March 6, 2009

The Totally Fake Invisible Pink Unicorn and his Totally Real Elf Friends (or: Please Don’t Be Offended That I Don’t Believe In Your Jesus)

Posted in Atheism tagged , , at 10:51 am by Andrew

Many Christians bristle at some of the common analogies atheists use — things like, “I don’t believe in God for the same reason that I don’t believe in invisible pink unicorns” and the like. In fact, if you google “invisible pink unicorn,” the very first Christian site to come up takes great offense, calling these sorts of arguments “so severely flawed and ludicrous that you have to wonder about the sanity of the person using it.”

Sort through the spittle-flecked insults, however, and you get to the following concession:

Third, if there were millions of credible intelligent adults out there claiming to have seen or experienced invisible pink unicorns or Santa Claus flying in the air, then this comparison would have merit. But there aren’t, so this comparison is without merit.

True enough: there aren’t millions of believers in invisible pink unicorns. But as it turns out, there are hundreds of thousands of Icelanders who literally believe in elves.

Here’s how exapologist parses the data:

[Among Icelanders]

“Yes, without a doubt, elves exist”: 8%
“Yes, elves probably exist”: 17%
“Well, I don’t know, but their existence is a real possibility”: 37%
“Elves? Nah, probably not”: 19%
“Without at doubt, elves do not exist”: 13%

I think it’s important to treat Christians respectfully, give them their say, and understand why they believe what they do. I can also understand the instinctive, defensive reaction at having their beliefs compared to things that seem absurd. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe in your Jesus for the same reason that neither of us believe in elves. Seriously.

Advertisements

18 Comments »

  1. arthurvandelay said,

    Third, if there were millions of credible intelligent adults out there claiming to have seen or experienced invisible pink unicorns or Santa Claus flying in the air, then this comparison would have merit. But there aren’t, so this comparison is without merit.

    The appeal to popularity—the argument that a something is true if sufficient people believe it to be true—can be very seductive for some people. I’ve had at least one Christian tell me that popular belief is “a good clue, a good piece of data to work with” (though he makes a fatuous distinction between ubiquitous belief and popular belief.

  2. Anselm said,

    ANDREW: “But at the end of the day, I don’t believe in your Jesus for the same reason that neither of us believe in elves. Seriously.”

    ANSELM: Yes, but doesn’t that assume that Christians believe in Jesus for the same sort of reasons that Icelanders believe in Elves? If they do not, then it is not appropriate to disbelieve in Jesus and Elves for the same reason.

  3. Stephanie said,

    Anselm: I’m not entirely clear on the question you’re asking, but I believe I disagree with your conclusion regardless. A reason to disbelieve in Jesus and elves is lack of sufficient evidence, and that really has no relationship to why you (generically) believe in Jesus and/or elves.

    Generally, I have found that when people prefer a belief in one supernatural entity over another, it has little to do with intrinsic differences between entities. There are exceptions made to the normal proof one would demand, exceptions made based on pre-existing biases.

    Why should there be a difference in reasons for belief?

  4. Andrew said,

    Without being overly facetious: the sensus elvitatis, or the innate sense of elves found in virtually all Icelanders.

    • anselm said,

      Well, those Icelanders are eccentric 😉

  5. Nathaniel said,

    Stephanie,

    You write:

    Generally, I have found that when people prefer a belief in one supernatural entity over another, it has little to do with intrinsic differences between entities. There are exceptions made to the normal proof one would demand, exceptions made based on pre-existing biases.

    Why should there be a difference in reasons for belief?

    While that may well be generally true, it certainly isn’t true of all Christians, either historically or today. Frankly, I’ve found more or less the same to be true of atheists: generally, their belief has more to do with a metaphysical preference for which they offer no argument. But I would not conclude on that basis that there are no good reasons to be an atheist.

    I think the key point is hiding here:

    A reason to disbelieve in Jesus and elves is lack of sufficient evidence, …

    Plantinga would not concede this, but I am inclined to agree with you here. But in that case, why drag elves into it? Not only does it insult the intelligent Christians who have reasons for their belief, it distracts attention from the real subject. Let’s just talk about whether there is sufficient evidence to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

    Side note: there is a bit of a mismatch in the closing lines of the OP. To “believe in” elves is to believe in their existence, whereas to “believe in” Jesus generally means to commit one’s life to him. I do hope, and believe, that Andrew did not mean to say that he doesn’t believe Jesus existed.

    • Stephanie said,

      A short summary of my argument would be “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The elves example makes the point that this tends to be a fairly universal belief – most of us don’t believe in elves. The claims of nearly a hundred thousand people that elves do exist, along with nearly 10,000 who personally testify to having seen or otherwise personally encountered an elf is dismissed with great amusement. For most of us, eyewitness encounters, personal testimony, and strong belief in spite of societal condemnation do not rise to the level of evidence for the existence of elves. How much more extraordinary are the claims of Jesus versus the supernatural powers of elves?

      • Anselm said,

        The problem with “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is that it is just a slogan, not an argument. And it collapses when examined in light of Bayes’ Theorem–see the discussion in the paper located here:

        http://tinyurl.com/adx22n

        (particularly the discussion of Earman’s work on p. 53). This paper is the one referenced in Andrew’s post on “minimal facts.”

      • Nathaniel said,

        I’m happy to go with “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” if by that all that is meant is that antecedently improbable claims need strong evidence to make them credible.

        How much more extraordinary are the claims of Jesus versus the supernatural powers of elves?

        I don’t know, but why are we still talking about elves? The suggestion that the nature of the evidence for the resurrection is on a par with the mischievous Icelandic reports of elf sightings is more than a little silly. Wouldn’t it make sense just to talk about the evidence for the resurrection instead?

  6. Andrew said,

    Nathaniel: I am a lawyer by trade, not a historian, so I don’t think I would affirmatively assert that Jesus never existed. Schliemann found Troy, after all.

    That being said, as a layperson it strikes me that the work of serious mythicist scholars such as Robert Price and Richard Carrier, and serious informed laymen such as Earl Doherty, at least passes the “straight face” test and that therefore those arguments should be engaged on their respective merits and not simply dismissed out of hand.

    With respect to the resurrection, I would direct you to Richard Carrier’s Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story as a pretty good starting point.

  7. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    Good — I didn’t think so. Glad to hear it.

    As far as the “serious mythicist scholars” Price and Carrier are concerned, I have to disagree with you about the “straight face” test. These guys are so far off the beam in denying that Jesus ever existed that it really wasn’t worth the time two good scholars took to debunk such nonsense in detail. But if you want to know why more than 99.99% of all historians consider the mythicist position to be risible, you can read all about it in The Jesus Legend.

    I’ve read Carrier’s work, as well as his contributions to The Empty Tomb. It isn’t the worst piece I’ve seen, but at several places he seriously misrepresents the primary sources, and his attempted reinterpretation if 1 Corinthians 15 is nothing short of silly. The overall argument should not persuade anyone who does his homework.

  8. Stephanie said,

    Nathaniel,

    Here’s the point. What is the difference between claims about elves and claims about Jesus, aside from a personal preference for one?

    • Nathaniel said,

      Stephanie,

      There is a lot of credible evidence for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I take it that your position is that there is not a lot of credible evidence for the existence of Icelandic elves — and I am also skeptical, though in principle I could be persuaded to the contrary.

      But granting for the sake of argument that there is excellent evidence for the resurrection but not a lot of credible evidence for the existence of elves, it needn’t have been that way. There might have been good evidence for both, or for neither. The two issues are utterly separate. So why join them? It looks like a pointless attempt to annoy the Christians and avoid talking about the evidence on its own merits.

  9. What is the argument that elves do not exist?

    • Andrew said,

      To me, it’s two things. First, on face, elves seem to fit into the category of things that seem made up. They work magic, the most detailed accounts of them are from works of fiction; these are the hallmarks of imaginary things. Worse, the existence of elves would seem to contradict much of the evidence we do have about living beings; i.e., we don’t see elf skeletons in the fossil record, nor do we see a lineage of beings with elf-like characteristics. So I would say that initial skepticism about elves is warranted.

      Of course, the presumption against things that seem fantastic can be rebutted by sufficient evidence; the obvious case is that of homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit.” But there isn’t that sort of evidence for elves.

      Thus, I conclude that elves do not exist.

  10. CahirAepCeallach said,

    well maybe in anicient times there was elves but they race disapeared and i beleve in this theory, so tjhere must be some elves ruins left somewhere.

  11. Carl Blansfield said,

    While I’m in a Simpsons-quoting mood,

    Homer: “Leprechauns? Don’t they live in Ireland?”

    Moe: “Yeah, but they come over here in the wheel wells of Aer Lingus jets”

    Carl: “You know, I was hexed by a troll, and a leprechaun cured that right up.”

    Lenny: “Hey, you know what’s even better is Jesus. He’s like six leprechauns.”

    Carl: “Yeah, but a lot harder to catch. Go with a leprechaun.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: