One of my purposes in starting this blog has been to serve as a counterpoint to some of the atheists you tend to encounter online. You know the ones I'm talking about, I'm sure -- running around insisting religion is stupid and irrational, demanding that religious people prove God exists, and generally proving that fundamentalist Christianity by no means has a monopoly on assholes.
Part of my plan is a series of posts dealing with the serious flaws in standard Internet Atheist arguments. For this inaugural post, we'll talk about the burden of proof.
(Note: When I refer to God with a capital "G", I'm talking about a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient creator which is also a person. I also intend the term to include sets of persons who have those properties when considered collectively, for example some views on the Hindu pantheon. I use the male singular pronoun to refer to God, because that's the tradition used by most people who believe in such a God. I am well aware that not every religious person believes in a singular, personal, masculine, transcendent divinity, and that any given tradition may reject one or all of those descriptors. No offense is intended or, I hope, taken. Please bear with me for the sake of argument.)
The concept of burden of proof, as used by Internet Atheists, has to do with competing claims about existence. Imagine, for example, that I claim there is such a thing as a three-humped camel. You claim there is no such thing. Obviously, only one of these claims can be true.
If there is such a thing as a three-humped camel, then I can prove it by producing the camel. On the other hand, if there is no such thing as a three-humped camel, the only way to prove it is to examine every camel in the world. Quite a difficult task! So, my claim is easier to test, and the burden of proof thus falls on me. In the absence of evidence for a three-humped camel, it's best to assume there is probably no such thing.
This may seem counterintuitive: the easier claim to prove is the one you assume is false. However, it makes sense if you think about it. Since, if true, my claim is so much easier to prove, the fact that I haven't proven it is suspicious. In general, claims that something exists are easier to prove than claims that it does not: to prove it exists, you just have to produce it, but to prove it does not requires searching the entire universe. Hence the rule of thumb that the burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim of existence. Closely related is the claim "It's impossible to prove a negative." You can't prove that three-humped camels don't exist, because there's always the possibility that you missed the one camel that does have three humps.
If you stop there, it might seem like the Internet atheists have a point: doesn't the burden of proof rest on the person making the claim that God exists?
Well... not always. Remember, the only reason the burden of proof rests on the person claiming three-humped camels exist is because that is the easier claim to prove. In the case of God... well, how exactly would you go about proving that God exists? People have been trying for centuries, and consistently failed. God is neither logically necessary (there is nothing known about the universe which could not be true if God did not exist) nor empirically detectable. There is no device or experiment that can detect an omnipotent being if it doesn't want to be found, nor is there any way to be sure that an apparent miracle is not actually a perfectly natural phenomenon we simply haven't figured out yet.
What about disproving God? Again, you can't. It's not just a matter of checking every camel in the world -- here we're dealing with a three-humped camel that can look two-humped whenever it wants to. The way God is defined makes it impossible to disprove.
So, both claims are impossible to prove, and thus equally (infinitely) difficult to prove. Neither claim carries the burden of proof.
What does that mean? Well, with the camels, in the absence of evidence either way, it is more rational to disbelieve in the three-humped camel, because there should be evidence of it if it's true. That doesn't apply to God. In the absence of evidence either way, and all other things being equal, it is not more rational to disbelieve in the existence of God, nor is it more rational to believe in the existence of God. Both claims are equally (ir)rational.