Of Teapots and Razors

November 24th, 2010 § 2 comments

I'm a little teapot, short and stout.

I'm a little teapot...

It may well be possible to explain all of reality without appealing to God. This is the basis for the New Atheism. What is it that we need God for? We have a story of cosmic origin (sort of), a theory of how life emerged and how we humans came to be (we do, too!), a burgeoning understanding of thought and even consciousness, and even explanations for ethics (or denials of ethical values, take your pick).

As Bertrand Russel put it, the burden of proof does not rest with the skeptic, but the proponent.

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 an 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.

Russel’s Teapot – Wikipedia

If we have no reason to believe it is there—if it contributes nothing to our theories and does not give sensible evidence for its own existence—we ought at least to refrain from believing that it exists, or more probably assert its non-existence. (For those who haven’t caught on, the “razor” in the title is an allusion to Occam’s own shaving implement.)

The Benoist XIV, ca 1913.

The Benoist XIV, ca 1913.

The problem is that this is a ridiculously optimistic view of science. Our theories are so incomplete as to be laughable. And no doubt we will laugh at them in 100 years just as we now laugh at the state of science 100 years ago. (Do you know what airplanes looked like in 1910?) Indeed, growing even more quickly than our answers—multiplying exponentially faster than our knowledge—are our questions and doubts.

We have no more reason to believe that the universe makes sense without a God than we have reason to believe that there is a china teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars. And, as Bertrand Russel says, we have no good reason to believe that.

Therefore, we must entertain at least as much skepticism of the “scientific” atheism as that atheism entertains of of teapots. Here Christianity takes the position of the skeptic. The burden of proof lies elsewhere.

§ 2 Responses to Of Teapots and Razors"

  • Ben says:


    I agree that it is more reasonable to believe that God exists than the alternative. However, why does there need to be a burden of proof if both parties agree that a premise cannot be proven?

    I think you have a very good point about the teapot, and I like your subtle hook to an interesting Smithsonian piece about the first airline whose plane shares part of it’s name with me.

  • David says:

    To some degree it’s not a question of reasonableness, but of one’s default intellectual position. For example, in the U.S. court system, a citizen is considered innocent until proven guilty. So, should God’s existence be assumed until it is shown to more reasonable to believe otherwise, or should God’s non-existence be assumed until the other side is shown to be more reasonable? Which is the proper default position?

    This precedes, to some degree, a discussion of which is more reasonable.

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