British mathematician, philosopher, and atheist Bertrand Russell proposed his teapot analogy as a way of explaining where the burden of proof lies, particularly in debates about religion. Russell’s teapot is also known as the celestial teapot or the cosmic teapot.
In the teapot analogy, Russell asks to us to imagine a man claiming that there is a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The teapot is too small for us to see, and, since we can’t journey out into space (Russell wrote this in the 1950s), there’s no way to show that the teapot isn’t actually there. “Ah,” says Russell’s hypothetical man, “since you can’t prove the teapot isn’t there, you must assume that it is there.”
Of course, it’s patently ridiculous to claim that that we must believe in a teapot orbiting the sun simply because we have no means to prove it isn’t there. The burden of proof, Russell argues, is on the person claiming the teapot is there, since the default assumption is that no such teapot exists; the person claiming the existence of the teapot needs to provide positive evidence for us to believe his claim. He can’t just insist that we accept his belief as the default position.
Using the teapot analogy, Russell claimed that many religious people act as though belief in God should be the default assumption and that the burden of proof is on the atheist to prove that God does not exist. Russell rejected theism and claimed that atheism should be the natural starting point for reasoning out the existence of God, since God cannot be empirically verified (i.e., we cannot observe or touch God).
Russell’s teapot analogy says that, since we can’t prove God’s existence through observation, we should assume God doesn’t exist until given reason to believe otherwise. In other words, the burden of proof is on the religious (Christians, specifically) to prove that God exists, not on atheists to prove God does not exist.
The basic thrust of Russell’s teapot argument is correct: it’s impossible to prove a negative. That is to say, it’s impossible to prove that some object or phenomenon does not exist anywhere in the universe at any given point, as you’d need to have complete knowledge of every point in time and space to know so. That said, we can give reasons for believing something doesn’t exist. We have no reason to think matter would randomly arrange itself into a teapot. We know of no missions to space in which humans could have placed a teapot in orbit. Thus, if someone claims there is a teapot in orbit, we agree with Russell that the burden of proof is on that person to give us reasons to believe such a teapot exists.
Where Russell’s teapot argument stumbles is in its assumption that atheism is the appropriate starting point for human reasoning about God. Historically, the vast majority of humanity has believed that there is a god (or gods), even if they did not believe in the Christian God specifically. The fact that God exists is one imprinted on the nature of reality (Romans 1:2). Belief in the divine is the place human rationality naturally takes us. Thus, the burden of proof is on the atheist to explain why we should deny the natural, logical leanings of our minds and hearts and why we should accept atheism as the truth.