Teapots in Space

How this happened: So I discovered Adolf Eichmann and realized that he was distinctly a member of the Hitler pantheon (on the basis that Hitler is an iconic deity), but to explain how this would make sense, I’d have to explain theolatrism (roughly, service to gods, the superset of monolatrism or polylatrism) the worship of a deity or a pantheon while allowing for other deities and pantheons to exist as well. And that brought me to a couple of atheist arguments that are misused and misunderstood…and demonstrate what theolatrism isn’t.

New Atheism has become a thing, and as with any ideological movement that grows popular, it changes. Firstly, we end up with a countless schisms, a lot of different ideas of what the movement is or what its goals are. And secondly, we end up with a lot of people that use the concepts within that movement to fuel their own psychodramas. Id est, people arguing on the internet, and neither well nor nicely.

I want to highlight two specific atheist arguments that are misused. I hesitate to call them arguments, because they aren’t. And they’re certainly not intended to suggest that God doesn’t exist, though some people think they do. Rather they’re thought experiments to illustrate how dubious positions of faith look from the outside.

The first one is Russell’s Teapot a thought experiment posited by Bertrand Russel. He invites you to picture a china teapot in a stable orbit around the sun at a distance somewhere between the Earth and Mars. As it is a small teapot, we cannot detect it with even our best telescopes, and we don’t know where it is exactly.*

Russell then invites you to imagine that he tells you of this teapot and suggests that it’s really there. Presuming you are not a person of particular credulity, you might figure that he’s teasing you or is mad. If Russell insisted too much you might disassociate with him or even try to get him to psychiatric help.

Now imagine a society in which this teapot is common lore. We teach children about the teapot when they are very young. We have teapot holidays. We go learn about the teapot in Sunday school. We sing teapot hymns and teapot carols. And we have philosophers who analyze the meaning of the teapot and what it means to our daily lives. Then imagine that Russell were to suggest that this teapot business is nonsense, a fabrication. Worse yet, it’s a means to reap collections at teapot services and sell teapot accessories and books about the teapot. It’s a means for teapot-related industries to get special state dispensations that are not offered to other industries.

In his time (the late 19th, early 20th century) and in this teapot-obsessed culture, if Russell denied the teapot, he would be committed to a psych ward, and in earlier ages, he’d be burned as a teapot heretic. The state of the teapot between that world and this one doesn’t change, only whether or not it is popular tradition.

The second one is called the One god further argument, which I first heard from Richard Dawkins.** The notion capitalizes on the fact that many theists only reserve belief and acceptance for those gods in their own pantheon. A Jesuit may believe in Jesus and Yahweh, but regards Thor and Zeus as superstition or mythology. More notably, Christians will commonly dismiss the existence of gods which have significant popularity, such as Krishna and Ganesha who are recognized and accepted as truth in the 21st century by 960 million adherents of Hinduism.

Thus the original statement is (I paraphrase) We are all atheist to those gods we do not believe in. Atheists only go one god further. When you understand your own skepticism of those gods you don’t believe in [that others do], you will understand my skepticism of the gods that you believe in.

This belies a different belief system that we’ve all come to accept, specifically naturalism, the notion that our world operates according to quantifiable and consistent laws (regardless of whether our scientific models account for them). When it comes to phenomena that are not specifically related to our personal system of faith, we tend to assume it happened due to natural events. And this is true for most (possibly all) of the material world.

Jesus appears a lot in tortillas. Elvis, maybe once. Ganesha or Zeus or Donald Trump, not so much.

Even the most devout are not particularly keen to attribute ball lightning to divine intervention, even though there are no adequate scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Our models of atmospheric electrodynamics do not account for ball lighting at all.

Russell’s Teapot and the One God Further argument don’t challenge particulars of faith. Rather they challenge the behavior of having faith. In one, it compares religious belief to belief in an absurd proposition. In the other, it posits we all disbelieve something that someone else believes. And then we don’t expect to explain why we disbelieve it. Instead we expect they would be required to explain why they believe it in the first place.

This is where we get the notion of burden of proof, since some religious notions (talking snakes, water-walking, global floods) sound pretty outlandish. It raises the question why someone would believe such things actually happened, yet they seem to not expect similar events to happen presently.

Sadly, both arguments are usually presented in adversarial conditions (e.g. people arguing on the internet just to get one up on the other guys). As a result, the questions get ignored as sophistry. (To be fair, this is the common fate of most polemics anyway.)

These arguments raise some pretty intimate questions. If we take the premise that we generally try to apply reason to as much of our lives as we can. (Reason is a powerful tool to facilitate survival and functioning in society.)

We find we then keep specific beliefs that are exceptions, where reason is not applied to them. We exercise more than mere trust in religious faith, but loyalty and we will adhere to these beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Thus:

~ How do these beliefs serve you? How does this identity serve you?

~ Is that what you want from your faith? Is that what you want from your identity?

Not the kind of questions one wants to discuss with a rival or even a stranger on the internet. Some faiths even will try to dissuade self-doubt with threats of divine reprisal (e.g. Hellfire) and institutionalized religions tend to make for a poor source of confidants who might be personally invested that you stay put, or follow their path with them.

To simplify matters, the most common answer to the first one is that we are instilled with these beliefs by our community, and, short of an identity crisis (e.g. discovering you are gay in a community that doesn’t like gays) our faith provides comfort and routine and structure to our lives. At best, they are a tool to help the individual fit into the collective. And at worst, they are a device of control, to keep people from making choices of their own in favor of those that serve a common cause. (Ergo, threats of Hellfire.)

In other cases religious beliefs emerge from crisis as a mechanism to survive and recover from it.

Asking yourself questions like this is dangerous for reasons more complex than the wrath of angry gods. Scrutiny of the inner structures of our character can provoke metamorphosis of that character. We can change, and become someone we are not. (Of course, this happens anyway.) Our identity is who we are, and changing that identity means that we can end up someone else. Maybe even someone that the person we were wouldn’t want to become.

Deep introspection often leads to existentialist questions, sometimes existentialist crises. A common story is the psychology patient who was anxious and miserable because focused too much on earning money. After treatment, he was far less anxious and even considerably happier… and a lot poorer.

In worst cases, it can lead to enlightenment.

* Provided that time travel some-day becomes cheap and available to anyone, or at least to mischievous physics students, I would then submit there are indeed thousands of china teapots in such orbits, because of course they did.

** Professor Dawkins is an accomplished writer, philosopher and academic and has written many books about atheism, evolutionary biology and the psychology of superstition, so it’s easy to imagine he invented this particular line of thought. But I’m not sure, and all of these fields involves a lot of standing on shoulders of giants, as it were. Dawkins is worthy of a lot of credit, including the invention of the meme concept, just not necessarily specifically about this.


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