My friend William B. shared this Enlightenment Journal post, written by philosopher Paul Copan.
In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?”
Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.”1 Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?
Here is his list of advice:
- define your terms — especially atheism
- the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.”
- look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief.
- distinguish between the two types of agnostics — ordinary and ornery.
- distinguish between “proof” and “good reasons.”
- we have good reasons for belief in the biblical God, but not in mythical beings like mermaids, elves, unicorns, the tooth fairy, or flying spaghetti monsters.
- we should distinguish between two types of ignorance — innocence and culpable — and the agnostic would be quite culpable of refusing to seek.
I want to say something about #7, so here’s the detail on that one:
Seventh, we should distinguish between two types of ignorance — innocence and culpable — and the agnostic would be quite culpable of refusing to seek.When a Western tourist travels to Cambodia, she might not be aware that exposing the sole of her foot or bottom of her shoe is insulting and offensive. The tourist may offend someone out of ignorance of this cultural taboo. But this ignorance is innocent.
There’s another kind of ignorance. What if you are driving down a highway and not paying attention to speed limit signs? An officer may stop you and ask why you were speeding. You cannot rightly say, “I didn’t know what the speed limit was — or even how fast I was going. So you shouldn’t give me a ticket.” Obviously, if you are driving, you are responsible for paying attention. Ignorance is no excuse. It is blameworthy rather than innocent.
Likewise, to say “I do not know if God exists” may reveal a failure in my responsibility to seek God (“I do not wantto know”). In this case, I would be at fault. The Christian Geneticist Francis Collins of Human Genome Project fame said he was an agnostic in college. Yet he confesses that his “I don’t know” was more an “I don’t want to know” attitude — a “willful blindness.”11 This agnosticism eventually gave way to outright atheism — although Collins would later come to faith in Christ. He began reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and Collins realized his own antireligious constructs were “those of a schoolboy.”12
Because the existence of God is a massively important topic, we cannot afford not to pay attention — especially in an age of so many diversions. Philosopher Tom Morris points out that sports, TV, restaurants, concerts, cars, billiards, and a thousand other activities can divert us from the ultimate issues of life. As a result, we don’t “tune into” God. And when a crisis hits (death, hospitalization, natural disaster), we are not really in the best condition to process and make accurate judgments about those deep questions.13 The person who says, “I do not know if God exists,” may have chosen to live by diversions and distractions and thus to ignore God. This is not an innocent ignorance; this ignorance is the result of our neglecting our duty.
So the theist, atheist, and militant (ornery) agnostic all bear a burden of proof; the theist does not have a heavier burden since all claim to know something. Furthermore, even the alleged ordinary agnostic still is not off the hook. For one thing, one cannot remain neutral all his life; he will make commitments or hold beliefs all along the way that reflect either an atheistic or theistic worldview. He is either going to be a practical atheist or practical theist (or a mixture of the two) in some fashion throughout his life. But he can’t straddle the fence for long. Also, the ordinary agnostic may say, “I do not know,” but this often means “I do not care” — the view of an “apatheist.” Refusing to seek out whether God exists or not; refusing to humble oneself to seek whatever light about God is available; living a life of distractions rather than thoughtfully reflecting about one’s meaning, purpose, or destiny leaves one culpable in his ignorance, not innocent.
I had have conversations with people who were not believers, who often tell me flat out that they don’t know whether God exists, or what he is like, but that they live their lives as if he doesn’t exist, and they are not investigating whether they are right. They are very happy operating without any God looking over their shoulder. And God is OK with that, because he doesn’t want to force people who don’t want him into an eternal afterlife with him. He is seeking after and drawing people who will respond to him.
It’s very important to ask questions of atheists and agnostics that will surface this often hidden desire to live life without God. Often, you can get people to show some interest in God’s existence and who Jesus was just by letting them put into words their own decision to avoid God and not investigate God. That is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to step in. It’s not that you have to be mean, it’s just a good idea to ask questions and then don’t jump on them when they confess. Letting them get the words out there is all you need to do.
Here’s my previous post on whether atheism means a lack of belief in God.