By Justin Wishart
In my years of online debate, I have noticed two common Atheistic arguments that have recently begun to drive me crazy. I know it is my failing for becoming so annoyed at this, but they are such obviously poor arguments that I am surprised they are so commonly used. Part of my annoyance also stems from my observation that Atheists are not called out on this by their opponents. It seems as if many Theists cannot see how poor these arguments are as well.
I have seen many conversations go something like this:
Christian: Okay, prove to me God doesn’t exist! (Often the Christian will say this when the Atheist gets the upper hand.)
Atheist: I don’t need to prove that to you.
Christian: What? Why?
Atheist: Because Atheism is not a belief, but merely a lack of belief. I simply lack the belief that any gods exist, so I have nothing to prove. You are the one who is making the positive claim here, so you have the burden of proof to demonstrate the truth of this claim.
Christian: . . . uhh . . .
If you think this sounds like a convincing argument, you really shouldn’t. This argument fails to understand basic logic. Tell me what is different between these two propositions:
I don’t believe there is money in my bank account.
I believe there is no money in my bank account.
Having trouble seeing any real difference? While the words are slightly different, the proposition is identical. However, notice that the first proposition is expressed as an unbelief (“I don’t believe . . .”) and the second one is expressed as a belief (“I believe . . .”). Now, let’s take our Atheist’s claim and see if the same concept applies:
I don’t believe in the existence of any gods.
I believe in the non-existence of any gods.
Isn’t the proposition identical? It appears that the same proposition can easily be expressed in terms of unbelief and in terms of belief. Of course Atheism is a belief; otherwise, Atheists would be Agnostics. It turns out that this argument is just smoke and mirrors. If I show this to the person I am debating, it usually looks something like this:
Me: Prove to me that God doesn’t exist.
Atheist: Atheism is not a belief, but merely a lack of belief. I simply lack the belief that any gods exist, so I have nothing to prove. You are the one who is making the positive claim here, so you have the burden of proof to demonstrate the truth of this claim.
Me: No, you have it all wrong. You believe that God does not exist, while I merely disbelieve that God doesn’t exist. It is you that is making the positive claim and I merely disbelieve something. Therefore, the burden of proof falls on you.
Of course, I say this sarcastically (another possible moral failing of mine), as I know we are both making truth claims. In reality, we both should make positive cases for our respective views. The Atheist generally understands, however, that it is much harder to prove something than it is to argue against something. This way, the Atheist is able to maintain control of the conversation. Fortunately, the very mechanism he uses to establish his control isn’t justifiable and does not need to be accepted. Yet it is unlikely that if his bar of proof is used on his Atheistic belief, it would pass his own test.
Another irritating argument used by many Atheists is summarized in this pithy quote: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This argument is often used to say that even if Theism has some worthwhile things to say about itself, it is still not enough to justify belief. However, this argument is ambiguous and unjustifiable, and it really shouldn’t be used.
First off, let’s look at the word “extraordinary.” What does this mean? Who gets to decide what is extraordinary and what is not? The word seems ambiguous and arbitrary. I think the proposition that the universe had its genesis from nothing is a far more extraordinary claim than that the universe derived from an eternal being. However, this merely showcases some of my presuppositions, and the Atheists are in the same boat. They view a God-hypothesis as a much more extraordinary claim than I would: not because it actually is, but because in light of their presuppositions it appears to be.
We can also look at the word “requires” in this argument. Why should any claim require evidence? In fact, this could lead to erroneous conclusions. Suppose that you were walking through a forest and you come to a clearing. Across the clearing you see lights which then hover off the ground. In the following second it zooms off into the air so high it disappears from sight. Imagine that this actually happened and it wasn’t a hallucination or some natural phenomenon. You walk home and tell your best friend of what you saw. She says, “that is an extraordinary claim, but you need extraordinary evidence for it!” The next day, your friend and you go back to the same clearing to investigate but find no evidence. You check with the nearest air force base and they report nothing showed up on their radar screen. Neither you nor your friend can find any corroborating evidence. Your friend concludes that since all extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that no evidence was found, that you didn’t actually see what you thought you did (or that you are just pulling her leg). However, it did happen and you saw it. It was her criteria which forced your friend into error.
Lastly, we can examine the word “evidence.” What does this mean? Is science-based evidence the only evidence allowed? How about logical evidence? What about biblical evidence? This argument makes the Atheist the arbiter of what is meant by evidence and, as such, he can place the definition wherever he likes. If the Atheist says that the only reasonable evidence for God’s existence would be a personal appearance of God, the Theist will fail in his attempt to provide it. This very definition of “evidence” has been demanded of me in that past and the Atheist thought that he had won the debate. But why should the Atheist get to dictate what constitutes justifiable evidence? This doesn’t seem a reasonable way to go about having this conversation.
The Atheist should be asked what he means by the word “evidence,” so that he has to defend his definition. Regardless of how the conversation progresses from there, it is clear that the extraordinary claims criterion tends to put the Atheist in the driver’s seat. He is really in control of the conversation if this criterion is left unchecked. The point is that one’s understanding of the word “evidence” is directly dependent on one’s epistemic presuppositions. The question becomes why the Atheist’s epistemic presuppositions should be more valuable than the Theist’s or whether it is even valuable at all.
These are two common arguments that rub me the wrong way. I have heard them over and over, and there is really no basis for either of them. Apologists are under no intellectual obligation to accept them and I think they simply need to be exposed for the shallow arguments that they are. However, I should also learn to become more patient and not let such things irritate me.