With a hat tip to this smart post from the excellent “Crude Ideas” blog. Crude and I, from what I’ve seen, tend to think alike in a lot of ways.
Scene: An atheist and a theist are sitting together in a booth, having a drink. As tends to happen, the dialogue has swung around again to philosophy.
A: I am an atheist. I do not believe in God or any gods in any way, shape, or form.
B: So let me get this straight. You are making the claim that there is no God?
A: Not exactly. I am saying that I have no evidence to convince me that God exists, so why should I believe in him? So, I don’t. Ergo, I’m an atheist.
B: I see. You’re just saying that you have no reason to believe God exists.
A: That is correct.
B: So if a good reason was found, you’d become a theist?
A: Well, it’s hard for me to imagine a good reason.
B: Okay. Now how do you define an agnostic?
A: Well, an agnostic is somebody who isn’t sure if God exists or not.
B: But you’re an atheist. You definitely don’t believe God exists.
B: So, if you’re so definite, prove it.
A: What? That’s ridiculous! You can’t prove a negative! It’s your job to prove to me God exists!
B: So you’re not SURE God doesn’t exist?
A: Well, no. But I’m still an atheist since I have no reason to believe in God.
B: But we just defined an agnostic as somebody who isn’t sure God exists. By your own admission, you’re not an atheist, you’re an agnostic.
Annnnnd End Scene
Let’s go through a couple of possible objections. I’ve taken a couple of them from the poster “Heuristics” down at Crude’s blog (you can see them in the link), so I’ll just be re-posting them here.
Objection: But since it’s impossible to prove a negative, so that’s an unfair question!
Counter Reply1: It is perfectly possible to prove a negative by showing a conflict in the definition or by highlighting something that would be expected to be true given the definition but isn’t. Example: A square circle cannot exist because something cannot both be square and circular at the same time. The statement “there are no people in France” can be shown to be false by showing that there indeed are people in France.
Counter Reply2: If it indeed was the case that it was impossible to prove a negative that still would not mean that you would escape a burden of proof with regards to the statement that God does not exist. It would simply mean that you are unable to provide such evidence and your position on the matter is irrational.
Objection 2: You can be both atheist and agnostic. I’m agnostic in the sense that I admit I can’t be totally sure that God doesn’t exist. I’m atheist in the sense that I still don’t believe he does.
Reply: Okay. If you want to define agnostic that way, go right ahead. I’ve had conversations with people who have done just that. But I want to note for the record that the majority of atheists I have talked with do not admit that up front.
And this also establishes one very important thing: Atheists can’t try and convince other people to be atheists unless they try and prove a negative. Think about it. If you go up to somebody and try and convince them that God doesn’t exist, you’re going to need to give reasons why you believe that – in other words, prove a negative!
But didn’t we just say that negatives can’t be proven?
One way or another, an atheist is going to have to justify proving a negative to stay atheist. If you claim “I don’t believe in God”, the burden of proof is on you. If you claim, “I have no good reason to believe in God”, you can’t just leave it at that. That’s not how it works.
One way or another, neither side can cheat themselves out of an argument. When it comes to God, there’s no “Get out of jail free” card. And there never has been, no matter how often atheists like to try and pull it out.