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.