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Russell’s Cosmic Teapot

31 July 2009

Continuing with the Bertrand Russell theme, here is his excellent illustrative analogy of the burden of proof when it comes to religion and other belief systems:

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 an 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.

Once you get past the automated, unthinking supposition that any given religious book is immutable fact, it’s easy to see Russell’s point.

This point was then further elaborated upon over 50 years later by Richard Dawkins, in his book A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (2003):

The reason organised religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorising loony books about teapots. Government-subsidised schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

While I don’t always agree with Dawkins’s approach — I think his behaviour is sometimes counter-productive as it seems to simply raise the hackles of those with opposing viewpoints, discouraging further discourse — I completely agree with his message. That’s also true in the case of the above quotation, as it is also an excellent illustration of Russell’s original premise.

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