Scientific positivism has taken a deep hold in society due in large part to advocates from the “New Atheist” movement and others who argue for strict empiricism. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins argue for the use of scientific, empirical evidence as the fundamental framework for all epistemic queries. Why should we believe that a thing does or does not exist? This raises questions about the burden of proof. Who carries the burden of proof when theists and atheists argue about God or the supernatural?
“There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?” -Richard Dawkins
1. I believe that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
2. I have no evidence that there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden.
3. Therefore there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
The argument here is that we should not believe in something simply because we do not have the ability to disprove it.
Dawkins argues that such reasoning is absurd, and rightly so. He takes things a step further and applies this kind of logic to undermine religious belief. This kind of reasoning follows the tradition of Russell and his “Teapot” argument. Russel put forth his “Teapot” argument in an attempt to show the absurdity of believing in something simply because there is no way to disprove that thing’s existence.
“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.”- Bertrand Russell
Russell did not really believe in the teapot, and this was precisely his point. Anyone can come up with a thing which they may claim to exist and then challenge others to try to disprove its existence. This, argues Russell, is obviously not an accurate method for judging the merit of religious belief, particularly the existence of God. Theists claim that God exists, and atheists (some of them) argue that there is no way to disprove that claim and will argue that there are lots of things which they cannot disprove and yet are justified in not believing in, such as the teapot.
Now here’s why Russel fails in his argument: he argues that we, humans, do not believe in the teapot because we have no positive evidence for its existence. Thus, when challenged to disprove the idea of the floating teapot we are unable to do so. But this is not true. We do not believe in the floating teapot not because we do not have any positive evidence for its existence, but rather because we have positive evidence for its nonexistence! We have good reason to believe that it does not exist. We have positive knowledge that no teapot was sent into orbit by the US, the Russians, or any nation with an aero-space program.
With regard to the fairies at the bottom of the garden, Dawkins is partially right. In this case, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the individual seeking to convince us that there really are fairies at the bottom of the well. On the other hand, it is also true that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Simply because no evidence is available for the existence of some entity, X, does not mean that X does not exist. The nonbeliever in fairies is still not justified in saying, “Fairies do not exist at the bottom of the garden”, until he/she has positive evidence for their nonexistence.
Christians do not believe in fairies because the idea of magical creatures who are morally neutral and who live at the bottom of wells, does not fit in with Christian doctrine. The Bible teaches that there is a spiritual realm, in which exist angels (good) and demons (evil), but makes no room for cute, morally neutral beings whose abodes are contingent upon there being plots of land in which humans can cultivate flora. Atheists disbelieve in fairies because they also disbelieve in the existence of any supernatural reality. Both Christians and Atheists disbelieve in fairies because of their commitments to their worldviews. If the Christian says that he disbelieves in fairies because of the truth of Christianity then he must be able to give positive evidence for why he thinks that Christianity is true. Likewise, if the Atheist says that he disbelieves in fairies because he does not believe in the supernatural, then he must be able to give reasons why he thinks naturalism is true.
Of course one may argue that there are many different definitions for “fairy”, and this is precisely why disproving their existence is so slippery. Unlike “fairy”, the classical definition of “God” has been constant since (and even before) Anselm argued that God was a being “than which none greater can be conceived”. If atheists want to say that God does not exist (this is a positive assertion which is proposing some truth claim which supposedly has a basis in reality), then he/she must give reasons and evidence why that is true. Our disbelief in the existence of certain entities should not be predicated solely upon the idea that we have no known evidence for the existence of those entities, rather we must make an effort to give reasons for why said entities may or may not exist.