The following is taken from a friendly email discussing the evidence for the existence of God. The atheist here writes:
Christian belief has been marked by a series of retreats over supposed “truth”. The Earth is the centre of the universe? The world was created in seven days? What starts out as “fact” retreats in the face of overwhelming evidence . . . Modern Christian dogma has retreated to a position where it can’t easily be disproven. This is where the “magic invisible teapot” argument from Bertrand Russell comes in:
“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.”1
My slightly revised response is as as follows.
Finally I come to Russell’s teapot. By the quotation I take it the point is to show the difficulty in refuting avowals of belief in phenomena outside human perception. But my case for the existence of God and the existence of the teapot is not synonymous.
Firstly, I build a case from deductive arguments. For instance, if the cosmological argument I gave bears out,2 then that gives good ground for believing in the existence of a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal creator of the universe. This has always been the conception of the God of Christianity. Unlike the teapot this argument does not rely upon the authority of a religious book or indoctrination. In the case of the teapot there was and could be no corroborative evidence for its existence, but in the case of God we have the evidence of the beginning of the universe—a religiously-neutral premise, and reinforced with both philosophy and science—and the principle that nothing comes from nothing. Here in this particular argument, unlike the teapot many of God’s traditional attributes are recovered, including the ability to create the universe from nothing, which only a personal creator God can achieve.
Secondly, we come back to the presumption of atheism—that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism thus becomes a default position. Not being able to falsify the existence of Russell’s teapot was expected when came the clarification that the most powerful telescopes were unable to detect it in orbit. Take the statement; “there is an elephant in the quad.” The failure to observe it there would constitute good evidence that there is not an elephant there. If someone were to assert however, there is a flea on the quad, the failure to observe it there would not constitute good evidence that it was not there. The difference is the expectation of the evidence, were such-and-such the case. I’ll let Moreland and Craig explain.
Thus the absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have some evidence of its existence. Moreover, the justification conferred in such cases will be proportional to the ratio between the amount of evidence that we do have and the amount of evidence that we should expect to have if the entity existed. If the ratio is small, then little justification is conferred on the belief that the entity does not exist.
Again the advocates of the presumption of atheism recognized this. 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. But if this is correct, then our justification for atheism depends on (1) the probability that God would leave more evidence of his existence than what we have and (2) the probability that we have comprehensively surveyed the field for evidence of his existence. 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.3
The implications are clear for Russell’s teapot. We have little justification for believing in the existence of the teapot given (1) and (2). In the case of God however the ratio will depend on your view of natural theology (the evidence of God’s existence in nature), and the expectation that he would leave more evidence of His existence than He already has. Scriven therefore advocated agnosticism rather than to be disbelieving in such entities as God, as the burden of (1) and (2) are far too heavy load to bear. But I think that God has left good evidence of his existence in nature and that is the enterprise we are engaged in as apologists.
1. Bertrand Russell, Magic Invisible Teapot
3. J P Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Intervarsity Press, 2003), p. 157.