Why the Burden of Proof is on the Atheist

Professor Ralph McInerny

In this paper, I ponder two questions:

(1) Why can't the religious believer simply put the burden on the skeptic, and ask him to justify his unbelief, with the underlying assumption that as between theism and atheism, it is the former that is obviously true and the latter that is obviously false? (2) This not being possible in any way that is of immediate interest to religious belief, how does the believer regard his inability to prove the truth of faith in the manner the skeptic demands?


Should one review the considerations and discoveries and breakthroughs that have been taken to render religious belief false, inane or pointless, the list could prove amusing. Greek atomism, disease and death, heliocentrism, electricity, the new physics or philosophy or psychology, have all been advanced as telling decisively against any belief in God. The point on which the refutation or rejection rests, for a moment the latest thing, is all too soon forgotten or refuted. Shouldn't this tell against atheism?

Of course skeptics seldom think of themselves as part of a tradition. They take no more responsibility for the follies of earlier versions of themselves than they do for the claims of theists. The skeptic is always at Square One, arguing ab ovo, willing to be himself alone against the world, and even when he wheels in the views of others for support we sense that he feels no need for company in order to hold what he does, or to deny what he does.

Believers have recently gotten a little weary of being assigned research projects or intellectual tasks by the skeptic and have devised a number of versions of the tu quoque to stop the demands. No one is more adroit at this than my colleague Alvin Plantinga and I shall not attempt to steal his fire. (The phrase has nice theistic overtones but perhaps assigns Al a place more exalted than he himself would claim.) I simply refer to the structure of God and Other Minds. This book 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.

A later version of this is to counter the claim, one, that there are certain basic propositions which do not include 'God exists' and, two, that other such propositions as 'God exists' must be justified by grounding them in basic beliefs. The theist can accept this model of justification and blandly add that 'God exists' is one of his basic propositions. Why not?

This should not be understood in a private or subjective sense. When Job says that he knows that his redeemer liveth, he is not simply reporting on his psyche; he doesn't mean that he knows that he knows something or other, it doesn't matter what. It is the object proposition and the truth it contains he is asserting. Does the believer who says 'God exists' is basic for him want simply to report on his idiosyncratic convictions?

If he does, he may be saying only that he has as much right to take 'God exists' as basic as his critic does to take sense data or truths about the world as basic. Perhaps that is all Plantinga wishes to do. The upshot is then to claim that the believer and his critic are in the same boat. They agree on some formal account-that there are basic propositions and propositions derivative from them-but there is no way to adjudicate claims as to what propositions, materialiter loquendo, can function as basic. The skeptic is simply wrong if he thinks some version of empiricism is beyond dispute or, worse, that it is part of the formal theory.

My own first question envisages a meatier interpretation than that. I am asking whether the skeptic is justified in calling into question the truth of 'God exists.' Why not put the burden 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 those millions, that silent majority, wrong? Surely to think something against the grain of the whole tradition of human experience is not to be done lightly. It is, need one say it, presumptuous to pit against that past one's own version of the modern mind. This suggests that the present generation is in agreement on things incompatible with belief in God. Or that all informed people now alive, etc. etc. Meaning, I suppose, that all present day skeptics are skeptics.

Is there thus a prima facie argument against atheism drawn from tradition, the common consent of mankind both in the past and in the present time? I think so. There is a way in which it is natural for human beings to believe in God. I think of St. Thomas who on several occasions observed that a person need only look around at the world and gain the idea of God. The order and arrangement and lawlike character of natural events impose the idea. Indeed, so easily does the idea come that it seems almost innate.

This may be taken both as a factual historical remark as well as a theoretical claim. Thus it has been in the experience of the race. The difficulty with this all but universal acceptance of the divine lies in the identification of God. That is, trees and wind, sun and the world itself have been identified with God, nor has it been necessary to choose among these possibilities. This diversity does not tell against the naturalness of the recognition.

Let me cite a parallel in St. Thomas in order that it may be clear what he is and what he is not saying here. Thomas, as you know, agrees with Aristotle that there is an ultimate end of whatever we do, that any human action of any human agent aims at the supreme good or ultimate end which is happiness. The familiar objection to this is that humans have very different aims when they act and that any given human appears to have a plurality of aims not easily reducible to the kind of unity Thomas's view suggests. Since Thomas was not the village idiot, we may presume that he is aware of the diversity mentioned and that he does not think it tells against his doctrine of ultimate end. How not?

He distinguishes in any action the ratio boni, the note of goodness, the formality under which we do any action, on the one hand, and, on the other, the particular deed done in which we take that formality to be realized. What the dizzying variety of deeds done have in common is the reason we do any of them, our aim, and that is that they are good for us to do, meaning, to do such-and-such is perfective of the kind of agent I am. A vast variety of types and tokens of act fill that bill. Some do not. Just as I may, misled by a miracle diet plan, think ground glass is good for me, so I may think theft is a kind of action perfective of the kind of agent I am. To want to be healthy, the presumed goal of dieting, with being wealthy and wise following hard upon, of course, is an unquestionable good for man; physical well-being is a constituent of any adequate account of a fulfilled human life. The problem lies with the ground glass.

No need to go on about this here. What I wish to recall is the way in which Thomas holds that human agents always act under the same formality-aiming at what is perfective of them-and that this in no way precludes legitimate and illegitimate diversity in action.

In similar fashion, 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 makes this point is by saying that 'God' is a common noun, not a proper name.

Consider Thomas's remark about Anselm's proof. Someone might not agree that 'God' means that than which nothing greater can be conceived. What does Thomas think is the common formality of the term 'God.' The etymology of the Greek term suggests to him: one who sees, with the connotation, I think, of one to whom we are responsible, one on whom we depend for being or well-being, one to thank, petition, worship, placate.

Thomas's reference to Anselm is in a discussion in which he argues that 'God exists' is not a self-evident truth. At first blush, this seems incompatible with his other view that knowledge of God is natural, easily had, widely shared, kind of unavoidable. There is no incompatibility because the latter claim, that knowledge of God is natural, means that men easily make the requisite inference as, e.g., from the order in the world.

Does not the burden of proof then fall on the shoulders of the skeptic? Yes. And the skeptic is the first to admit this-or at least to exemplify it. I would hazard the view that more attention is paid to theism, religious belief, the existence of God, as a problem to be dealt with, as something that is an intellectual task, by the skeptic than by the believer. I have met many more militant skeptics than I have believers who look as if they were going to toss and turn all night unless they developed an airtight proof for the existence of God.

The Thomist distinguishes rigorously between theism and Christianity in terms of the distinction between praeambula fidei and mysteria fidei. The preambles of faith are truths about God which happen to have been revealed but which had been discovered, independently of revelation, by the pagan philosophers. Theism, call it natural theology, establishes truths about God on the basis of other truths which are accessible in principle to any human being. Mysteries of faith, on the contrary, are truths about God which cannot be established as such by grounding them in or deriving them from what anyone knows.

This distinction would seem to imply that even if the best conceivable results were obtained on the level of theism, this would do nothing to establish the truth of the mysteries of faith, precisely those truths which are the heart and soul of Christianity, viz. that Jesus is both human and divine, that there is a Trinity of persons in the one divine nature, that we are called to an eternity of blissful union with God, etc. The distinction between nature and grace, between the natural use of human reason and reasoning which is aided by grace and revelation, makes it clear that while Thomas holds that theism is natural and relatively easily attained, he does not regard this as making the further step into Christian belief as a continuation of the same sort of thinking.

It is, of course, within the ambiance of his own religious faith that Thomas makes such distinctions, just as it is in reflecting on revealed truths and on what philosophers have accomplished that he distinguishes the preambles from the mysteries. Given the distinction, there would be no way in the world that the believer can respond to the nonbeliever's demand that he show that the central truths of Christianity are true. Current day skeptics doubtless think that theism is in every bit as much trouble as Christian mysteries and thus that the distinction does not make much difference.

Indeed, the skeptic might well say to me that my suggestion that the burden of disproof is on him in the case of theism should lead me to the same claim with respect to Christian mysteries. That is, he might say, an awful lot of people over the last two thousand years and an awful lot of people today are Christians. Do I accordingly think that it is natural to be a Christian and that until proven otherwise Christianity ought to be accepted as true?

Of course the parallel does not hold. It is the Christian who makes the distinction. St. Paul says that the misbehaving Romans are inexcusable because they can come to knowledge of the invisible things of God from what God has made. Just as men have a law written in their hearts which is not identical with the law of the Gospel. It is the Christian who insists that it is only thanks to the grace of Christ that he has accepted the word of God.

It might seem that the believer would have no particular interest in theism. From the point of view of the fullness of revelation the truths about God men could learn on their own are few in number and relatively exiguous. There are several reasons why someone like Thomas Aquinas exhibits such an interest, but let me stress only one here, the one which enables him to formulate an argument for the reasonableness of belief.

The truths of faith, the mysteries, are truths about God whose truth cannot be established by natural reason. (Nor can their falsity.) Does this mean that Thomas is a fideist if by fideist we mean one who holds that nothing we know counts either for or against Christianity? No, because Thomas has devised proofs on behalf of the claim that it is reasonable to accept as true propositions whose truths we cannot now comprehend. And one of those arguments makes use of the preambles of faith.

It is not that preambles of faith provide premises from which mysteries of faith could be concluded to be true. That would of course erase the difference between preambles and mysteries. The argument is rather this. If some of the truths about himself that God has revealed can be known to be true (the preambles), it is reasonable to hold that all the rest (the mysteries) are true. It is that argument, and its far reaching implications, that explains the historic interest of Christian believers in theism and natural theology. If theism is accepted by the non-believer, he has one less obstacle to accepting the grace of faith. The believer believes on the basis of Romans 1:19, and the Roman Catholic on the basis of Vatican I, that men can come to knowledge of God by natural reason. The believer does not need such proofs. He does not fret when relevant objections are brought against his own efforts to formulate one. He will return to the task, not to shore up his own faith and certainly not in search of something that will argue another irresistibly into the faith. There is only one way to come to believe.

This is why, in discussions with skeptics, the believer confines himself to philosophical theism. His aim is not to triumph, to crush, to embarrass, even simply to succeed, since success in natural theology has such an oblique relation to what is truly important, that all men recognize and accept the pearl of great price. If there is something that makes the believer toss and turn it is the thought that he might become an impediment to another's acceptance of the gift of faith.