Michael Egnor published a provocative article posted on Evolution News & Science Today: Theists vs. Atheists: Who Has the Burden of Proof? Egnor’s comments follow a debate he had with Matt Dillahunty, who is, perhaps, the most popular atheist voice speaking out against religion today.
Egnor claims Dillahunty “didn’t fare well” and demonstrated “no real understanding of any of the ten classical proofs of God’s existence”. It seems that Dillahunty’s big position in the debate was that theists have the burden of proof, so there is no real need for him to assert a position; he can sit back and take pot shots at theist’s arguments and call it a win.
I didn’t watch the debate, so I am just parroting Egnor’s characterization on my way to making a different point. Dillahunty did recently attempt to undress William Lane Craig’s favorite argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, so perhaps he isn’t quite as derelict in his opposition as Egnor makes him out to be. (Though, again, it’s just taking pot shots at positive arguments.)
It is true that Dillahunty relies heavily on the position that he has no burden to prove the negative: that God doesn’t exist. Egnor claims this is because positive atheist arguments are “few and weak” (before putting up a strawman argument in caricature of Dillahunty’s favorite argument based on “Divine Hiddeness”, which I don’t intend to address either).
Egnor may be right, basically, in his assessment of Dillahunty’s position, though not very winsome in stating it. Of course, I wouldn’t characterize Dillahunty as winsome either. Much less so.
What caught my attention about the article wasn’t in the article at all. It was a comment about the article to the effect that anyone who is interested in truth has the burden of proof. That comment deserves some attention.
The statement that anyone interested in the truth has the burden of proof turns us away from the arguments and relative strengths of the arguments to consideration of the Truth. After all, isn’t Truth the important thing?
If we care more about the Truth than winning arguments, the perspective changes. In that context, if I was to say that I have no burden of proof, I might as well say I have no interest in Truth.
On the other hand, if I am sincere about knowing Truth, the burden is always on me. I am always weighing what I think I know about Truth against new evidence. I am always testing my understanding and knowledge.
I can rest in my faith, but I shouldn’t be afraid to put my faith to the test. I shouldn’t shy away from challenges to my faith if it is resilient enough to withstand them. Frankly, if it isn’t resilient enough to withstand the challenges, I might have to question what I am putting my faith in.
Sometimes, I think that Christians make the same error Dillahunty commits. We sometimes appear to be more interested in winning arguments than we are concerned for the truth. That leads to us being careless about truth, and carelessness with truth and facts leads to a loss of credibility. Loss of credibility hurts the Gospel we are trying to share.
Not that the Christian has the burden to compel a non-believer of the truth of the gospel. We don’t. That’s the Holy Spirit’s role: to convict people of the truth. Our divinely given role is to share the gospel. The rest is not up to us.
God, himself, does not compel people. Mere belief is not the ultimate aim. Even the demons believe, but they bristle at the thought of God.(James 2:19) God isn’t interested in mere belief or in proving Himself to anyone.
God is looking for people who desire to know Him. He is looking for people willing to seek Him. He wants people who are willing to trust Him, and who love Him because He first loved us.
In that sense, we do not have a responsibility to carry the burden of proof. We have some obligation to share the good news of God’s love, but God places the burden (responsibility) on each person in respect to the truth. We are all accountable to Him, not to each other.
William Lane Craig recently said of Dillahunty that he seems to have no curiosity for the truth. (I don’t recall where I saw it.) Craig charged Dillahunty with only being interested in winning arguments. The shoe seems to fit.
Lest we become smug, however, I observe that a Christian can have the same attitude. Sometimes Christians do have the same attitude, seeming only to want to win arguments.
We have to be careful here. First of all, our confidence in what we think and believe should never lead to pride or arrogance. It should never lead us to fail to listen or fail to seek to understand what other people are saying.
We should never give in to the temptation to create strawmen out of other peoples’ arguments. Grant them their strongest arguments before addressing them. We lose credibility when we don’t do that.
Further, God did not Commission us to win arguments. He commissioned us to make disciples. The making of disciples assumes people who already believe. Sharing the gospel to see with whom it resonates is part of that Commission to make disciples.
We do not make disciples of people against their will, just as God does not force us into heaven against our will. No one goes kicking and screaming into heaven.
CS Lewis may have described himself as the most reluctant convert the night he became a Christian, but he became Christian by submitting his own will to the God who made him. God does not want unwilling disciples.
Getting back to the topic at hand, though, I tend to discount the value of debates. Debates are exercises at winning arguments, and that can get in the way of getting at the truth. If we are too concerned about winning arguments, we may not be concerned enough about truth.
On the issue of burden of proof on the proposition of God, I would take the position that both the atheist and the theist have the burden of proof in determining the truth of a matter – if indeed either of them cares about truth.