Monday, February 14, 2011

Common Misconceptions Part Five: The Burden of Proof and the Presumption of Atheism

I often wrestle with the idea of debate. My general position is that debating someone privately tends to have little or no value. Most people approach an issue with such intense bias that the likelihood of convincing or persuading them out of their default position is not worth the time or energy spent making good arguments. However, having a debate on a public platform, formal or informal, really can have an intellectual impact on those who are watching while sitting on the fence. When it comes to big issues such as evolution, abortion, religion, or racism I have personally been affected by many avenues of dialogue. Self education, individual debates, public debates, religious literature, critical literature, scientific/philosophical literature, YouTube videos, scientific studies and experience (amongst others) have all helped shape my current worldview.

In my experience, debating theists/creationists is often futile because they simply cannot make their arguments without shadowboxing, willfully or ignorantly confusing claims and terminology, invoking emotionalism, misunderstanding basic science and philosophy, ignoring criticism, drawing unfounded correlations, name calling, unabashed arrogance, false humility, and other disingenuous tactics of argumentation.

For example, let’s consider the burden of proof and the presumption of atheism. The theistic position makes a positive claim (i.e. There IS A god). Atheism is not a positive claim (i.e. There IS NO god) but rather, a rejection of a claim (i.e. I see no good evidence to believe there is a god). Please take note that this is not a semantics issue. No serious atheist claims to KNOW that there is no god. No one is ever called upon to prove a negative. Therefore it is a non sequitur for a theist to ask an atheist to prove their rejection of a claim. The burden of proof rests on the one making a positive claim.

As a thought experiment, try disproving this positive claim: There is an invisible, anthropomorphic guitar that lives in my closet. Only I can hear him and he tells me the future but I am not allowed to disclose the information he gives me. If you don’t believe in him on faith then you will burn in hell for all of eternity. Try disproving that. It should become clear to you in a matter of seconds that not only is it impossible to disprove this, but you are under no philosophical burden TO disprove it. And so it is with any positive supernatural claim, including theism.

Consider the theory of evolution. I believe that evolutionary theory is the best explanation for the diversity of life we see around us. You may rightly ask me to prove this positive claim. If you did, I would point to things like DNA, genetics, the fossil strata, observations of evolution through sexual and environmental selection, fruit fly experiments, transitional fossils, artificial selection, etc. If you proved all of this wrong (congrats you just won a Nobel Prize) then you would STILL have to prove your alternative positive claim. If you believe that evolution is wrong because your version of God made the Universe, then disproving evolution is only half of your burden.

If we should rest under the presumption of theism then which god should we believe in? Zeus, Thor, Jesus, Allah, Poseidon, Ares, or any of the other thousands of god on offer? At some point (Immediately, in my opinion) the presumption of theism crumbles. This is because theism is a positive claim requiring proof and atheism is the default position until compelling evidence is provided.

Common Misconceptions Part One: There Are No Contradictions in the Bible
Common Misconceptions Part Two: Atheists Are Arrogant
Common Misconceptions Part Three: Atheism Is a Religion
Common Misconceptions Part Four: Evolution Caused the Holocaust

Evolution Misconceptions Part One: Evolution Is Just a Theory
Evolution Misconceptions Part Two: Evolution and the Origins of Life

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