Do you believe in flying teapots?

I grow very tired of hearing people tell me that atheism is the same as religion. “I believe there is a God, and you believe there isn’t. We both BELIEVE something – it’s the same!” This is the problem when one makes assertions based on “common sense” (a.k.a. not thinking before you speak), and is somewhat reminiscent of the “science is religion”  fallacy that I’ve talked about previously. There is a difference, and not simply a semantic one between the statement “I believe there is no God” and “I don’t believe there is a God”. The first is indeed a statement of belief – a belief in non-Godness. The second is a statement of lack of belief – a failure to believe in the existence of God.

To illustrate this difference, I am going to resurrect the oft-disturbed ghost of Bertrand Russell and his celestial teapot. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this thought experiment, Russell invites you to imagine that there is a teapot floating out in space, somewhere between the Earth and Mars, in an elliptical orbit around the sun. He further states that, even with the most powerful telescopes, it is impossible to detect the teapot – it is going too fast, there’s no light shining on it, it’s too small; the important thing is that it is impossible to detect by any means. But since you cannot detect it, you cannot prove that it isn’t there. He then invites you to consider the proposition that since you can’t prove it’s not there, you are required to believe and behave as though it is.

Of course reasonable people will dismiss this teapot out of hand. The idea that there could somehow be a teapot – a manufactured item of human origin – floating out in space is patently ridiculous. How would it have gotten there? “No, no, no” you are happy to say “even though we can’t prove there is no teapot, I’m perfectly willing to accept the position that in the absence of any confirming evidence of a teapot, it isn’t there in all likelihood.”

“But no!” says Russell “the teapot is THERE! How else do you explain why the lawn is wet in the morning? It’s because water from the teapot pours over the atmosphere and gets on the lawn!”

“Bushwah!” you retort. “We know where dew comes from – condensation of water vapour when the air cools overnight. And besides, any water that would come from space would evaporate instantly one it hit the outer atmosphere, and would never reach the ground.”

“Folly!” Russell comes back. “Why else would tea be so popular all over the world, if not for the fact that there is a subconscious recognition in all cultures of the existence of a teapot out there somewhere.”

“Fiddlesticks and balderdash!” say you. “We also know why tea is so popular – part of it has to do with the expansion of an empire that drank tea for historical, agricultural and climate reasons. Part of it has to do with the fact that tea is tasty. Besides, not every culture in the world drinks tea!”

But Russell keeps coming at you with facile explanations of real-life phenomena, invoking the intervention of an invisible teapot. He goes further and describes the colour and shape of the teapot (it’s white with blue flowers, medium-sized, and has a small chip on the handle), despite the fact that it is, by its nature, impossible to see. He even goes so far as to say the teapot demands that we wear used tea bags on our ears, and get together once every week to sing “I’m a little teapot, short and stout”, lest we tempt its ceramic wrath.

Eventually you get so tired of this clown that you slug him in the face and walk away – not a very teapot-like thing to do, says Russell.

I have stretched the metaphor beyond its original context, and made obvious allegorical reference to belief in God. But this is precisely what any faith requires you to do. In the mildest form, it demands that you believe completely in the existence of something for which there is absolutely no evidence, and never can be. In its next form, it twists observable phenomena to fit a blind belief, despite far more reasonable alternative explanations for which there are mountains of evidence. Eventually, it makes wild assertions about this evidenceless entity’s characteristics, and what it wants from humans (but not other animals). Any attempt to introduce reason into the conversation will inevitably be met with “well you can’t prove it’s wrong, so therefore it must be right.”

I want to pause for a second here and talk about that statement. “You can’t prove it’s wrong” is a ludicrous standard to hold anything to. It’s literally impossible (not just really really hard, but actually impossible) to prove that something is or isn’t there. I can’t prove to you that I exist, that you’re reading these words, that your computer is in front of you. If you’re creative enough, you can explain away pretty much everything (except your own existence). All we can do is look at the evidence and test alternative explanations. You could be hallucinating this whole thing, but you haven’t had any psychotropic drugs and don’t have a history of vivid hallucinations (plus, how lame a hallucination is this?). It’s far more reasonable to conclude, until there is evidence to the contrary, that the world is as it seems. Once there is evidence to the contrary, then you evaluate it and change your ideas accordingly. The part that really grinds my gears is the “… so therefore” part. Just because I can’t prove you wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re right. Just because I can’t prove that the food in the fridge doesn’t disappear when the door is closed is not proof that gremlins eat it and poop it out again exactly as it was. It’s not proof of anything. You don’t just get to make shit up because there’s no way to prove you’re wrong.

But it turns out that Russell is very persuasive, and people start to believe in the celestial teapot. When you say “well I don’t believe in a magical flying teapot that nobody can see”, they begin to call you an “a-pot-ist” (or if they’re clever, an a-pot-ate). They tell you that you secretly do believe in the pot, you are just bitter and angry at it, or your life has been bad and you resent the teapot, or that your belief in the absence of the teapot is just as facile as their belief in it. None of those things are the case – you are simply being reasonable and saying that in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, you don’t think there’s a pot there. And you’re right to do so. You might even go so far as to say “there is no evidence that there is a pot, and since it’s highly unlikely that a pot could get into space on its own, there probably isn’t one there.”

Your friend calls himself teapot-agnostic. “We can’t know if it’s there or not,” he says “so I’m not taking a stand on either side.” You then ask him directly if he believes in the existence of the teapot. He says “I don’t know if it’s there or not, it’s impossible to know.” But you press him – does he think there might be a dragon in his back yard? “Well no,” he says “dragons aren’t real.” But they might be, you remind him. There’s no way to know for sure. “Fine,” he says “there might be a dragon in my back yard that I just can’t see.” Does he believe in anything, you ask? Does he, for example, believe that the money in his pocket is real? “It’s impossible to know,” he says “and I refuse to take a position.” Fine, you say. Give me all the money in your wallet, since you don’t know whether it exists or not. See how far his ‘not taking a stand on belief’ goes. Scratch the surface of a systematic agnostic, and you’ll find someone who is actually a non-believer but just isn’t ready to say so. I would invite so-called ‘agnostics’ everywhere to (WARNING: Pun ahead) shit or get off the teapot.

This is the case of skeptic atheism. It is the result of following the philosophy of if there is no evidence for something, then it might as well not exist. If evidence appears later, then it probably does exist, and that’s great. But if there’s something out there that has no effect on the observable universe, whose effects are completely invisible, and without the existence of whom absolutely nothing would change, it’s perfectly fine to say it doesn’t exist, and spend your time on the stuff that you can see. You don’t have to believe that the teapot isn’t there, you just don’t see any evidence that it is.


  1. Rene Najera says

    So much anger and resentment. Those believers really get your blood pressure up, don’t they?

  2. says

    Anger and resentment? I’m not sure which article you were reading there, Rene 😛

    I’ll admit it’s frustrating to see religious belief conflated with being a good person, as though self-delusion is a virtue, but that doesn’t make me angry. What does make me angry is when people use their superstition as an excuse to commit atrocities, but that’s not what this article is about. This is simply a definition of what it means to be an atheist.

  3. says

    See? Right there… “self-delusion”. You’re taking Dawkins’ words and running with them. If we are crazy, then why even have this discussion with us? After all, only psychiatrists can work with crazies…
    When people use their psychiatric disorder… uh… religion to commit atrocities, they’re obviously reading from the Gospel according to St. Bastard.
    (This is the part where I throw the “some of the most atrocious people in history were atheists” gambit, but you know I’m above that.)
    I guess my only beef with your post – and it’s your post so you can do with it what you damn well please, I’m just a bystander – my beef with it is this whole thing that we are crazy for believing in something (or someone) out of our reach. I could say the same for physicists who believe that the universe is expanding into an untestable, unobservable, unreachable something.
    I guess, at least, you’re not like other atheists who say, “Jesus was not the son of God, but he was a very wise man and taught concepts worthy of praise and followers.” Uh, ok. If he was not the son of God, but he said he was, then he was crazy. Because that’s what crazy people do, right? Say they’re the son of God, or God. In turn, if he was crazy, why would his teachings be worthy of following? Who follows a mad man?
    No, you’re not like that. You’re just amazingly worried with those of us who do the easiest thing, believe. (In a way, I’m jealous of you because you have the wherewithal to do the hardest thing, not believe.)

  4. says

    First of all, there’s a huge chasm of difference between self-deluded and crazy. I might convince myself that my girlfriend is cheating on me when she is in fact faithful. That doesn’t make me crazy, it just makes me self-deluded. I believe in something for which there is no evidence, and I allow it to affect my thinking and my behaviour. Anyone who actually hears the literal voice of God is crazy, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re talking about.

    So I am not going to bother refuting all of the ‘crazy’ stuff, because those are words that you put in my mouth (so to speak).

    I’m fairly familiar with the gospels, and there’s not much in there to get excited about in terms of moral teachings. The ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ thing is nice, but not his own work. The majority of Jesus’ teachings were about man’s relationship with Yahweh; nothing to do with morality. I have no problem using the good ideas, but if the only reason they’re good ideas is because they come from God, then they’re not good ideas. If they work without God, then keep them.

    A lot of theoretical physics seems pretty close to religion, and any physicist who insists that they know THE TRUTH in the absence of evidence is using the same flawed logic.

    Since you did throw in the gambit, I’ll respond to it. If you read the post, you’ll see that atheism is not a belief system – it’s a specific lack of belief in something. Some of the greatest villains in history had moustaches. The majority of them are men. It is a huge straw man to a) say that they are evil because they are atheist, and b) equate a specific non-belief with religious justification. How do we know what the correct interpretation of the gospels are? When the Bible says “an eye for an eye”, is that a metaphor? How do we know?

    The only way it is easy to believe is if you don’t ask any questions about what you believe in, or accept easy answers without thinking through the implications. I know that you find that attitude frustrating when the anti-vax people do it, so maybe you can appreciate my frustration when religious folks do it. But like you I don’t resent them, I just wish they’d do a little more critical thinking.

  5. says

    Incidentally, none of what you said makes my arguments wrong. I am just aware that you don’t like them, and you think I’m a big meanie. Or a prick. At least about this, ’cause I know we agree about a lot of other stuff.

  6. says

    RE easy/hard. I actually had a bit of an interesting discussion with my then-girlfriend-now-wife about this. She is extremely skeptical about the existence of anything else beyond us, spiritually speaking. I’m not. I gladly accept it and move on with my life.
    So we talked about how envious I was of her that she actually took time out of her life to contemplate the possibilities. She chose to believe. I, on the other hand, just believe. I’m weird like that.
    To be honest with you, I probably would find no meaning to anything I do on a daily basis if I didn’t believe that I was being held to a higher standard and part of a bigger scheme. I’m weak like that, I guess.
    And, no, I’m not trying to prove you wrong in any way. It’s just that you do come off a bit angered about people who believe, or even those who waffle. That’s all.
    Analyzing your words a little more carefully, I think it drives you nuts that people like the Wellsboro Baptists Nutjobs use religion as a crutch to be assholes. But, do you think that removing religion would make them less nuts?

  7. says

    I definitely believe there’s something greater than myself – it’s called the human race. I hold myself to a higher standard all the time, thinking that if the whole world did what I was about to do then society at large would not be a nice place to live. That’s why I work so hard to be moral even when nobody’s watching.

    Fred Phelps is a pretty extreme example of the phenomenon. There’s a lot of stuff done in the name of religion (or at least with a religious justification) that people are content to say “well that’s a religious belief, so you can’t question it.” Religion is a shitty justification for anything, because it requires you to believe in order for it to work. In any other field, we’d call it a placebo. If an anti-vax group got a law passed that made the MMR illegal based on their belief that it causes harm, you’d be spitting nails, not merely saying “well everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

    Removing religion (although I don’t know that this is what I’m advocating, or even how one would go about doing it) would make people less willing to tolerate ridiculous and harmful ideas because they are based on an interpretation of scripture or belief in a deity.

  8. says

    Sad but true example of me being an asshole:

    The husband of a well-known atheist in the town where I used to live died in a weirdo kind of accident. She was spitting nails, as you would say, because her husband died. I asked her, very foolishly, why it mattered. “He’s just a chunk of flesh, in your worldview,” I recall saying. I was younger, and I’ve since apologized. I still remember her red, swollen eyes looking at me with disdain as I said this, and I feel even more guilty. Anyway, I asked her why it mattered that her husband was dead if he was just the haphazard eventuality of a random universe. “He’s gone, period,” I said. There’s nothing more, not even his conscience. “So, again, why the waterworks? That love you felt and sorrow you feel is nothing more than chemicals going through your veins!”

    Very, very asshole move, right?

    What happened was that a week or two before this exchange she had interrupted the funeral of a good friend of mine shouting something about how could God let it happen and “there is no God because this happened”. Then she reminded us, just as she was being escorted out, that all we felt for that kid was a “bunch of chemicals” going through our veins.

    I’ve since come to the conclusion that it’s us. We’re what is wrong with the known universe. Humans are the shitty ones. Good thing we don’t have interstellar travel because we’d fuck it all up, everything, all of it. We are the evil ones, beliefs or no beliefs. Morals or no morals. God or…

    You’re right, if the antivaxxers passed a law against vaccines I’d fight it with every ounce of strength I have… mostly because, again, that higher calling thing. I like to think I’m the hero of my own story. I’m enamored with the idea that we’re not an accident.

    Anyways, my friend, we’re getting long-winded here, and everyone made fun of Kirk Cameron and his little debate on creationism on Night Line. Let’s not be the butt of anyone’s jokes. Let’s agree to end this here and maybe pick it up again when you write something tomorrow.

  9. says

    Yikes, that’s a pretty bleak outlook on life, and definitely one that I don’t share. While people are capable of profound evil, we are also capable of great acts of good, and we can get better.

    Anyway yes, I have long ago learned that it’s difficult (and mostly undesirable) to browbeat someone into examining their faith. It’s a process I came to naturally, and so I am putting ideas out there to stimulate thought. See you when the next troll hits the RI forums 😛

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