Another way to express that error is in terms of the burden of
proof, and in this form it is pleasingly demonstrated by Bertrand
Russell's parable of the celestial teapot.31
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the
business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather
than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a
mistake. 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 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.
We would not waste time saying so because nobody, so far as I
know, worships teapots;* but, if pressed, we would not hesitate to
declare our strong belief that there is positively no orbiting teapot.
Yet strictly we should all be teapot agnostics: we cannot prove, for
sure, that there is no celestial teapot. In practice, we move away
from teapot agnosticism towards a-teapotisin.
A friend, who was brought up a Jew and still observes the
sabbath and other Jewish customs out of loyalty to his heritage,
describes himself as a 'tooth fairy agnostic'. He regards God as no
more probable than the tooth fairy. You can't disprove either
hypothesis, and both are equally improbable. He is an a-theist to
exactly the same large extent that he is an a-fairyist. And agnostic
about both, to the same small extent.
The point of all these way-out examples is that they are undisprovable,
yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is
on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence.
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.
The fact that orbiting teapots and tooth fairies are undisprovable
is not felt, by any reasonable person, to be the kind of fact that
settles any interesting argument. None of us feels an obligation to
disprove any of the millions of far-fetched things that a fertile or
facetious imagination might dream up. I have found it an amusing
strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the
questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon
Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying
Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.
That you cannot prove God's nonexistence
is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can
never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters
is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his
existence is probable. That is another matter. Some undisprovable
things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable
things. There is no reason to regard God as immune from
consideration along the spectrum of probabilities. And there is
certainly no reason to suppose that, just because God can be neither
proved nor disproved, his probability of existence is 50 per cent.
On the contrary, as we shall see.