The Burden of Proof
Theists say it's up to the unbeliever to "disprove" God. But nonbelievers don't believe in God to begin with. This is what is called an error in logic, since believers are making the mistaken assumption they are (undoubtedly) right and so you must start from their understanding (because yours is invalid in their eyes). In other words, they are refusing to consider the atheist's point of view, and this causes the misunderstanding.
One problem which crops up is that because of the sensitive nature of the religious debate, believers often view their beliefs and cultural values as coming under attack whenever a skeptic offers an argument which threatens to disconfirm their cherished religious values or faith based traditions—making believers statistically less likely to consider the contra-arguments being given. (see: “The Malleability of the Human Mind” by Jason Long, chapt. 3, The Christian Delusion ed. John W. Loftus) This is also why Christians often reverse the burden of proof, because they feel threatened by the mere idea that their beliefs are wrong—that they automatically will ask you to confirm such an accusation. This is why we polemicists must use friendly analogies and amusing hyperbole to make analogous comparisons between religious concepts and hypothetical equivalents and thereby show the falsity of the religious beliefs through the equivalencies. All this is to be attempted delicately, without attacking believers’ cultural and religious identities directly for fear of offending them to the point where they stubbornly desist to listen to reason.
Admittedly, it’s difficult for many skeptics to tread softly when they are trying to work around absurd, preposterous, or incredible claims which have been inflated to some inviolable status, feelings are bound to get trampled on simply due to the unavoidable hypersensitivity which surrounds notions of the sacred. It’s even more difficult still to replace any one people’s values overnight once they have been displaced. Indeed, this fear of losing one’s beliefs with no hope to turn to is another reason I have in writing this book, and which the third part of the book is dedicated to, showing that we can have values apart from religion which make our lives meaningful and worthwhile and that hope is not lost. But first we do need to settle one trivial matter—the question of whose task it is to prove the existence of God?
First, the question ought to be asked like this: Whose God is it anyway? The nonbeliever will answer, "Not mine!" Precisely why the burden of proof falls on the believer/theist. Atheists and skeptics do not believe in your God, and as harsh as that sounds, it's not their position to prove (or disprove) things they don't rightly feel exist.
Case 1: The Curious Case for Santa
Frankly, it would make an unbeliever feel a little bit silly to disprove God, just as it would be silly for me to ask you to prove to me that Santa doesn't exist! After all, I find evidence everywhere for Santa. I hear ringing bells at a tick past Christmas Eve, my stocking is surprisingly filled with things I've wished for, which makes me feel good inside knowing that Santa overlooked my little naughty indulgences that I didn't tell anyone about, and conveniently there is an air of Christmas cheer--which mysteriously has an affect on everyone! It can only be Santa's magical charm spreading through us and keeping our spirits merry, joyous, and bright.
My experience says to me, it makes sense to think that Santa might be real, after all, there are Santa believers all over the world! That's too much of a coincidence if you ask me. Every Christmas is in his holy memory, and how would there be a Christmas at all if Santa didn't exist? I mean, seriously, how could we even be moral without the teachings of charity, giving to the poor, helping the children, and the valuable lessons of forgiveness? Without the belief in Santa, we'd all degenerate into a primitive race of incestuous, hedonistic, Jack Frost worshiping (Santa forbid!), baby filleting cannibal nudists, right?
Even with such a fear lingering over my head, and the added fear and incentive of not getting my Christmas presents should I cave into anyone of my sinful ways, along with the threat of getting coal instead if I'm bad, even with all this blackmail making me think carefully of whether I'll behave naughty or nice, my faith in Santa seems to be dwindling.
Constantly, in the back of my mind, my rational thought takes over and interrupts the fantastic fun filled fantasy and says, wait a minute, wait just a darn minute, can't we think about this more critically? Has anyone ever seen Santa? And not the mall's lap Santa (he's just a helper, and Apostle of Father Christmas), I'm talking about the genuine Jolly old St. Nick, the Big Claus, Kris Kringle, the white fleece-bearded man in red. Has anyone ever clocked him riding his magical levitating reindeer flying at breakneck velocities upwards near the speed of light? Has anyone ever seen his miraculous feat of chimney spelunking? Do we have any of his numerous writings, can anyone produce a single "naughty or nice" list for us to read? Are there any eye-witness accounts? (And small children and elves do not count, since one is prone to wishful thinking and flights of fancy and the other is biased since they feel they are the chosen disciples of the fanatical Church of the Latter Day Elves of the Ghost of Christmas Past). Do we know anything about him historically? Does he really like to drink Coca-Cola? Is he really from the North Pole? Is their archeological evidence of his presence in to the North? What is credible history and what is simply incredible?
Is this complete lack of reliable real world empirical evidence any indicator that my belief in Santa might be lacking something? Should I not reconsider, perhaps think things through more before I spread the "good news" to all the little boys and girls of the world? What if I'm spreading turns out to be an unfounded lie? I will have been guilty of perpetuating a falsehood, a fib, an untruth, a tall tale, a stupendous lie! Yes, my conscience alerts me that my reason must be correct, I must approach my beliefs cautiously and with a critical eye only to seriously contemplate whether or not they are truly sustainable. How will I know if I don't at least try to verify the claims I am asserting?
At the very least, we can agree that since you, the skeptic, do not believe in Santa like I do, it's not your job to prove to me he doesn't exist. That's my question which I must find the answers to, if mainly because I'm the one who posits the belief in Santa Claus to begin with. On his blog Rationally Speaking (see: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/06/delicate-issue-of-burden-of-proof.html) the Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has mentioned about the burden of proof that:
…the burden of proof is always on the part making a positive claim, not on the one making a negative one. Most especially, one is always presumed innocent unless proven guilty (beyond reasonable doubt, another concept that also nicely fits with skepticism). It would be grossly unfair if we went around presuming people to be guilty of crimes with no other “evidence” than the fact that they can’t prove that they didn’t do it.
Now I could just take Santa on a matter of faith, but then, would I ever really be satisfied? Probably not. So either I must search for the real historical Santa, all the time being prepared to find out he may all be little more than a legend or an age old myth, or else admit that due to the lack of compelling evidence I can't sustain the belief, least of all, expect you to do it for me.
Case 2: I Has a MAGIC Baseball!
To think of it another way, let's suppose I claim to have a baseball. For you to find out whether or not what I say is true (if I actually have a baseball), ultimately I must present you with a baseball. Failing to do so would disprove my claim.
Now suppose I tell you I have a baseball autographed by the late great Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron! Now that would be an amazing claim! In fact, I’ve upped the ante, it’s not just any old regular baseball (anyone might have one of those), but it’s a special, personal baseball. But the incredible claims do not end here, oh no, for even as you try an wrap you head around that one fantastic claim after another, I up the ante even more and throw in all the chips, because this baseball is also magic! That's right, it grants your every wish!! Now my baseball went from incredible to unbelievable... and now my evidence must be equally as incredible or I will only be left with an unbelievable claim. And that would make me look bad--so I'd better get cracking on providing the compelling evidence, otherwise I'll only be that much more unconvincing.
Needless to say, since I made the positive claim that, yes, in this world baseballs exist and I have one which is more special than all the rest, if I fail to produce the said incredible baseball, or fail to provide any convincing evidence for it, then this would cast doubt on my entire claim. Or if I had some small fraction of evidence, such as a photograph (which would be less reliable than the actual baseball since I could have fabricated the picture or signed the ball myself), you have no real way of knowing for sure if I haven’t doctored it. Even though this might be convincing to the uncritical person, the skeptic remains doubtful maintaining that one piece of evidence is not enough to validate the claim that Hank Aaron signed it or that it was a magic baseball. So more clues must be gathered so that the pieces of the puzzle can be assembled properly. So how could we know for sure? We investigate! We call in the professionals. We look at things from every angle and then some.
Indeed, we would have to know the source of the autographed baseball and what Hank Aaron’s original signature looked like to be sure—so we’d at least need this evidence before we could authenticate one of my claims about the baseball. So although a picture is good evidence, it’s only partially reliable, and you would need to seek corroboration from other third party sources to determine if what I had presented was in fact a Hank Aaron signed baseball, and not say a softball or a tennis ball, or a forgery or some other bad imitation.
Admittedly, however, proving it to be a magic wish fulfilling baseball would be a bit trickier to prove beyond a reason of a doubt. With no real testing of it, we just couldn’t know for sure. But let’s say I whipped out a baseball similar to the one I described to you earlier from my jacket pocket, handed it to you, and allowed you to examine and test it all you wanted. Upon finding out that the writing on the ball was questionable, looking quite like something I would write, and it didn’t grant any of your wishes—not a single one—then you have verifiably disproved my claims. This doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely have faith in my baseball or believe the claims I was making, maybe I just didn’t know, maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was, maybe I was gullible for having bought it from a huckster, who sold me a forgery, who I believed when he said me it was a magic baseball, and then showed to you only to find it didn’t satisfy your demands for proof. At this time we could conclude that it wasn’t a magic baseball nor was it a real autograph, that it was all a misunderstanding and a hoax.
However, after the evidence failed to support my claims, thereupon my failure to produce the greatest baseball in all the world for your consideration, my getting agitated and pushing the burden of proof onto you... stating that you cannot prove that I don’t have a baseball (exactly as I described) does not solve the problem of whether or not the baseball which I speak of (and which has yet to reveal itself) exists to begin with.
But knowing that it was a fake, created by a man who never knew Hank Aaron, and that the tall tale he sold me about the magic wish granting ball itself uncannily resembles the fictitious genie in Aladdin’s lamp fable, you would be right in doubting that any such baseball exists or has ever existed at all. It stems to reason that the attempt to prove that there is not any such baseball which I don’t currently have and can’t produce for you would just be a redundancy and a huge waste of time.
Is There A God? Whose God?
Burtrand Russell explained the burden of the proof by his infamouse celestial teapot analogy in his essay Is There a God? (see: http://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/religion/br/br_god.html) As such Russell outlined the crux of the dilemma as such:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
That's why the question of “Whose God is it?” is so pertinent when it comes to deciding where the burden of proof falls. Atheists need not disprove God, for this very reason, because it too is a redundancy and a waste of time from our perspective, after all it’s not our claim, it’s not our desire to prove God, that’s the theist claim—and the religious persons desire. But also, let’s not overlook the fact that, as Russell has keenly pointed out, the more contrived any particular idea is further back in history, the more time it has had to evolve, thus the more convoluted it inevitably becomes. Just as the teapot began small and unassuming, it suddenly became undetectable, and as it went further back in time, and there was a robust literature available to confirm the belief in the belief of the teapot, nobody saw fit reason enough to question its actual existence.
Besides, how could an atheist disprove what they don’t rightly believe in? And if the Theist claim is true, then it would be futile to argue a moot point, as there would be no reason to prove that he doesn’t exist, but of course if this were as obvious as theists like to claim then there wouldn’t be atheists, skeptics, or nonbelievers in the first place. Since this is not the case, and there is no surplus of evidence, and God’s existence cannot be confirmed or specified, it is illogical to believe wholeheartedly in that which is unsupported, untested, and unverified and seems by our current estimation—to be entirely improbable—just like my special Hank Aaron signed magic baseball. So I’m afraid that no matter how we look at it, the burden of proof falls squarely in the lap of whomever is making the positive claim.