The Teapot Delusion


Many literate people* believe that Bertrand Russell was arguing, in his famous essay of 1952,  that there is no more reason to believe in God, than there is to believe in a Celestial Teapot.

They are deluded.

Russell was using the Celestial Teapot as a symbol for any belief that cannot be substantiated by evidence. His claim is that no matter how ridiculous the belief is and how unsupported by evidence, if it is supported by the religious practices that were prevalent in 1950s Britain; then unbelievers will find themselves subject to inquisition or psychiatric intervention.

 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.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Unlike the existence of an orbiting teapot too small to be observed, where I think it would have been entirely unreasonable to ask the 1950s dogmatist to prove his assertion;  this assertion is one where if it were true it would be reasonable to expect lots of evidence.

In 1950s Britain some people, including Alan Turing, who was a lead participant in breaking the Enigma Code in the United Kingdom during World War II, were legally persecuted, for not conforming to socially  held expectations of behaviour.  But I know of no evidence that anyone  was either prosecuted or subjected to legally enforced medical treatment for a simple failure to believe in one of the dogmas of religion.

What Bertrand Russell claims in his Celestial Teapot argument is clearly not the blood libel, and I have no doubt that he was too enlightened to favour the murder, torture, or even enforced medical treatment for those who merely held different opinions to himself. But in this Teapot related anecdote, he illustrates something that is linked to persecution and genocide – the labelling of others, in this case religious believers, not only as significantly different from oneself and ones social group, but also as a threat to the members of that social group.
Religious people have undoubtedly been influenced by, and created, propaganda labelling others as negatively different and harmful.  The success of the Celestial teapot meme, and the ready acceptance of its unproven claims within atheist culture, suggests that they are not alone in this gullibility.

See also Paranoid Belief and the Celestial teapot