Suppose I took you aside one day and told you that I believed there to be a teapot in space, orbiting the sun in the same fashion as all of the other planets.
Yes, you read me correctly, a teapot. A ceramic container with an ornate lid and a curvy spout. Like the one your grandma had that sat in a special cupboard with all of her other fancy dishware, never to be used.
Why do I hold the belief, you may ask?
Perhaps I was made privy to some ancient lore surrounding the existence of the teapot, or maybe the teapot’s potential existence provided some existential comfort to me and my universal schema. Suffice to say the teapot is very real to me and I firmly believe its existence.
But you can’t see the teapot, of course, because it is too small to be observed by any telescopes.
And you can’t get in a spaceship and rightly find it, because we can never be sure of its exact location.
Nonetheless, I strongly believe that this teapot not only exists, but also that others should believe in it as well.
I am sure you would say to me, “Mark, you’re a fucking loon. You’re talking crazy talk. Why would I believe that insane opinion without any proof?”
And I would respond with, “Well you can’t prove that there isn’t a teapot somewhere out there orbiting the sun, so I am free to believe whatever I want.”
And after shooting me a look of complete stupefaction, you would finish me off with, “What? That’s bullshit. You can’t just make some claim without any evidence, and then argue that your theory has any merit simply because it cannot be disproven. The onus of proof rests upon the person making the claim, not the person trying to refute it.”
Evidence Is Important
Of course, I don’t really believe there to be a teapot out there in space somewhere. That would be foolish. This little allegory is simply a literary extension of Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Analogy.
With the supposed existence of some teapot orbiting the sun, Russell clearly states where the responsibility lies in the formation and acceptance of a new claim of knowledge being proposed to the world.
When Nicolaus Copernicus put forth his theory of heliocentrism, he was also responsible for providing the evidence necessary to allow his assertion to be taken seriously.
When Charles Darwin put forth his Theory of Evolution, he too was responsible for providing the evidence necessary to allow his assertion to be taken seriously.
When Georges Lemaitre put forth his Big Bang Theory, just like every other dude throughout history who proposed some crazy idea, he was also responsible for providing the evidence necessary to allow his assertion to be taken seriously.
At the time that each of these scientific claims was made, they were considered outlandish. Ludicrous. Downright silly.
But because each of these men presented their theories not as untethered beliefs, but as frameworks of ways to explain natural phenomena with empirical evidence to back them up, their ideas were eventually able to be accepted as knowledge.
This is why we have retained theories such as Darwin’s or Copernicus’s and discarded others including spontaneous biological generation and the idea that the Earth is flat.
We formulate beliefs based on evidence, and where there is no evidence, we have no right to formulate a belief. We can speculate. We can hypothesize and pose questions in lieu of having evidence. But beliefs themselves manifest from acquired evidence.
To put forth a belief in something without any evidence is completely ridiculous, especially, according to Russell, when you place the burden of disproof on the skeptic who refuses to believe what is being proposed simply because there is no evidence for it.
I’m sure that most of you reading this are still with me here. I don’t think I’ve said anything too inflammatory or inaccessible that any of you should not be able to follow the logic of what I am attempting to explain.
We should all be able to agree that a lack of evidence for something necessitates complete disbelief at best, or a non-position at worst, regarding its prevalence in the natural world, right?
There is no evidence for a teapot floating in space, so none of us adopt the belief that there is one.
There is no evidence for fairies in our universe, so none of us adopt the belief that there are any.
There is no evidence for ghosts or goblins or ghouls or gremlins. There is no evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, or for aliens or unicorns. So we don’t believe in them.
Now, stay with me here. We’re about to enter taboo-topic-land. Just remember that the same logic we use every day to solve any other problems will apply here as well.
What Russell was actually driving at with his Teapot Analogy was that nobody has any reason to believe in God. Or, more importantly, he asks why we place the responsibility of proving God doesn’t exist on the non-believers instead of demanding proof from the people who claim God does exist without any evidence.
You might call “Blasphemy!” at the idea that God does not exist, but I implore you to first find any evidence of his existence. Don’t reference the Bible. Don’t tell me to just observe the beauty of the natural world. Don’t tell me God’s existence is necessary for such a complex world to exist.
I’m asking for hard, empirical evidence.
If you have some, then great. Send it my way.
But I’m not going to hold my breath, because if anyone had any actual evidence, we could have ended this whole God / no God thing a long time ago.
There is no evidence for God’s existence, yet people place their “faith” in the idea that he most certainly exists, and he rests at the apex of several world religions that provide people a spiritual framework for how to live in this world and transcend to the next one.
I could go on and on about my problems with faith, but today I’m simply going focus on the problem of ascribed responsibility to those of us who reject the idea of God’s existence.
Popularity Of An Idea Is Irrelevant
As we have already agreed, if you are going to make a claim or hold a belief, it needs to be based on evidence. Atheists see that there is no evidence for the existence of God, and so they do not believe in God.
But belief in God has become a cultural norm. Having faith and holding steadfast to your religious beliefs are actually admired in most world cultures. (That is, if your religious beliefs coincide with the rest of your culture’s religious beliefs. People like to conveniently forget that faith is relative.)
Theists seem to believe that because atheists are in the minority, it is their responsibility to provide reasons or evidence for God’s non-existence.
This is a straight up use of the argumentum ad populum, also known as The Consensus Fallacy.
In layman’s terms, just because a bunch of people believe shit, that doesn’t make it true.
Remember when everyone thought the Earth was flat or that it was the center of the universe? These ideas might have made sense at the time they were culturally agreed upon, but the biggest reason that people had trouble abandoning these beliefs is because they were popular among the people.
We look to others so often for their approval, for their insight. We like to feel accepted. Like we are a part of something. We like to make sure that we are doing things in a way that fits with the cultural norm.
Of course, we also value uniqueness and the ability to act independently, but we still rely very heavily on the opinions of others.
This creates a safety net for believers of God and people of faith. If all else fails, theists can at least rest easy knowing that the majority of other people around them hold the same, or at least similar, theological beliefs.
I would hope that most theists are able to muster up enough faith on a daily basis that they don’t have to rely on this fallacy to get them through the day, but the fallacy definitely comes into play when the topic of God’s existence arises.
“How can you not believe in God?!?” theists will ask. As if the idea of holding disbelief were preposterous. As if existing in the minority of people on Earth who hold the position that a god does not exist were just about the dumbest thing you could do.
Just because a majority of people believe something, that does not make it so. And existing in the minority does not compel you to undertake the burden of proof.
The populations and percentages of people who believe or disbelieve something are irrelevant in determining who possesses the responsibility for providing evidence for a claim. A majority of people could believe in aliens and unicorns, but the burden of proof would still reside with them, as they would be the ones propagating an unfounded belief.
Therefore, the burden of proof for the existence of God resides with the people who claim that God exists. I cannot prove to you God does not exist in the same way I cannot prove to you that fairies, ghosts, goblins, gremlins, unicorns, or trolls do not exist. What data could I supply that would cause you to believe that none of those entities exist? One cannot prove a negative.
Just as we do with fairies and unicorns, we should instead begin every approach to knowledge on the assumption that a lack of a representation of an idea in the physical world equates to that idea not existing in the physical world.
Fairies and unicorns might exist within our minds, but it is probably safe to assume that after thousands of years without any evidence of their existence, they probably do not exist in real life.
The same can be said about God.
Again, this is where people will often cite the Bible or cosmological coincidences as explicit proof for God’s existence. But there is no proof.
People who believe in God don’t believe in him in the same way that they believe in gravity or cargo shorts or Adam Sandler’s uncanny ability to keep making shitty movies.
In place of empirical evidence for God’s existence, they rely on faith. And that’s all they have.
Of course, faith in and of itself is illogical. But as long as theists can at least come to accept that they are staking their belief in something that they cannot explain and removing the burden of disproof from atheists, they will at least be taking a step in the right direction.
I don’t mind sitting on my atheist island all by my lonesome as I watch the rest of the world party it up on the theistic mainland. But it is pretty annoying when people come to me and question why I choose to hold views contradictory to the cultural norm and then expect me to defend myself as if the position I’m holding weren’t based on the logic and reason we use to understand every other aspect of our world.
So if you’re going to retain your faith, then great. Fine. Have fun with that. I’ll do my best to provide rational arguments as to why I think that’s a bad idea, but if you are so inclined to stick to your guns, then have at it I guess.
The least you could do as a theist is come to understand that absent of The Consensus Fallacy and all of the “proof” you might claim to have that gives you good reason to hold the beliefs you do, all you have is faith. For that matter, if you want to believe in any unfounded phenomena, from fairies to unicorns to a universe in which Adam Sandler is a good actor, just know that all you have is faith.
Atheists aren’t seeking to put forth any new pieces of information to the world. We’re just trying to help get rid of some of the bad ones.