On facts and religion

I’ve made a video version of this post, available here.

I think facts matter, but sometimes I find this hard. If someone were to tell me that they believed the Earth was flat, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. If someone said that a green chair was actually a blue basketball, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. The same goes for someone telling me Zeus sits atop Mount Olympus and casts judgement on us.

But when someone tells me they believe they will go to heaven after they die if they do certain things, I instead say ‘well I don’t personally believe that’. Why? This is also false, but we feel uncomfortable with certain facts just because a certain number of people have believed that that particular fact is not true for a certain amount of time.

You can say that you can’t prove a negative (which is an oversimplification), and that it is not correct to say that a deity doesn’t exist when you can never really know for sure. The reality is that we just don’t act like this for most things. Some examples:

We can’t know for sure that Zeus isn’t on Mount Olympus and will smite us down for doing certain things, but we tend to act like he isn’t (there’s no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that eating cucumber won’t give us cancer, but we tend to act like it won’t (no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that there isn’t a tea pot floating in space somewhere near Mars, but if someone were to claim that there were, the burden of proof would be on them to prove it, not on us to disprove it.

I want to expand a little more about this last one, an analogy known as Russell’s teapot, with some quotes. Russell said:

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.

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

In some ways, this analogy is not representative of popular modern religions. There is not a large population of people who believe it teapotism, nor is there a major organised religion behind. Believing in Christianity is not quite the same think as believing in teapotism. But where it is absolutely relevant is in the burden of proof, and how we should feel about dismissing its existence.

There seems to be a great discrepancy in society between how willing people are to say that their religious worldview is correct (many even saying that all the others are wrong), and how willing people are to say that the non-existence of deities is the most likely situation. I think we should change this. People also broadly seem happy to publicly dismiss very new religions (say formed in the last 50 years), often calling them cults. The definition of a cult is:

a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object

With all possible due respect, that sounds like the definition of a religion. The only real difference I can see is in its public perception.

I deliberated whether or not to write this post. But this hesitation is exactly the thing I’m talking about. I think people who believe the Earth is flat are wrong, so I’m happy to write about it. I think non-humans don’t deserve to suffer for human gain, so I write about that despite public resistance, and am happy to do so. I think that no deities exist, so I should write about that too. We shouldn’t be afraid to write about what we think is true and right.

For the sake of mentioning it, I was raised Catholic, and went to a Jesuit school for 11 years of my education (I used to read the Old Testament for fun, had a favourite New Testament book, and went to mass most weeks). I renounced this and became an atheist (not without some difficulty and personal challenges – perhaps I’ll write about this in the future) when I was around 19. However, I don’t think this should make me more or less qualified to talk about the Catholic god’s existence, any more than it should change how I’m qualified to talk about the existence of any particular thing.

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