Why do atheists say you can’t prove a negative?

I no longer closely follow the debate group I mentioned recently. It does still show up in my feed though, and yesterday I saw two interesting statuses there, one of which interests me enough to write this post.

The status went something like this: Why do atheists claim you can’t prove a negative? If I claim there is a turkey in my bathtub, you can see it isn’t there, so you can prove a negative.

I find this especially ironic coming from a theist. It’s difficult to see what he’s trying to say. It is an attempt to dismiss our disbelief in god, because he assumes god exists, while insanely comparing this with something that he knows doesn’t exist.

Yes, if someone made such a claim, it would be easy to refute. Assuming you could get to their bathtub, you could see there is no turkey. Therefore you can prove a negative. Case closed. Or is it?

But what if you changed the claim to be more like the god claim? What if you went there, and he told you, “Sure, you can’t see the turkey, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The turkey is invisible and incorporeal. The turkey exists outside of physical reality. It can only be seen if it reveals itself for you, and then you know in your heart that the turkey is there.”

That’s more like it. What you have then is an unfalsifiable claim. I can’t pop out of physical reality to look for the magic turkey. What does it even mean to pop out of physical reality? Asserting that something for which there is no evidence exists in a place for which there is no evidence is a claim within a claim. Also, only those to whom the turkey has revealed itself can know that the turkey is there. Conveniently, those people probably also happen to be people who were taught to believe in the turkey before they were old enough to question it?

So when there is no evidence, and the claim is made unfalsifiable, we can not possibly disprove it. But I can rule it out. I can rule out the magic turkey just like I rule out the unfalsifiable god.

But wait… there’s more.

When backed into a corner like this, theists will normally fall back on that old aphorism:

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Why not? Why, especially, when the source of your claim, whether it be the Bible or another sacred text, clearly refers to a god that has a physical presence? It’s a dishonest argument, a bait and switch. This is why I like the turkey hypothesis as proposed by the non-thinking debater. If someone shows up and states the obvious, that the turkey isn’t there, he can move the goalposts, and switch to a turkey (or a god) that exists outside of physical reality. This is dishonest when the original claim, be it the Facebook status or Bible, clearly mentions a corporeal turkey (or god).

For me, this is just another reason not to debate theists. In a typical online debate, there are many of them, who band together as if their arguments are compatible. There are ones like the example who refer to an incorporeal god for which there is zero evidence, there are those who assert that evidence exists, there are those who assert that the things they believe to be created prove the creation happened, and in between, there are those who claim that we have no morals because we don’t believe in their god. It’s like reaching your hand into a party pack of idiots.

So, knowing that the person I debate will switch from a falsifiable to an unfalsifiable claim, I will continue to respond that you can’t prove a negative. It’s a simplification. You can prove a negative, but you can’t prove one when the claim is going to change, bait and switch style, to something that exists outside of known reality.


For clarification, when I refer to “bait and switch” arguments, I mean arguments that are simple to begin with, but when one engages the debater who proposed the argument, he or she switches to a more complex argument that was not stated in the first place, possibly even redefining the subject of the argument. It’s an ad hoc way of dismissing all refutations.

Fascinatingly, I found a description of bait and switch arguments relating to the fallacy of equivocation, on the Answers in Genesis site. Their argument is so bad, it’s almost good. They attempt to refute evolution, by claiming that “evolutionists” use different meanings of the word. In so doing, they make up their own definition of evolution and claim that people who actually believe in evolution change the definition. Nope. There is only one definition of evolution and it is neither the one they “refute” nor the one they claim evolutionists use.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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One Response to Why do atheists say you can’t prove a negative?

  1. bbnewsab says:

    My answer to your question, Jerome:

    Atheists often choose to answer questions asked by apologists or theologians. And all apologists and theologians love to ask just that sort of questions. Questions that belong to the God of the Gaps arguments. And then the debate is about “You can’t prove a negative”. And atheists tend to agree, it’s hard to prove a negative (although not always totally impossible).

    Ao why not try the other way around? Start asking questions to the apologists and theologians that don’t belong to the God of the Gaps arguments.

    Choose the questions yourself. And demand answers from the religionists. Apologists and theologians know what questions to ask. They choose the ones impossible to refute in a scientific way.

    Just an example. Ask this kind of question to a religionist:

    Why do all mammal (including human) embryos start to develop as if all them were female instead of male?

    See https://www.menshealth.com/health/a19516412/3-signs-you-started-as-a-girl/ and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4470128 .

    Then ask them to explain and interpret the creation story in Genesis, where Adam was the first human to be created by God.

    Liked by 1 person

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