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. 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 plethora 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 do 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). Atheists maintain that life’s most important questions can be answered from a purely naturalistic perspective (without the intervention of a supernatural, Divine Being). Theists argue that the evidence often leaves naturalism ‘wanting’ for answers while the intervention of an intelligent, transcendent Creator appears to be the best inference. In times like these, the theist finds it evidentially reasonable to infer a supernatural cause.
There Is Only One Shared Responsibility Both groups share a singular burden of proof. If theists are going to posit God as the answer to some (or all) of the questions I’ve described, we are going to have to argue for His existence and activity. If atheists are going to argue that adequate answers exist without the need for God, they are at least going to have to provide sufficient naturalistic explanations. In either case, both groups (if they are honest with themselves) will have to shoulder the burden of proving their case. The burden of proof is not limited to the theist; all of us need to be able to make a case for our choice of answers. One side defends supernaturalism, the other defends philosophical naturalism.
The nature of the questions (and the limited categories of potential answers) ought to motivate all of us to decide which of the two explanatory possibilities is most reasonable. While atheists are sometimes un-persuaded 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.