Why Russell’s Teapot Fails

by Nate Sala

Oftentimes, when discussing the existence of God with atheists (or agnostics), the notions of supporting evidence and burden of proof are raised. This is important as good evidence provides a foundation for a reasonable inference on this issue, as well as the idea that those who make claims must support them with some kind of evidence. For example, if God exists then there should be some evidence to support claims of His existence. And, as Christian case-makers continue to show, there are a number of evidences that support the existence of God.

Unfortunately, some atheists believe that there can be no evidence for God whatsoever; and it is from this mistaken presupposition that a particular strategy involving a teapot floating in space has emerged. So the argument goes: we cannot conclusively prove that there is not a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in outer space; but, given the lack of evidence for such a teapot, its likelihood is so low that the reasonable conclusion should be that it does not exist. Likewise, we cannot conclusively prove that God does not exist; but, given the lack of evidence for God, the reasonable conclusion should be that He does not exist.

This particular argument originated with philosopher Bertrand Russell in a letter he wrote in 1958:

“I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.”[1]

A number of decades later Richard Dawkins commented on Russell’s idea in The God Delusion:

“Russell’s point is that the burden of proof rests with the believers, not the non-believers. Mine is the related point that the odds in favour of the teapot (spaghetti monster / Esmerelda and Keith / unicorn etc.) are not equal to the odds against.”[2]

There are a couple of problematic elements in Russell’s and Dawkins’ comments. First, they both assume that there is no evidence for God. At least, it seems that Russell’s presupposition is that there is no evidence, thus allowing for his analogy; and Dawkins appears to accept Russell’s analogy wholesale. Second, Dawkins claims (via Russell) that, since there is no evidence for God, theists are the only ones that bear the burden of proof. This reminds me of a similar strategy amongst some atheists that attempts the same result, i.e. placing the burden of proof squarely on the theist’s shoulders. To read more on that, see “Why Atheism Is Not a Lack of Belief.”

Here is the problem with Russell’s presupposition…

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Why Russell’s Teapot Fails | A Clear Lens