Quote of the month: Bertrand Russell on why we shouldn’t believe in fictions that supposedly make us behave better

December 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

Most of you have heard of Russell’s Teapot, the hypothetical but undetectable orbiting object that Bertrand Russell used to show why we shouldn’t believe things for which there is no evidence (i.e., “religion”). But perhaps you don’t know where that simile came from.  While futzing around on the Internet, I came across Russell’s essay “Is there a God?“, which is described as “commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952.” It’s apparently been published in his collected papers, though, and I give that reference at the bottom. And it’s the first mention of the fabled Teapot.

A lot of the stuff in this essay was taken from Russell’s famous and earlier piece, “Why I am Not a Christian“, first published as a pamphlet in 1927.  If you think that the hallmark of New Atheism is its vociferous, in-your-face anti-theism, think again, for people like Russell, Ingersoll, and Mencken were going hammer and tongs at religion since the 19th century. The two Russell essays are examples. (My own take on what makes New Atheism “new” is its connection with science and its insistent demand for evidence.)

At any rate, while you may be conversant with Russell’s arguments in “Is there a God?”, it’s still worth reading for the concision of its prose. I could make the same arguments as Russell, but not nearly as well or as readably. He’s particularly good at using examples.

I also noticed that his essay deals with issues I’ve written about lately.  For example, the first excerpt below takes up two claims: that religion is a fount of morality essential to make a society behave well (see here), and that even if we don’t buy the existence of a god or the claims of a particular faith, we should lie to our kids about this stuff so they’ll behave better (see my piece on the odious psychotherapist Erica Komisar).  If you haven’t formulated a solid argument against why we should lie to our kids to make them morally upright and happy, Russell has the answer:

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one. The arguments are of the same sort as those which urge that children should be taught respect for the flag. A man with any genuine religious feeling will not be content with the view that the belief in God is useful, because he will wish to know whether, in fact, there is a God. It is absurd to contend that the two questions are the same. In the nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful, but grown-up people do not think that this proves Father Christmas to be real.

Another argument is, of course, that if a kid grows up and finds her parents lied to her, she’ll not only distrust her parents, but have wasted any number of years of her life.

Indeed, I’m not the first to point out that Santa serves the same purpose as God to many kids: you have to behave well to propitiate Santa so you’ll get good presents at Christmas rather than coal. Likewise, you have to propitiate God lest you be tortured by burning coals after you die. And Russell is right that you can’t force someone to be religious unless they really believe that there’s a God as well as a minimal set of religious assertions.

Russell goes on to explain the bad consequences of lying to people for their own good. While such lies may help individuals in some ways, it instills an unwarranted respect for “faith” in society, and that respect undermines a lot of salubrious social practices:

. . .  it is always disastrous when governments set to work to uphold opinions for their utility rather than for their truth. As soon as this is done it becomes necessary to have a censorship to suppress adverse arguments, and it is thought wise to discourage thinking among the young for fear of encouraging “dangerous thoughts.” When such mal-practices are employed against religion as they are in Soviet Russia, the theologians can see that they are bad, but they are still bad when employed in defence of what the theologians think good. Freedom of thought and the habit of giving weight to evidence are matters of far greater moral import than the belief in this or that theological dogma. On all these grounds it cannot be maintained that theological beliefs should be upheld for their usefulness without regard to their truth.

There is a simpler and more naive form of the same argument, which appeals to many individuals. People will tell us that without the consolations of religion they would be intolerably unhappy. So far as this is true, it is a coward’s argument. Nobody but a coward would consciously choose to live in a fool’s paradise. When a man suspects his wife of infidelity, he is not thought the better of for shutting his eyes to the evidence. And I cannot see why ignoring evidence should be contemptible in one case and admirable in the other.

What a great and concise pair of paragraphs!

In many places the social opprobrium of criticizing religion is effected through blasphemy laws, still enforced as capital crimes in a half dozen Muslim-majority countries and as criminal behavior in several Western ones. But there’s also “social censorship” practiced by those who osculate religion or go after those who criticize it. For an example of the latter, see the mean-spirited and misguided essay by Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who takes apart Richard Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God: A beginner’s guide to atheism for being “relentlessly confrontational.” (Shortt also cites a handful of religious scientists, like Simon Conway Morris and the muddled Denis Noble, to demonstrate that science and religion aren’t at odds.) It’s this social opprobrium—the ostracism you receive for criticizing widespread religious lies—that keeps many atheists from “coming out.”

Of course Russell mentions theodicy, which I consider the most powerful evidence against an omnibenevolent and loving God (and who thinks that God is otherwise?):

. . . I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. The whole conception of an omnipotent God whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy the adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.

Finally, here’s the bit on Russell’s Teapot, which Mark Alpert should have read before he wrote his recent Scientific American piece on why science hasn’t ruled out God:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.  It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history.

While the teapot analogy has been criticized on various grounds (some, for example, say it’s unlikely because there’s no evidence that anyone ever put a teapot in orbit), it has been restated in modern form by the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens. Here’s what’s known as “Hitchens’s Razor“, and we should remember it when trying to argue with believers:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

The question, “What’s your evidence?” should shut up believers, but of course it doesn’t because they mistake emotion for evidence. Perhaps a more effective question is “What makes you so sure you’re right as opposed to, say, a Muslim, Hindu, or Mormon believer?” If a Christian or a Jew answers that one, the answer is always amusing.


From Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?” (1952), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 543-48.

83 thoughts on “Quote of the month: Bertrand Russell on why we shouldn’t believe in fictions that supposedly make us behave better

  1. Very interesting- the writing style stands in contrast to modern exposition. It is in no hurry, shall we say. I recall earlier writing in the late 18th c. that really took a long time to read. I take it this was intended for a general audience.

    The teapot analogy is interesting to consider again and again. It is built from reasonable notions – planets, orbits – elliptical, even – and of course a manufactured article – the teapot. Nothing unusual until the claim that it’s in an astonishing configuration, and in a particularly inconvenient configuration which is not amenable to inquiry.

    Likewise with the Christian god, it’s a man, maybe with a robe (always?), and the manufactured article is the world. Nothing unusual until you say god was the manufacturer. Inquiry will fail to produce evidence because the manufacturer would, of course, be outside the world just like a glass maker is outside their workpiece.

    1. Likewise with the Christian god, it’s a man, maybe with a robe (always?),

      Nope, not always. At least twice he was dressed less modestly. Once some Magus (later to star in that British hit song “Magi! Magi! Magi! / Out! Out! Out!”) caught him in a mangle and rubbed him down with embalming fluid. Maybe they thought it was a lubricant? Some time later, he was caught in public parading through town in a loincloth, and he got completely crucified for that!

        1. “Thank Science!” could be an imprecation to use every time one sneezes and doesn’t fear the likelihood of impending death.

      1. What did they do with all the gold? They could have moved to Florida with that kind of loot. Never seen that question asked before by the way. What did they do with the gold?

          1. Let us implement the logical powers of deduction. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Joseph use the gold to finance his carpentry business and Jesus is God and creator of the universe. QED. Logic, beyotches.

          2. This argument being plagiarised on the front page of Disco’tute in 3 … 2 … 1 …

    2. If I had the resources of a Elon Musk (and maybe the same freakish sense of humour) I would be very tempted to launch a teapot into orbit. Just because…

      Of course this wouldn’t prove a single thing about the validity of Russell’s argument.


  2. Thank you for this… the timing couldn’t be more perfect, both in the political sense, but it’s the holidays and families and that last bit makes dealing with some easier.

  3. The idea that lying to the kid is necessary because it makes them behave or that it makes them happy is without evidence. Some of the most immoral behavior is practice by religion. What always worked best for me when I was young was my parents. To disappoint them or to get punishment from them is usually all it took. For parents to use the, g*d will get you trick, simply does not hold up. Your parents are either weak or just dishonest.

    I have been reading about higher education in the early 1800s, particularly in Virginia and this was presumed to be a somewhat religious society. Yet, the behavior of the young men in some of these colleges was far worse than what we see today. It nearly ruined some colleges, such as William & Mary and the University of Virginia soon after it started.

      1. I kid not. In 1824 William & Mary was in ruins. Some windows broken out, they were down to six students. Some were attempting to move the school to Richmond but that did not happen. Jefferson was considering the school a loss and good reason to build his new school the University of Virginia.

  4. It’s so interesting that anyone would actually argue against Russell’s teapot by suggesting “it’s unlikely because there’s no evidence that anyone ever put a teapot in orbit”.

    Well, I never said someone put it in orbit, it IS (and always has been) in orbit; also, evidence of its presence in orbit is not the important thing, the faith that one must have that it is there is the important thing; and, it gives me great comfort knowing it is there; further, many people have done wonderful things on this earth in the name of the teapot; and…

    1. suggesting “it’s unlikely because there’s no evidence that anyone ever put a teapot in orbit”.

      Someone making that argument needs to try getting between a hairy Russian astronaut and his samovar. Not a recommended move!

    2. “it’s unlikely because there’s no evidence that anyone ever put a teapot in orbit”

      As opposed, say, to the copious evidence that, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth”?

  5. As we consider the emotion of religion, USA Today reports a sad story in many aspects. Two year old baby Olive died suddenly. Her parents could not accept this. They thought that this child was worthy of resurrection, so they gathered together many of the flock to engage in mass prayer to beseech the Lord to resurrect this child. The newspaper has a video of the rally where jumping around seemed to be the preferred mode of supplication. Alas, the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, did not heed the prayers and the parents had to admit that the child will remain dead. However, on a cheerier note, the parents’ GoFundMe page brought in $57,238, which will be used ”to pay for funeral and family living.”


  6. I went thru a Russell period about 25 years ago and read most of his works — aside from the Principia Mathematica, of course. My favorite line from his works is this one from his Skeptical essays:

    “I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.”

    1. Great quote! I read his Why I am Not a Christian when I was 14 or so and read a bunch of his books, such as History of Western Civilization(?) soon thereafter. Not the Principia, though. We lived in London at the time and I remember seeing Russell marching around the new US Embassy with his CND Ban the Bomb signs.

      1. Great memories. Did you mean “The history of western philosophy”? Excellent book, with Bertie’s own take on philosophers. Like when he says, “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of all the great philosophers.”

        1. That book won him a Nobel Prize in literature. He very nearly fell under the spell of Christianity, but managed to escape.

          “At the age of three he was left an orphan. His father had wished him to be brought up as an agnostic; to avoid this he was made a ward of Court, and brought up by his grandmother.” How he escaped assimilation is another story.

          Here’s a brief bio: https://web.archive.org/web/20110323031723/http://www.coastgalleries.com/miller/miller_catalog.pdf

  7. Russell is my original hero. When I was a kid, I was already a skeptic about the religious world around me. But I couldn’t formulate my skepticism in a clear way, so I was always stressed around religious kids at school. How can I convey my skepticism or set them strait in their thinking? Then I came across good old Bertie at the local library. I read him as if I was sitting before Socrates himself. It was so soothing to my mind, I read all his popular books. What a relief to know there was a whole world of people who were talking sense. It didn’t hurt that he was a great writer. It sounded to me like poetry.

  8. Thanks for the tea on Russell’s Teapot.

    I learn that there’s yet another colloquial definition of “tea,” but modesty forbids me from being explicit about the definition.

    1. Another definition of “tea” that’s too raunchy for you to express? I don’t know what that could be! Giz us a clue!

      The nearest I can get to it isn’t “tea”, but the verb form – to “teabag” [or tea bag] someone. The other one I can think of is the noun “teabag” – what the scrotum supposedly looks like for those unfortunates who’ve had the testicles removed. The rather understated CancerResearchUK comment on the procedure:

      “…Some men prefer to have this surgery as it is one treatment compared to regular injections. Orchidectomy is not reversible. You may find the removal of your testicles upsetting

  9. Russell is one of my favorites. I see his take on theodicy is very similar to Samuel Clemens

    “A God who could make good children as easily a bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell–mouths mercy, and invented hell–mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!”

    -Mark Twain from Mysterious Stranger

      1. That was a classic take down. Hilarious. On par with Peter Medawar’s review of Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man” or really anything by Dorothy Parker (though I think she was too harsh on Milne. Funny as all get out, but too harsh).

        1. Yes. Yes it is.

          They’re made from leftover cuts of meat and spices, sealed in a natural casing – with vegan options available, that use pine cones, nuts, and grass clippings. If you can find them, surplusages are GREAT in a light soup.

  10. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

    Russell’s Teapot is better, IMHO. Hitchens’s Razor seems to make it more a matter of personal choice than evidence. The emphasis seems to be on individual assertions and dismissals rather than evidence (or lack) gathered by all.

    1. I’m not sure I follow your reasoning here. Whether a claim comes from an individual or a group, I think the razor applies. ???

      1. First, both Hitchens’ and Russell’s statements encapsulate the same idea which is one with which I agree. I’m only talking about which conveys that concept better.

        To my ear, Hitchens is describing something each person can assert or dismiss. Perhaps we could see that teapot with modern telescopes. We could certainly send a spacecraft to check, assuming the proposal contains a precise location. If we did that, we would be relying on evidence gathered by others and some sort of scientific consensus. The decision to accept or dismiss the evidence would more be a group effort.

        It’s probably just all in my head. I simply prefer the teapot story. 😉

  11. Another of Bertrand Russell’s essays, titled “Why I Am Not A Communist”, also deserves thought. In it, he observed:
    “A minority resting its powers upon the activities of secret police is bound to be cruel, oppressive and obscurantist. The dangers of the irresponsible power came to be generally recognized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but those who have forgotten all that was painfully learnt during the days of absolute monarchy… have gone back to what was worst in the middle ages under the curious delusion that they were in the vanguard of progress.”

  12. Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas dinner are the two times a year where I’m forced to listen to grace…one of the most ridiculous prayers there is. Even as a religious child, I could never wrap my head around thanking g*d for the food my parents worked to purchase and prepare. I figured without my parents, I wouldn’t be able to eat, and I very much doubted that g*d would swoop down and feed me if my parents didn’t. I wish I knew Bart Simpson back then, for his grace summed up my early thoughts: “Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

    Anyway, this post and Bertrand’s wise words are just the elixir I needed to wash my brain of the absurd act of speaking with reverence to a non-existent entity.

    1. Not that it makes it any more true, I always imagined that saying grace at the table was thanking g*d for not smiting us down or sending pestilence our way. In other words, “Thanks G*d for letting us do our thing one more day.”

      1. I guess it depends on the particular prayer. In my family, we always asked specifically “thanks for the food”. I guess it could also be interpreted as “thanks for creating the earth and its bounty so we pitiful humans can partake”. But I can also see your interpretation.

  13. Two things strike me:
    1. Not cool to harp on censorship when I get censored right off a conversation I would have liked to continue on this site. We all do it on some level I realize so I sorta get it.
    2. If God is a thing can we really understand Him? In the case of parents who lost their 2 year old and asked people to pray … my heart grieves for them. It seems terrible. Evil. I can’t imagine the suffering. Just because God decided not to resurrect that child does not mean He does not suffer with them or does not exist. Could it be an act of love? Was it merciful to take that child at a young age? Would leaving the 2 year old cause a cataclysmic chain of events? Do the parents feel comforted by the prayers and support of their church family in their darkest hour? I personally prayed for a family I didn’t know. I hope they were comforted. I choose to believe in a God who has my best interest in mind and will carry me in my time of need.

    1. You haven’t been censored, you’re about to be booted from this website because you are not only delusional, but have no good answers to the questions you have been asked. To say that it is “merciful” for God to kill a two-year old child paints you as either completely addled or a monster. Not a good choice.

      I don’t want irrational religionists (probably a redundancy) over here because they lower the tone of the place, particularly when they write things as crazy as you have above. I don’t want you to hang around arguing for your delusions, and it’s manifestly clear from what you said, and from your own faith-soaked website that you have not the slightest interest in being open-minded: you want to proselytize and rationalize your faith.

      Sorry, pal, but that’s not what this website is about. If you want buddies to discuss things with, try getting some people to comment on your own site. As Sam the Lion said in The Last Picture Show: “Now you can stay out of my pool hall, my cafe, and my picture show, too. I don’t want none of your business.”

  14. Russell concludes: “Then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable.”

    OK, but why can’t he be both—of a degree of lovingness and wickedness scarcely conceivable?

    I’ve never quite gotten how atheists are willing to accept certain traits attributed to God (e.g., omnibenevolence) on their way to denying the existence of God. If you attribute qualities to me that I clearly don’t possess, how exactly does this cast doubt on my existence? By what logic is evil in the world evidence of no God rather than as evidence of an evil God? Surely it makes more sense to conclude that while the sentimentalized attributes may be all wrong, the existence of a more complex and contradictory God might well pass muster.

    After all, another Biblical claim of the religious is that we are created in God’s image. That being asserted, it would make perfect sense that God should be part benevolent and part malevolent, part forgiving and part vengeful, etc.—much as any of us is (or, for that matter, any character in a book or movie that we can identify with). Why deny God the very qualities that make us interesting—namely, our faults?

    In short, a flawed God seems far more consistent with the evidence than an omnibenevolent one. And, as an added bonus, it eliminates the need for a devil.

    1. Because people think of God as OMNIBENEVOLENT–all good. While he may send sinners to hell, that’s not the same as torturing or killing children with cancer, or killing thousands of people in tsunamis.

      Your “complex and contradictory god,” who is sometimes a monster, is not one accepted by most Christians, so talk to them, not to us. Until there’s evidence for ANY kind of God, it’s useless to try to divine (if you may) that god’s personality.

    2. Your question touches on the point of the whole project – it’s God’s plan, so that pretty much sums it up. Benevolent, malevolent, it’s all god’s plan, so sit back and take it. I suspect that is an older view, and the idea of theistic beneficence is a modern thing.

      1. Certainly the Calvinists had a notion of a spiteful and angry God. Nothing to give you much hope. I don’t know if they still push the idea as much. Don’t forget, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, the sermon written by theologian Jonathan Edwards – 1741?

    3. “why can’t he be both”

      Wouldn’t that make It self contradictory? inconsistent, unpredictable? irrational? irrelevant?

      1. “Wouldn’t that make It self-contradictory? inconsistent, unpredictable? irrational? irrelevant?”

        Yes, Rick, all those things (except “irrelevant”; if it’s true it can’t be irrelevant). Those are all qualities that I associate with most human beings, but especially with those human beings who are creators. If Walt Whitman can say, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” surely that sentiment would apply in spades to God.

        As I’ve contended before on this site, the problem with creationists and anti-creationists alike is that very few in either camp have any first-hand experience of how things get created.

        1. If you mean with “anti-creationists” life scientists, they have ample evidence of evolution (if that is what you mean with “how things are created”), and even first-hand experience with the study of successive generations of fruit flies.

          1. I agree that life scientists come closer than, say, IDers to understanding how things are created (though they always seem to stop short of recognizing that evolution and creation are the same thing). The group I had in mind, however, is artists—musicians, poets, painters—who have first-hand experience of how something gets created.

          2. “[1] …the problem with creationists and anti-creationists alike is that very few in either camp have any first-hand experience of how things get created. [2] …musicians, poets, painters — […] have first-hand experience of how something gets created”

            Artists are in the business of making based on ideas that came before them – they build on the work of others, NOT from a blank slate so to speak. To compare the “creativity” of the artist with the creation of reality itself [or the not-yet-known chemical processes that led to replicating molecules] is absurd. Just a word game you’re playing!

          3. All true art involves the bringing into existence of something that didn’t exist before (this as opposed to craft, which is the skillful re-arrangement of existing elements). Coleridge, in his Biographica Literaria, described the former as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

            I wrote my PhD thesis on Coleridge’s theory of imagination, and while I concede that it’s not an easy concept to grasp I’d suggest that you go read the Biographica before you dismiss it as “absurd” and “just a word game.”

          4. ”All true art involves the bringing into existence of something that didn’t exist before”

            This doesn’t seem particularly helpful to me. Or maybe I’m a true artist since this happens every morning in the bathroom.

          5. Mirandaga, creativity is what people do when they create something new. Chimps and dolphins might also be creative sometimes when they come up with tools or games. We cannot say that the universe is creative in the same way without making a very large assumption. The universe changes and new things and relationships arise, but it isn’t being manipulated by some intentional being – unless you can show that it is. The laws of nature are all that is necessary to “create” a star, planet, or an organism. You don’t need a being or deity to do that in the way you need an intentional being to produce a painting, or an opera. When you apply “creativity” to the universe you are only justified in applying the term as a metaphor, otherwise you fall into the trap of implying a very large assumption.

        2. God, then, is the creator we should all despise as too cruel. He’s certainly unworthy of anybodies worship. Most modern Christians, except for the devotees of divine command theory like William Lane Crag, would be appalled by such a god.

          1. “He’s certainly unworthy of anybody’s worship.

            Why do we assume that worship is high on God’s wish list. We do this with our parents (keeping in mind that one of the chief metaphors we use for God is parent—“Our Father”): we begin by worshipping them (religion), then rebel against and reject them (atheism), then eventually learn to accept them with all their flaws and forgive them. It may well be that God—like any parent (like any creator)—is learning as he goes and might welcome forgiveness more than worship.

            But what do I know? Like everyone when it comes to describing God, I’m just riffing here. My main point is that we might do well not to ascribe attributes to God that are impossible to live up to—omnibenevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing,etc.—and then be disappointed and angry when he doesn’t come through.

          2. Before we even have this discussion, we need evidence that there is a God. But even to do that you need to know something about God’s attributes? Is he theistic or deistic, for instance.

            But you shouldn’t keep assuming there is a God unless you have evidence for one. Care to give it?

          3. I take creation as prima facie evidence of a creator. I take this as complementary to, not in opposition to, evolution. That is, unlike Genesis and the Big Bang Theory, evolution is not a creation myth about how the universe came into existence, it’s a theory about how the universe evolved and continues to evolve. As such it’s perfectly compatible with a range of views that come under the general rubric of “theistic evolution.” But you know this as well as, if not better than, I do; I only bring it up because you asked.

          4. And I’m sorry to say that your answer is no better than any other believer’s. What you’re saying is that the universe is by iteself convincing evidence of a creator. I suppose you realize that that’s not going to convince most people here, but it seems to have convinced you.


      mirandaga replies to Michael Fisher thus:

      All true art involves the bringing into existence of something that didn’t exist before [this as opposed to craft, which is the skilful re-arrangement of existing elements]. Coleridge, in his Biographica Literaria, described the former as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

      I wrote my PhD thesis on Coleridge’s theory of imagination, and while I concede that it’s not an easy concept to grasp I’d suggest that you go read the Biographica before you dismiss it as “absurd” and “just a word game”

      You are using the well known theological tactic of saying to your interlocutor “…go away & read the literature mate like I did! Until then I’m just going to spout some bullshit at you…”

      *importantly waves his PhD about the place*

      I know of Coleridge’s assertions re Primary imagination, Secondary imagination & Fancy & it’s all pure assertion – absolutely unevidenced tripe to support the notion that poets have got something going in their Primary imagination that’s more finely tuned than that of the common man & it’s a ‘module’ that is partly inborn, supernatural & unearthly. This is no different in essence from Calvin’s sensus divinitatis [sd] which Plantinga deployed & extended – suggesting in his superior way that the sd module was faulty in those people who didn’t agree with him!

      Once again you mash words about the place with abandon – you say “true art involves the bringing into existence of something that didn’t exist before” which is patently disingenuous – art of any kind is a craft that ALWAYS involves a process of reconfiguring that which came before, thus a particular new mode of expression does not come from nothing – from a vacuum so to speak. You are merely saying the new mode didn’t exist before, BUT clearly the new mode did not come from nothing. Cheap stuff I’m afraid.

  15. Russell’s teapot deserves its fame. Here’s another Russell quotation I’m fond of:

    The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.

    –Bertrand Russell, Selected Papers

  16. If you think that the hallmark of New Atheism is its vociferous, in-your-face anti-theism, think again, for people like Russell, Ingersoll, and Mencken were going hammer and tongs at religion since the 19th century.

    Another Russell essay that highlights his new atheist-like railing against religion is An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish. One example from that essay:

    Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, and certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence. And if God is indeed omnipotent, why could He not have produced the glorious result without such a long and tedious prologue?


  17. The comparison of G*d with Santa may be valid but it’s hardly fair. Not believing in Santa simply results in an absence of Christmas presents (notionally at least*) whereas not believing in God sends you to Hell forever (**).


    * Of course in practice it doesn’t, the same people will continue to give you presents anyway.

    ** And of course in practice that doesn’t happen either, but the faithful – well, some of them – will never stop trying to threaten you with it.

  18. On believers and evidence, I qualify the requirement as relevant, credible, verifiable, publicly-accessible evidence. I think those are the appropriate qualifiers, applicable as well to scientific evidence — I think “repeatable” would be too high a bar. Personal revelation, undocumented or poorly-documented “miracles”, “look at the trees”, feelings, etc. don’t qualify.

    And I like the late Victor Stenger’s observation that “absence of evidence where there ought to be evidence, is evidence of absence”.

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