Comparisons to belief in elves or fairies to belief in gods are frequently used by atheists either as an argument about why belief in gods is unreasonable or as an explanation for why they don’t believe in gods. Theists frequently complain that this is a disrespectful and disparaging comparison because belief in elves or fairies is obviously ridiculous while belief in gods is found among reasonable, educated adults.
That’s not a valid rebuttal or response. Even on a theoretical level, there is nothing about belief in elves or fairies that makes it more obviously unreasonable than belief in gods. Far more significant, though, is the fact that belief in elves or fairies isn’t always as uncommon as apologists for theism seem to presume. If it were, they might have a point, but in at least one culture even today belief in elves is rather common: Iceland.
In Iceland, the normal term for elves is “Huldufólk,” an Icelandic word meaning “hidden people”. There is some question about whether the huldufólk is identical to elves, but the general consensus is that they are and that usage of huldufólk (rather than álfar, the direct Icelandic translation of “elves”) out of a desire to avoid using the elves “real” name.
Belief in elves is not something limited to “theory.” It’s not limited to a mental realm without implications for the material world. Building construction in Iceland can be limited according to what local residents think the elves desire. It’s forbidden to disturb rocks where elves are thought to live — even including just picking up and throwing the wrong rocks.
Some people claim to be able to communicate with the elves, transmitting the wishes and intentions of the elves to human beings. Such mystics may be consulted about construction projects, road projects, and more. People believe in reliability of such mediation on behalf of the elves as much as they believe in the elves themselves.
Early Surveys of Belief in Huldufólk in Iceland
Erlendur Haraldsson, a professor and psychologist, conducted in 1975 what has become a landmark survey on Icelandic beliefs. In this survey, Haraldsson found that belief in the existence of elves was fairly strong — there were lots of people who thought the existence of elves was impossible or at least unlikely, but a much larger percentage of Icelanders thought that there existence was at possible:
- Impossible: 10%
- Unlikely: 18%
- Possible: 33%
- Probable: 15%
- Certain: 7%
- No opinion: 17%
So 28% of Icelanders regarded the existence of elves at being at least unlikely but 55%, a strong majority, thought the existence of elves was at least possible; nearly a quarter of Icelanders though the existence of elves was at least probable. Only 10% rejected the existence of elves completely.
As with belief in the existence of gods in America, there was a negative correlation in Iceland between education and belief in the existence of elves. Among those with a college education, these were the responses to the same question:
- Impossible: 24%
- Unlikely: 38%
- Possible: 26%
- Probable: 5%
- Certain: 0%
- No opinion; 17%
Obviously belief in elves in Iceland has been a lot less common than belief in gods in America, but far more Icelanders have believed in elves than I think many realize. What’s more, there were still quite a few educated people who at least allowed for the possibility that elves exist, even if few were certain of it.
Contemporary Belief in Huldufólk in Iceland
More recent surveys of belief in Iceland have produced similar results. Pétur Pétursson did a survey in 1995 which only asked questions of people who believed in alternative medicine or who followed some sort of alternative belief system. Among this segment of Iceland’s population, 70% believe in the existence of elves, 23% were unsure, 6% didn’t believe in elves, and 1% were uncertain.
The most recent survey on the subject was done in 2006 and published in 2007 by Terry Gunnell, an associate folklore professor at the University of Iceland. Gunnell found that doubt in existence of elves had grown a bit, but so had belief in the existence of elves — it was only the numbers of those who had no opinion about the existence of elves which had dropped. Thus the overall ratio of belief to disbelief has remained relatively constant over the the past three decades.
When asked what best described their opinion on the existence of elves, Icelanders answered:
- Impossible: 13%
- Unlikely: 19%
- Possible: 37%
- Likely: 17%
- Definite: 8%
- No Opinion: 5%
Notice that the number of people who simply allow that the existence of elves is possible is higher than those who consider the existence of elves unlikely or impossible. The number of people who think that elves likely or definitely exist comes in at 25%, a quarter of the entire population. That’s higher than in the 1975 survey done by Erlendur Haraldsson and this is not a trivial number of people by any stretch of the imagination.
The same survey found that many Icelanders believe in ghosts:
- Impossible: 7%
- Unlikely: 16%
- Possible: 41%
- Likely: 18%
- Definite: 13%
- No Opinion: 4%
This suggests that supernatural and paranormal beliefs are popular in Iceland generally. So it’s not just elves that Icelanders believe in and perhaps belief in elves is part of a larger package of supernatural beliefs. Even so, not every culture or nation has so much belief in elves, no matter how much paranormal belief there is.
Terry Gunnell’s research has fueled the debate over whether huldufólk are exactlythe same as elves. Of those he surveyed, 54.6% said they didn’t differentiate between huldufólk and álfar, but 20% said they would and 25.4% were uncertain. Whether they are exactly the same in everyone’s mind, though, doesn’t alter the fact that they are all supernatural creatures of similar sorts.
Belief in Elves vs. Belief in Gods
It would not be reasonable to critique belief in gods by comparing it to some other belief that is trivial and unquestionably the domain of children. It is, however, reasonable to critique belief in gods by comparing it to a supernatural belief which is either currently popular somewhere or which was popular in the past.
There are two key characteristics which make such an analogy valid. First is that the belief involves something supernatural or paranormal. This separates the belief from the empirical realm of science and scientific investigation. Second is that the belief is common enough to become embedded in popular culture, politics, and society. That’s not a belief for children; instead it’s a belief that’s taken for granted and is thus found among people who consider themselves education, rational, reasonable, etc.
Belief in elves or fairies fulfills both of these criteria easily. Such beliefs would fit these criteria even without the example of Iceland, but the existence of a nation where so many people believe in elves todayand where beliefs about elves have become embedded in popular culture makes the analogy even stronger and more difficult to dismiss.
Apologists for Theism vs. Belief in Elves
Just because the analogy between belief in gods and belief in elves cannot be legitimately dismissed does not mean that apologists for theism won’t try. They will continue to insist that belief in elves is too trivial or too obviously unreasonable to qualify as a valid analogy. In all such responses, though, apologists will unwittingly undermine their own defense of theism.
Their problem, which they will have trouble recognizing, is that their argument relies heavily on what does and does not qualify as “obvious” when it comes to what is and is not reasonable. For many Icelanders, it’s not “obvious” that belief in elves is unreasonable; for most Americans, it is obvious. For many theists in America, it’s not “obvious” that belief in gods is unreasonable; for most atheists, it is obvious.
Apologists for theism thus end up assuming the truth of what they are trying to prove. They assume that belief in elves is unreasonable while belief in gods is reasonable. It is this, however, which atheists are trying to challenge when they raise the analogy in a discussion or debate.
The point is to introduce an issue (elves, fairies) which theists are not already emotionally, psychologically, or culturally committed to in order to draw attention to how certain beliefs are privilegedsimply because they are culturally familiar. Privileged beliefs are deferred to and granted respect without their having to meet the same standards as other ideas and that’s what atheists are challenging.
If belief in elves really is obviously unreasonable, then apologists for theism must be able to explain how and why there are so many people in Iceland — including quite a few college educated Icelanders — who believe in elves anyway. What’s more, they must be able to explain why atheists shouldn’t treat theists the way theists are treating Icelanders who believe in elves.
If, however, belief in elves isn’t so unreasonable, then they should be able to explain why they don’t bother believing themselves and what role culture is playing in whether or not people believe. This would better help them understand why atheists don’t believe in theists’ gods, even when theists are convinced that their beliefs are at least reasonable.