliever actually has the first burden of proof, not the believer.


      1. You say your name is Bob. I will accept your claim about your name because I have no reason to doubt you and even your name isn’t Bob, well who cares. If you say you have a live pet dragon in your house it isn’t my responsibility to disprove the existence of dragons. It’s your claim and for me to be believe it I require evidence from you in support of your claim. It’s not my responsibility to prove dragons don’t exist first.


  2. If a theist suggests he has a lack of belief in genuine unbelievers, why can’t I just say “I accept you have have a belief in unbelievers” then move on to the argument about God? As someone who lacks a belief in God, why am I required to to address this? If the theist claims to genuinely believe this, it doesn’t interfere with my personal lack of belief in any way.


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