Guest post by Rob Powell. Part of a series on truth.
Bertrand Russell was a genius.
He had a bibliography as long as his mustache, was a pioneer in several fields and employed a sharp mind–and even sharper wit.
For all his achievements though he may be best remembered in internet culture today for his teapot analogy…
It goes a little something like this:
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.
His point is well taken, that you can’t prove a negative–but nobody believes there is a vessel of 3 degree Kelvin Earl Gray floating around between the Earth and Mars.
Russell goes on to say that:
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.
Dr. Russell is implying that the only reason we don’t think it’s crazy to believe in God (who’s negation we can’t prove either) and not the teapot is that our parents, pastors and polite society have brainwashed us into thinking God is real.
In reality, Russell would say, God is no more real than a celestial teapot, unicorn, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
He’s just more socially acceptable.
So what’s the difference between God and this imaginary teapot–and where does this cute little analogy ultimately break down? Let’s take a look.
The Brittle Tea Pot Analogy
There are many hidden assumptions to this comparison but a primary one is that if something is real then science should be able to document it.
We’ve talked about scientism before because it has been a perennial favorite amongst the “brights” since the Enlightenment.
So Russell makes his teapot so far and distant that science can’t detect it–but that doesn’t make it God-like.
In theory we could go to the coordinates of the teapot and take it’s picture. Even if we didn’t know exactly where it was we could scour the range of coordinates and given enough time and effort we could find it or rule out its being in a certain area or at the very least based on its size and the volume it’s contained in say we are X% sure it’s not between Earth and Mars.
But since God is unembodied we could know the exact location of every quark in the universe and still not know where God is and He could still be real or at least authentic to the description given to Him in those ancient texts.
What Russell has done is placed on God the burden of being scientifically detectable in order to be real. But he offers no reason why God can’t exist without fulfilling this requirement?
Is God Less God-like If He Is Uncaliperable?
Dr. Russell is also comparing something with no proof for its existence outside of his fanciful testimony meant to be a zinger to something who’s existence we do have good arguments for.
The ontological, teleological, cosmological, moral…these arguments have kept our greatest thinkers busy for over a thousand centuries.
The list of theists is long and illustrious and will make any honest skeptic pause.
This doesn’t make God real but it does mean that you can be a rational human being and believe in God. Not so much for his teapot.
The Tea Pot Is Under Strain
Let’s ask a question: When is lack of evidence evidence of lack?
Suppose you enter a cozy one room cabin and someone asks you if there are any Kodiak bears in the room. If you don’t see, hear, or smell any Kodiak bears you can assert with confidence that there are no Kodiak bears in the cabin.
But what if you enter the cabin and someone asks you if there are any gnats in the room? You can stare and listen but you will have a much shakier foundation to affirm that there are no gnats in the cabin.
In the first case we can go easily from “I don’t see any bears” to “there are no bears”. In the second case we can only go from “I don’t see any gnats” to “I don’t know if there are any gnats.”
The difference between the two is our epistemic situation, which in broad terms is the limits on our ability to know something through our primary sources of knowing (sense, memory and reason).
Using the terms we usually do around here we could say we’re atheistic about bears in the cabin but remain agnostics about the gnats.
Three Reasons for Our Evidence of God
What Russell is trying to do is stretch our atheism about the teapot into atheism about God. But is that a legitimate analogy? In order for that argument to work two criteria have to be met.
1. If God exists then we would expect there to be evidence for God.
2. If there is evidence for God then we would expect to have knowledge of this evidence.
We deny the bears in the cabin because we expect sufficient evidence to know if bears were in the cabin–but we lack it.
We are less sure about the gnats because even though we lack evidence for them we wouldn’t necessarily expect to have any evidence if they were there.
So with respect to God we would have to expect to have evidence of His existence but lack it to affirm atheism.
But should the skeptic expect to have this evidence? Here’s three reasons why they shouldn’t.
People are fallen and flawed and have wilfully and purposefully closed their eyes toward God. We do this because we are proud, licentious, and wicked people in desperate need of a savior.
A crystal clear example of this is atheist Thomas Nagel saying, ” I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers… It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want a universe like that.”
Could a mindset like that cause him to knowingly or not close his eyes to evidence for God?
2. Demands for unreasonable types of evidence
God could better prove His existence by painting a vibrant picture of Jesus in a different color Snuggie up in the clouds every Sunday from 11 to noon.
Or maybe he could cause frogs to say John 3:16 instead of “ribbit”.
Whatever the demand the implication is that God has a moral obligation to people to make Himself more clearly–even ridiculously!–evident because then more people would believe in God and avoid hell.
This leads us to the last reason.
3. Humble versus forced submission to God
God doesn’t desire that people merely acknowledge His reality but that they have a redemptive, meaningful, ongoing relationship with Him. He wants to be every bit of our Lord and Father–not just our acknowledged reality.
Would cloudy Snuggie clad saviors and talking frogs lead more people to this type of relationship? Maybe, but I doubt it. We are still bent toward evil and incapable of doing good on our own.
It might just lead to more people like the demons who acknowledge Him but refuse to submit to his authority.
What separates God from Santa Claus, tooth fairies, teapots, and other imaginary beings is that where we can’t necessarily expect to know about evidence for God we would expect to know about evidence for the others.
But our epistemic situation is better.
Evidence of God Superior to Evidence for Tea Pots
We would expect to find factories at the North Pole, orphans getting quarters under their pillows and astronauts telling us about the teapot they left on the wing of Mariner IV.
Now I’ll admit the other option for the teapot could be that it just spontaneously popped into being from nothing in a solar orbit and while that would be extremely more likely than the entire universe doing the same trick (which atheists also believe) nobody really believes that could happen (which makes you wonder why it’s okay for the universe but not a measly teapot).
Which leads me to one final thought.
The crux of this argument is that there is no good reason to believe in the teapot other than widespread indoctrination. Russell is asserting that blind fideism puts faith and reason at odds–and reason must triumph.
You knew we would get here eventually but enter Jesus as the anti-teapot. The uniter of heart and mind.
God saw fit to come to earth in the form of Jesus and become very detectable so that we might know Him, repent, believe, and live in redeemed relationship with Him.
The historicity of the life of Christ allows us to have a reasonable faith. We can study His life, His words, and the lives of the people He interacted with.
In Russell’s analogy he’s given us no reason to believe him about the teapot. If the teapot’s creator had authored a now ancient text describing the out of sight teapot we could study it.
If we had reason to believe the author we’d have reason to believe in the teapot. The same must be said for Jesus. But in Jesus’ case, his life, death and resurrection exist not as dogma but as historical evidence. In other words, facts. Not so for the tea pot.