July 13, 2011

Teapots & God's Existence

In 1952 Atheist Bertrand Russell launched an argument that sought to change who was on the offensive and who was on the defensive in regards to the existence of God. Since belief in God had longevity behind it many treated atheism as the point that needed to be established. Russell disagreed. He thought disbelief in God should be the standard starting point and it was up to those who believed in Him to convince people of God's existence.

This is his argument;

"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"

I know that I am almost 60 years late for the party but I would like to respond.

Now I know what a lot of you are thinking. Teapots in space are ridiculous.  After all everyone knows that there is no invisible teapot zooming around space. But that has more to do with the nature of teapots than anything else. Teapots don't just spring up, we make them. We decide where they go. There is no teapot tree or teapot mine, they are crafted in workshops and factories by us. This if for no other reason makes this analogy flawed.

However there is something else worth pointing out. Russell floated this argument before the dawn of the space age. The first human made object that was successfully launched into space was Sputnik, a USSR satellite, on October 4 1957. Therefore in 1952 it didn't matter whether there were orbiting teapots, kitchen knives, golf balls, or even high explosives. They were up there and we were down here. 

The International Space Station Exploding (On The Movie Armageddon)
Maybe A Teapot Collided With It
Today however we have satellites, and spaceships and space stations. For the men and women who built, paid for, operate, and work on these things it matters if there are small, hard to see, fast moving objects that could collide with them.

Actually we happen to know that thanks to nearly 60 years of sending things into space we have managed to put a lot of space junk up there. There are a lot of small, hard to see, fast moving objects that we now have to look out for. The crew on the international space station had a collision scare not that long ago.

I think the question of God existing or not is more akin to the quest to track space junk in the 21st century than it is akin to the search for a mysterious celestial teapot in 1952.

The real sleight of hand that Russell was trying to do with his argument was to make belief in God appear totally ridiculous. So ridiculous that most people need never bother to reflect on the possibility of God existing. After all why seriously consider something so ludicrous.

But trying to figure out; if there is a god out there, and if so what is he/she/it like, is not ridiculous. Answering those questions will greatly affect how I answer other big questions like; what is the meaning of life and what is the purpose of my life? Now I am not saying you cannot supply answers to these questions if you do not believe in God. You can. Instead I am saying the answers would change. Life would have different meanings and different goals depending on God's existence or non-existence.

Likewise knowing whether God does or does not exist also helps to inform me what actions I should and should not take. I am an atheist when it comes to Zeus. Therefore I offer Zeus no prayers, I have no statues of him in my home, and I have never sacrificed a pig in his name. Given what I know about Greek mythology, and my own study of religion, philosophy, and theology I am confidant to continue down the path of being a Zeus atheist.

However it is worth noting that if I am wrong, I am in big trouble. After all, I have offered no prayers to Zeus, I have none of his statues in my home and I have never sacrificed a pig in his name. I imagine most of what I do would frustrate any number of the Greek pantheon. If I am wrong in my atheism I am in big trouble. If you are wrong in yours, you just might be too.

Let me end by saying this; we (Christians) have given you (non-Christians) far too many reasons to agree with people like Bertrand Russell. And for that I am very sorry. The fact is there are times when we do and say things that are ridiculous. Some of us are aware of it, some of us are not. We're working on it I promise.

However whether or not God exists and whether or not there is a teapot in space; are not the same type of question. God's existence or his none existence will have an impact on your life. Make sure it is the kind you can live with for your entire life, and possibly beyond.