Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Teapot Gnome Scandal

This post is the result of a discussion I got into on Pharyngula. I'm not going to link to it; it is but a minor sidebar in the ongoing Pharyngula descent into madness of which I wrote earlier. (Case in point: a new post, where Myers chums the waters by announcing that he has made good on his promise of desecrating a consecrated host, a Koran, and a "surprise" entry—which his followers are hoping is something from the Mormon Unmentionables Department. How did Myers perform his desecration? Well, we'll have to tune in next time to learn the details. At the time I wrote this, the post had 1406 mostly Kafkaesque comments—a surreal exchange between rhetoric-challenged Myers supporters and Pollyannaish Catholics praying the Rosary.)

The sidebar was related to an essay by Catherine Devent entitled "Red hot enlightenment led me to believe in one fewer god." Devent's essay is not very good, more about that anon. Its purpose is to trash the Roman Catholic World Youth Day, an event about which I personally have no opinion.

Devent's essay starts with a false premise, in bold text face because it is so important. She writes:
Believe what you will, but don't expect me to stop prodding you about why you're religious.
We don’t expect you to stop. We don’t care if you stop or continue. In short, we don’t think about you at all.

Devent concludes her article with an old witticism:
We are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
I'm not sure what historian Stephen Roberts, its alleged creator, intended for this quote, so I won't attack his judgment. But the way it is used here, just like the way neo-Rosicrucian Sam Harris uses it when he occasionally feels like slumming about on Terra Firma, is nonsense. You can simply turn it about and say: "Richard Dawkins only believes in one less god than I do" to see the silliness. As an amusing quip the Roberts quote stands. As a statement with real substance it fails.

It is earlier in Devent's essay that the point of this post, if there is one, is found. She writes:
Telling me I'm going to hell won't bother me because I have the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn and Bertrand Russell's Teapot in my heart. Google them if you are in the market for some red hot enlightenment.
I don't know anything about the Invisible Pink Unicorn. But the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for those who don't know, is a humorous mocking of theism—fair enough in its own right. The Flying Spaghetti Monster also perfectly, absolutely perfectly, captures the intellectual gravitas of the so-called New Atheism. It never advances beyond "your god is so dumb and you have no proof he is any better than a flying spaghetti monster."

As I said, fair enough, and good for a few laughs.

What I objected to was including Russell's teapot in same set as the FSM. That won't do. For two reasons. One is that Russell's teapot was not meant either to disprove or mock theism—that is, it is not in the same category as the FSM. They should not be grouped together. The other is that Russell was smart, really really smart, and when he wanted to criticize theism he gave it a good, solid, proper drubbing. It is an insult to Russell to include him as a sort of a precursor to the New Atheist. In actuality, the New Atheist is a devolution from the likes of Russell.

In one of those old SAT analogies, we would have something like:
Richard Dawkins:Bertrand Russell :: John Hagee:Francis Schaeffer
Russell's teapot was not meant to mock theism. It was meant to point out a common logical fallacy used by theists. Russell rightly pointed out that it was foolish for theists to demand that he prove there is no god. He is correct—if atheism vs. theism came down to offering a logical proof, the burden would be on us to prove God exists, not on atheists to prove the negative.

Russell's teapot appears in his essay Is there a God? The teapot section reads:
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.
I fail to see how anyone could read this and not understand that the teapot is not one of Russell's arguments against theism, it is a argument against the illogic used by some theists. The distinction, I trust, is clear.

Now one commenter on Pharyngula insisted that the title of the essay proves that Russell intended the teapot as an argument against theism. Nonsense. If had been the only or the most important point of the essay, yes. But it was a tangential argument about the rhetorical skills of armchair apologists.

If the teapot was an important arrow in Russell's anti-theism quill, he would have used it in his famous work Why I am not a Christian. He would have written "I am not a Christian, because, well because why should I believe in your stinky god? I might as well worship an orbiting teapot!"

If that had been Russell’s argument, then he would indeed be the intellectual equal of today's New Atheist headliners.

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