God and Fairies

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. 


5 thoughts on “God and Fairies

  1. “There is a human tendency to withhold belief in something until some evidential burden is met.”
    Apparently not.
    Unless 84% of the world population does not have this “human tendency”.
    I’m not saying that 84% means that they are right. I am contesting your claim about “human tendencies”.
    Michael Shermer, in his book, “Why people believe weird things”, points out that: ” Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches,biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are dis-confirming.”
    I believe in the theory of evolution. Not because I, personally, possess the evidence, but because I believe what I read from scientists – clever people who, apparently , have studied the evidence to which I do not have access.
    I openly confess to using the argument from authority. A fallacious argument in some people’s books.
    You are correct when you point out that in an analogy, like should be compared with like. But then you fail to do so, when comparing a belief with a feeling. You talk about your love for your daughters. But if you woke up one morning, and you no longer felt that you loved your daughters, would that change your attitude or behavior towards them?
    So it goes, I think with people of faith. Mother Teresa would be a glaring example of faith without feeling. No warm, fuzzy feelings there to help carry her through her “dark night of th soul”.
    Belief in fairies is a childish belief? I have lost count of the number of atheists who claim to have realized that God didn’t exist when they were children. And their attitude hasn’t budged an inch since then. They are content to remain with a belief structure formulated during their formative years. From then on, confirmation bias does the rest.
    And that’s OK?
    Morality is an example of where beliefs and feelings can get confused.
    Do you believe that murder is wrong?
    Or do you just feel that it is morally reprehensible? ( I deliberately used the word “just” in that sentence. It’s called “laying a trap.”)
    Many people feel “revolted” by the thought of homosexual behavior. (There are good evolutionary reasons for that.) They would be the “Christians” who delight in saying “God hates fags”. They use their feelings to justify a moral judgement.
    I guess my question would be, “Where do feeling end and beliefs begin?”

    • I have obviously failed on every level to get my point across.

      I have edited the post in an effort to make my meaning clearer.

      The evidence on which we base our beliefs or lack of them may be flawed. But my point was that, flawed or not, we do look for evidence. By “evidence” I intended to include arguments. We may sort through the data but we do look for data to sort through in the first place. Nobody (I think) says “Oh, I’m just going to believe something even if there’s no evidence to support it.” Nobody even says “I’m just going to be neutral on whether or not this proposition is true, even though there’s no evidence to support it.” Not in the ordinary rough and tumble of life they don’t. Outside the context of a philosophical discussion, nobody is going to be prepared to accept that “perhaps” there is an invisible elephant in the room unless there’s some evidence to support it.

      “You are correct when you point out that in an analogy, like should be compared with like”

      Aaaaargh! Not my point at all!!!!

      It was so clear in my head that I was saying that for an analogy to work like had to be compared with UNlike, that it just didn’t occur to me that I could be misunderstood. But re-reading what I wrote, I can see that the meaning doesn’t actually jump out at the reader. Post-edit, I hope it’s now more easily understood.

      I never compared a belief with a feeling. I compared two ANALOGIES:
      1. The analogy drawn between belief in God and belief in fairies and
      2. The analogy which I sometimes draw in a different context between my feelings about my children and my feelings about spinach.
      What I was trying to say was that an analogy can use as one half of the comparison something which is trivial or inconsequential. But that is not to say that the person making the analogy is asserting that the other part of the comparison is also trivial/inconsequential. Trivial and inconsequential things can share common features with important and significant things.

      I did wonder if it was a bit too convoluted, using one analogy to try and she’d light on another, and so it has proved. I tried to rough out the argument behind the “children/spinach” analogy just to put it in context, but I wasn’t actually trying to argue that case in full here.

      I wouldn’t say that belief in fairies is inherently childish. I said that in our society it is found almost exclusively in children – which is not the same thing.

      I think it is generally a good thing to re-examine your own ideas. But I don’t accept that because somebody formed a belief or lack of belief when they were a child the belief should be assumed to be wrong or ill-founded on that ground alone.

      Confirmation bias is pernicious. When have I ever said that it’s “OK”?

      • You have never said that confirmation bias is OK. Others have left unquestioned that staying with ideas arrived at at the age of 8-10 is “OK”. They were even congratulated on their precocious intelligence. From then on, I said, confirmation bias does the rest.

        Maybe you could answer my questions:

        ” if you woke up one morning, and you no longer felt that you loved your daughters, would that change your attitude or behaviour towards them?”

        Meaning: would you continue to behave towards them as if you loved them, because you believe that’s what they need?

        “Do you believe that murder is wrong?
        Or do you just feel that it is morally reprehensible? ( I deliberately used the word “just” in that sentence. It’s called “laying a trap.”)”

  2. “Sometimes people will say that love must be freely chosen if it is to have value.”

    I sense a straw man here. Do you actually know people who have made that claim? I don’t.Maybe you are referring to people who claim that you can choose to love God? That is obvious silliness. We can choose to behave as if there was a loving God, and our choices will be based on how we would behave IF we loved Him. This is sometimes called opening up to God’s grace. Daring to trust in a loving God before even having any proof of His existence.
    Love is always a risky business. We can be sure of our own feelings of love, but we can never be sure that we are loved by another person.
    We take the risk of trusting that person when they say, “I love you;” Then we expect their behaviour to confirm that affirmation.
    Some of us are never able to fully trust in the love of another person. (Don’t ask me how I know.) Talking about that would have more to do with psycho-analysis than apologetics. If ever you decide to start a “counter-psycho-analysis” blog, be sure to let me know.

    • I didn’t answer your questions about my children, murder etc because that wasn’t what the post was about. (The post is about the threshold for belief). However, since I am not inundated with comments on the OP from my other readers (are they both on holiday I wonder?) and since you are clearly more interested in this than the OP, let’s talk about it.

      There are numerous examples of Christians stating that love must be a choice. It is a very standard Christian response, especially in theodicy. And the claim is always that love, all love, MUST be a choice, or it is worthless. Then from the general they move to the particular: God wishes us to love him (freely), so free will is part of his plan.
      Here are just a few examples:

      If I stopped loving my children would that change my behaviour towards them? Yes.

      Do I think that murder is wrong? Yes.
      Do I believe that it is morally reprehensible? Yes. But not “just”morally reprehensible. (On which point, see the exchange between David Robertson and me on the last of the above links from 5th August onwards).

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