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Rethinking the presumption of atheism


Is there—or rather, ought there to be—a presumption of atheism, as Antony Flew (1923–2010) so famously argued nearly half a century ago? It is time to revisit this issue. After clarifying the concept of a presumption of atheism (which includes clarifying the concept of a presumption), I take up the evaluative question of whether there ought to be a presumption of atheism, focusing on Flew’s arguments for an affirmative answer. I conclude that Flew’s arguments, one of which rests on an analogy with the (legal) presumption of innocence, fail.

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  1. 1.

    Compare Simon Blackburn (2008, p. 50): “If in some situation there is a proper presumption that something is true, anyone seeking to prove its opposite is said to bear the burden of proof. A certain amount of philosophical jockeying consists in trying to shift the burden of proof.”

  2. 2.

    Both the Logical Argument from Evil and the Evidential Argument from Evil are deductive in nature. The former holds that the following propositions are inconsistent:

    1. 1.

      God exists;

    2. 2.

      If God exists, then evil does not exist; and

    3. 3.

      Evil exists.

    The latter holds that the following propositions are inconsistent:

    1. 4.

      God exists;

    2. 5.

      If God exists, then gratuitous (i.e., pointless) evil does not exist; and

    3. 6.

      Gratuitous (i.e., pointless) evil exists.

    Theists resolve the first inconsistency by denying 2 (though some deny 3). They resolve the second inconsistency by denying 6 (though some deny 5). What makes the Evidential Argument from Evil evidential is this: granted the truth of 5, any evidence for the truth of 6 constitutes evidence against the truth of 4. See Rowe (1979, pp. 335–338). There are, of course, inductive arguments from evil as well as deductive arguments from evil.

  3. 3.

    Flew (1972a). Flew’s essay was published together with a reply by Donald Evans (Evans 1972) and a rejoinder by Flew (Flew 1972b).

  4. 4.

    Put differently, “Ought there to be a presumption of atheism?”.

  5. 5.

    As Joel Feinberg (1984, p. 17) expresses it, “Conceptual clarification is the most distinctively philosophical of enterprises.”.

  6. 6.

    What I would deny is that one should defer to a philosopher on an evaluative matter merely because he or she is a philosopher. In other words, I maintain that philosophers, as such, have no special insight into—or access to—what is good, right, just, or beautiful. They do, however, have expertise in analyzing these important concepts. (My understanding of philosophy has been shaped by Wilson (1963), White (1975), and Wilson (1986).

  7. 7.

    Rape is a contested concept. See, e.g., Estrich (1987), Burgess-Jackson (1996), Burgess-Jackson (1999).

  8. 8.

    I make no attempt to cite, much less to engage, either (1) the secondary literature on Flew’s essay or (2) afterthoughts by Flew himself. The reason for this—besides not wanting to extend an already lengthy essay—is that Flew’s essay was, at the time of its publication, self-contained. That Flew modified his views (if he did) has no bearing on the quality of his original analyses, arguments, or criticisms.

  9. 9.

    For an excellent summary of the main features of a presumption, see Ullmann-Margalit and Margalit (1982, pp. 437–439).

  10. 10.

    The difference between presumptions and assumptions is reflected in our language. According to Roland Hall (1961, p. 11), “we speak of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ presumptions, but of ‘reasonable’ and ‘rash’ assumptions” (footnote omitted).

  11. 11.

    Lexicographer (and lawyer) Bryan A. Garner (2016, p. 78) distinguishes between assumptions and presumptions as follows: “assumption; presumption. The connotative distinction between these words is that presumptions are more strongly inferential and more probably authoritative than mere assumptions, which are usually more hypothetical. Presumptions may lead to decisions, while assumptions typically don’t” (boldface and italics in original).

  12. 12.

    This is the Presumption of Literalness. See Bach and Harnish (1979, pp. 12, 224).

  13. 13.

    “The rule of presumption is that a person shall, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, be taken to be dead, when he has been absent for seven years and not heard from by those who would naturally have heard, if he had been alive” (Thayer 1889, p. 151).

  14. 14.

    For a discussion (though not necessarily an endorsement) of this approach, see Miller (2002).

  15. 15.

    A prominent example of a practical presumption is Joel Feinberg’s “presumption in favor of liberty.” Feinberg says that “Liberty should be the norm; coercion always needs some special justification” (Feinberg 1984, p. 9). For a discussion of this presumption by a philosopher who happens also to be a lawyer, see Husak (1983).

  16. 16.

    Many of these terms are listed by Edna Ullmann-Margalit in her valuable essay, “On Presumption” (Ullmann-Margalit 1983, p. 149).

  17. 17.

    “It is this image of some fancied scales being atilt prior to any weighing which is conveyed by the ‘pre-’ of ‘presumption’. And it is the strength of the presumption which determines the weight required for reversing the balance” (Ullmann-Margalit 1983, 154).

  18. 18.

    The standards of proof most used by lawyers are (1) “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” (2) “proof by clear and convincing evidence,” and (3) “proof by a preponderance of the evidence.” The presumption in the first case is stronger than the presumption in the second case, and the presumption in the second case is stronger than the presumption in the third case. Strength, of course, is transitive, so the presumption in the first case is stronger than the presumption in the third case.

  19. 19.

    Feinberg (1973, p. 61) (italics in original). This is known as the “correlativity thesis.”.

  20. 20.

    “Burden of proof and presumption represent correlative conceptions, inseparably coordinated with one another throughout the range of rational inquiry. They are, in effect, opposite sides of the same coin, either as throwing the advantage of a presumption on one side, or as throwing the burden of proof on the other” (Rescher 2006, p. 14). Rescher’s book, though repetitive in places, brims with insights about (and applications of) presumptions and their correlative burdens.

  21. 21.

    For a general discussion of burdens of proof in argumentation, see Walton (1988), Godden and Walton (2007).

  22. 22.

    “It is important to distinguish between disbelief and nonbelief—between believing a sentence false and merely not believing it true. Disbelief is a case of belief; to believe a sentence false is to believe the negation of the sentence true. We disbelieve that there are ghosts; we believe that there are none. Nonbelief is the state of suspended judgment: neither believing the sentence true nor believing it false. Such is our attitude toward there being an even number of Paul Smiths in Boston” (Quine and Ullian 1978, p. 12).

  23. 23.

    The names—“theism,” “atheism,” and “agnosticism”—are mine, not Flew’s.

  24. 24.

    The propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” are contradictories.

  25. 25.

    The three positions can be arrayed in a square of opposition, with “Bsg” (theism) in the upper left, “Bs~g” (atheism) in the upper right, “~Bs~g” in the lower left, and “~Bsg” in the lower right. (Agnosticism is the conjunction of the two lower positions.) The square of opposition shows (1) that if theism is true, then both atheism (its contrary) and agnosticism are false (i.e., that no theist is either an atheist or an agnostic); (2) that if atheism is true, then both theism (its contrary) and agnosticism are false (i.e., that no atheist is either a theist or an agnostic); and (3) that if agnosticism is true, then (by contradictories) both theism and atheism are false (i.e., that no agnostic is either a theist or an atheist).

  26. 26.

    I will not pursue, here, the apparent contradiction between (1) “the presumption of atheism is merely procedural” and (2) “it matters (substantively?) whether there is a presumption of atheism as opposed to a presumption of theism.” Flew’s repeated claims that his presumption of atheism is “neutral” (see, e.g., p. 32), or a mere “methodological framework” (see p. 40), are puzzling. Perhaps he means to say that the presumption is neither that God exists nor that God does not exist, but rather that one is not to believe either of these propositions. The presumption is therefore “neutral” as between the theist and what Flew calls the “positive atheist.” See Flew’s p. 34.

  27. 27.

    Before examining the justification for the presumption of innocence to see whether it applies, mutatis mutandis, to the presumption of atheism, let us note an odd feature of Flew’s presumption of atheism. As we have seen, Flew claims that the presumption of atheism is a presumption of nonbelief (both in the existence of God and in the nonexistence of God). At no point does he say, or imply, that the presumption of atheism is a presumption of nonexistence (of God). If we were to make a parallel claim about the presumption of innocence, we would have to say that there is a presumption of nonbelief (in the defendant’s guilt) rather than a presumption of nonguilt. This is odd, because, as every legal practitioner knows, the presumption of innocence says (in effect) that if the prosecutor fails to bear the burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt), the defendant is (for legal purposes) not guilty. It does not say that the factfinder (judge or jury) is not to believe that the defendant is guilty.

  28. 28.

    An anonymous reviewer observes, helpfully, that this difference in urgency is related to the difference between a theoretical (contemplative) presumption and a practical (deliberative) presumption. See the second section of this essay—entitled “What is a presumption of atheism?”—for the distinction.

  29. 29.

    Subsequent references to this work are in the text.

  30. 30.

    Rawls (1971, p. 86) writes: “Even though the law is carefully followed, and the proceedings fairly and properly conducted, it may reach the wrong outcome. An innocent man may be found guilty, a guilty man may be set free.”.

  31. 31.

    As Flew (1972a, pp. 36–37) puts it, “If for you it is more important that no guilty person should ever be acquitted than that no innocent person should ever be convicted, then for you a presumption of guilt must be the rational policy. For you, with your preference structure, a presumption of innocence becomes simply irrational. To adopt this policy would be to adopt means calculated to frustrate your own chosen ends; which is, surely paradigmatically irrational.” Flew goes on to provide an historical example of a presumption of guilt. See also Katzner (1973, p. 91): “[O]ur legal system would be every bit as effective procedurally if it were based on the presumption that a man is considered guilty until he is proved innocent (i.e., the burden of proof is switched from the prosecution to the defense).”.

  32. 32.

    According to Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan (1899-1971) of the Supreme Court of the United States, “the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case [is] bottomed on a fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 372 (1970) (concurring opinion) (italics added).

  33. 33.

    Instead of “the lesser of two evils,” we seek “the lesser of two errors.”.

  34. 34.

    This matrix reflects belief (or nonbelief) in the existence of God. A similar matrix can be constructed for belief (or nonbelief) in the nonexistence of God.

  35. 35.

    Recall that I have not addressed Flew’s subsequent essays on the topic.


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This essay is dedicated to the memory of Antony Garrard Newton Flew (1923–2010), a towering figure in 20th-century philosophy and author of such works as An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Argument from Plato to Sartre (1971). Flew was a scholar and a gentleman whose trenchant writings on religion and other topics enlivened his discipline. As William Grimes put it in his New York Times obituary on 16 April 2010, Flew was “a mild-mannered polemicist, respectful of his opponents and driven, as he often said, by simple curiosity and a determination to go where the facts led him.”

In December 1994, while an untenured assistant professor, I published a four-page review (in Teaching Philosophy) of one of Flew’s books: Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate (1991), co-authored with “Christian metaphysician” Terry L. Miethe. See Burgess-Jackson (1994). My review was scathing. Among other things, I wrote that the main value of the book was to show readers (especially students) how not to conduct a debate! I was particularly critical of the lack of engagement of the participants. “[S]o many issues are raised, so many assumptions made (many implicitly), and so many arguments broached (although few consummated) that the debaters end up spinning their wheels.”

To my surprise, I soon received a handwritten letter from Flew (then 72 years old) in which he said that he was in “near total agreement” with me about the poor quality of the debate. He explained that he had had “no real say in arranging the form that the whole debate took. Had it been for [him] to decide this [he] should have insisted that the theist proposition began [sic] by explaining what it is that they believe and are asking others to believe; and this done went on to tell us what their evidence is for holding what they do hold.” Flew spent the next three paragraphs explaining the concept of “a Creator God who is a participant in disputes within his creation.” (Flew’s letter is available to readers upon request.)

I was (and am) grateful to Flew (and told him as much in a reply) for taking my critique of his book seriously and for overlooking my sharp comments. I am also grateful to an anonymous reviewer for the present journal, whose gently worded comments, criticisms, and suggestions improved the essay considerably. (I, of course, am responsible for what remains.) Finally, I wish to thank the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Ronald L. Hall, for his unfailing courtesy and professionalism. It is always a pleasure to work with him.

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Correspondence to Keith Burgess-Jackson.

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Burgess-Jackson, K. Rethinking the presumption of atheism. Int J Philos Relig 84, 93–111 (2018).

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  • Presumption
  • Theism
  • Atheism
  • Agnosticism
  • Burden of proof
  • Antony Flew (1923–2010)
  • Belief
  • Nonbelief
  • Disbelief
  • Presumption of innocence