Atheism in Pop Culture Part 4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just so you know: I’m kind of getting all my Harry Potter blogging out in one swell foop, so I can get it over with and move on. I think this is my last one. No spoilers here, but if you want your reading experience of the new book to be completely unsullied, you may want to skip this until you’ve read the book.

You didn’t think I’d be able to keep atheism out of this, did you?

I suppose it’d be more accurate to call this “Skepticism in Pop Culture.” Although I do think it’s interesting that, for all the magic and ghosts and afterlife in the Harry Potter series, there’s a conspicuous absence of any sort of divinity. Another reason the Christian Right hates it, I guess…

Anyway, when I was reading the new Harry Potter book, this passage jumped out at me as a perfect and hilarious example of great skeptical thinking, and I wanted to pass it on.

“Well, how can that be real?”

“Prove that it is not,” said [X].

[Y] looked outraged.

“But that’s — I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist?… I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

“Yes, you could,” said [X]. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”

Let me just say: I love Y. One of my favorite characters in the book. And they’re completely right. One of the most common fallacies in defenses of the metaphysical, paranormal, and spiritual is that, because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, therefore it’s reasonable to believe that it does… that because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, the proposition that it does exist and that it doesn’t are equally likely.

And that, of course, simply isn’t the case. The classic example is Bertrand Russell’s china teapot orbiting the Sun: you can’t prove that it doesn’t exist, but the theory that it doesn’t exist and the theory that it does aren’t equally likely.

It’s like I said in my piece, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely. Even when you can’t talk about proof and certainty, you can still talk about evidence and likelihood. “Well, it could be true” and “You can’t prove anything” are arguments best left to ten year olds and stoned college students.

Tip of the hat to Friendly Atheist. This quote had jumped out at me, too, but I had to copy it from F.A.’s blog, since Ingrid has the book now and she’s in Chino.

Atheism in Pop Culture Part 4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
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