A Critique of the Presumption of Atheism.


What is the presumption of atheism? This is best captured in the atheist Richard Norman’s claims that,

“the onus is on those who believe in a god to provide reasons for that belief. If they cannot come up with good reasons, then we should reject the belief” (1).

In a similar frame of mind (and prior to his exile from atheism) Antony Flew too stated that the ”onus of proof must lie upon the theist” and that unless compelling reasons for God’s existence could be given there should be a “presumption of atheism” (2).

Both Norman and Flew’s stances capture the essence of the presumption of atheism. However, some have found this to be questionable. Theistic philosopher Paul Copan states that “even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God’s existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true’ (3). Likewise atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen agrees that,

“To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false… All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists” (4).

Thus, to presume that atheism is somehow the default go to position is what Copan calls a “rigging of the rules.” Copan articulates,

“The ‘presumption of atheism’ demonstrates a rigging of the rules of philosophical debate in order to play into the hands of the atheist, who himself makes a truth claim. Alvin Plantinga correctly argues that the atheist does not treat the statements ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ in the same manner. The atheist assumes that if one has no evidence for God’s existence, then one is obligated to believe that God does not exist – whether or not one has evidence against God’s existence. What the atheist fails to see is that atheism is just as much a claim to know something (‘God does not exist’) as theism (‘God exists’). Therefore, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence needs just as much substantiation as does the theist’s claim; the atheist must give plausible reasons for rejecting God’s existence…”

Rather, in the absence of evidence for a god’s existence it is,

“agnosticism, not atheism, [that] is the logical presumption. Even if arguments for God’s existence do not persuade, atheism should not be presumed because atheism is not neutral; pure agnosticism is. Atheism is justified only if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence” (5).

However, the presumption of atheism yet remains at the core of many atheists reasoning, as Steven Lovell explains,

“Time and again I’ve heard people say that they don’t believe in God because they think there is insufficient evidence for His existence. If the person saying this is an atheist (one who thinks that God doesn’t exist, that ‘God exists’ is a false statement), then they imply that they do have enough evidence for their atheism. Clearly, if we reject belief in God due to (alleged) insufficient evidence, then we would be irrational to accept atheism, if the evidence for God’s non-existence were similarly insufficient. It would be a radical inconsistency. If theistic belief requires evidence, so must atheistic belief. If we have no evidence either way, then the logical conclusion would be agnosticism” (6).

If what these voices say are reasonable, then the an atheist needs to have reasons for his or her atheism, namely they have to have reasons for the belief that God does not exist. To claim (and even show) that there is insufficient evidence for God does not warrant the belief that God does not exist. As such, putting one’s belief in atheism, as a result of insufficient evidence, is not a warranted nor logically acceptable position to take.


1. Norman, R. 2004. On Humanism. p. 16

2. Flew, A. 1976. The Presumption of Atheism. p. 14.

3. Copan, P. 2009. The Presumptuousness of Atheism. Available.

4. Nielsen, K. 1971. Reason and Practice. p. 143–144.

5. Copan, P. ibid.

6. Lovell, S. Evidence and Atheism.

10 responses to “A Critique of the Presumption of Atheism.

  1. Do you know where the term Atheist (atheos) came from? It came about as a derogatory term used to describe people who had no belief in a god made by those who believed in a god. The Atheist did not go through life believing “There is no god”, a god was just not part of their life or thought process.

    Anyone can claim there is a “god under their bed”, anyone can believe it to be true but it is up to the person making the claim to produce the evidence. I suppose you could argue that even though there is no proof, there could still be a god under the bed but that likely isn’t enough evidence for an atheist to change their thought process to believing in a god.

    So, instead of providing evidence, you now turn to the atheist and say, “Aha, well, if you don’t believe there is a god under my bed, provide proof”. Well, I suppose the atheist could look under your bed and not see a god but then you could say he is invisible, you can provide tons of anecdotal evidence and the atheist could never provide enough proof of the contrary. You can then use your argument to show that the atheist has taken a stand, they now have an atheist belief about god….(rather than god not being part of their life or thought process)

    If you have been around long enough, this argument gets regurgitated Ad nauseam. Why not accept the atheist and not make it an area of contention between you and another human being? Accept others even though their worldview is different from your own.

    • That’s interesting, I never knew that. What are your sources for this? When it comes to the existence of God, I do admit I stand closer to your position than James’ (even though James makes some excellent points). However, in James’ defence, when it comes to my particular subject of interest (scholarship and history) atheists make positive claims about Christianity all the time. From a historical and scholarly view, they posit nothing but positive claims, one of the most popular and controversial being Jesus mythicism. When it comes to the existence of God, I have no problem with the idea of the burden of proof being on the theist as long as the atheist has honestly examined his/her reasoning for rejecting religion, but when it comes to Biblical doctrines (being essentially the second biggest criticism against Christianity outside of science) such as atonement and sacrifice, I believe the burden of proof rests hugely on the non-believer’s shoulders, and they’re gonna need some good sources and evidence to back it up their claims (something more than just the Bible says so). I doubt this fits your description, but I just wanted to clear some of this air of innocence that permeates the atheistic position. It’s not always just a case of, ” a god is just not part of their life or thought process,” it’s often way more.

      • You want sources for Atheos being a derogatory term? I thought it was common knowledge that atheism was used as a derogatory term, after all, you don’t have people who believe in extraterrestrials calling those who do not believe aextraterrestrials 🙂
        1. Wiki points to “Atheism in Pagan Antiquity” (Drachmann 1922) “átheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation”
        2. “There is no god in America” (David A Williamson)(Page 22) “Christians early on began to use the term atheos with derogatory intent when addressing or referring to one who was pantheist” (not necessarily pointed directly to atheists but does provide it being a derogatory term)

      • I think we are on the same page, having been brought up Christian, and running the gamut thru different phases of agnosticism and atheism, and Buddhism, my focus has shifted to the history and knowledge of religion.

        Can you give me some examples on positive claims atheists make? Just so we are on the same page. Is it up to the Atheist to disprove the stories/prophecies in the bible? I have debated some prophecies and often when I have shown one to be false, the theist will just claim the bible is infallible. I don’t like to debate the bible because it is something the theist holds close, it is there believe, it’s what they put their faith in. But, they put the onus on me to prove my position.

        I agree with you (“It’s not always just a case of, ” a god is just not part of their life or thought process,” it’s often way more.) and you are right. When we engage like this, it is way more! Historically, atheism started out that way but with the influence of theism, it is hard to not get involved one way or another. I was more than happy minding my business when I first considered myself atheist but then theists would challenge my lack of belief.

        I don’t think atheists are innocent in the whole debate. I think some are just trying to make their position more acceptable in this day and age. Others hurt their cause by attacking religion.

        • Thanks for the sources Mark. You’re actually the first to mention that, at least to me. I’ll keep that in mind next time I call someone that.

          “Is it up to the Atheist to disprove the stories/prophecies in the bible?” I don’t think so. What’s more important it is to understand the stories in their social context before anyone makes claims either for or against them. When it comes to prophecies, I’m a partial preterist myself, so the critic has to prove to me why they should be for today and not for 70 A.D when I believe most of them were fulfilled.

          “But, they put the onus on me to prove my position.” The only time a theist should put the burden of proof on the atheist (at least in the context of discussing history) is when they claim something that doesn’t lie with the common consensus among credible historians and scholars. This is where the Jesus mythers come in. If one holds a minority view, they should be expected to give sufficient reasons for that.

          “Historically, atheism started out that way but with the influence of theism, it is hard to not get involved one way or another.” I understand, as one who’s made his fair share of criticisms towards the church I would bet we’d see face to face on a lot of points. The only burden I’d place on the atheist here when fighting back is one of research. I’ve seen far too many make claims without a shred of sources to back it up. One atheist on youtube recently made a vid claiming one doesn’t need to have a PHD to criticize religion because of phrases such as, “It’s just common sense and logic.” And so, unfortunately, scholarly research is put aside because if something doesn’t make sense on the surface, it doesn’t make sense full stop.

          It’s certainly not wrong to challenge claims (unlike mocking one’s claims), however, if you had made no claims towards theists then they shouldn’t come to you and begin. We’re to give an answer only when asked to.

    • I think Lucas says a lot in his comment (thanks Lucas!). In response to your last paragraph I do accept the atheist and the notion that they have a worldview different than mine. It’s also not ideal that there needs to be such contention, as you put it, but it is necessary. Contention arises here because people of different worldviews are bound to disagree.

      • Thanks James, I definitely see your point. When the atheist defends their position, they are, in effect, telling the theist their position is wrong (and visa versa). In order to prove one position, you must disprove the other position. I know many people I can have an open discussion with without anyone feeling jaded at the end of the conversation. Otherwise it causes a constant cause of contention (such as my sister-in-law, lol).

  2. Pingback: Engaging & Critiquing Bertrand Russell’s Teapot: Is Belief in God Irrational? [#2] | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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