No Orbiting Teapot

by
April 28, 2014

A standard principle in logic is that if Smith says, “X exists,” and Jones says, “X does not exist,” Smith carries the burden of proof. Jones needn’t justify his unbelief; rather, Smith has to do all the work, showing why belief in X is more reasonable than unbelief. In general, the burden of proof rests on the one who asserts, not on the one who denies. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once illustrated this idea with the following claim: A teapot presently orbits the sun between the Earth and Mars. Of course, a teapot might be doing that: it’s logically possible. But then, Russell implies, we should affirm such a claim only if we have strong evidence for it. Otherwise, unbelief in the teapot is the correct stance. Likewise, and on the same grounds, Russell believed that atheism should be the thinking man’s default theory. We should be atheists until believers can advance positive evidence that God exists. So it’s easier to be an atheist than a theist (i.e., someone who believes in God). At least, we are encouraged to believe as much, coming from the skeptical side.

But then, Russell complains, we religious types have two unfair advantages: (a) ancient books that proclaim the existence of God and (b) Sunday schools. The books (or book, in our case) encircle our beliefs with a halo of supernatural respectability, while our Sunday schools access young minds at impressionable stages, keeping the latter from entertaining provocative questions. Russell would complain about the Quran and Islamic madrassas in similar terms, one imagines, with greater care taken as to where he did so. In any case, our holy books and schools fashion a culture which shelters religious belief from inquiry, even to the point of shifting the burden of proof mentioned above from Smith to Jones or from assertion to denial. The atheist can hardly get a fair hearing in a culture where—to recapture Russell’s analogy—one believes in orbiting teapots until such time as someone disproves even the possibility of such things. That’s a tall order, Russell implies, and thus religious belief endures in the age of reason and science.

On the surface, Russell’s argument seems to be convincing, and it reflects the standard misgivings that semi-skeptics have about religious belief. Take Christianity as an example. We certainly postulate more existing things than the atheist does. Atheists believe in matter, energy, and what they generate according to the laws of physics and chemistry. The universe contains no other kinds of things. Christians go further, insisting that God exists, along with angels, demons, souls, afterlives, and so forth. So it appears that we believe in more, rather than less, and thus we have the tougher view to defend. The atheist gets a pass at this point, having convinced us (if he has) that we should always start with his view and move on to something else, only if the arguments given for Christianity are strong enough. As it turns out, they are strong enough, especially in their cumulative effect. But we should notice something about the atheist’s view which puts it on defense, right along with Christianity. If we have some explaining to do, so does he.

Atheism presents itself as the sober, uncomplicated truth about the world. No exotic claims here about unseen beings and supernatural forces. However, when someone denies the existence of a God who creates, he automatically affirms a complementary set of claims which orbit the sun like Russell’s teapot. After all, if no God exists, then we have to accept the idea that the universe sprang into being uncaused, out of nothing whatsoever, given the difficulties attending the idea of a past-eternal universe. Likewise, atheism turns human beings into sophisticated animals, not creatures of God having supreme and unique value; and it takes away all notions of final judgment and transcendent norms of behavior. What’s left, instead of the moral law, are preferences—yours and mine, with nothing to judge between us. In this sense, atheism turns out to be a theoretical package deal: you get the absence of God with atheism and less moral red tape—which seems like a good time in the making. Then atheism’s ugly relatives move in across the hall, and only their inconsistency can save us: the less authentic they are, the better. Such consequences would spoil any theory all by themselves, never mind atheism’s wild guesses as to how dead matter came to life eons ago.

The lesson here is that atheism is not more obviously true than theism, as if it should be the starting point of every thinking person. Nor is it merely “whatever the rest of us believe, minus God.” Rather, by denying some claims, it affirms other ones implicitly; and those claims require defenses to the same degree as any theological doctrine—perhaps more, on some views as to how we know that God exists and that we have duties toward him. Therefore, the young Christian off to college or the deacon surrounded by unbelieving coworkers needn’t suppose that his core beliefs compare to faith in dragons, fairies, and Aphrodite. Christianity does not have two strikes against it already, compared to fashionable theories embraced on campuses and in Hollywood. Rather, it is a formidable worldview, well defended through a long history of debate with its major philosophical and religious rivals. We don’t believe the gospel only because it has these intellectual virtues, of course; but it does indeed hold up well under scrutiny. Christianity fares at least as well as atheism. A great many philosophers of religion would insist that it does far better.

We are called upon at various times in our Christian lives to enter the public square, to identify lifestyles and policies that we favor, and to explain why others should join us in favoring them. We have to make our case and let others make theirs. But is it permissible to bring “religion” into these discussions, to defend our views on expressly Christian grounds? Or would that move somehow break the rules of polite company? Based on what has been said thus far, our answers should be “yes” and “no,” respectively, from two perspectives. For one thing, our platform makes sense. A person who advocates public policies that align with basic standards of biblical morality does something different than a person who says, “Behold, Potamus, the river god, desires a flat tax.” Our worldview has earned the serious consideration of serious people. But secondly, the major rival to Christianity in the public square is also a “religion,” essentially, because it is also a worldview. Secular humanism (i.e., atheism with a soft spot for people) offers its own take on where we came from, what the good life is, and how this all ends. It generates policy prescriptions, just like Christianity; and the secularist wants to see them implemented.

The writers of Scripture don’t answer all of our questions, and thus we cannot meet every challenge posed by Christianity’s detractors with a tailor-made rebuttal, drawn straight from special revelation. Sometimes, therefore, we have to say, “I don’t know,” and we should do so with grace and humility. Nevertheless, we may participate in discussions of politics, morality and culture with some confidence, knowing that our worldview makes sense of the world and makes sense of our society. We can explain what’s really going on, from rising poverty and lawlessness, to declining standards of public behavior and discourse. We can fit most of it together and show how, if we follow the norms of Scripture, these troubles will recede to less-shocking levels. But most of all, our presence in the public square, and even more so in the daily conversations of life, offers a hearing for the gospel, without which no person can live and no society like ours can survive.

 


Thor Madsen
Thor Madsen serves as Vice-President for Academic Development & Dean of the Faculty, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College; Professor of New Testament, Ethics, and Philosophy.