Tooth Fairies and Teapots

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Strictly speaking Richard Dawkins is an agnostic, not an atheist, if by ‘atheist’ we mean someone who is certain that God does not exist. The reason for this is that he does not think it is possible to prove with certainty that God does not exist. In case you think he might be having second thoughts about God, he writes, ‘I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden’[1] and he goes on to put God in the same category as the Tooth Fairy, Mother Goose and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

His point is that just because we cannot prove the non-existence of these entities, this does not mean that we should be neutral about them. Since there is no reason to believe that they exist, we should of course assume that they do not. Drawing on a story by Bertrand Russell, he asks to consider how we would respond to someone who claimed that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, but that it is too small to be detected by any telescope. Just because there is no way of proving that it does not exist, it does not mean that we should adopt the view that there is a 50:50 chance that it does exist. Since there is no evidence for its existence we should believe that it does not exist. He claims that the same applies to God.

As a strategy for ridiculing belief in God this is very effective, but as a reason for not believing in God it is hopeless. There are two obvious problems. First, God is not like a teapot orbiting the sun! The teapot would be just another object in the universe, admittedly a very odd one, but it would not help us to make sense of anything else. By contrast, as the Creator of the universe, God would be the most important being to exist. God would provide the ultimate reason for the universe itself, for the order within it and for our existence. As Dawkins himself points out:

a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.[2]

The same could hardly be said for a teapot! The second problem is that the analogy with the teapot presupposes that there is no evidence for God just as there is none for the teapot. But that is precisely what the whole debate is about! Many believers will claim that there is plenty of evidence for God, while Dawkins will claim that there is none. Whichever view you take, the matter cannot be settled by appealing to analogies with teapots or Tooth Fairies.[3]

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), p. 51.

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

[3] Essentially Dawkins is appealing to what is referred to as the ‘presumption of atheism’. For an in-depth discussion of this topic see my ‘Probability and the Presumption of Atheism’, a version of which can be found at

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