One of the most popular arguments that have been made prolific among atheists by the so-called “New Atheists” is that they have no burden of proof because they have no belief concerning God. They don’t “believe there is no God” but they “lack a belief in God.”

This supposedly presents them with the privileged situation where they can come to a discussion and debate, kick back, undermine, and, often, make fun of your belief without having to lift a finger to defend their belief (or lack thereof). Don’t you know the Bible has contradictions? Do you really believe a snake can talk? Your God is an evil, moral monster who condones slavery, patriarchalism, and genocide. To them, very sincerely, we are at best someone who has never been weened from the teet of our parent’s naivety and at worst a backwater uneducated hillbilly who has an invincibly blind ignorance. The point is that the burden of proof solely rests in our court and they never have to defend anything as they are not positing a belief in anything.

The arguments sound good. After all, who of us believes in the Easter Bunny, mermaids, or Keebler Elves? If someone came to you and asked if you believe in the tooth fairy, would you feel pressured to make positive arguments that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist? If a friend or family member believed in the Man in the Moon who lives on the dark side of the moon, would you pull out your sophisticated dissertation full of premises and conclusions about how you came to your non-belief in the Man in the Moon? Of course not. We don’t have to make positive arguments for these things. Their existence is not assumed. We lack belief because these things lack evidence. One of the most popular illustrations in this regard comes from a book by atheist Bobby Henderson called The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is a basic argument ad absurdum (an appeal to the absurd—i.e. “your argument can’t be right because it is ridiculously absurd”). In it he compares his non-belief in God to his non-belief in a creature called the Flying Spaghetti Monster. “I no more have to defend my lack of belief in God than you do your lack of belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Now, just about every atheist is saying this.

But is this true? Do atheists lack any need to have positive arguments for their position? I truly believe that many of them are sincere in their own misguided thoughts here. The effectiveness of their own rhetoric and the converts that come from it affirm to them that they don’t have to really think through its legitimacy. After all, if it sounds good, changes peoples’ minds, causes Christians to cower in intellectual self-disappointment, and brings about a good laugh, it must be true.

However, it would seem that they are the ones drinking their own Cool-Aid. On a fundamental level, before anything else, belief in God comes not from a need to confirm our parent’s prejudice nor from an emotional need to find meaning in life or hope beyond the grave (though, those things can and do contribute). Our belief comes as an explanation for the fundamental question of Why is there something rather than nothing? If you believe in “something” you have a belief about where it came from, otherwise you are an agnostic. Atheists are not claiming to be agnostic, but are claiming that wherever everything came from, it was not from a God. If not, then they have to 1) tell how they know (positively) it was not from God or 2) where they think it came from. But if it is not from God, this posits a system called “Naturalism.” Naturalism is a positive worldview, not simply a negation of theism. It posits that the universe is a closed system without any willful being that exists transcendent to it. Time, space, and matter are all that exist.

Naturalists believe the universe came about in one of two ways:

  1. The universe has always existed. Being came from non-being. Their positive belief here is that nothing actually can create something. How can they defend this? You will have to ask them.
  2. Everything has always existed. In this case, they will have to defend their belief that time, space, and matter can extend infinitely to the past. We can’t just assume this. This is a positive belief.

Both of these options are equally absurd in the formal sense. Something can’t come from nothing and time cannot go back an infinite number of moments (otherwise we would always we could never get to the present since we would have an infinite number of moments to go, no matter how far we came). Nevertheless, these are positive beliefs. Just because atheism is named in reference to another worldview (“a-theism”—”no-theism”), this does not mean the atheist has no burden of proof. By virtue of their lack of belief in God, they are necessarily naturalists. If I was to say I was an “a-naturalist” that does not alleviate me of having to defend any position. Being an “a-naturalist” is simply another way of saying I believe something outside our system of existence created everything, hence, a theist.

My point is that all the discussions we have with atheists about the existence of God must start with a defense of either atheism/naturalism or theism. If anyone in this discussion lacks the burden of proof, it is the theist. Why? Because if you are assuming that there is something that exists, then Something outside that something must exist in order to account for the existence of that something. This methodology is ubiquitous to the human race. If I made you lunch and you asked me who made your lunch, we don’t start with the assumption that it has always been or that nothing created it. If you turn on the T.V. and watch a show, you don’t start with the assumption nobody made this show or that the show has always been. If your house catches on fire, you assume something started the fire, not that it has always been or that it magically appeared from nothing. Of course, I could give examples forever, but you get my point. The only burden that we really have is defending Who God is, not if he is. But we may have to humor people by defending theism, having to go back to elementary principles of logic and explain that 1) something does indeed exist, 2) something can’t come from nothing, and 3) you cannot traverse an infinite number of moments.

Isn’t it really funny that atheists compare theists’ beliefs to magic? They believe that something can come from nothing or something can be infinite in time going in reverse. Who is really the one who believes in magic? If rationality exists, then they have the burden of proof.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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