The Evidential Challenge
Flew, “The Presumption”
 Flew begins with a distinction fundamental to his
understanding of the stakes.
 It’s a distinction in different senses of atheism.
 Positive Atheism: denies that there is anything like
 Negative Atheism: a-theist (where the a- is privative,
like asexual). This sense is synonymous with “not a
A-theism is not Agnosticism
 It’s important to recognize that negative atheism
is not the same as agnosticism.
 Agnosticism starts with the possibility of God and
then just shrugs.
 A-theist takes up a logically prior position, that is
prior to assertions of the possibility, impossibility or
necessity of God (152c2).
 This distinction emphasizes that the a-theist
position is ultimately a position on the question of
the status of claims about the theistic God.
Who has the burden?
 Flew insists that a-theism reveals that the burden
of proof is on the theist to:
 Articulate and defend a concept of God.
 Provide “sufficient reason” for believing that the
concept refers to something.
 As Flew immediately emphasizes, the first task is
by no means easy or obvious.
 There are many different conceptions of “God.”
 Problem of divine attributes.
 Ineffability (153c1).
The Presumption of Innocence
 Flew then attempts to justify his insistence that the
burden of proof lies with the “God-Talkers” by
drawing an analogy to the presumption of
 What would count as proof of guilt is not limited to
“demonstratively valid arguments” but any variety of
sufficient reason (Prime Principle of Confirmation?)
 Both outcomes (innocent or guilty) are defeasible
rather than dogmatic outcomes. The P of I establishes a
starting point, but does not prefigure the outcome
 Presumptions are not trivial. Imagine a criminal justice
system that started with a presumption of guilt.
 The defeat of the presupposition doesn’t invalidate the
procedural commitments.
Should we accept the
 Usually, the burden of proof is understood to be
on the positive/assertive side, but as Flew notes, it
might be possible to gloss a-theism as a positive
 A more sophisticated read of the situation would
be that the question of God’s existence, if it is to
be engaged, requires a ground for the
engagement. There needs to be something to
debate, and as the God-Talkers want to debate
the existence of God, they have to establish that
What’s the Policy?
 What any ground of engagement reveals is a policy (in
the case of criminal justice, different policies lead to
different presumptions).
 Flew acknowledges this and is explicit about the policy
motivating his a-theistic position.
 Given that the issue is the capacity to articulate a
concept of God and provide sufficient reasons for
believing that it refers to something, Flew locates his policy
in the epistemological questions that underlie these tasks:
the capacity to have knowledge about these matters.
 In contrast to merely believing them, even if the beliefs are
 Thus, (157c1-2).
Evaluating the Presumption of
A-Theism (Pt. 1)
 Given the difficulties of identifying justifying grounds
for the articulation of the concept of God and
asserting its reference, Flew insists that we should
adopt A-theism.
 He does acknowledge a number of objections to
this position which he tries to address.
 Context: everyone (or almost everyone) believes, but
Flew insists that the issue is not biographical, but
 We have to begin with some beliefs; the only issue is the
rationality of maintaining them. Flew responds that
there is an important distinction between rational and
founded. For him the question is not, “What is rational
given a certain starting point?” (Hick) but “What is the
appropriate starting point?”
Evaluating the Presumption of
A-Theism (Pt. 2)
 Another common rejoinder to a-theism is to reject
the whole project of rational theological inquiry and
to insist that God is not available to reason, but only
to faith. Flew’s response is that even in the face of
absolute indeterminacy, we are not free to believe
anything we want, but only what it makes sense to
believe, “Faith, surely, should not be a leap in the
dark, but al leap toward the light” (159c1).
 What about Pascal’s wager? Flew points out that
Pascal is focusing on motivating reasons, but
founding reasons are a wholly different thing. It’s
also the case that Pascal artificially frames the
wager as if there were only two options, but surely
there are more (agnosticism, a-theism) which
changes the wager significantly.
What about Aquinas?
 To bring his discussion to a close, Flew considers
the force of Aquinas’s insistence that, “…the
existence of God…can be demonstrated”
 In reference to the 5 ways, Flew notes that one of
the objections to which they respond is the
presumption of (Aristotelian) scientific naturalism
grounded in the principle of economy (the
simplest explanations are the best).
 This reveals that even Aquinas did not understand atheism as merely a competing assumption but as a
question of a wholly different order.
Gievett, “A Pascallian
 Geivett begins by recasting the ground of the issue
 Rather than frame the issue in terms of positive and
negative atheism, or in terms of God-Talk and non
God-Talk, Gievett prefers a distinction between
Direct and Indirect atheological arguments.
 Direct: positive atheism (God does not exist).
 Indirect: 2 types.
 Failure of natural theology (defined in the note on p.
163c1) + lack of evidence makes it unlikely that God
 Presumption of atheism (is this the same as the
presumption of a-theism?).
Taking aim at the Presumption
 Geivett is interested in the last of these
possibilities which he identifies with Flew.
 As he spells out (163c2) he is trying to
address a number of concerns:
articulating and criticizing the position he
represents as Flew’s, justifying natural
theology, and, ultimately, advancing an
essentially Pascallian (that is, prudential)
basis for believing in God.
Where is Flew?
 As Geivett’s discussion of the presumption of
atheism makes clear, Flew’s position is a subtle one
that can be difficult to distinguish from similar,
though fundamentally different, positions.
 To label a-theism as negative atheism may ultimately
be more confusing than helpful, as it potentially
confuses Flew’s position with agnosticism.
 What Gievett does focus his attention on is the
epistemological concern for the burden of proof
and the analogy with a presumption of innocence.
 As Gievett acknowledges, we shouldn’t make to much
of this analogy (he recognizes that it is not an attempt
to make an argument by analogy).
Theistic Responses
 Geivett identifies two possible responses to what
he’s characterized as Flew’s response.
 One can accept the challenge and try to provide a
clear, unambiguous concept of the divine and then
try to demonstrate it’s reference (“simple
 Alternatively, one can challenge the presumption on
the grounds that belief in God doesn’t require
justification or that it requires justification different
from the model advocated by Flew (“rejoinders”).
Simple Defeaters?
 In order to simply defeat the presumption, some
successful program of natural theology would have to be
 As we’ve reviewed them, and as Geivett acknowledges,
the traditional arguments have not been able to rationally
“compel belief in God”. At best, it seems, they’ve
provided enough reason to call into question positive
 Geivett does insist, however, that this accomplishment,
perhaps coupled with prudential concerns like those
advanced by Pascal, could be a potential simple
 At the very least, he insists, the limited success of the
programs of natural theology surely require a rebuttal
before a negative atheism could be maintained (168c1).
A Rejoinder?
 As Geivett acknowledges in section 4 of his
article, the struggles of Natural Theology would
seem to make a rejection of the presumption of
a-theism a necessary first step in successfully
addressing the atheist challenge.
 In order to advance towards this first step,
Geivett offers what he calls a “Pascalian
 As he presents it, the rejoinder is based in two claims
Presuming that God does not
 It is obviously less than certain that this gloss on Flew
adequately captures the sense that Flew clearly
employs when arguing for a presumption of atheism.
 See on this, Flew’s rejoinder to Geivett (176c1).
 Given that Geivett chooses to interpret Flew in this
way, it is not surprising that he concludes that Flew’s
position is no different than positive atheism (174c1).
 However, as Flew emphasizes in his rejoinder, his
understanding of a-theism does not rule out an
openness to the divine, which is what Geivett insists
is a necessary first condition of any theistic
What is Prudent?
 On this question, Geivett seems on safer ground.
 As he emphasizes, Flew’s position seems to amount to a “wait
and see” attitude, but such an attitude may not adequately
address the existential significance of belief.
 It does seem important to know something about this issue, not just
in a disinterested intellectual or abstract way (like knowing whether
string theory is an adequate account of the fundamental forces
working in the universe), but in a “I don’t want to burn in hell” way.
 Geivett insists that Flew’s insistence on the logical priority of atheism over all forms of God-Talk is just not appropriate given
the importance of the issue.
 We might wonder, however, if this importance isn’t just an
effect of a theistic habit or prejudice.
 After all, if we remain open to the questionableness of the divine,
we might find compelling reason to believe in a God who would
reward the a-theistic questioner and punish the “faithful” believer.