“The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist Redux” by Matt McCormick

My readers already know I don’t think very much of the concept of “burden of proof,” being used outside formal legal settings, where it has some meaning.  It isn’t any principle metaphysics or logic or ethics.  It is, at best, a sometimes useful heuristic, and in my opinion, whatever utility it once had has nowadays become outweighed entirely by its misuse as a rhetorical trope used to “cheat” in arguments.  As I have argued, it’s a rhetorical trope that combines two fallacious argumentative moves: it sets out an argument from ignorance—saying your opponent has the burden of proof is basically stipulating “I’m right until proven wrong”—and it then implicitly justifies the argument from ignorance with special pleading: “You have to prove your case, but I don’t have to prove anything,” which, when combined, yield “Whatever I believe is true, and I am justified in holding this believe, because you have not proven me wrong, and you have failed to prove me wrong, because no matter what arguments you make, I won’t accept them.”  In other words, it creates an “impregnable” position—by the ultimately tawdry trick of defining oneself to be right. It lets you always “win,” but the victories are always straw victories.

My readers also know I don’t think very highly of the intelligence or argumentation of most atheists.  See my Intellectually Dishonest Atheists on that.

But as we say nowadays “Hastag #NotAll.”

Matthew McCormick is an atheist for whom I have intellectual respect—at least in this short piece. I haven’t read anything more by him. He makes a number of points that are entirely cogent, and that atheists ought to take to heart. Since he is himself an atheist and has written a book arguing why everyone should be an atheist—atheists just might take him more seriously when he says the exact same things that I say , e.g.

  • That the ‘burden of proof,’ is, in his words, “a socially determined entity” (I say “a matter of interpersonal protocol,” which comes to the same).
  • That evidential standards are not universally fixed nor agreed upon.
  • That it is simply counterfactual to human belief formation that beliefs are atomic (unrelated to other beliefs) and default to a kind of emptiness of “not having a belief.”
  • That the atheist lives surrounded by a vastly greater number of theists who think he is wrong—often for good reasons—and that smug condescension is not doing him any favors.

With that said, I’ll turn you over to McCormick. Of course, when he says, “Anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere,” he’s quite wrong—but this is probably as good as we are going to get from an atheist. The emphasis is mine:

The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist Redux

by Matthew S. McCormick, atheist philosopher

I’ve gotten enough comments from colleagues, blog responders, and students to say some more about this, although a full treatment would take many pages.

First, my view is that while in the end I clearly think atheism is the reasonable conclusion to draw, and that anyone who hasn’t yet, should, the starting points for different people and the standards by which they evaluate evidence are highly variable. There simply are no universal standards of reasonableness whereby it would make any sense to say that anyone who doesn’t accept atheism is unreasonable or irrational.

My claim is not that theists have no work to do to justify their positions. Ultimately, everyone can do better than they are doing with regard to having a well-justified, coherent belief system. And ultimately, I think that anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere.

My position is that the burden of proof is in large part a socially determined entity.

It is naïve to think that the Cartesian model applies to human reasoning whereby we start with nothing and then build up a network of justified beliefs one at a time. That’s neither an accurate picture of how we come by our beliefs, nor is it a plausible goal for how we ought to proceed in assessing our beliefs. Wittgenstein got this much right—he said that belief comes first, then doubt second. What he meant was that as a person matures through childhood, everyone acquires a vast network of interconnected expectations, predictive principles, and beliefs about the world. The character that this starting framework of belief takes depends largely on the historical, social, and epistemic context that that person finds themselves dropped into. That context may provide them with beliefs that are false like, “Fever causes demon possession,” and inference rules that are faulty. One nineteenth century logic textbook endorses the Gambler’s Fallacy, for instance. I have a very difficult time convincing some introductory logic students that it’s a mistake. If someone has been surrounded by (authoritative!) people who endorse it, and it appears to be supported by one’s experience, and even your textbooks recommend it, how could a person possibly be held epistemically culpable for not seeing what we now know is a mistake. That would be as foolish as faulting Heraclitus for not knowing the implications of research from 21st century particle accelerators for atomic and subatomic theory.

So it’s the epistemic context that frames out the starting position for everyone as to what’s prima facie reasonable. Even during the same historical period, that will vary from context to context. Common sense to someone born and raised in the jungles of Borneo will be radically different than common sense to someone born and raised in the same era in urban San Francisco.

The fact that so many people in American culture are religious and profess to believe in God allows us to make some generalizations. The general situation we find ourselves in is one where for the vast majority of people it is completely intuitive and obvious that God exists. Many, maybe most, Americans never pause to consider seriously that there might not be a God. And for the ones who did, the implications as they see it for a meaningless, ammoral, nihilistic existence quickly make it evident that such musings are dangerous and/or preposterous. Many of them have heard of atheists and atheism—but such a prospect seems unnatural, ugly, counterintuitive, and remote. Everyone believes in God, after all. What could be more obvious?

For the most part, these are all normal, reasonable, mentally healthy, cognitively functioning adults. The atheist who scoffs that anyone who believes in God is stupid, foolish, unreflective, or in the grip of a psychiatric disorder simply hasn’t been paying attention and has been shirking their own epistemological responsibilities. This atheist is little better than the sulking and immature teenager who pouts that “Everyone is soooo stupid. They are such conformist sheep. I hate them.” I’ve been there, and I like Bauhaus and Joy Division as much as the next guy. But atheists and atheism as a movement has got to grow up. (Unfortunately, I think some of Richard Dawkins evangelical, anti-theist vitriol may represent some backsliding. Nevertheless, I sure enjoy it.)

To be fair, there are unreflective and even dumb theists, and they need to be shaken up and challenged just like we all do. But it would be a gross and irresponsible over-generalization to be dismissive of theism altogether. And now I’m making two points: one, for most Americans, theism (Christian) is the default backdrop against which any worldview they ultimately settle upon must be tested. Second, there are some powerful, interesting, and challenging arguments for the existence of God out there, and no atheist who has taken the issue seriously can claim to have secured justification for their view until they have considered those arguments carefully and figured out what’s wrong with them.

So like it or not, atheists find themselves in this hostile, or at least contradicting, environment. And that environment sets the framework of principles, rules of evidence, and beliefs from which every person has to start. Since the atheist conclusion is so deeply contradictory to the context they find themselves in, the lion’s share of the burden of proof will be on them.

The alternative view, like Flew’s, seems to be that the belief that there is no such X is always the justified, default starting point, and that anyone who wishes to conclude anything different than just having a blank slate must provide adequate proof to motivate the belief. This is outrageous for a number of reasons. You haven’t done that and probably can’t do that for a great many (maybe most) of the reasonable beliefs you have. You didn’t populate your head with all of your beliefs by deliberately and consciously starting from a blank slate and then only after acquiring sufficient reasons accepting a belief into a special circle of sanctioned views. Becoming a conscious, reflective adult capable of thinking about your reasons already required that you had a full set of beliefs about your world that you inherited from your environment and that came to you naturally. We do not have a blank hard drive for a mind, despite the popularity of that metaphor, that are written onto by experience. A web of beliefs is consciousness—they are what make a worldview possible at all. Without the context of belief you’d have nothing to doubt, no questions to ask, nothing to wonder about.

And just like reasonableness depends on so many subjective factors, evidence is not a clean, objective logical notion. It’s not that people who disagree with you have no evidence at all. What do you think you were the first person to see this singular, unambiguous phenomena in the world because you’re so much smarter than all of them? And you were the first 15 year old to think that everybody is a conformist too, weren’t you? Evidence, for the most part, is what a person takes it to be. Evidence doesn’t just exist out there on its own. Some phenomena only becomes evidence in virtue of being taken to be indicative of some conclusion by some person. And obviously, different people can take the same phenomena as evidence to contradictory conclusions. Or they can appear to be observing the very same phenomena, but they are actually taking note of very different details and drawing the same or different conclusions from it. We have discovered that there are better and worse ways to gather and evaluate evidence. But it’s not that when someone draws a mistaken conclusion or one you don’t like that they have no evidence at all. What you disagree with them about is what evidence is relevant and how best to evaluate it. So atheists need to get out of the habit of dismissing all believers as “having no evidence at all.” The believers don’t see themselves that way, and you just come off as dogmatic and irrational for saying it about them. Wouldn’t you think it was laughable if they said about you, “Well, he’s got no evidence and no reasons at all for what he believes.”