Over the years, I’ve met many self-described atheists who insist that they do not need to justify their atheism. They say things like this:
“If you’re going to make a claim about what exists, it needs to be justified.”
By implication, if you make a claim about what does not exist, you are somehow exempted from the evidential burden of needing to justify your claim.
Um, no, it doesn’t work like that. Let’s critique this idea on two points.
First response: the atheist is making a claim about what exists. When a person denies that the universe has a final agent cause of its existence, that person is committing to the existence of a particular kind of universe. And that carries with it many other claims such as, for example, the claim that nature is dysteleological and non-providential. This is a rich battery of claims about what exists. So if the theist’s claims need to be justified in virtue of positive claims about what exists being justified, then the atheist’s claims need to be justified as well.
Second response: claims about what does not exist often need to be justified. Indeed, sometimes existential denials have a special evidential burden. Consider, for example, the claim that minds other than my own do not exist (i.e. solipsism) vs. the claim that minds other than my own do exist. If there is a special onus of justification in this case, it is surely with the former claim: the person who denies that other minds exist needs to justify their claim. One could make the same point about other similar divisions such as the special evidential burden of idealism over-against realism or Humean bundle theory over-against a substance metaphysic of persons.
According to some theists, belief in God is a natural belief of properly functioning individuals no less than belief in other minds, the external world, and the self. If that is true, it would follow that the atheist has a special evidential burden no less than the solipsist, idealist, or Humean bundle theorist.
To be sure, that mere possibility does not, as such, establish that the atheist does have that special burden. But the lesson, at the very least, is that theist surely does not.
For these two reasons, the atheist’s attempt to avoid an evidential burden to defend their atheism is doubly flawed.