A counterargument to a strange refutation of Russell’s teapot

Since I’m on a 30 day Facebook ban for calling this guy a nitwit yesterday, I might as well share his next “argument”. Excuse me for not expanding the “… See more”, as usual. He’s just rehashing a known criticism of the analogy… badly, one that I can easily address without reading his whole ineloquent argument.

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If you recall, he made the same argument yesterday, stating something about a claim that there is no god being as invalid as claiming that there is one without evidence… To which I responded:

Apply that to fairies as well then, nitwit.

And that comment (not the share shown but the comment on his group post) got me a 30 day ban because of the word ‘nitwit’. But… it applies to this new assertion too.

Not the nitwit bit, mind you, but the fairies bit. Russell’s teapot is nothing more than a more sophisticated version of my comment. It gives an example of a deliberately absurd claim that is impossible to disprove – an unfalsifiable claim, by asserting that a teapot too small to be detected is orbiting the sun, somewhere towards Mars. It makes the point that just because we can’t possibly see an object too small to be seen by telescopes somewhere between here and Mars does not mean we must assume the claim to be true. (Doesn’t this sound familiar? Saying that it must be true because it can’t be proven false is an argument from ignorance, and that’s what every argument in religious apologetics comes down to.) It states that the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim. So for us to accept that this teapot exists, the claimant must provide evidence. Likewise, to accept that a god exists, evidence is required.

I don’t like Russell’s teapot analogy precisely because stupid people like Avi miss the point. Nobody in history has claimed that this teapot exists, because it’s an analogy, but like many religious people, he only understands metaphors when they come from religious text and may be interchangeably treated as literal or figurative depending on the argument. Regardless, rejecting the teapot claim does not require making a counterclaim – one simply rejects it because the claimant did not show it to be true. But the teapot obviously having been made up by Russel confuses people like Avi because it was never a real claim.

I prefer the simple fairy argument because people have claimed historically that fairies exist. The Cottingly Fairies are probably the most famous example, and were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They were proven to be a hoax, but other claims have been made.

And therein lies the point. We “know” that fairies aren’t real even though we can’t actually know it. We accept that fairies aren’t real – most of us anyway. It’s a conclusion just like atheists have concluded that there is probably no god. (A conclusion. Not a claim.) We can’t prove it. We will never be able to prove it because the vague claim that fairies exist is unfalsifiable, just like the vague claim that “god” exists. It’s not specific enough, but if you make it specific enough, you only disprove one fairy claim, or one god claim. The believer can still move the goalposts and respond with “But I didn’t believe in that god/fairy anyway”.

He goes on to call treating a positive claim and negative claim differently as special pleading, and that is correct. But what negative claim? There is no “God does not exist” claim made by atheists. We can’t make such a claim because we don’t have a definition of a god. (Which god do you suppose we claim doesn’t exist?) The claim that we dispute is one that a god exists. That’s the only claim and rejecting it is not the same as making the opposite negative claim. This is a case of falsifiable vs unfalsifiable claims. Unfalsifiable claims are claims that a hypothesis is true or false that can’t be proven by observation or evidence. So yes… If we made an opposite negative claim it would also be unfalsifiable, and treating that claim differently would be an example of special pleading, but we don’t make one.

Most of us can (and do) disregard specific god claims when we know who wrote them; for example, L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology or Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, although not disregarding others – for example because the gospels authors were anonymous – would be a genetic fallacy. (The source of a claim says nothing of its validity. Believing L Ron Hubbard’s religion is true is exactly the same as believing in the Christian Bible; it’s just easier to disbelieve if we know the source, especially for relatively recent claims. Either way, you have to assume that the person/people who wrote it were given knowledge they couldn’t possibly know.) But still, the believer can turn around and say “But that doesn’t disprove the god I believe in”.

So I can’t disprove your god, just like I can’t disprove fairies. But I can disregard all god claims without looking at them just the same as I can disregard all fairies claims, just as you do. That’s not special pleading; that’s common sense.

And that was the idea of my original comment to the nitwit yesterday… apply the same logic to the claim that fairies exist. According to his logic, fairies must be real. Of course he will scoff at that because he doesn’t believe in fairies. And that’s the point, that’s what he misses. His logic only “works” because he assumes the god claim is true. When you apply it to anything else, such as fairies, which you do not assume to exist, it no longer works.

And that brings me back to why I don’t normally debate creationists any more – there is no debate here. The creationist in this example doesn’t even realize that he assumes his claim to be true and that his exact argument doesn’t work without that assumption. As long as his belief rests entirely on this thing that he thinks he “knows”, there is no middle ground. Every atheist can see this and we tend to get frustrated in debates because there’s not much point in continuing when you realize your opponent isn’t rational at all, and continues to debate after their argument is shown to be nonsense. That’s without even taking into account this silly projection that assumes an argument like Russell’s teapot, or any argument that points out the claimant has the burden of proof, is making an opposite negative claim.


In summation – I really should have stopped a few paragraphs ago but… If you go back six paragraphs, notice I wrote that we “know” fairies don’t exist. And we conclude that gods aren’t real? It does look very similar to the creationist’s assumption that his god is real. He “knows” god exists. That’s where he’s coming from.

But it’s not the same. My belief that gods don’t exist is a conclusion. It’s not what I start with but what I end with, after considering everything. And it’s a reasonable conclusion. But as long as some people insist that starting with the assumption that outlandish claims are true is identical to rejecting them (because they would project rejection to be making an opposite irrational claim), we will always debate in fucking circles.

Lastly, and this is only my opinion, your typical creationist debater seldom admits that they think they “know” their god exists. To admit that is to admit the intellectual dishonestly of partaking in debate and realize that on some level you are only pretending your logic makes sense, because logic that you arrive at working backwards from a forgone conclusion is only pseudo-logic. At least, that’s what I realized at 14 years old around the time of my confirmation into Roman Catholicism. It took me another two years before I could admit to myself that I could no longer believe… and a good deal longer to admit it to others.

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