Burden of proof: are atheists on the wrong side of reason?

By Justin Lathlean

The French Mathematician and Physicist Pierre-Simon, the marquis de Laplace, once famously responded to Napoléon Bonaparte when he was asked why he never made any reference to God in his impressive five-volume Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics), by saying “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Laplace’s response has since become somewhat of a motto for many modern day atheists, who use it to justify their reasons for not only their disbelief in God but also their apathy towards even considering the possibility of God’s existence. “Atheism needs no defence,” insists philosopher Michael Scriven, “in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence, atheism is the default position.”[1] It’s as if, as one atheist explained to me, we find an extra TV cable not listed in the instruction manual. The television seems to work fine without it so we throw the cable away[2]. Similarly, belief in the existence of God is unnecessary; the world functions exactly according to our current scientific knowledge. So there is no need to invoke a supernatural intelligence that determines every naturalistic process and gives purpose to our lives. To quote Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[3]

By framing the question as a test for God’s existence, and not for his non-existence, the default position is that there is no evidence for the existence of God. This is because scientific hypotheses can never be proven true but they can easily be proven false. For example, if somebody claims that all swans are white after observing a large flock of white swans, their observation does not prove their assertion to be true. Contradictory evidence in the form of a single black swan, however, makes it clear that such an assertion is obviously false. 

So it would seem that many atheists have dealt themselves the upper hand and placed the burden of proof on theists to provide evidence for God’s existence. But is this justified? Is it fair to automatically assume a lack of evidence for God’s existence? Some would argue, as does the Christian philosopher Paul Copan, that:

“…being a real atheist is just plain tough. It requires more than just debunking arguments for God’s existence. An agnostic could do this without becoming an atheist. The atheist’s task is considerably more challenging: she has to give reasons why God does not or cannot exist.”[4]

So why do so many atheists ignore their obligation to justify their faith and presume that they are on the side of reason?

Perhaps they believe that scientific advances over the last two centuries has significantly eroded belief in God and shifted the balance of evidence towards atheism. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, for example, claim that the God-hypothesis has been repeatedly disproven by advances in scientific knowledge, especially since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, which ‘emancipated’ humans from the bondage of religious superstition. Atheists who hold such positions, however, often ignore non-scientific evidence from disciplines such as philosophy, theology and history claiming that only science is capable of discerning objective truth. As did the Scottish philosopher David Hume who famously said:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”[5]

What Hume is basically saying is that if a discipline involves neither scientific experimentation nor mathematical formula then it cannot be trusted. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it fails to pass its own test. Humes’ statement is neither scientific nor mathematical but philosophical, which by his own admissions is not a legitimate area of study.

So how do we judge whether a theory or worldview is correct? The answer - which seems relatively trivial at first, yet extremely difficult in practice – is to evaluate all the evidence, not just the disciplines that we are naturally inclined or familiar with. But how do we actually do this? How do we systematically evaluate evidence for and against a particular theory in an unbiased and objective manner? Is it even possible?

Fortunately, many people throughout history have attempted to address this same issue. One such person was the English Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) who developed the problem solving principle often referred to as Occam’s Razor. This principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Sometimes referred to as the inference to the best possible explanation, Occam’s Razor is widely used within many disciples and commonly arises in debates arguing for and against the existence of God. In what follows I will try to use this principle to evaluate whether science, morality and the existence of suffering support atheism or theism.  


Many atheists claim that science has buried God; that nothing exists outside the natural universe and that everything can or will eventually be explained by natural deterministic processes. There is no purpose behind the universe nor any divine authority determining right from wrong. We only perceive that our lives have meaning or that there is an objective Law-giver because our over-enlarged brains have concocted such ideas to help our species survive: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”[6]

The theist, however, would claim that science hasn’t buried God; but rather that science points towards God. They would argue that as successful as science has been at explaining how things work it is powerless to explain why they work. As the philosopher Richard Swinburne says: “I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains.”[7] Like the philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), theistic scientists have learnt to distinguish between how and why questions by referring to them as primary or secondary causalities. That is, natural processes such as the birth and death of stars, the formation of galaxies and the evolution of life “can exist in complex causal relationships, without in any way refuting their ultimate dependency upon God as final cause.”[8] If I ask my Wife why the kettle is boiling? She might respond by saying “the heat generated by the flames is being transferred through the base of the copper kettle where it is being absorbed by the water inside. As more and more heat is absorbed by the water, the molecules become increasingly energised to the point where they begin to undergo a phase-shift converting from a liquid to a vapour.” Or she might simply respond “because I wanted some tea.” Both answers are correct. One appeals to that of mechanism, whilst the other to that of agency. Many atheists argue, however, that if there was such a divine agent shouldn’t we all be able to detect his presence? Or at least observe him more easily? To answer this question we have to go beyond science because it is powerless to detect anything that exists outside the physical dimension.


The eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said: “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.” Science can, to some degree, explain to us how the starry heavens came to be but it cannot explain why we all have an inbuilt understanding of right and wrong. Evolutionary definitions of morality fall short of explaining the reality that a universal moral code is present within every single human being and why it is totally unique within the animal kingdom. Whilst societies may hold superficially different moral standards, they are, nonetheless, fundamentally similar at their core. That is, they all uphold the golden rule: treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself. If evolutionary explanations of such universal morality were true then it would naturally follow that these rules should only apply to individuals within close family units or tribes. That way, even if an individual sacrifices him or herself for somebody else there is still a high chance that their genes will be passed on to the next generation. However, this falls short of explaining why so many people feel the need to care for the sick, minister to the poor and rescue complete strangers. Even evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins appreciates the unique nature of this predicament:

“[Human beings] can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.”[9]

So it’s not surprising then that many people attribute the ‘moral law within’ to a transcendent mind or being. One such person was the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis who argued strongly for the existence of God from morality. This argument, whilst not providing watertight proof of God’s existence, works on the premises that everyone believes in objective moral truths and that these moral truths are not like the laws of nature, which simply tell us was is and not what ought to be; leading us to conclude that a single ‘intelligence behind or beyond nature has implanted the knowledge of right and wrong in us and acts as the foundation for the objectivity of our moral judgments.’[10] Elsewhere, Lewis uses the following analogy of an architect and a house to elaborate on what the moral argument is trying to say:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions? ”[11]

Many atheists and agnostics argue differently. They reason that because everyone makes the same fundamental moral assumptions, regardless of their belief in God, it’s more logical to conclude that God does not exist. Otherwise, theists would be expected to live morally superior lives in comparison to atheists because they have access to a divine moral code. The fact is, however, that atheists are capable of leading morally superior lives than many theists. This supposedly counter-intuitive pattern of moral behaviour between believers and non-believers does not necessary debunk the argument of God’s existence from morality, as Timothy Keller explains:

“Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom. Properly understood, the doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of [common] grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them.”[12]

The atheist’s position becomes even harder to justify when they try to build a moral framework without appealing to a transcendent being to objectively ground their moral assertions. Yet this is exactly what the secular humanist movement is trying to achieve. By making human beings the measure of all things they are begging the question: Which human being? Which human culture? Which human age? Without a divine moral-law-giver, or the prospect of divine retribution, we are unable to counteract Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s age old dilemma:

“Now assume that there is no God, or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds, if I am to die entirely on earth? … And if that is so, why shouldn’t I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man’s throat, rob and steal?”[13]

Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the existence of a universal moral code sits more comfortably with a theistic worldview than a secular or naturalistic one. Otherwise, morality is simply a human construct that can be modified or discarded at the whim of any individual or society. Perhaps the rejection of a universal moral law as evidence for God’s existence is more of an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. For if we admit that an external omniscient God is responsible for basic moral standards then we would not only lose our autonomy to decide how we should live, but we would also realise just how incapable we are at reaching God’s standards. The depravity of man is also a fundamental concept for understanding how a good and loving God could permit evil and suffering.


The existence and seemingly pointlessness of suffering is perhaps the single most common reason people choose not to believe in God. For if God is truly all-powerful and all-loving then how could He allow us to suffer. Why not create a world without pain and suffering, where there are no mass shootings, suicide bombers, tsunamis, earthquakes and children dying of cancer. Why not create a world full of peace, joy and harmony, where everybody gets along and nobody experiences pain or death. Since the world is not like this then either God loves us but is powerless to prevent suffering or He could eliminate suffering but chooses not to and therefore is not loving.

In attempting to reconcile the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God with a world teeming with pain and suffering many theologians and philosophers have been quick to recognise that there is a vast difference between addressing the intellectual barriers to suffering compared to the emotional and psychological obstacles. By way of example, cancer will appear very different to the patient suffering from the disease compared to the oncologist giving the diagnosis. In what follows, I argue that only the personal, loving and just God of Christianity can make sense of both the intellectual and emotional difficulties associated with suffering.

The first intellectual argument against God, due to the existence of suffering, is closely linked to the argument for God’s existence from morality discussed above. For anyone who claims that suffering is evil and incompatible with an all-loving God is making a circular argument, as Alister McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, explains:

"An argument from the existence of evil to the nonexistence of God depends on establishing that suffering is indeed evil. But this is not an empirical observation - it is a moral judgment. Suffering is natural; for it to be evil, a moral framework has to be presupposed. But where does this framework come from? The argument requires the existence of an absolute moral framework if it is to work. Yet the existence of an absolute framework is itself widely seen as pointing to God's existence. In the end, the nonexistence of God seems to end up depending on God's existence."[14]

Now granted, someone could object to this line of reasoning by saying all truth is relative and there is no such thing as an absolute moral law. The problem with this argument is that it too is self-defeating: if all truth is relative and nothing is absolute, does that include the statement ‘all truth is relative?’ Furthermore, without an absolute moral framework established by a transcendent moral being it is illogical to describe anything as evil since that is just how things are, as Timothy Keller points out:

“People, we believe ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction and violence of the strong against the weak – these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair and unjust?”[15]

So how then do we reconcile the existence of pain and suffering with the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God?

Some argue that the end justifies the means. In a fallen world where mankind is described as being separated from God, the primary objective of an all-loving God is to redeem as many people as possible, saving them from eternal alienation. However, God is also a God of justice and it would not be fair if He were to simply click His fingers and suddenly everyone receives eternal life. God wants genuine repentance and for this to be possible He needed to give us free will and the capacity to choose right from wrong. Unfortunately, as the bible tells us, we have all decided to reject God and have fallen short His standards[16]. Without His undeserved mercy and grace we are all headed down a one-way track to being eternally excluded from His presence. However, many of us remain blissfully unaware of our predicament and rarely take the time to consider our eternal destiny until it’s too late. Pain and suffering, could therefore be one way in which God reminds us of our brokenness and finitude. As C.S. Lewis explains:

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[17]

Of course, we would not wish these things upon ourselves, or on anyone else for that matter, but once on the other side, we begin to see that there was perhaps a greater purpose behind such trials, as if some greater intelligence had orchestrated the whole thing for our ultimate good. And if this can be true for improving the quality and outcome of our earthly lives, then how much more would this be true for improving the quality and outcome of our eternal lives, if such a life exists of course. Note that the atheist cannot provide such a hope, either regarding our earthly lives or eternal ones, since without God there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

At this point, some might interject, as some atheists do, by saying: “Does God really need so much pain and suffering to achieve his ends? Is there any conceivable good purpose behind so many children dying every day of starvation and disease? How are they helped by the rest of us becoming more sympathetic?”[18]

This is a fair point. It’s not just that suffering exists in the world but that there is an over-abundance of it, which, for the most part, appears indiscriminate and pointless. Surely God did not need to go to such extravagant lengths to get us to notice him. Couldn’t he have simply invented a world with only a little bit of suffering, just enough to build our character and encourage us to seek his help when necessary? Perhaps. But suppose God wants more than just a transactional relationship with us. Perhaps God is more interested in a relationship based on complete and unconditional reliance on him, not just an intermittent relationship based on convenience. C.S. Lewis described this latter relationship as a ‘parachute-faith’ – it’s only deployed when absolutely necessary. Furthermore, who are we to judge God for failing to create a world that suits our personal preferences and expectations? How are we to know if things could have been any different if the ultimate goal was for us to freely know and love God? The simple fact of the matter is that we are not God and our knowledge and understanding of various pros and cons of building a universe with the possibility of free-will is significantly limited, as Paul Copan explains:

"Consider the problem of evil. Sceptics may support their negative stance toward God by pointing to many baffling evils that appear pointless. So, they infer, God couldn't have a reason for them. But is this charge a fair one? Actually, no… it doesn't follow that, just because a finite human like me doesn't know these reasons, an all-wise God couldn't have morally sufficient reasons for permitting these evils. We just aren't properly positioned to know the mind of God."[19]

Now, as I mentioned earlier, responding to the problem of pain and suffering can take two forms; an intellectual response or an emotional response. Whilst I believe the points above address many of the intellectual obstacles to how an all-powerful and all-loving God could allow suffering to exist, it is often the emotional or psychological objections that we truly struggle with. Many of us who have experienced deep pain and loss would find these intellectual explanations dry and unhelpful, especially in the middle of such trials. Indeed, C.S. Lewis once quipped: “If only this toothache would go away, I could write another chapter on the problem of pain.” This is where a Biblical-worldview can provide an emotional response where other worldviews cannot.

In the Biblical-worldview, pain and suffering is the consequence of the fall, where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and in so doing directly went against God’s explicit request. At this point it does not matter whether you believe in a literal Adam and Eve. What’s important is that as the ‘representatives’ of the human species Adam and Eve, like the rest of us, turned their back on God and decided to live their own way. As such, there is now amnesty between every human being, and, most significantly, between us and God and the whole earth is affected.[20] But far from leaving us in such a destitute state, the story of the Bible repeatedly shows God’s relentless grace and forgiveness for us, culminating in the dramatic sacrificial life, death and resurrection of his one and only Son. What should have been our punishment, Jesus took upon himself. God does not keep his distance and say ‘I told you so.’ Instead, he humbles himself in the most extravagant way possible by becoming a ‘suffering-servant,’[21] choosing to bear the shame and agony of the cross so that we might experience reconciliation with God.

Now, whatever game God is playing at here, one thing is certain, no other religion or world-view even comes close to placing God at the centre of the solution for eradicating pain and suffering. Buddhism says pain just needs to be ignored, Hinduism says suffering is well-deserved, Islam says God is testing us through suffering, Judaism sees pain and suffering as God’s tool for judgment, and atheism, well it doesn’t even try to give a reason for pain and suffering, it just is, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Only Christianity provides a sufficient, all-encompassing explanation for the existence and purpose of suffering, as Alister McGrath points out:

“The familiar image of a wounded, suffering Christ on the cross, when rightly interpreted, speaks of God’s solidarity with those suffering and the possibility of renewal and restoration. It can also be developed intellectually, in terms of Christ entering into the vale of human sorrow and pain in order to transform it.”[22]


I do not expect that this short essay has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that atheism is on the wrong side of reason. Indeed, I don’t believe that any intellectual argument could ever prove the existence or non-existence of God; just like I could never prove to you that other minds exists[23] or that your spouse loves you. We can only evaluate such claims based on the evidence available to us at the time.  There will always be some degree of uncertainty, otherwise, faith would be redundant. And rest assured, we all have faith in something. The atheist puts his faith in intellectual arguments for the non-existence of God, whilst the theist puts his faith in God, not simply as an idea, but as a personal being capable of communicating truths to us. The Pastor Dick Lucas recalls a conversation with a sceptic who said they “would be happy to believe in Christianity if the cleric could only give him a watertight argument for the truth.” The pastor replied, “What if God hasn’t given us a watertight argument, but rather a watertight person?[24]

So, if this sounds like you; somebody who is sceptical about the existence of God but is nonetheless willing to following the evidence, wherever it may lead; then I encourage you, start doubting your doubt. Question your assumptions. Seek unbiased opinions. Ask yourself, ‘have I unknowingly let my scepticism blind me from seeing all the available evidence? Do I actively challenge my beliefs? Or do I simply collect snippets of information that enable me to maintain any prior convictions?’

If the answer to any of these question is ‘I’m not sure,’ then the only way to be sure is to venture beyond your comfort zone; past the opinions that serve only to reinforce what you already know. Place yourself squarely in the other side’s camp and see things from their perspective. Only then will you be able to say with any confidence that you’ve left no stone unturned and that your opinion is a valid one. And who knows, you might just discover what many who have gone before you discovered, that “a little science estranges a man from God; a lot of science brings him back.”[25]

[1] Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 102.

[2] This analogy begins to break down when we ask: by whose standards does this world appear fine? Perhaps we are looking at the wrong user manual. Perhaps the superfluous cable is actually vital for getting access to additional channels, all in high definition. Sure the TV works fine without it, but it’s so much better with the extra cable.

[3] George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 365.

[4] Paul Copan, A Little Book for New Philosophers, p71-72

[5] David Hume, ??

[6] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

[7] Richard Swinburne, Is there a God?

[8] Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg. 84

[9] Richard Dawkins, Ibid, 200-201.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 3-8.

[11] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (pg. 21)

[12] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour, pg. 191.

[13] Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein, eds, Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987, 446.

[14] Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg 163

[15] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg 26

[16] Romans 3:23

[17] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

[18] Victor J. Stenger, God The Failed Hypothesis, pg. 219.

[19] Paul Copan, A Little Book for New Philosophers, pg. 109

[20] Romans 8:22

[21] Isaiah 53:11

[22] Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics, pg. 53.

[23] “Philosopher Alvin Plantinga made this point years ago, with reference to the perennial problem of “other minds.” You can’t absolutely prove that other people have minds. But nobody’s unduly bothered about this. It’s a safe assumption, and chimes in with the way things seem to be. Plantinga then argues for a parallel between proving the existence of “other minds” and proving the existence of God. Neither can be proved, he argues, and good arguments can be raised against both – but to their defenders, both seem entirely reasonable.” - Timothy Keller

[24] Sermon by Dick Lucas, quoted by Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg. 232.

[25] Francis Bacon