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.