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Are Theists the Only People Who Have the “Burden of Proof”?

As an atheist, I rarely found it necessary to defend my position when talking with friends who believed in the existence of God. After all, my Christian friends were the ones who were making a claim about an invisible Being; certainly the burden of proof belonged to them rather than me, right? As an atheist, I simply held the “default” position: There’s no need to defend the absence of something that appears to be… absent! From my perspective, theists alone were the ones who needed to make a case. My position as an atheist was self-evident. This approach almost always put my Christian friends in a defensive position. They found themselves struggling to assemble the evidence while I simply criticized the validity of each piece of their case. I never stopped to think that I might also need to make a case for what I believed, and my Christian friends were unable to demonstrate my responsibility to do so. Today, as a Christian who has been involved in the examination of evidence for the past 25 years, I understand that atheists also have a burden of proof. All of us, in attempting to explain the world around us, move from a number of questions to a single responsibility:

There Are Many Questions

Atheists and theists both agree that the big questions of life are numerous. How did the universe come into existence? Why does the universe exhibit the ‘appearance’ of ‘fine tuning’? How did life originate? Why does biology exhibit the ‘appearance’ of ‘design’? How did human consciousness come into being? Where does ‘free will’ come from? Why are humans so contradictory in nature? Why do transcendent moral truths exist? Why do we believe human life to be precious? Why does pain, evil and injustice exist in our world? While atheists and theists have their own list of unanswered questions, we all agree that there are many important issues that need to be examined.

There Are Only Two Kinds of Answers

In the end, the answers to these questions can be divided into two simple categories: Answers from the perspective of philosophical naturalism (a view I held as an atheist), or answers that accept the existence of supernatural forces (a view I now hold as a theist). In other words, there are only two kinds of forces that could account for the universe and everything in it: impersonal forces (as available in a philosophically natural worldview), or personal forces (as available in a worldview that is open to the existence of a super/extra/supra-natural Being). Atheists maintain that everything in the universe (and all of life’s most important questions) can be explained from a purely naturalistic perspective (without the intervention of a supernatural, Divine Being). Theists argue that the evidence requires the intervention of a personal, intelligent, transcendent Creator.

There Is Only One Shared Responsibility

Both groups, therefore, share a common burden of proof. If theists are going to posit God as the answer to some (or all) of the questions I’ve described, we must be able and willing to provide evidence for the existence and activity of a personal, Divine Being. If atheists are going to argue that adequate answers exist without the need for God, they must also be able and willing to provide evidence for the sufficiency of impersonal, naturalistic forces. In either case, both groups (if they are honest with themselves) must shoulder the burden of making their case. The burden of proof is not limited to the theist; all of us must make the case for our choice of causes. One side defends supernaturalism, the other defends philosophical naturalism. One side argues for a personal, supernatural cause, the other for purely impersonal, naturalistic set of forces.

The nature of the questions (and the limited categories of potential answers) ought to motivate us to decide which of the two explanatory possibilities is most reasonable. While atheists are sometimes unpersuaded by the arguments for God’s existence, they are still woefully unable to provide coherent and adequate answers to the most important questions of life related to the cause of the universe, the appearance of design, the origin of life, the reality of human free will and the existence of transcendent moral truth. Theists aren’t the only ones who have to answer these questions. If naturalism is true, naturalists have their own unique burden of proof.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.

This article first appeared at J. Warner’s ColdCaseChristianity.com website.


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