Tuesday, November 14, 2006

God and teapots

Bertrand Russell used a 'flying teapot' analogy to illustrate the point that the onus of proof lies with the religious believer, rather than the sceptic:
"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."
While I accept this argument up to a point, there's a couple of problems with it. It holds in the sense that both the belief in flying teapots and God are incapable of falsification and therefore unscientific according to the Popperian definition, nevertheless believing in God has always struck me as being unlike believing in flying teapots for a couple of reasons.

One is the idea that all 'leaps of faith' are essentially the same. Surely most people operate on the working assumption that they are not? Take conspiracy theories. These are characterised by a) a lack of evidence, b) an implausible belief in the superhuman capabilities of tiny groups of people. But, while there is no evidence, for example, for the various 9/11 conspiracies, one wouldn't automatically assume those who espouse these theories are insane in the way David Icke obviously is.

The other is one that Bertrand Russell, and more recently Richard Dawkins, make for me: people do not have the same social and psychological investment in believing in flying teapots - or more historically, an aversion to walking under ladders - than they do in God. The aversion to walking under ladders has not historically been the repository for communal codes of morality, unlike religion. Now while it is obviously true that this has not always been benign, as Dawkins points out, this shouldn't lead him, and Russell before him, to dispense with the original insight that they for their own reasons felt themselves unable to follow through: historically religion has operated on more levels and at a deeper level than the various superstitions they like to use as analogies.

This does not require those of us who are agnostics and atheists to 'respect the beliefs of others', still less put up with the rhetorical nonsense that our position is a 'faith'. But it does require - I think, anyway - that we use better arguments than those that pretend believing in God is like believing in flying teapots. Because socially, psychologically, emotionally, and politically this is clearly not the case. And once we've eliminated these, there isn't as much left of us as some like to pretend.

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