Russell’s teapot

In an article titled “Is There a God?” commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell wrote:

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. 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.[1]


Philosopher Brian Garvey argues that the analogy fails with regard to religion because, with the teapot, the believer and non-believer are simply disagreeing about one item in the universe and may hold in common all other beliefs about the universe, which is not true of an atheist and a theist.[7] Garvey argues that it is not a matter of the theist propounding existence of a thing and the atheist simply denying it – each is asserting an alternative explanation of why the cosmos exists and is the way it is: “the atheist is not just denying an existence that the theist affirms – the atheist is in addition committed to the view that the universe is not the way it is because of God. It is either the way it is because of something other than God, or there is no reason it is the way it is.”[2]

In other words, the atheist is committed to the view that there is no teapot revolving about the sun. It is either something other than a teapot revolving about the sun in that orbit, or there is no object at all there.

The literary critic James Wood, without believing in God, says that belief in God “is a good deal more reasonable than belief in a teapot” because God is a “grand and big idea” which “is not analogically disproved by reference to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur” and “because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing”.[8]

In other words, the teapot is too small of  a lie to be believed. To be believed, a lie must be “grand and big”, which fully agrees with the slogan attributed to Hitler and Goebbels: the bigger the lie, the sooner the public will believe it.

One counter-argument, advanced by philosopher Eric Reitan,[9] is that belief in God is different from belief in a teapot because teapots are physical and therefore in principle verifiable, and that given what we know about the physical world we have no good reason to think that belief in Russell’s teapot is justified and at least some reason to think it not.[10]

In other words, God has no bearing on the Universe, there is no way to detect his actions, and it makes no difference if he exists or not.

Philosopher Paul Chamberlain says it is logically erroneous to assert that positive truth claims bear a burden of proof while negative truth claims do not.[11] He says that all truth claims bear a burden of proof, and that like Mother Goose and the tooth fairy, the teapot bears the greater burden not because of its negativity, but because of its triviality, arguing that “When we substitute normal, serious characters such as Plato, Nero, Winston Churchill, or George Washington in place of these fictional characters, it becomes clear that anyone denying the existence of these figures has a burden of proof equal to, or in some cases greater than, the person claiming they do exist.” [11]


In other words, if God were a real historical figure like Winston Churchill, the atheists would have to prove that he doesn’t exist. But who said that God is a real historical figure like Winston Churchill?


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