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Do Atheists Bear a Burden of Proof? A Reply to Prof. Ralph McInerny

A Reply to Prof. Ralph McInerny (1997)

Keith M. Parsons

[The following article was written in response to an article by Ralph McInerny, published by Leadership University at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth11.html. However, despite repeated requests, Leadership University refuses to acknowledge this rebuttal and link to it. — Jeffery Jay Lowder, 14 December 1997]

The “evidentialist challenge” is the gauntlet thrown down by atheist writers such as Antony Flew, Norwood Russell Hanson, and Michael Scriven.[1] They argue that in debates over the existence of God, the burden of proof should fall on the theist. They contend that if theists are unable to provide cogent arguments for theism, i.e. arguments showing that it is at least more probable than not that God exists, then atheism wins by default. It follows that atheists are under no obligation to argue for the nonexistence of God; their only task is to show that theistic arguments fail.

Some theistic philosophers gladly accept the challenge, eager to display what they think are powerful arguments for theism.[2] Others, such as Alvin Plantinga, reject evidentialism and deny that theists must bear any special epistemic burden in their debates with atheists.[3] Prof. Ralph McInerny goes a step further to argue that the burden of proof should fall on the unbeliever. Here I shall rebut Prof. McInerny’s claim and argue that, in the context of public debate over the truth of theism, theists cannot shirk a heavy burden of proof.

McInerny endorses the tu quoque style of argument practiced by Plantinga in his God and Other Minds and other works:

This book [God and Other Minds] argues that it is no less reasonable to believe in God than to believe in the existence of other minds. But critics of theism cannot get along without belief in other minds, therefore they have no consistent way of objecting to theism.

In other words, So’s your old man.[4]

Besides providing an occasion for McInerny’s in-your-face rhetoric, what do Plantinga’s tu quoque arguments contribute to the defense of theism? Not much. As I argue in my book God and the Burden of Proof, at best such arguments only serve to insulate theism from being proven irrational in certain ways.[5] That is, I argue that if atheists charge that theism is irrational, i.e. that belief in God entails a dereliction of epistemic duty, then the tu quoque arguments might have some point.

However, the evidentialist challenge may be taken as a question about the truth of theistic belief, not its rationality. I have argued that, in fact, those who pose the evidentialist challenge are primarily concerned with the credentials of a belief, not the rationality of believers.[6] Evidentialists want to know whether, in the context of philosophical debate over the truth of theism, arguments based on recognized canons of logic and evidence can adequately support theistic claims.

Besides, Plantinga’s argument in God and Other Minds does not even effectively support the rationality of theism. Plantinga claims that the only possible argument for the existence of other minds is one based on analogy: I know that I have certain feelings when I evince certain behaviors, so I conclude that others must have those same feelings when they evince those behaviors.[7] Obviously, such an analogical argument is very weak. It is like the charming illogic of one of Darwin’s children, who, innocently concluding that his father’s obsession with barnacle dissection was widespread, asked at a neighbor’s house “Where does he do his barnacles?”

Plantinga concludes that it is rational to believe in other minds even though no good argument supports that belief. Similarly, he argues, it is rational to believe in God even if there are no good arguments for theism.[8]

However, as Anthony O’Hear points out, a much stronger argument makes the existence of other minds an inference to the best explanation.[9] There are times when I seem to communicate well with others about feelings. Indeed, others occasionally seem to understand my feelings better than I do. One of the achievements of great poetry is that it can communicate “what often was thought, but never so well expressed.” Sometimes great poetry or art can lead me to say “Aha! Yes, that is exactly what I feel!”

Such experiences are quite explicable on the hypothesis that the poet or artist had feelings like mine which he or she had articulated more successfully. If we deny that the poet or artist had feelings like mine, my “Aha!” experience becomes completely inexplicable. Indeed, vast areas of everyday experience, in which I seem to share thoughts or feelings with others, suddenly become a complete blank when I deny that others have minds. How can I explain those myriad experiences in which others seem to empathize with my feelings or share my thoughts? What alternative hypothesis could even begin to make sense of my everyday experience?

I guess I can imagine (just barely) an evil-geniues type scenario in which some wicked omnipotent being has surrounded me with automata programmed to mimic intelligent and emotive behavior. However, the consequence of introducing evil-genius arguments seems to be total skepticism — which is not the conclusion desired by Plantinga.

The God hypothesis, on the other hand, is not at all on par with the other minds hypothesis. Vast areas of everyday experience do not become inexplicable to the atheist. Scientific and common sense explanations are as readily available to the nonbeliever as to the believer. It simply is not obvious that theism provides a better basis for explaining things than naturalism, and theists have the burden of showing that it does. In short, contrary to Plantinga’s claim, there is a strong argument for the existence of other minds that does not equally justify God’s existence.

For the sake of argument, suppose we concede the complete success of the tu quoque claim in God and Other Minds, i.e. we concede that theistic belief, like belief in other minds, is rational even if supported by no good arguments. What follows? Is the skeptic now obliged to believe that the existence of God is true, probable, or even coherent? In general, from the mere fact that certain individuals are within their epistemic rights in believing that P, nothing follows about the truth or falsity of P. Indeed, why can’t I take a cue from the Plantingian theist, dig in my heels, and declare without any evidence or argument that it is perfectly rational for me to believe that there is no God?

Prof. McInerny thinks that skeptics do have the burden of supporting their nonbelief in God, a burden that goes beyond their duty merely to refute theistic arguments. He supports this claim with a version of the “Common Sense Argument”:

I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of “God exists.” Why not put the burden of proof on him? Why not insist that he is attempting to convict of irrationality generations of human beings, rational animals like himself, whole cultures for whom belief in the divine and worship are part of what it is to be a human being? Were all of those millions wrong? Surely to think something against the grain of the whole tradition of human experience is not done lightly.[10]

Surely it seems bold to dissent from what everybody everywhere has always believed. But, as McInerny admits, there has been no unanimity in human conceptions of the divine. The “whole tradition of human experience” he mentions has included belief in Zeus, Odin, Ahura Mazda, Quetzalcoatl, Shiva, Ba’al, Osiris, Astarte, the Great Mother, Cybele, Mithras, Marduk, manitou, mana, juju, and innumerable other gods, goddesses, demigods, djinn, and animistic forces. Prima facie, there is little evidence of common consent here.

McInerny replies that this apparent diversity is superficial and belies a deeper consensus:

… the idea of the divine, the concept of a god, is what is shared; the identification of this or that or the other thing as God does not destroy the common assumption. Men disagree about who and even what God is. Another way Thomas [Aquinas] makes this point is by saying that “God” is a common noun, not a proper name.[11]

I’m not sure I understand McInerny here. It seems that he could be saying the following:

(1) All who accept some idea of the divine really share the same underlying concept — “God” — despite their radical disagreement about the identity of God; e.g., some identify him as :trees, wind, sun, and the world itself.”[12]

(1) seems highly implausible. At the most, human concepts of the divine seem to form only a very loose set of family resemblances. On what possible grounds can it be asserted that these seemingly radically different concepts are, at bottom, the same concept? It seems highly unlikely that even a generic, nondescript God-concept could be extracted from all these views. If McInerny insists that it can, one wonders what it would take for an idea of the divine not to share in that concept. Perhaps, then, McInerny means something like the following:

(2) All who honor some concept of the divine, whether they realize it or not, are actually expressing an awareness of the being theists call “God.”

(2) seems more plausible; it does not require conceptual gerrymandering like (1). Perhaps all believers in the divine are tacitly aware of God, though they vast majority lack the ability or knowledge to articulate that awareness accurately. The problem with (2) is that there is no non-question-begging way to present it to skeptics. Skeptics do not believe in God, so they certainly will not agree that all who have a concept of the divine are tacitly aware of God.

Let’s cut to the chase and concede that the vast majority, say 99% of all humans who have ever lived, have had some concept of the divine. Given the enormous diversity of these concepts — from animism and shamanism to fetishism to manifold polytheisms to the diverse monotheisms — what kind of burden of proof does this “common consent” impose on the skeptic? The skeptic would appear to dissent from the common consent of the divine or the sacred. That is, if anything is sacred to skeptics, perhaps they should be counted within the common consensus.

Is anything sacred for the atheist or agnostic? The answer is often “yes.” Though he was not a believer in the God of theism (he endorsed the God of Spinoza — Deus sive Natura), Einstein expressed a reverential awe for the subtlety of “The Old One,” his personification of nature. Edward O Wilson’s book Biophilia expresses an almost mystical sense of affinity with all living things. One cannot read the beautiful, powerful closing sentences of The Origin of Species without sharing Darwin’s awed sense of the grandeur of the evolutionary view of life. The Soviet astrophysicist Yakov Zeldovich was fond of quoting Proust’s remark that “The highest praise of God is the unbelief of a scholar who is sure that the perfection of the world makes the existence of gods unnecessary.” Many atheists would add “amen” to that.

Suppose, though, that an unbeliever has no sense of the divine. Literally nothing is sacred for that person. Should this person feel epistemic embarassment when confronted with the overwhelming common consent of humankind? Well, it all depends on how that common consent is explained. Numbers alone mean nothing; otherwise ad populum would not be a fallacy. What accounts for the near universality of some sense of the divine among human beings? Is it only reasonable to explain such near-unanimity in terms of the (however misconstrued) human awareness of God? The Common Consent Argument implies that this is the only reasonable explanation. Is it?

Stewart Guthrie’s recent book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion proposes the challenging thesis that the psychological basis of religious belief is the nearly universal human tendency to anthropomorphize.[13] He argues that humans have a nearly universal and overwhelming tendency to attribute human characteristics to nonhuman things and events. He suggests that this tendency is hardwired — an evolutionary adaptation. Thus, we see faces in clouds and Jesus in a picture of spaghetti on a billboard. (This really happened!) More seriously, we tend to see random events as orchestrated by unseen benevolent or malignant intelligences. When I curse the traffic light that always stops me or the photocopier that breaks down whenever the job is urgent, I’m anthropomorphizing.

The upshot is that the unbeliever can appeal to Guthrie, Freud, or other psychological, sociological, or biological theories to account for the near universality of some form of religious belief. In other words, the common consent phenomenon can be explained naturalistically without appeal to any awareness of God. The Common Consent Argument therefore reduces to a version of the ad populum fallacy. Hence, the unbeliever need feel no epistemic embarassment at the fact that he or she is in the 1% for whom nothing is sacred. Charles de Gaulle was wily but illogical to reply to a critic “Monsieur, forty million Frenchmen cannot be wrong!” They can be wrong; so can 99% of the human race!

I conclude that McInerny has given no good reason for placing a special burden of proof on the skeptic. Further, he has said nothing to obviate the burden of proof that the theist must bear in debates over the truth of theism. The evidentialist challenge stands: Is there good reason to think theism true? If not, the skeptic is fully justified in taking the same attitude towards theism that he or she takes towards claims about UFOs, Bigfoot, the Lost Continent of Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, poltergeists, etc. These are interesting claims, but their proponents are perennially unable to offer persuasive evidence on their behalf. In such cases skepticism is an eminently rational position, and its rarity among human beings is not an indictment of it, but of the gullibility of the majority.


[1] Antony Flew, “The Presumption of Atheism” in God, Freedom, and Immortality (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1984); Norwood Russell Hanson, “What I Don’t Believe” in What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (ed. Stephen Toulmin and Harry W. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1971); and Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).

[2] See, e.g., Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

[3] Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and Belief in God” in Faith and Rationality (ed. by Alvin Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff, Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983).

[4] Prof. Ralph McInerny, “Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist,” http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth11.html

[5] Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989), pp. 32-60.

[6] Ibid., p. 37.

[7] Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1967).

[8] Ibid.

[9] A. O’Hear, Experience, Explanation, and Faith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 103-105.

[10] McInerny.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

“Do Atheists Bear a Burden of Proof?: A Reply to Prof. Ralph McInerny” is copyright © 1997 by Keith M. Parsons. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Keith M. Parsons. All rights reserved.

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