Is Atheism Presumptuous?

by Jeffery J Lowder

A Reply to Paul Copan

The so-called “presumption of atheism” was formulated by philosopher Antony Flew.[1] In order to appreciate Flew’s principle, one must first understand how Flew defines his terms. When Flew uses the word “atheism,” he does not use the word as many theists do, as a label for the belief that God does not exist. Rather, by “atheism,” Flew simply means the absence of theistic belief. Thus, what Flew calls “atheism” most people would simply call “agnosticism.” Indeed, Flew himself recognizes this; he explicitly states that on the popular usage of terms, his “presumption of atheism” is really just a “presumption of agnosticism!”[2]

With this distinction in mind, then, we may consider Flew’s principle. According to Flew, in debates between theists and “atheists,” the burden of proof falls on theists. If theists are unable to provide good arguments for theism, “atheism”–which Flew defines as the lack of theistic belief–wins by default. Thus, in Flew’s words, there is a “presumption of atheism.” But this presumption of “atheism” is not a presumption of belief in the nonexistence of God; rather, it’s a presumption of nonbelief in the existence of God. In alt.atheism FAQ terminology, Flew’s principle is a presumption of weak atheism, not of strong atheism.

In a recent article, Paul Copan challenges Flew’s presumption of atheism, calling it “presumptuousness.” According to Copan, “the atheist also shares the burden of proof” because “atheism is just as much a claim to know something (“God does not exist”) as theism (“God exists”).”[3] I agree with Copan that anyone who claims, “God does not exist,” must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, “God exists.” What I disagree with is Copan’s portrayal of Flew’s principle. Flew’s presumption of atheism would only be presumptuous if Flew were arguing that there should be a presumption of belief in the nonexistence of God; yet, as we’ve seen, that is not Flew’s view. Copan is caricaturing Flew’s position.

Furthermore, as someone who is familiar with atheistic work in the philosophy of religion, I am only aware of one atheistic philosopher of religion (Michael Tooley) who claims that there is a presumption of belief in the nonexistence of God. Yet even Tooley offers three evidential arguments for atheism, namely, the arguments from physical minds, divine hiddenness, and evil. Furthermore, all other contemporary atheistic philosophers of religion also defend their atheism by appeal to arguments or evidence. Keith Parsons, George Smith, J.L. Mackie, Bruce Russell, Robin Le Poidevin, Paul Kurtz, Andrea Weisberger, and William Rowe all appeal to the argument from evil. Quentin Smith appeals to the argument from evil and scientific cosmology. Michael Martin defends arguments from incoherence, the argument from evil, atheistic teleological arguments, and the argument from nonbelief. J.L. Schellenberg has formulated the argument from divine hiddenness as well as an argument from evil; Doug Krueger defends similar arguments. Theodore Drange defends the arguments from evil, nonbelief, and confusion. Doug Jesseph appeals to the principle of conservativism, the argument from asymmetry, and the argument from evil. James Rachels and Douglas Walton each defend an incompatible-properties argument. Thus, we have sixteen atheist philosophers who claim that God does not exist and who attempt to meet their burden of proof. In other words, the version of atheism which Copan calls “presumptuous” is hardly representative of the atheism defended by contemporary atheistic philosophers.

I conclude that Copan has given no good reason for rejecting Flew’s presumption of atheism. Copan may reject Flew’s definition of atheism if he wishes, but he cannot deny the fact that Flew never argued for a presumption of belief in the nonexistence of God. And therefore Copan has failed to show that atheism is presumptuous.

[1] Antony Flew, God, Freedom, and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1984). Republished electronically at <URL:>, spotted June 12, 2000.

[2] Flew 1984, p. 22.

[3] Paul Copan, “The Presumptuousness of Atheism” Christian Research Journal Spring 1996, republished electronically at <URL:>, spotted June 8, 2000.


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