In 1952 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay for Illustrated magazine called Is There a God? in which he answered his own question in the negative by rehashing the problem of suffering and creating a new atheist argument concerning a celestial teapot. Likely it was too controversial for its time as the magazine never published the article. Failure to make publication, here, is not equal to failure to plant a seed in pop cultural imagination as Russell’s argument was the foundation of today’s arguments against theism. Richard Dawkins would do his part in keeping Russell’s supposed smack down of religious belief alive in two of his books The God Delusion and The Devil’s Chaplain. While Russell’s thought experiment may seem ironclad for anyone looking for an excuse to skip church on Sunday, let’s spend some time considering his proofs.
We will begin at the end with his infamous celestial teapot. When seriously considering proofs against God, one should generally become skeptical of the skeptic when he tries to pin thousands of years of theological development into a corner by comparing it to Santa Claus, Zeus, or an insignificant astral clunk of brass. This is what Russell attempts to do by asserting it is not the duty of the skeptic to “disprove received dogmas” rather the “dogmatists must prove them.” He explains nobody should take him seriously if he says there is an invisible floating teapot orbiting the earth. By comparing an invisible teapot to the God of the Bible, Russell attempts to employ the reductio ad absurdum fallacy. His contention that the absurdity in believing in an invisible teapot orbiting the sun is in any way equal to the belief in the God of Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and countless other philosophers and saints is itself absurd. Russell attempts to square this philosophical circle by explaining that parents and educators have made a supposed insane proposition like monotheism conceivable. In other words, to Russell, Augustine’s City of God may well have been called City of Really Fine China had his mother professed belief in this invisible seraphic brass. If you are agnostic towards this line of reasoning, you should be considering Augustine also wrote Confessions which grappled with his own agnosticism while journeying towards the faith. The fact is, there is good reason to believe in what philosophers call the First Mover, and theologians call God whereas there is no good reason to believe in invisible magic teapots. This is why the burden of proof falls on the shoulder of skeptic.
This segues us into a universe-sized problem of Russell’s intellectual descendant’s brand of cynicism. He wrote his grand smack down of western tradition in 1952. Concurrently, physicists were split in half over a seemingly controversial theory in cosmology. Notably, it was disputed largely for the scientific community’s own refusal to grapple with the possibility that the Universe had a beginning. I am referring to the Big Bang theory. It would not achieve a majority consensus until the 1970s and even then the theory was little more than some celestial observations by the astronomer Edwin Hubble and a mathematical equation developed by Father Georges Lemaître. The Big Bang would only begin to solidify as true in the 1990s as technology advanced to a point that allowed us to develop further empirical proof, and thus move it into the category of generally accepted fact. This becomes a serious problem for Russell’s acolytes today because it thwarts many of his contentions in his popular essay. Russell lived in a time where he could cozily reject the First Mover argument on the grounds of its blandness since his academic bubble delighted in fantasies about eternal universes and inexplicably large amounts of empty space.
To be fair, he does concede the First Mover concept is the toughest to reconcile but then he just blithely dismisses it as banal and moves on. Now that the consensus of the scientific community takes the Big Bang theory as a given the First Mover argument must be dealt with more sincerely than Russell’s essay could offer. His infatuation with the vastness of space as proof of our cosmic insignificance has also been made less tenable on the grounds of how the universe came to be. As time passes, the universe expands in a similar way to a balloon. So observing the universe of Russell’s time would be a different experience than having observed it when it first came into existence. This little nugget of scientific beauty actually makes the theological significance more fascinating since it seems the vast size of the universe is necessary in order for us to be here now. Considering how mankind’s knowledge has increased on these points alone creates a problem in the essay’s utility for the skeptic. It can comfortably be said on the grounds of philosophical proofs, citing Bertrand Russell’s essay is as practical as using flint and straw to create a fire when we now have lighters and gasoline.
In a moment of clarity, Russell lays his insufficient belief in cosmic significance to his own failure to appreciate beauty, truth, and goodness due to physics. Too bad he did not survive to the twenty-first century where all the seeming randomness in the field of science began to come together into what seems like a grand existential symphony. It should be noted this line of reasoning implicates Russell alone as physics has a striking beauty, and the comprehensibility of our material existence should inspire in a similar manner as looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or viewing the sketches of DaVinci’s medieval helicopter. Almost seventy years later, the same sciences Russell’s proofs invoke actually begin to bog down any serious agnostic on the grounds of science. To deny the First Mover proof one must accept some heavy baggage in exchange, as the physicist Stephen Barr explains in his essay Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? This is one reason why some serious thinkers are now considering the absurd hypothesis that our entire universe may have been created on a supercomputer.
The final proofs scattershot throughout the essay attempt to explain why we do not need religion to be moral, why God must be a meanie, and why people are happy when material needs are met. On merit, these are certainly the most difficult points Russell advances for their subjective nature. Regardless, he displays a general ignorance towards theology in what questions he is even asking. Russell often points toward the fruit on the tree as proof of his skepticism rather than considering how the seed was planted. Instead of contemplating why there is a moral order; he explains he knows plenty of morally good people who are irreligious. In his self-congratulatory writing, he never broaches how moral order was defined or the centrality of religion in ordering mankind towards the good. These weighty topics also bring into focus Russell’s obvious biases as a child of his time. He was surrounded by colleagues, though not practitioners of the faith that underpinned their existence, who clearly were still eating the good fruits of a culture steeped in Christian thought. Today, in our post-Christian west, he might find a little more to be skeptical regarding man’s inherited goodness. He is also flatly wrong in his suggestion that good health and access to food makes man happy. Had he witnessed the countless suicides, drug overdose, and reckless alcoholism we are now contending with he may have given more weight to the category of meaning in the life of the person.
His last proof can be boiled down to “suffering must prove we are the subjects of a tyrannical god if a god exists.” In other words, why do people suffer if there is a God? I am afraid my answers are inadequate but as a scientific philosopher, and likely a Darwinist, it seems Russell should have at least been able to see the good that comes about through evolution from uncongenial conditions. This is strictly scientifically speaking, and doesn’t even broach the theological implications of worshiping the God of the Christians who took on flesh to die a violent death and then rise again. Combining an understanding of science, psychology, and theology it seems fair to concede, in our finite ability to grasp our material existence; we have a limited capacity to comprehend human suffering on a cosmic scale.
In a Herculean feat, I have taken up arms and attacked the vicious atheistic hellhound that grows two heads for every one cut off. In my most optimistic estimations it will do little to end the perfect storm of bad philosophy, theology, and science that has allowed it to grow for so long. We live in a time that truth is unfashionable and critical thinking is inconceivable. For this reason Bertrand Russell’s philosophy will be celebrated, not because it is thought provoking, but because it is just thoughtful enough to provide cover for people who would rather not think.