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Where did Russell’s Teapot go?

This post is adapted from a 2 February 2009 post at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Where is Russell’s Teapot go?” It shows how the presumption of atheism is unjustified.

The missing case of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s teapot

Imagine someone tells you that there is a china teapot in an elliptical orbit around the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. Would you believe them? How would you feel about trying to convince that person they were wrong about a teapot being there? You marshalled all the most powerful telescopes and scoured the heavens for years, and found nothing. When you told them they remained adamant, “Well, of course! The teapot is far too small to be seen by the telescope?” They add, “You can’t show how the teapot isn’t there, so it’s presumptuous of you to try to convince me it isn’t!” Would you be perplexed at their insistence in believing it? Would you taken aback at their conviction, finding it unreasonable?

This is how a lot of strident atheists feel about Christian belief. They try to reason with believers about God, trying to show them that they only believe in the deity because some ancient document riddled with errors tells them so, but they respond with these lines that only makes them seem more eccentric, even irrational, just as the person who insists that there is a teapot in orbit.

The point of the teapot illustration, originally given by the atheist Bertrand Russell in 1952,[1] is to show how difficult it is to refute avowals of belief in phenomena outside human perception. Similar analogies can be found. Carl Sagan spoke of an undetectable dragon in the garage.[2] J. B. Bury had a more fanciful imagination.If you were told that in a certain planet revolving around Sirius there is a race of donkeys who speak the English language and spend their time in discussing eugenics, you could not disprove the statement, but would it, on that account, have any claim to be believed? [3]

Atheists like to point out that Christian dogma these days is like these analogies. The claim is superstitious belief has retreated in the face of science to a point where it can’t easily be disproven. The only reason why it’s believed today is the authority of the Bible or the potent force of suggestion by repeating the claim often enough. Since there is an absence of evidence for God, we should, they claim, assume that there is no God. In the field of philosophy of religion, this is called the presumption of atheism.

There are a couple of problems with Russell’s teapot analogy to belief in God’s existence.

1. Natural Theology. Since Russell wrote in 1952 of his teapot there has been a renaissance of arguments for God’s existence. These arguments seek to show, without any reliance on scripture, how a being with the description of God exists. Examples of such arguments include;

  • The Kalam Cosmological Argument from the beginning of the universe
  • The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument from the principle of sufficient reason
  • The Design Argument from the fine-tuning of the universe
  • The Moral Argument from the existence of objective moral values and duties
  • The Historical Argument from the miracle of Jesus’s Resurrection
  • The Ontological Argument from the idea of necessary being

If any of these argument are successful (not to mention if special revelation was authentic), they would disprove any view that claims there is no God and overturn the presumption of atheism. One can’t claim that there is an absence of evidence when there is so much evidence on offer. Not without tackling the arguments head on, anyway.

2. We should not presume there is no God even if there were an absence of evidence.

Take the statement; “there is an elephant in the quad.” The failure to observe it there would be good evidence that there is no elephant there. If someone were to assert however, there is a flea on the quad, the failure to observe it there would not be good evidence that it was not there. The difference is the expectation of the evidence, were such-and-such the case. The absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the thing to exist, we should expect to have some evidence of its existence.

Philosopher Michael Scriven, for example, maintained that in the absence of evidence rendering the existence of some entity probable, we are justified in believing that it does not exist, provided that (1) it is not something that might leave no traces and (2) we have comprehensively surveyed the area where the evidence would be found if the entity existed.

So ask the presumer of atheism these two questions;

  1. What evidence do you have that leads you to the expectation that we would have more evidence for God’s existence than what we currently do have if he did exist?
  2. Have you comprehensively surveyed the area where the evidence would be found if God does exist?

That puts a different face on the matter! Suddenly the presumer of atheism, who sought to shirk his share of the burden of proof, finds himself saddled with the very considerable burden of proving (1) and (2) to be the case.[4] Scriven recommended agnosticism in the end – he just didn’t know if God existed or not. Since the burden was too heavy a load to bear, he concluded that disbelieving in such entities as God was unjustified.

So either way, with the evidence or without, atheism doesn’t get a free pass. The presumer of atheism has to contend with the evidence and give reason for disbelieving as he does.

Footnotes:

  1. “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.” Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?”, In Slater, John G. (ed.). The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943–68 ). (Routledge, 1952), 542–548.
  2. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. (New York: Random House, 1995)
  3. John Bagnall Bury, “Freedom of Thought and the Forces Against it”, History of Freedom of Thought (London: Williams & Norgate, 2013), 20.
  4. J P Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Intervarsity Press, 2003), 157.
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