Other Worldviews

Atheism’s Burden of Proof

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 02/01/2017

Atheists claim they have nothing to prove. They simply lack a belief in God, which means they don’t shoulder a burden of proof. After all, no one needs to prove why they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Only the person who posits that Santa Claus (or some other being) exists is responsible for giving evidence for their view. Atheists, allegedly, can sit back and watch Christians and other theists struggle to defend their belief.

While it’s true that atheists don’t have to prove the absence of God, they’re hardly off the hook when it comes to making sense of their position. If they don’t believe in God, their view entails at least three incredible assertions that require a lot of explaining.

#1: They need to explain how the universe came into existence by itself.

Without a personal agent (like God) causing the universe to begin to exist, the atheist must explain how all of space, time, and matter created itself. Keep in mind that “before” the universe existed, nothing existed. There was no space, no atoms, no time, no vacuum—literally nothing—before the universe began. If nothing exists, nothing can begin to exist. That is, you can’t create everything (or anything!) in the universe when there is nothing to create from and there is nothing or no one to do the creating. You can’t even say that the laws of physics created the universe because even those didn’t exist before the universe existed. So, while it’s true that the atheist doesn’t have to give evidence that God doesn’t exist, he still needs to explain how the universe popped into existence by itself from nothing.

#2: They need to explain how free will can exist if humans are entirely physical objects.

Humans can act freely only if they have an immaterial soul that is separate from their physical body. It’s your soul that thinks, unencumbered by the deterministic laws of physics and chemistry.

According to atheism, though, we have no soul. Humans are made of physical matter and nothing more. We are merely machines, albeit biological and complex ones. That means human behavior and decisions are governed by the forces of physics and chemistry. If that’s true, then human beings have no free will. Stephen Hawking, one of the most celebrated scientists and physicists of our time, agrees. He writes, “It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”

Atheists, then, need to explain how free will can arise from a purely physical object. That’s an unenviable position to be in because we all know physical objects don’t have the ability to engage in free will acts, no matter how complex their arrangement of physical parts.

To avoid the burden of proving free will can arise from mere matter, some atheists concede that free will doesn’t exist. This concession, though, leads to further absurdity. First, it means that we don’t have free will, a claim that doesn’t resonate with our intuitions that we can make freely-willed choices. Second, it means that atheism—or any belief—is not rational. Deterministic forces act on all physical objects, even the neurons in our brain that allegedly make up our thoughts. Every thought, then, results from the collision of billions of atoms governed by physical forces. Our brains are deterministic boxes without the capacity of free will and reason to guide our thinking. Therefore, no thought—not even the idea of atheism—is rational. Third, we can’t hold people responsible for crimes. If human behavior is not freely chosen, but determined by mechanical forces, then we can’t hold people accountable for crimes. Can you hold a robot responsible for murder? No one can be guilty for an action he didn’t freely choose.

#3: They need to explain where morals come from.

According to theists, what’s right and wrong is known because there is a God who provides a standard of morality. Furthermore, morals can’t change because they are grounded in God’s unchanging character. They are not subject to us, but we are subject to them.

If atheism is true, though, there is no God to provide a standard of morality. Morals could still exist, but not as objective features of the universe. Rather, morals would depend on individuals, groups, or cultures. What’s right and wrong would be relative and open to change as people’s ideas evolve. Indeed, that’s what many atheists concede.

But there are at least three problems with that concession. First, if morality is relative to individuals, groups, or culture, then you can’t claim anything is ultimately wrong. All you can say is that you think it’s wrong. Second, if a culture begins to believe that rape is moral, then rape becomes moral. Since what’s right and wrong is relative, any behavior can potentially become accepted as “moral.” Third, you couldn’t claim what the Nazis did was wrong. After all, morals are relative to cultures. There is no objective morality that all cultures are subject to. Any moral system that can’t declare Nazi genocidal behavior to be immoral is an impotent moral system.

As you can see, atheists may not need to prove the absence of God, but their view entails that the universe popped into existence from nothing, that free will either emerges from a physical object or is an illusion, and that objective morals can exist apart from an unchanging Creator. That requires a lot of explaining.