I grow very tired of hearing people tell me that atheism is the same as religion. “I believe there is a God, and you believe there isn’t. We both BELIEVE something – it’s the same!” This is the problem when one makes assertions based on “common sense” (a.k.a. not thinking before you speak), and is somewhat reminiscent of the “science is religion” fallacy that I’ve talked about previously. There is a difference, and not simply a semantic one between the statement “I believe there is no God” and “I don’t believe there is a God”. The first is indeed a statement of belief – a belief in non-Godness. The second is a statement of lack of belief – a failure to believe in the existence of God.
To illustrate this difference, I am going to resurrect the oft-disturbed ghost of Bertrand Russell and his celestial teapot. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this thought experiment, Russell invites you to imagine that there is a teapot floating out in space, somewhere between the Earth and Mars, in an elliptical orbit around the sun. He further states that, even with the most powerful telescopes, it is impossible to detect the teapot – it is going too fast, there’s no light shining on it, it’s too small; the important thing is that it is impossible to detect by any means. But since you cannot detect it, you cannot prove that it isn’t there. He then invites you to consider the proposition that since you can’t prove it’s not there, you are required to believe and behave as though it is.
Of course reasonable people will dismiss this teapot out of hand. The idea that there could somehow be a teapot – a manufactured item of human origin – floating out in space is patently ridiculous. How would it have gotten there? “No, no, no” you are happy to say “even though we can’t prove there is no teapot, I’m perfectly willing to accept the position that in the absence of any confirming evidence of a teapot, it isn’t there in all likelihood.”
“But no!” says Russell “the teapot is THERE! How else do you explain why the lawn is wet in the morning? It’s because water from the teapot pours over the atmosphere and gets on the lawn!”
“Bushwah!” you retort. “We know where dew comes from – condensation of water vapour when the air cools overnight. And besides, any water that would come from space would evaporate instantly one it hit the outer atmosphere, and would never reach the ground.”
“Folly!” Russell comes back. “Why else would tea be so popular all over the world, if not for the fact that there is a subconscious recognition in all cultures of the existence of a teapot out there somewhere.”
“Fiddlesticks and balderdash!” say you. “We also know why tea is so popular – part of it has to do with the expansion of an empire that drank tea for historical, agricultural and climate reasons. Part of it has to do with the fact that tea is tasty. Besides, not every culture in the world drinks tea!”
But Russell keeps coming at you with facile explanations of real-life phenomena, invoking the intervention of an invisible teapot. He goes further and describes the colour and shape of the teapot (it’s white with blue flowers, medium-sized, and has a small chip on the handle), despite the fact that it is, by its nature, impossible to see. He even goes so far as to say the teapot demands that we wear used tea bags on our ears, and get together once every week to sing “I’m a little teapot, short and stout”, lest we tempt its ceramic wrath.
Eventually you get so tired of this clown that you slug him in the face and walk away – not a very teapot-like thing to do, says Russell.
I have stretched the metaphor beyond its original context, and made obvious allegorical reference to belief in God. But this is precisely what any faith requires you to do. In the mildest form, it demands that you believe completely in the existence of something for which there is absolutely no evidence, and never can be. In its next form, it twists observable phenomena to fit a blind belief, despite far more reasonable alternative explanations for which there are mountains of evidence. Eventually, it makes wild assertions about this evidenceless entity’s characteristics, and what it wants from humans (but not other animals). Any attempt to introduce reason into the conversation will inevitably be met with “well you can’t prove it’s wrong, so therefore it must be right.”
I want to pause for a second here and talk about that statement. “You can’t prove it’s wrong” is a ludicrous standard to hold anything to. It’s literally impossible (not just really really hard, but actually impossible) to prove that something is or isn’t there. I can’t prove to you that I exist, that you’re reading these words, that your computer is in front of you. If you’re creative enough, you can explain away pretty much everything (except your own existence). All we can do is look at the evidence and test alternative explanations. You could be hallucinating this whole thing, but you haven’t had any psychotropic drugs and don’t have a history of vivid hallucinations (plus, how lame a hallucination is this?). It’s far more reasonable to conclude, until there is evidence to the contrary, that the world is as it seems. Once there is evidence to the contrary, then you evaluate it and change your ideas accordingly. The part that really grinds my gears is the “… so therefore” part. Just because I can’t prove you wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re right. Just because I can’t prove that the food in the fridge doesn’t disappear when the door is closed is not proof that gremlins eat it and poop it out again exactly as it was. It’s not proof of anything. You don’t just get to make shit up because there’s no way to prove you’re wrong.
But it turns out that Russell is very persuasive, and people start to believe in the celestial teapot. When you say “well I don’t believe in a magical flying teapot that nobody can see”, they begin to call you an “a-pot-ist” (or if they’re clever, an a-pot-ate). They tell you that you secretly do believe in the pot, you are just bitter and angry at it, or your life has been bad and you resent the teapot, or that your belief in the absence of the teapot is just as facile as their belief in it. None of those things are the case – you are simply being reasonable and saying that in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, you don’t think there’s a pot there. And you’re right to do so. You might even go so far as to say “there is no evidence that there is a pot, and since it’s highly unlikely that a pot could get into space on its own, there probably isn’t one there.”
Your friend calls himself teapot-agnostic. “We can’t know if it’s there or not,” he says “so I’m not taking a stand on either side.” You then ask him directly if he believes in the existence of the teapot. He says “I don’t know if it’s there or not, it’s impossible to know.” But you press him – does he think there might be a dragon in his back yard? “Well no,” he says “dragons aren’t real.” But they might be, you remind him. There’s no way to know for sure. “Fine,” he says “there might be a dragon in my back yard that I just can’t see.” Does he believe in anything, you ask? Does he, for example, believe that the money in his pocket is real? “It’s impossible to know,” he says “and I refuse to take a position.” Fine, you say. Give me all the money in your wallet, since you don’t know whether it exists or not. See how far his ‘not taking a stand on belief’ goes. Scratch the surface of a systematic agnostic, and you’ll find someone who is actually a non-believer but just isn’t ready to say so. I would invite so-called ‘agnostics’ everywhere to (WARNING: Pun ahead) shit or get off the teapot.
This is the case of skeptic atheism. It is the result of following the philosophy of if there is no evidence for something, then it might as well not exist. If evidence appears later, then it probably does exist, and that’s great. But if there’s something out there that has no effect on the observable universe, whose effects are completely invisible, and without the existence of whom absolutely nothing would change, it’s perfectly fine to say it doesn’t exist, and spend your time on the stuff that you can see. You don’t have to believe that the teapot isn’t there, you just don’t see any evidence that it is.