In Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell set out to explain why he does not believe in god or immortality and why he does not believe Jesus was the best and wisest of men. He demonstrates why the belief in god is circular and how religious “morality” is mostly based on fear.
But Russell could have also wrote an essay titled Why I am Not an Agnostic, as he presented a problem known as Russell’s teapot that is hard to reconcile with agnosticism, and is partly the reason I have changed my mind on the topic (and now consider “atheist” to be the more appropriate label for expressing nonbelief). Here’s how Russell described it:
“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.”
Imagine for a moment that this idea of the floating teapot came to achieve divine significance, with Russell assuming prophetic status. Sacred scriptures, churches, and rituals were all established, and adherents came to be called “teapotists” as they congregated every Sunday in their teapot churches.
Now, imagine that I asked you where you stood on the teapot issue. If you were forced to give yourself a label, would you claim to be agnostic regarding the existence of the teapot or would you simply say you don’t believe the teapot exists? If you had to decide between the following two options, would you label yourself as an agnostic or as an ateapotist?
In terms of direct evidence, there is little distinction between the invisible teapot and the invisible god of the monotheistic religions. If you wouldn’t claim to be agnostic in regard to the teapot, you shouldn’t be agnostic in regard to the monotheistic god.
In truth, we are all technically agnostic if by agnostic we mean that we can never prove for certain the existence or nonexistence of god one way or the other. But this applies to all knowledge, not just the existence of god.
This has been demonstrated in numerous ways. For example, we know that we can’t justify all of our beliefs and assumptions because we would face the problem of infinite regress, and so some of our beliefs must be foundational and unsupportable. Also, the problem of induction shows that we can never be certain about forming general conclusions from specific observations.
So we can never be completely certain about anything; however, the term agnostic seems to imply that the probability of some proposition being either true or false is roughly 50 percent. If it didn’t mean this, we would have to claim to be agnostic about all knowledge since we can never attain absolute certainty.
What we want to say is that we believe in the things that are more likely to be true, that we don’t believe in the things that are less likely to be true, and that we are agnostic towards the things in which the evidence for and against is equally strong.
In terms of the god question, agnosticism does not seem to be an appropriate label. Simply because the idea of god was imagined and written down does not give it equal status to the default position that there is no god. The nonexistence of god is the default position because there is no direct evidence for god’s existence, only indirect and unreliable evidence from ancient writings or from the cultural traditions in which we were raised.
I’m agnostic as to whether the flip of a fair coin will land on heads or tails; I’m not agnostic as to whether an invisible yet all-powerful god created the world 6,000 years ago and then drowned everyone in a flood because they didn’t turn out right. I think, actually, that the floating teapot is more likely.
More Books by Bertrand Russell
- The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell
- Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
- A History of Western Philosophy
- The Conquest of Happiness
- The Problems of Philosophy
- The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell