Antony Flew's Presumption of Atheism and the OTF

Anthony Flew argued that believers in God have the burden of proof similar to the presumption of innocence found in our court systems. Given the extraordinary claims of religion and the fact of religious diversity the burden of proof is on the believer, just as it’s on the prosecutor in court room proceedings. [In God, Freedom, and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), which is an updated version found previously in The Presumption of Atheism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1976)]

Flew’s presumption is that of negative atheism (as opposed to positive atheism) which is effectively the same thing as the presumption of agnosticism. Flew argued for a return to the original meaning of the word “agnosticism” that was first introduced by Thomas Huxley (1825 –1895). Huxley said agnosticism “is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed: in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” [Henrietta A. Huxley, ed., Aphorisms and Reflections from the Works of T. H. Huxley (London: Macmillan and Co., 1908), CXLII p. 35.] Flew argued that an agnostic in Huxley’s sense is not someone who asserts the non-existence of God, which would be positive atheism, but someone who is simply not a theist, which is effectively the same thing as negative atheism, representing someone who is a skeptic until shown otherwise.

Bertrand Russell’s famous 1953 Look Magazine article, “What is an Agnostic?,” muddied the waters when he said: “An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.” [Bertrand Russell, Look Magazine, "What Is An Agnostic?" November 3, 1953, to be found online at] Nonetheless, Huxley’s agnosticism represents little more than a skepticism based on reason and science and this is the presumption Flew argued for when it came to the religious believer having the burden of proof. Even Christian apologists J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig admit this would be a more defensible view, for “The assertion ‘God does not exist’ is just as much a claim to knowledge as the assertion ‘God exists,’ and therefore the former requires justification just as the later does. . . . If anything, then, one should speak at most of a presumption of agnosticism.” [J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 156.] So Flew’s type of negative atheism (which is effectively the same thing as Huxley's agnosticism) is what the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) calls for, and it’s based on the same kinds of facts, the extraordinary claims of religion and religious diversity, which demands of religious believers to shoulder the burden of proof.

What then is the difference between Flew’s argument for the “presumption of atheism” and the OTF? The difference is how we argue our respective cases. He acknowledges the fact of religious diversity. But I stress how it is geographical situated around the globe. I argue that this diversity is overwhelmingly dependent upon cultural factors. And I argue that psychological studies overwhelmingly show us that human beings are infected with a huge amount of cognitive biases. These biases lead us to believe and defend what we prefer to believe and that we prefer to believe what was taught to us on a Mama’s knees. Then I make a move he failed to do. Given these demographical and psychological facts, the OTF calls on believers to examine their inherited faith with the same level of skepticism they use to evaluate other religious faiths. It’s this that makes the OTF more forceful than merely arguing believers have the burden of proof due to their extraordinary claims and religiously diverse faiths. For one typical response to Flew is to rhetorically retort, “who has the burden of proof to show that the other person has the burden of proof,” ad nausea. With the OTF such a debate isn’t necessary, for now the problem is that since believers treat other religions with Flew’s presumption of negative atheism (i.e., Huxley’s agnosticism) then why do they have a double standard, one for the other religious faiths they reject and a different one for their own inherited faith? This is the force of the OTF. It highlights the double standard that believers have, thus circumventing the “who has the burden of proof" burden.