We’ve been seeing an amazing amount of press given to something as simple as atheist signs on public transport, and here’s another thing that makes the apologists for religion tear their hair out: Russell’s teapot. They don’t get it. They read the idea with dumb incomprehension, and when they do try to explain it, they just expose their own silly misinterpretations. Case in point, Ross Douthat, who puts a goofy gloss on it.
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.
Shorter Ross Douthat: Comparing belief in God to belief in the Celestial Teapot is absurd, because it’s like comparing a belief only some people know is absurd to a belief everyone knows is absurd.
I have my own version:
Shorter Ross Douthat: If enough of us imagine it, it must be real.
When I was about 10 years old, I went to see a late-night horror movie (Die, Monster, Die with Boris Karloff, if you must know; it had face-melty mutants produced by a weird meteorite kept in an old mansion), and afterwards my uncle drove me home in his old 50’s era Ford with the big bench seats high up off the floorboards. I vividly recall a terrible dread that there was something, a horrible monster, hiding under the seat, and if I let my legs dangle down, it was going to rip my feet off. I knew there wasn’t — the seats weren’t that high that Boris Karloff could fit under them — but my perfectly normal, non-insane mysterious agency perception was simply set tinglingly high by a few hours of jump-and-twitch at a monster movie, and I was imagining supernatural beings where there weren’t any.
Look. I was ten years old, high on Coca-Cola and jujubes, and I could figure that out. How old is Ross Douthat?
If you actually read Dawkins, or any of us other critics of religion, you will discover that we do not think the majority of humanity is insane, and we also don’t believe religion was cobbled up by a shadowy cabal of power-mad priests. Douthat almost has it: we know that human beings readily imagine agency even where there is none, and that it is extremely easy to feel a sensation of the existence of unseen entities, especially when you’ve been primed by an exercise in the imagination, whether it is a horror story or preacher in his pulpit. However, we do not have agency sensors, we have agency interpreters. Imagining a boogey man or a god is perfectly normal, but it does not make them real. Taking your boogey man and wrapping him up in layers and layers of ritual and tradition and over-reaching apologetics does not make him any more real.
That’s our message. It’s time to look under the car seat, gang, and see there’s nothing there. And don’t you feel silly, spending millennia going on and on about the all-powerful beastie, and finding it’s nothing but cobwebs and darkness and your own hyperactive imagination?
As for Russell’s Teapot, I have to add a little fillip to that tiny porcelain entity. As it goes trundling in its circuit about the sun, I must imagine that there is painted on its side a little sign: “There probably is no teapot. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It definitely won’t make it any more real, but it will infuriate those who believe the manifestations of imagination must have some objective reality.