My colleague from TWU, and good friend, Paul Chamberlain and I once participated in a debate at an atheist convention. We squared off against atheists Christopher DiCarlo and Matt Dillahunty in front of an audience of 300 people which included such notables as Lawrence Krauss and PZ Meyers.
One of the themes of the debate, as it turned out, was the atheists’ emphasis that they had nothing to prove and that the entire burden of proof was on us. Now this is nothing new. I would estimate that 95% of the atheists whom I have debated over the last 30 years have done the same thing, except now this well-used defense strategy has almost become an “art form.”
I want to paint a picture of how our opponents attempted to frame the debate in such a way that they had nothing to prove and we had everything to prove and had to do it with certainty. Our opponents declared that we had to prove every attribute of the Christian God, including his omnipotence and omniscience, as well as, how Jesus Christ was God, and to do it “absolutely without any doubt.” At the same time the atheist debaters did everything possible to avoid having to present any arguments for atheism at all.
By the way, if we were successful in showing that it was more probable than not that a being consistent with the Judeo-Christian concept of God exists, then any sincere seeker after truth should marvel at such a remarkable conclusion! This realization, I hope, would compel them to want to find out more about this being, rather than complain that we failed to prove all the attributes of the Christian God in one debate!
In any case, they went on to claim that it was not true that “they believed there was no God”; rather they merely “did not believe that there was a God”, and therefore they only needed to show that our arguments for God failed. And again, take note what they claimed as the standard for our success: to be demonstrated “absolutely without any doubt.” So they had nothing to prove and we had everything to prove and with absolute certainty!
Now, there are many good arguments against their position on the burden of proof issue, many of which we presented during the debate and even more we did not have time to cover. I will present these in upcoming podcasts, some brief and one long exhaustive analysis, but in this podcast I simply want to call attention to how this strategy attempts to frame the debate.
The atheists were trying to frame the debate in such a way that it would be analogous to: any attempt to present a case for the existence of God was like having to exceed the world’s high jump record of 2.45 meters (just over 8 feet) with lots to spare. Yet someone presenting a case for the atheist position simply requires a small step over a piece of string.
To me, there just seems to be something disingenuous about calling yourself an atheist, representing atheists at an atheists’ convention and then pretending that atheism only means the absence of belief that God exists, not the presence of the belief that God does not exist. Everyone knows that atheists do, in fact, hold the statement “God does not exist” to be true and “God does exist” to be false. Just read their stuff! Only in debates do they pull out this deceptive move of declaring they really don’t think God does not exist!
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a standard reference work, affirms the definition of an atheist as a person who maintains that there is no God, not merely lacks a belief in God. It states that “according to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, the sentence ‘God Exists’ expresses a false proposition.”
Just telling everyone that atheism is nothing more than the view that you do not believe there is a God, or that you merely lack a belief in God, is not even an answer to the question of the debate, Does God Exist? It is only a description about one’s mental state, but a debate about the question Does God Exist? is not about one’s mental state. It is about the truth or falsity of propositions like “God exists” or “God does not exist.” If you are not answering the question with Yes, No or Maybe, you are not answering the debate question at all.
I know many atheists sincerely believe they are right about this burden of proof issue, but I would ask them to think it through again with an open mind. And for those who are going to engage in public debates, isn’t it time to just ‘Man Up”, accept your share of the burden of proof on this issue of God’s existence, and stop playing these disingenuous games?
For some additional careful reasoning on this issue of the burden of proof with respect to the question of God’s existence, see the following articles from Dr. W.L. Craig’s website Reasonable Faith: