The Teapot Analogy

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In response to this post, and the suggestion that even hardened atheists should occasionally feel faint tremors of "maybe God does exist" doubt, several scoffing readers have directed me to Bertrand Russell's famous teapot analogy, which supposedly settles once and for all the question of whether nonbelievers should give any credence to the possibility that God exists:

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.  

This analogy - like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster - makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is. As you might expect, I see the genesis of religion rather differently: An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions that seem to Richard Dawkins and company like so much teapot-worship. The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God (here I do feel comfortable using the term), rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School. I am unaware of anything similar holding true for orbiting pots or flying noodle beasts. And without the persistence of this perceived interaction (and beneath it, the intuitive belief in some kind of God), it's difficult to imagine religious belief playing anything like the role it does in human affairs, no matter how many ancient scriptures there were propping the whole thing up.

This is not to say that humanity's religious experiences and intuitions are anything like a dispositive argument for the existence of God. Certainly, there are all sorts of interesting efforts to explain them without recourse to the hypothesis that they correspond to anything real, and all kinds of reasons to choose atheism over faith. But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one's own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn't thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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