When atheists compare belief in God to belief in fairies, this is apt to cause great offence to believers. Christians feel insulted by what they perceive as a direct comparison between God and fairies. Fairies are entities which, in our society, only children believe in and Christians feel that both they and God have been belittled by the comparison. This in my view is a misunderstanding of the point that is really being made.
The analogy properly arises in the context of a theist challenge that unless an atheist can prove that a God doesn’t exist they should remain on the fence about his existence. In this context the comparison with belief in fairies is pertinent. I’m as much on the fence about the existence of God as I am about the existence of fairies and for the same reason.
The analogy is not between God and fairies. The analogy is between belief in God and belief in fairies – a significantly different thing. The analogy, like all analogies, compares two things which are different but share certain features. It works to the extent that the shared features are the relevant to the issue under discussion. The point of any analogy is to use something which is simpler, better understood or more widely agreed upon in order to illustrate something which is more complex, less well understood or less widely agreed upon. Analogies must contain both similarities and differences. If they fail to include both, then they won’t work. Belief in fairies is not exactly like belief in God. The only thing that is exactly like belief in God would be, well, belief in God. But comparing belief in God to itself is not going to get any of us anywhere.
Let me use another analogy. (An analogy as an analogy of an analogy – is that too meta?) Sometimes people will say that love must be freely chosen if it is to have value. I think these people couldn’t be more wrong. Love, real love, is never freely chosen. I didn’t chose to love my children. I just loved them. There was no choosing involved. Because I love them I do often freely choose to do things that I would not otherwise do (like drive miles out of my way to pick them up or drop them off). But the emotion which gives rise to the behaviour is unchosen. I sometimes say that I can no more freely choose to love my children than I can freely choose to love the taste of spinach. I can choose whether or not to eat spinach but if I do eat it, I cannot choose whether or not to enjoy the taste. In making the comparison I am not saying that my children are like spinach, or of no more importance than spinach. I am just saying that the feelings I have about both are both very real and entirely unchosen.
What we are focussing on is belief, how it comes about, what creates it and what fails to create it. It doesn’t really matter whether the belief in question is God or fairies, the Big Bang, the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, the theory of evolution through natural selection, the Bermuda Triangle, global warming, whatever. There is a human tendency to withhold belief in something until some evidential burden is met. This is true whether the “something” is trivial or important. As I have written previously beliefs are not chosen, but nonetheless, we expect them to come about as a result of evidence. We do not expect them to spring up ex nihilo. Belief in a claim is judged rational only to the extent to which it is supported by evidence.
We do not start from the position of saying that we are neutral on the question of whether or not fairies exist and that we will remain neutral unless either they are proved to exist or proved not to exist. No evidence, no belief. Some (credible) evidence, some level of belief. That’s how it generally works. If there’s some evidence, but it falls short of proof, then we might well find ourselves in the position of being undecided. The stronger the evidence, the more likely it is to tip us over into positive belief.
So when the theist says that it is irrational to disbelieve in God, and that if we are not persuaded by the arguments in favour but cannot actually disprove his existence, it would be more rational to be undecided, we respond with an example of a relatively widely accepted disbelief. If there is no credible evidence for the existence of fairies, then how should we expect that to affect our beliefs? Is it more rational in those circumstances to be undecided as to whether they exist or not? Or is it more rational to dismiss their existence until such time as some credible evidence is provided?
If disbelief due to lack of credible evidence is intellectually respectable in the case of fairies, what reason is there for treating disbelief in God any differently?
Of course, if there is some credible evidence for God’s existence, then that changes everything. But the existence of credible evidence is exactly what the atheist denies. So it is up to the apologist to produce evidence sufficiently compelling to warrant some level of belief. If the atheist rejects credible evidence and thus still disbelieves, then they would be irrational. But the irrationality would lie in rejecting the credible evidence, rather than in remaining a disbeliever having once rejected it.