Philosophical debates on the existence of God can be and usually is tumultuous territory. On both sides, the concern often develops into trumping the opposition rationally in such a manner that they must submit or concede to the presented arguments. More often than not, though, the discussion leads nowhere – to the inevitable stalemate where, at best, the opposing parties opt to agree to disagree and among the many areas that result in this stalemate, is the matter of the “burden of proof.” As frequently as the burden leads to a stalemate, however, it is far more misunderstood and misrepresented.
Perhaps the first step one needs to take to fully understand the reasoning behind the burden itself is understanding why the burden exists in the first place. Essentially, the burden exists as a means to validate one’s assertion and to add credibility to the one making the assertion; this draws one to the rule of the burden: any positive assertion requires evidence to validate it rationally. This burden, though, is misunderstood with respect to how it is applied within the debate and is coupled with the explanation that “you cannot prove a negative” or “the burden of proof is not on the shoulders of the one presenting a negative.”
Any positive assertion requires evidence to validate it. Even when positing a negative position as actually being the case, the burden appears, for that position, though “negative” is made as being positively the case. Atheists who teach, outwardly, that “there is no God” place upon their own shoulders the burden of proof and what a weighty burden it is indeed, for, in most cases, “one cannot prove a negative” (this stems from the issue of the Universal Negative). When, in response to claims of their responsibility of proof, they say “you cannot prove a negative,” what they are really saying is “you should not have to prove a negative,” which is absolutely false. Presenting the negative as positively so, they don the weight of the burden and must abide by it to maintain credibility, yet this is impossible and, consequently, their position is impossible to maintain rationally. It is only when one’s atheism ends at the internal confession of their rejection of a transcendent Creator that they no longer possess the weight of the burden, but when it extends to a form of proselytizing, they are once again crushed under the burden.
Approaching this discussion or debate with the understanding of its inevitable destination and the intricacies therein is essential to gain intellectual ground adequately. In all areas, though, the approach must be balanced and every step must be well-thought out and intentional. Defend against opposing rhetoric and the opposition itself on the basis of that individual position alone that the discussion would not become overly convoluted.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo.