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. When an atheist states that there is no evidence for a teapot floating in outer space, he likely means there is no empirical evidence for it. In other words, to say that there is no evidence is to say that, as far as we know, no one has seen or touched a teapot in space. But to suggest that evidence for God is the same thing as empirical evidence for a teapot is to misunderstand the evidence for God typically appealed to by theists. As Dr. Brian Garvey writes, “God is invoked as an explanation for… why the universe exists at all, why it is intelligible, why it is governed by laws, why it is governed by the laws it is rather than some other laws, and doubtless many more things.”[3] Therefore, the evidences for God are the universe, its intelligibility, its physical laws, etc.

Russell’s analogy fails in large part because it likens two different sets of evidences, i.e. evidences for an object and evidences that are effects of an explanation. Russell’s teapot is not an explanation for anything. It simply exists as a rhetorical device. God, on the other hand, is an explanation for a number of things. With regard to the universe itself, consider the Kalam Cosmological Argument:[4]

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

Or a form of the Teleological Argument appealing to fine-tuning:[5]

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance or design.
  2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.

In both arguments a causal agent, namely God, is inferred as being the explanation for the universe, as well as its features. This does not mean that God is a physical object floating in space, like a teacup. It just means that God is an inference to the best explanation. Considering God as an explanation for the universe (as well as the universe as evidence for God), Dawkins’ comment on the burden of proof should be reevaluated.

Whether or not Russell’s floating teacup actually exists is irrelevant to the universe: as I stated earlier, his teacup is not an explanation for anything. So one’s worldview of the universe is not devoid of explanation if Russell’s teacup does not exist. However, if God does not exist there must be another explanation for the universe and its particular features. To illustrate consider Garvey’s chart below:[6]

So in contradistinction to the theist who proposes God as the explanation for “the most general laws,” i.e. the properties of the universe, the atheist proposes “something other than God.” So atheism is not a passive enterprise by any means. It is a proposition that reality is explained by (other than). Thus, both theists and atheists are looking at the same evidences (the universe and its features) and drawing two different conclusions. This means that Dawkins’ assertion, that the theist is the only one who bears the burden of proof, is flatly false. Both parties have their own burdens to bear.

While Russell’s teapot is probably not very popular anymore (considering its circular nature), it, nevertheless, still floats around the internet (pun intended) as useful fodder for those who don’t know any better. However, its failure is largely due to the disanalogy between evidence for a teapot and evidence for God. So the next time you cross paths with Russell’s floating teapot, have an apple, and then an orange.

[1] Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?” in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell Volume 11, ed. John G. Slater (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997): 547-548.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Bantam Press, 2006), 76.

[3] Brian Garvey, “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot” Ars Disputandi 10 (2010), 18.

[4] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 468.

[5] Ibid, 484.

[6] Brian Garvey, “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot” Ars Disputandi 10 (2010), 18.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Very good blog, Nate! This was very insightful to me since I had never heard of Russell’s teapot argument before. Thank you for showing me “its circular nature.”

    • That’s great, Jerome! Appreciate the comment. Considering the problems with Russell’s teapot, let’s hope you never have to deal with it in your ministry. 🙂

    • There is NO circular argument; only an analogy, showing the human arrogance of the god theory. Your blog author struggles throughout to give a causal relationship between self aware thought in humans to evidence. Since this guy (blogs author) thought about the universe it therefore exists. Russell’s argument is only (and simply) that there is as much evidence for this (Judeao Christian God/belief system) as a teapot floating in space (or if you like; Zeus.Apollo, etc)

  2. So going with your first example of evidence for a god I must ask what created your god? It had to have been created according to your own argument.
    The second supposed evidence just randomly throws out two of it’s possible reasons for why the universe is “tuned” the way it is for no reason.

    • You might have misread the Kalam Cosmological argument. “Everything that BEGINS to exist has a cause.” God is eternal–without beginning. The definition, or understanding of God is not affected. By asking the question, “who made God?” we are seeking the ultimate cause, or the uncaused cause. God is that uncaused cause of all things. As for the Teleological argument, what other causes for the state of the universe could you provide, other than: necessity, chance or design? The argument presented in this blog is a concise overview–it doesn’t flesh it out. I think it’s pretty clear that this blog was not intending to unpack each of the arguments.

      • This is always missed. The “who created God” question always indicates a lack of research or reading on the classical definition of God. It assumes God is like all other beings.

      • Then we get to Occam’s razor. To assume the Universe was created by God and that God didn’t have a beginning is more complex than simply assuming the Universe started spontaneously, without the need for God. I don’t get why we always have to assume everything holds true for God and nothing else can be true for what is not God. In that sense, God would also be enough and wouldn’t need to create the Universe.

  3. Nate,

    Thanks for the interesting and well-written blog.

    I think my worldview as an Atheist is somewhat different to your description: I would say physical laws describe ‘how’, rather than explaining ‘why’. The very question ‘why’ implies a motivated creator.

    I would continue to maintain that there is no evidence for God(s) – that there are processes we don’t understand does not constitute evidence that ‘God did it’.

  4. Funny, but still specifically not getting to the precise point . Yes, Russell was to a large degree making an apple to orange statement, but your explanation does not go far enough. Atheism is not about proclaiming there are no gods, but more correctly that there is no evidence . You danced carefully around this in your closing, yet the fact remains that faith is not, and never will be, a substitute for evidence.

  5. […] I’m not telling you what you believe. I’m accepting your belief for the sake of argument. That is, if you are an atheist that believes you simply “lack a belief” that God exists, I’m accepting that as a premise. What I’m saying is: something more is happening than simply lacking a belief. You’re holding to a particular metaphysical view in which God does not exist. And if you’re holding the view then it needs some kind of support with good reasoning, just like the theist needs the same with his particular metaphysical view. It seems to me that this “lack of belief” notion stands on the shoulders of another notion, the presumption of atheism, which suggests that we should all begin as atheists until we see evidence to the contrary. But the presumption of atheism is mistaken because atheists are looking at the same evidence that Christians are (i.e. the universe and its particular features) and proposing an alternative explanation for that evidence (i.e. materialism). In other words, many atheists assume there is no evidence for God when there actually is. For more on that, see “Why Russell’s Teapot Fails”. […]

  6. If you ever want to test your arguments against an actual atheist, try me. But beware of the results.

    • Mr. Jones,

      “Beware of the results.” –> Why should he beware of the results? Why don’t you dialogue with him and encourage him in his thinking, if you find him to be wrong?

      It is interesting to me that some atheists almost threaten you or insult you if you do not find their worldview to be correct.

      Jerome

  7. Both the cosmological and teleological arguments are deliberately dishonest. The first because many phenomena in nature are acausal and the second because fine-tuning is nonsense, physics doesn’t work like that.

    The fundamental problem with apologists is that they try to define things into existence and at the same time dismiss the only valid means by which to ascertain facts about the universe, methodological naturalism.

    There is no evidence for any kind of god.

    • Thanks for the comments Merari. and the opportunity to interact. You said, “many phenomena in nature are acausal…” Can you name a few? I’m not aware of any. You also said, “fine-tuning is nonsense, physics doesn’t work like that.” I’m not sure what you mean here. When you say, “physics doesn’t work like that” it sounds like you think fine-tuning is itself a physical law. That’s not what fine-tuning is. Fine-tuning is simply a description of certain aspects of physics, it’s not actually physics. Finally, you said, “the only valid means by which to ascertain facts about the universe [is] methodological naturalism.” Can you explain how one can, using the means of methodological naturalism, ascertain whether your claim is a fact? Just curious.

      • > When you say, “physics doesn’t work like that” it sounds like you think fine-tuning is itself a physical law. That’s not what fine-tuning is.”

        No, fine tuning refers to some specific physical constants that appear to be peculiarly unique. AFAIK, there is no clear explanation of these so far. This does not concern me. I won’t try to explain them – I can’t.

        However I will make a prediction based on the history of science. As a theist, you should like predictions and this is a real one. My prediction is that once the physics or the math are clearly understood those numbers will turn out to be obvious. In other words, there will be a calculation and these numbers will be the inevitable result of some basic physical properties of matter. One after another, each of them will “pop out”.

        As for Russell’s Teapot, while the universe is strange and some weird things occur (on this planet alone), if the teapot contains an Earl Grey teabag with an endorsement by HM the Queen and a sachet of sugar from Fortnum’s the credulity of everyone will be stretched beyond repair.

  8. The Kalam cosmological argument is very naive. First, it is based on false knowledge. We do not know if the universe came from something or nothing, or if it even needed a cause. Second, even if we accept the need for a cause and assume that this cause must have been an intelligent entity, it does not lead to the conclusion of the Christian god, or any human-related divinity. This non sequitur is the same reason why we should dismiss the fine-tuning argument as evidence for any kind of god.

    • Hi Pedro. Thanks for the comment. I agree with your second sentiment, that: “the need for a cause… does not lead to the conclusion of the Christian god…” But you’re assuming too much. The kalam and teleological arguments are not intended to lead to the Christian God, just to a necessary, intelligent Being. Ironically, your statement that the limitation of those arguments in leading to the Christian God is “the same reason why we should dismiss the fine-tuning argument as evidence for any kind of god,” is itself a non sequitur. That is, it does not follow that, because those arguments are limited in scope, they should be dismissed as evidence for any kind of god. Also, “We do not know” is not an argument against the validity or even likelihood of the truthfulness of the kalam. So perhaps the kalam is not naive. Perhaps your understanding of it is misconceived.

      • Hey, Nate.

        It’s not a non-sequitur. Using the fine-tuning argument to justify any conceived god is the non-sequitur. Because even if we agreed that the fine-tuning argument leads to the conclusion of a designer (which we don’t), that’s as far as we go. You don’t get to assert anything about this designer. Not even that he/she is aware of our existence. So there isn’t much point calling him/her god.

        We could debate whether the Kalam arguement is naive or not. I’ll stick with my initial assertion. I only said “Christian” god because I assume this is a Christian site, but that goes for any kind personal god.

        • Okay, Pedro, I think I understand. Your problem is with the word “god”. Fair enough, let’s throw it out. But we need to use some word to represent the concept we’re referring to. We could call that X if you like. I’m cool with that. Except, if we call God “X” and we simply define “X” as an intelligent Being or “designer” then I still don’t see how you can dismiss the fine-tuning argument the way you want to. That is, limited only to the fine-tuning argument, I’m only asserting (at this point) that X is a Being with the capability to shape physical laws in such a manner for life.

          Think of it like this: Let’s say I told you that I lived in New York City and you didn’t believe me. Not only did you deny that there’s any evidence I live in New York City, you don’t even believe that New York exists at all. So I invite you to come visit me in New York. Once you arrive at J.F.K. airport, you need a taxi to get to my apartment in the city. But, before you even take the taxi, you need to get on a plane and fly to New York. The fine-tuning argument (like the kalam) is the plane ride to New York. It’s part of the process of getting to my apartment, but the plane ride doesn’t drop you off at my doorstep. It gets you close but not the full way. But let’s say you told me, “Nate, you can’t use the plane ride to New York to prove that your apartment exists. Therefore the plane ride cannot take me to New York.” The problem with that is: One does not follow from the other. Stating that the plane won’t drop you off at my doorstep does nothing to disprove the plane’s ability to get you to New York.

          Likewise, it seems like you’re saying that I cannot infer the Christian God based solely on the fine-tuning argument, therefore the fine-tuning argument should be dismissed. I agree. I cannot infer the Christian God based solely on the fine-tuning argument. But that is not a reason to dismiss the fine-tuning argument as an explanation for X. That’s why it’s a non-sequitur, Pedro.

          Appreciate you taking the time!

    • @sekharpal “Light originates within space and time but it goes beyond space and time.”

      No it doesn’t.

  9. A very long built up to cloud a lot of nonsense.

    The fact you are bringing in the “Kalam Cosmological Argument” is absolutely unscientific because it is based on a believe/religion by itself. You are simply quoting another source besides the bible.

    The Kalam thing is based on this religious assumption:

    – Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
    – The universe began to exist;
    – Therefore: The universe has a cause.

    Whoever proved ‘whatever begins to exist has a cause’? Humans always try to answer questions like that to get a sense of ‘purpose of life’. That’s how religions got started.

    I personally don’t believe everything has a ’cause’ until proof tells me otherwise. There’s no cosmic plan, no reason. It is just ‘there’. Maybe one day we will be able to understand our place in the galaxy, and scientists can safely conclude everything exist because of a reason. That is science.

    Sorry – I didn’t thought your article made any sense. You talk a lot but you say nothing. Not trying to be offensive 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment jeroendecloe!

      You’ve said a few things here and I had some initial thoughts. First, while I appreciate your focus on the Kalam argument, the takeaway from this post has less to do with the Kalam and more to do with shifting of the burden of proof under the teapot analogy, which is a failure as I’ve shown. Second, I don’t take offense that you think I’ve said nothing. It’s certainly possible that I’ve said nothing in this post. Then again, it’s also possible that I said quite a bit and you didn’t grasp it. I’ll let others decide which is which. Third, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause” is not a religious assumption as you suggested. It’s a philosophical assertion based on experiential evidence. And I would argue that the evidence is so widespread it would be highly controversial to doubt causality without some great reasons (which you haven’t listed). As a matter of fact, let’s take your approach and doubt that everything has a cause. I think I’ll go ahead and doubt that this comment even came from someone at all then. No offense 🙂

  10. “As Dr. Brian Garvey writes, ‘God is invoked as an explanation for… why the universe exists at all, why it is intelligible, why it is governed by laws, why it is governed by the laws it is rather than some other laws, and doubtless many more things.'[3] Therefore, the evidences for God are the universe, its intelligibility, its physical laws, etc.”

    I think there’s a clear distinction between explanation and evidence. You can say that God created the universe, which is an explanation for how the universe came about, but there is no evidence whatsoever for the explanation. You seem to equate the two, which I think makes for an invalid argument.

  11. So instead of God the entity you’re saying god really counts as an event, so his proof is our universe and physics essentially? You’re completely missing the point. Those who make outrageous claims like, a snake talked, seas parted and zomie Jesus walked around a while, YOU HAVE TO PROVE IT TO ME. Its that easy to understand. How can you not see how easy itd be NOT to believe all that cray ancient gibberish

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