Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
workplace of  lawyer business in office. wooden gavel , contact papers ,justice and law ,attorney, court judge,burden of proof.

Theists vs. Atheists: Which Group Has the Burden of Proof?

Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post
arroba Email

A common refrain from those atheists who are willing to debate theists is that theists, not atheists, have the burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence.

Internet atheist Matt Dillahunty made this claim in our recent debate. Regrettably, it looks doubtful that Dillahunty and I will debate again. He didn’t fare well—he had no real understanding of any of the ten classical proofs of God’s existence— and in the wake of his confused and rambling attempts at exculpation he refuses to debate me again.

white knight chess piece

His reluctance is understandable—he was clearly shaken by the revelation that his rejection of the proofs of God’s existence isn’t based on any actual understanding on his part of the arguments. Like all other internet atheists I’ve encountered, Dillahunty is ignorant of the overwhelming evidence for God’s existence and is unwilling to admit his ignorance or correct it.

So, because I can’t do it in a debate format, I’ll address Dillahunty’s claim — that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence — in this post.

Dillahunty said: “Normally I point out in these debates that I’m not here to defend a no because the burden of proof is on those who say there is a yes. It’s not up to atheists to prove that a God doesn’t exist.”

Atheists’ own arguments against God’s existence are actually few and weak—for example, Dillahunty’s favorite argument against God is the argument from Divine Hiddenness, which I discuss here. The argument boils down to this: if God exists, He would make atheists believe in Him. Atheists don’t believe in Him, so He doesn’t exist.

By this logic, atheists could make God exist by agreeing to believe in Him, and they could make Him go into and out of existence on alternate days if they believed and disbelieved in unison.

In order to elide the obvious conclusion that they don’t have any good arguments, atheists claim that, in a debate, the burden of proof is always on the “yes” side, not the “no” side. Their argument is that it is difficult to prove a negative. But that is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence because both theists and atheists make positive assertions. The fundamental question is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Theists say God is the ground of existence and atheists say Nature is the ground of existence.

A negative claim by atheists — “We have no idea why there is something rather than nothing” — is a proclamation of ignorance, not an immunity idol. That is, it confers no “tribal immunity” from responsibility to provide evidence and reason in support of the view that the universe exists without God. ‘I’m ignorant’ is no substitute for a reasoned argument supported by evidence.

Ordinarily, both sides in a debate have an obligation to present evidence and logic to support their views. Under what circumstances would a participant in a debate really have no burden of proof?

To answer this, consider that a debate may have one or another primary goal:

  1. To seek the truth
  2. To conform to a formal framework, even if the framework conceals truth.

One example of #2 is a legal proceeding in American law, in which only the prosecutor, but not the defendant, has a burden of proof. This is because of the presumption of innocence implied in the Fifth Amendment—innocence is the default position. Thus an assertion of guilt incurs all the burden of proof.

Note that truth in the legal framework (context #2) is a secondary goal. The defendant may remain silent, even if by doing so he is concealing evidence. The trial is fair even if a guilty defendant is acquitted, provided the framework was observed.

So which kind of debate is the debate over the existence of God? It is certainly one in which truth is paramount — the question of God’s existence is the most important question that can be asked, and there is no coherent framework — no immunity idol — that would exempt atheists from responsibility to use evidence and logic, just as theists do.

Only when truth is not the paramount goal of a debate is one side justifiably relieved of the burden of proof. So where does that leave atheists who claim they have no such burden?

Atheists need to make their case with as much evidence and logic as they can muster. When they are unable or afraid to do so, their silence can and should count against them.

Note: Here’s the debate:

You may also wish to read:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.


Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

The debate to date:

  1. Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
  2. A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
  3. Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down. If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise. Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Theists vs. Atheists: Which Group Has the Burden of Proof?