Atheism, Theism and the Burden of Proof

By Ajit Krishna Dasa

When debating the existence of God atheists often claim that they do not have to lift a burden of proof. They argue that since atheism is nothing but the absence of belief in God it does not make any positive claims about the non-existence of God, and thus atheists have nothing to substantiate or justify when debating the existence of God.

Let us examine their claim carefully:

It is a fact that if we think X is true (no matter what X is), and we do not explain X with God, then, in order to have a rational position on X, we have to be able to explain it with something other than God, i.e. with something atheistic (non-theistic).

This is made clear by the below presented two arguments. But first, in order to fully appreciate the arguments, we need to examine the nature of worldviews.

What is a Worldview?

A worldview, in simple terms, is the overall way we see the world. It is the knowledge, the mental attitudes, and the beliefs that govern the way we conceive of and interpret reality. All worldviews include thoughts on epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, axiology and ethics.


Epistemology deals with questions like: What is knowledge? What are the possibilities and limits of knowledge? And what are the methods to gain knowledge?

Metaphysics and ontology

Ontology is a sub-area of metaphysics, and these areas can be difficult to distinguish from each other. Together they deal with questions like: What exists? What is real? How do things exist? How do things of the world relate to each other? What are the first principles that govern the world? How does the world function, and why?

Axiology and ethics

These areas deal with questions like: What has value? How do we make proper value judgments? What is good? What is evil? What is beautiful? Do we have moral obligations? If yes, then which? And how can we know them?

Worldviews can be more or less conscious. Philosophers and thinkers might have sophisticated and carefully worked out worldviews, whereas some people might hardly be aware of the thoughts they have about the above subjects. Some might have a really poorly worked-out worldview that is incomplete and contains self-contradictions, but all people do make assumptions about knowledge, how we can know, what exists, what is real, how the world functions, what has value, and what is good and evil, right and wrong. Without at least some assumptions about these a human would not be able to function. Even animals must have some operating assumptions about knowledge, values, what exists, etc. in order to function and survive. But, unlike humans, animals are not intelligent enough to be held accountable for their assumptions.

Now that we know what a worldview is, and that all humans have one, we are ready to move to our before-mentioned arguments.

First argument

1) All humans have a worldview.
2) A worldview is either atheistic or theistic.
3) A’s worldview is not theistic.
4) T’s worldview is not atheistic.
5) Conclusion 1: A’s worldview is atheistic.
6) Conclusion 2: T’s worldview is theistic.

Second argument

1) All worldviews contain propositions about the world.
2) One has a burden of proof for all of one’s propositions about the world.
3) A’s worldview is atheistic.
4) T’s worldview is theistic.
5) Conclusion 1: A has a burden of proof for his/her atheistic worldview.
6) Conclusion 2: T has a burden of proof for his/her theistic worldview.


When debating the existence of God both the atheist and the theist bring their respective worldviews into play. Just by uttering “I have the absence of belief in God” the atheist brings into play his/her assumptions about knowledge, how we can know, what exists, what is real, how the world functions, what has value, and what is good and evil, right and wrong. In other words, all sorts of propositions about the world are made as soon as the atheist decides to take part in the debate about God. These propositions must be substantiated.

Hence, in conclusion, we see that if a person does not include God in his/her worldview, he/she must, in order to be rational, still be able to substantiate or justify the elements of his/her worldview with something other than God. If the atheist cannot justify his/her own worldview, he/she does not have a rational philosophical position to argue from or for.

It thus follows that if an atheist wants to have a rational worldview that can compete with theism, then he/she – like the theist – must lift a burden of proof.

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