Blasphemy for the Day: Russell’s Teapot

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Getting atheists or agnostics to agree about anything is like attempting to herd cats. But if there’s anything like a core principle we might all share, it’s Russell’s Teapot, in which  Bertrand Russell elegantly expressed the idea that the burden of proof for a belief, based on no objective evidence, rests firmly with its originator.

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.

In fact, this is a pretty good rule of thumb for any rational human being, religious or otherwise, in assessing new ideas. For example, you would expect homeopaths to provide some sort of evidence-based rationale for the efficacy of their remedies, before drinking a bog standard vial of water in the hope of curing what ails you. The rationale is bollocks, and the evidence zero in this case, but the procedure is excellent.

Religion somehow gets a free pass when it comes to this sort of commonsensical scrutiny. Religious belief, particularly when supported/protected by the state and reinforced by generations of tradition and socialization, is too often shielded from criticism by manners, mores, and sometimes blasphemy laws. Religions are not required to offer evidence of their claims, and this would be fine if these were acknowledged to be subjective truths, rather than objective Truth. But when these beliefs translate into actions that impact society, then we have a right to question their objective basis. All the more urgently when institutional religions unite to condemn changes to secular laws, as they are over gay marriage in the UK.

That’s why religion institutions should either point out the location of that elusive teapot, or rightly be thought to be talking nonsense, if their beliefs have a political dimension. We all have an individual voice, but believers should not lay claim to louder, more influential speech, just for belonging to a religion.

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