Russell’s Teapot, God and Proof
“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.” – Bertrand Russell
In an unpublished article for Illustrated Magazine in 1952, eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that if he were to assert that there were a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars, that people being unable to disprove his hypothesis did not mean that people should take his assertions to be true. He went on to explain that if, however, this teapot was taught as fact to every child every Sunday, that no doubt people would just accept this as “true”, and that “teapot disbelievers” would be seen as heretics and hauled off to an asylum, a jail or even killed. This hypothetical teapot came to be known as Russell’s teapot, and I have a diagram of it on a tee-shirt just like the figure below.
EDIT: I do realise the irony in the “Teach The Controversy” message, I know it’s used by the misguided in the USA, but there is no controversy to teach! Besides the teeshirts are just so damned cool!
What Russell hoped to point out with this statement is that, rather than the doubter having to disprove a dubious claim such as the existence of a celestial teapot, it is actually the role of the person claiming its existence to then prove that existence. This makes perfect sense, and it is a standpoint that the religious people of the world do not take very kindly to, or they balk at it, block their ears and continue on with life. If a religious person says to you, “There is a God”, and you ask them for proof, the answers are always vagaries based around “just knowing”, “having a feeling”, or to point out all the beauty of the world around us and say that “someone must have made this all.” They cannot prove, not in any sense of the word, that God exists, and yet they presume it only natural to assume that anyone who does not believe there is a God is either evil, insane or both.
The problem with asking for proof of God is that the person who claims that “God is real” has already convinced themselves of this, as if it were a fact that could not be challenged. Either that or they have been indoctrinated into a faith that disallows for the possibility of questioning such a notion. These are very tough nuts to crack, and for the most part, conversations about proving the existence of God usually reach a stalemate where the claimant “just knows”. This kind of evidence would be thrown out of any courtroom or any science lab worth its salt, and yet we are expected to allow it in everyday discourse?
It’s very easy to think you know something, simply because that’s all you’ve ever been told, but when your “knowledge” is challenged, you can do one of two things; take it on-board and evaluate it based on its merits, or ignore the new information and continue along your merry way. The believer seems to tend to do the latter if the information goes against their understanding of their belief, and those who do question their faith and conclude that their original standpoint was correct obviously aren’t asking the right questions, asking enough questions, or pursuing the question to its logical conclusion. So often it seems that, in the mind of a believer, proof is something that is offered up by “gut feelings”, not by observation of the world around them. They take comfort in their willful ignorance surrounding the lack of evidence for a God, because it feels good to think that there is someone watching over you, and taking care of your every move.
So the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on the unconvinced. You cannot disprove something’s lack of existence, but you should by definition be able to prove its existence. But of course, the vagaries continue as if in lieu of real proof, like “you have to believe to know he exists”, “God exists because I know he exists”, or “God is beyond human understanding.” These are irrelevant conclusions, based on circular reasoning, called “special pleading” (count the fallacies!), and again, would never be allowed in a court of law or a science lab. Religion is not immune to the same level of scrutiny with which we analyse the rest of the world, and there is no reason it should be. “Special circumstances” surrounding the existence of God hold no water beyond a “gut feeling” and therefore I do not accept them.
I think the problem lies in either an inability or an unwillingness to really think about these claims. I make no claims that I can’t back up here, using logic, rational thought and facts. If you claim God, you too should be able to go beyond your gut feelings, and present some real tangible information that proves the existence of God, and not try to side-step the issue by offering up half-thought-out assertions and vague claims that require a God’s existence for them to be true.