A Burden The Hand

I think the obligation on who carries the burden of proof in any given argument is often misunderstood, particularly when it comes to religious claims, and the existence of God.  Well, who carries it?  Most people understand it is whom ever is making a claim, and it is.  It is easy, however, for the shift in who carries the burden to go unnoticed, especially if one party mistakenly believes they hold the “default” position in the argument.  So is there a default position, and how do we recognize when someone is responsible for providing reasons for their position?

A textbook example of the mistaken belief that there is a default position in an argument, and failing to recognizing when you carry the burden of proof (BP) is in the interaction I had in the comment section of The Complaint Dept. is Closed #12, which I encourage you to read, where someone made both of these mistakes when attempting to discuss religious claims.  Unfortunately, that part of the discussion quickly derailed when the commenter “god”, failed to recognize he did not have the privilege of being correct by default and did not have to defend his position.

In any given argument, there is no default position.  Once a proposition is offered, no matter what it is, no one is correct by default.  This was the first mistake “god” made.  He believed he could simply reject reasons for religious beliefs out of hand; just declaring “nonsense” was acceptable.  He did not feel he was responsible for providing reasons why he rejected the claims, but that he was within his rights to simply reject the claims, and that his position of skepticism was the correct position until I could convince him otherwise*.  What “god” did not understand was that in rejecting a claim, “X is true“, that itself is a position, namely, “X is not true“, and requires reasons.  It appeared that “god” assumed “X is not true” was the default position and required no evidence.

It was not wrong for ‘god” to require me to provide reasons for my beliefs, had I actually offered a belief.  I think the tendency to believe that if you think a thing is not true, that is the starting point, and you need not move from it until proven otherwise.  I understand universal negatives are nearly impossible to prove.  For example I do not know how to go about proving God does not exist.  But that is exactly why professional atheist philosophers do not make that claim.  It is usually offered as “unlikely God exists” or “we have no reason to believe God exists”.  Both of those claims can be defended, where “god does not exist” cannot.

Next time you find yourself in a discussion where your convictions are being questioned, pay close attention.  At some point the skeptic, in rejecting your claims, is implicitly making a claim of their own.  Don’t let them off the hook.  If they make a claim, make them defend it.  No one is correct by default, and no one is above having to give reasons for their convictions.


  1. Excellent point. Greg Koukl in his book “tactics” does a great job of discussing this very topic.

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