A popular claim I’ve heard touted by many atheists is that atheism (or lack of belief in any gods) is the default position for humanity. When we’re born, we lack any belief in gods or God. As we grow older we must come to that belief and grow into that belief. It is said that because atheism is the default position of humanity, all non-atheists therefore have the burden of proof (meaning scientific proof) and that atheists get to determine whether or not that burden has been met. There are, of course, a multitude of problems with this argument and I’m surprised few people have addressed this. The problems are:
1) There’s no evidence that we’re born without a belief in gods or God – human history would serve to indicate that atheism is not the default position. The fact that a multitude of cultures have a belief in the supernatural would indicate that atheism is not a default starting point. While some religions might have been created to explain certain natural phenomena, this does not indicate atheism as the default position for humanity. Consider that all of these religions deal with the supernatural, or the immaterial world. The question we must ask is how did so many cultures imagine an immaterial world to begin with when they had no experience with anything immaterial (if we assume the naturalistic worldview)?
For instance, I can imagine a unicorn because I’ve encountered a horse. It’s not a far step for me to imagine a horse with a horn on it (or in the case of ancient unicorns, one that has a lions tale, a goats beard, and a horn). However, if the immaterial doesn’t exist and there is nothing like the immaterial in the world (since everything is material), it makes little to no sense that an immaterial answer could have arisen as an explanation for things. If nothing else, the gods should have been higher humans. While some polytheistic religions did have human-like gods, the advent of monotheism or even polytheistic religions with immaterial foundations (such as Hinduism) should have never arisen. There’s simply no way early humans could have imagined what they had no contact with (if we assume the naturalistic viewpoint).
2) The idea that atheism is a default position isn’t an argument for atheism. Even if it’s true that atheism is the default position of humanity, this proves nothing. An infant has to be taught many things about reality – an infant has to learn that an iron is hot when turned on, that you can use your legs for more than crawling, how to speak, and other basic functions. Quite simply, the default status of an infant is ignorance; so to say that the default status of humans is the lack of belief in god is no different than saying at the default status of humans is the lack of belief in hot irons. Just because an infant is ignorant of a fact doesn’t mean the fact no longer exists.
If humans are born without a basic proper belief in something out there, ultimately the atheist has proven nothing. We can still turn to the evidence presented. We can still show that even if humans are born ignorant of God or gods that such ignorance proves nothing other than we should teach the human about God or the gods. In short, ending the argument “atheism is our default position” as an argument for atheism is silly.
3) The argument ultimately fails because it has, in some ways, an obstacle that simply cannot be overcome. The argument says that since atheism is the default position of humans, all non-atheists now have the burden of proof in making claims. The only thing an atheist has to do is sit back and poke holes in the claim. In other words, atheism is eternally on trial and the theists must present evidence after evidence proving the existence of their particular god while all the atheists have to do is cast doubt onto the theists. But such a standard is ultimately arbitrary and based on the inherent biases within the individual atheist rather than based on any universal rational standard.
What is the epistemic threshold for the atheist to accept that God exists? How do we define this threshold in a universal manner, or do we assert that the threshold is subjective to each individual? If it is universal then why is it universal and what, exactly, makes it universal to begin with (and what makes it a good standard, and why does your criteria make it a good standard, ad infinitum)? If we say it is subjective then on what grounds are atheists able to criticize those who are not atheists? Obviously the epistemic threshold has been met for those who believe and if such a threshold is subjective, then who are we to judge and condemn those for relying on their subjectivity?
Even if non-atheists have the burden of proof, what would it matter if a non-arbitrary, non-absurd epistemic threshold doesn’t exist? If one doesn’t exist then from the beginning non-atheists cannot prove that they are rational or acceptable as a belief, much less convince the atheist that the burden of proof has been met and there is now no longer any need for atheism. Many atheists will say, “Then have God appear to me,” but such arguments are trite and absurd. This is tantamount to saying, “I’ll believe in dark matter and dark energy when I can observe it under a microscope.” Such an event cannot occur, mostly because we only know about the existence of dark matter and dark energy apophatically (through negation – we see its affects and know what it is not, but still don’t really know what it is). Likewise, as most theists would claim, we know God apophatically as well. The “why” is quite complex and I don’t have time to write on it, but suffice it to say that when dealing with God (unlike dealing with dark matter and dark energy) we are dealing with an intelligent being who has a plan and goals and will act in accordance with those plans and goals.
Ultimately any epistemic threshold the atheist gives us is going to be arbitrary – the threshold for Richard Dawkins is completely different than the threshold for the late Antony Flew (as Dawkins has admitted he will most likely never become a theist, while Flew did become a Theist in his final years). There will be no universal standard for when the burden of proof is met and the discrepancies between multiple thresholds will not be insignificant. In a courtroom there is a certain amount of subjectivity as to what each person considers the burden of proof, but the differences between each standard are not so vast that a consensus cannot be reached; in fact, if a consensus couldn’t be reached then our judicial system would fall apart. But the multiple thresholds among atheists differ so greatly that no consensus can be reached (as evidenced by the fact that some become theists after hearing an argument while others remain atheists).
The argument concerning the “atheism as default” is superfluous and even when used properly (to show that non-atheists hold the burden of proof) only shows itself to be a red herring. It distracts from the issue of whether or not God exists. If arguments can be brought forth based on evidence (or arguments that are purely logical) that present a solid case for theism (or in a broader sense, spirituality), then that particular belief should be treated as rational. Once it’s treated as rational, both sides should have to bring proof forward as competing claims, not as one trying to disprove the status quo and the other simply upholding it. Even if atheism is default, it could be that theism is still true, but acquired through knowledge. Once theism is proven rational, both atheists and theists are then on equal footing in terms of hashing out what is true and what is not. One does not enjoy an advantage of being the eternal skeptic once faced with a rational position.
Unfortunately, so long as atheists continue to complain and say that non-atheists have the burden of proof, the conversation will go nowhere. No amount of logic or evidence will ever work to convince the atheist the burden of proof has been met. While viewing this issue as a competition between claims (in which both sides need to use proof – evidential or otherwise) is beneficial and encourages education and learning, most atheists will simply take the easy road and claim they don’t have the burden of proof. This is, of course, why atheism will (and is) die in philosophical circles, because it essentially becomes anti-intellectual, closed off to learning and discussion with opposing viewpoints.