In our course on New Atheism this week, we discussed Bertrand Russell, who could likely provide enough philosophical material to span the entirety of a course of his own. His early twentieth-century arguments establish quite a foundational platform upon which much of modern/contemporary/New Atheism has been built. So, when it came time to discuss his ‘Atheism,’ which would orbit around a debate on ‘The Existence of God’ between Russell and F.C. Copleston in 1948, we had much to talk about. For those interested, an audio recording of the debate can be found below.
At the time of the debate, and even identified as such, Russell argues from the point of agnosticism, a position of pragmatic and expressed ‘lack of knowledge,’ derived from both the etymological foundation of the term (the alpha privative ‘A’ combined with ‘γνῶσις:’ ‘without knowledge’), as well as that coined by Huxley as a ‘method,’ rather than a ‘creed.’ In the latter, we might benefit from a more direct and primary description. For example, let us consider the story of how Huxley coined his term, from the man himself:
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889).
This, we might concede, is a different sort of position than the more devout Atheism that we find in the arguments of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. In fact, we might even concede that the Atheism we find discursively represented by these four individuals are, themselves, different from one another. In fact, we might further conclude that, definitively, each of these voices offers a different type of Atheism. Which would be lexically, and thus contextually, incorrect. For this reason, when we discuss these individuals in our tutorials, we do so looking less for ways to use these discourses as means to construct a definition. Instead, we use them to try and understand how each of these individuals discursively contributes to their own interpretation of the larger notion of ‘Atheism,’ from within their own contexts and specialised usages, and in order to shape their own particular identities. It’s a fine line, but it’s an important one.
Russell eventually shifted his own position from agnostic to Atheist, a shift that provides us with an interesting insight into how the leading argument that inspired this change came to influence a truly interesting type of discursive Atheism.
In 1952 he wrote (though it was not published until later) a short piece titled, “Is There a God,” in which he put forth the following argument:
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 (Russell, “Is There a God,” 1952).
This argument pushed Russell from agnostic to Atheist, or, as he himself stated later:
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 [Bertrand Russell, “Letter to Mr Major,” in Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)].
Not only has Russell’s teapot inspired an entire discourse of Atheism, the logic of doing so has equally led to a position with which to structure this discourse, what we might call ‘the argument from fictionalisation.’
First, we see very distinct influences in later arguments, such as Antony Flew’s “Presumption of Atheism:”
What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist. […] In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter [Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Elek Books, Ltd., 1976), 13-14].
This, then, seems to infect the arguments made by individuals like Jack David Eller, who argues that Atheism is not only humankind’s inherent position, but that it is our ‘natural’ starting point:
Humans are natural atheists—not in the sense of attacking god(s) but in the sense of lacking god(s).
What would happen if a child were never told a word about any of these religious concepts? It is unlikely that he or she would spontaneously invent his or her own religious concepts, and astronomically unlikely that he or she would reinvent Burmese village Buddhism or Lakota religion or Christianity. No human is born a theist. Humans are born without any god-concepts. Humans are natural atheists.
There are two fates that a natural atheist can follow. If she is never exposed to the idea of god(s), never urged to ‘believe’ in any god(s), she will retain her natural atheism—even if it is tainted with other religious but nontheistic notions. […] But under the pressures of a theistic milieu, the great majority of natural atheists will have their natural atheism replaced with an acquired theism, that is, they will be turned into or converted into theists. Some of these learned-theists will, for various reasons, come to question, ‘doubt,’ and ultimately reject the theism thrust on them and will ‘deconvert’ into ‘recovered atheists’ [Jack David Eller, “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 4-5].
We see this same sort of argumentation in Baggini’s Very Short Introduction on Atheism, albeit told through a humorous metaphor:
However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever been presented. So far our story is simple fact. Now imagine how the story could develop.
The number of believers in the monster starts to grow. Soon, a word is coined to describe them: they are part-mockingly called ‘Nessies.’ (Many names of religions started as mocking nicknames: Methodist, Quaker, and even Christian all started out this way.) However, the number of Nessies continues to increase and the name ceases to become a joke. Despite the fact that the evidence for the monster’s existence is still lacking, soon being a Nessie is the norm and it is the people previously thought of as normal who are in the minority. They soon get their own name, “Anessies’—those who don’t believe in the monster.
Is it true to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies? That can’t be true, because the Anessies’ beliefs predate those of the Nessies. The key point is not of chronology, however.
The key is that the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even is Nessies had never existed. What the rise of the Nessies did was to give a name to a set of beliefs that had always existed but which was considered so unexceptional that it required no special label [Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 8].
Likewise, we might also consider Carl Sagan’s famous construction, the invisible fire-breathing dragon that lives in his garage:
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”
Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.
“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floates in the air.”
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”
You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so [Carl Sagan, “The Dragon in my Garage” in Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 171.]
This leads us to a truly intriguing sort of argumentation, an attack on certain ad-hoc hypothesising, and what shall henceforth herein be referred to as ‘Troll Religions.’
Religions constructed for the sole purpose of representing a type of satirical criticism, which have also been defined as ‘Parody Religions’ or ‘Invented Religions’ are beginning to get the academic attention they deserve. For those truly interested, see the work of Beth Singler (University of Cambridge) and Carole Cusack (University of Sydney). I shall refer to a certain of these herein as ‘Troll Religions’ in order to demarcate a boundary between those constructed for Atheistic purposes (and thus for reasons of criticism) and those constructed by individuals who identify with these religious constructions for their own personal benefit (inward, rather than outward usage). As representations of the latter group, consider Jediism or Dudeism.
As representations of the former, we might consider those who worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The Invisible Pink Unicorn, a paradoxical goddess that embodies both invisibility and colour, acts, like Russell’s teapot, as a device used to question, as well as discredit, the idea that God maintains the same sort of essence. The IPU even stands in for God in arguments about the inherent ridiculousness of Theistic belief. For instance, by replacing the word ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ in Biblical accounts with ‘Invisible Pink Unicorn,’ the sacred nature of these texts transmutes into farce:
I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the [Invisible Pink Unicorn] in the land of the living. Wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]; be strong and take heart and wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]. (Psalm 27:13-14)
This, as adherents argue, reveals the nature not only of religious belief, but of the way this sort of belief might misguide individuals into believing nonsensical (and thus, empirically disprovable) ideas.
Originating out of internet discussions (alt.atheism) in the early to mid 1990s, the IPU, as defined by Steve Eley (who refers to himself as the ‘Chief Advocate and Spokesguy’ of the religion itself), exists through the same sort of belief that gives meaning to ‘God’ or other deities:
Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can’t see them (Steve Eley, cited in the Quotable Atheist, ed. by Jack Huberman).
As a satirical device, the IPU thus equally exists as an Atheist device, a discursive signifier used to establish, argue, and defend an Atheistic position.
In similar fashion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who’s adherents are called ‘Pastafarians,’ consists of analogous satirical language. Perhaps much more ‘religious’ than the religion that orbits around the IPU, the CFSM has come to embody ritual components. This likely stems from the political basis of its origination. The creation of Bobby Henderson, the FSM was conceived in order to argue against a decision being considered by the Kansas State Board of Education concerning the teaching of Intelligent Design as a counter position to biology and physics. In an ‘open letter‘ to the Board, Henderson made his case for the equal acknowledgement of the FSM’s role in creating the universe. He later published a sacred text.
The ritual aspects of the church not only involve wedding ceremonies (usually overseen by an individual in Pirate regalia, as Pirates are considered ‘absolutely divine’ and the first ‘Pastafarians’), but religious garments. The latter consists of colanders, which equally represent the political origins of Henderson’s argument, in that they tend to be worn in order to defend the idea that one religious permission (such as the Muslim Hijab or Jewish Yarmulke) should allow for all religious permissions. Some examples include:
Christopher Schaeffer, newly elected to the Pomfret town Board in New York.
Obi Canuel, an ordained minister in the CFSM, who fought to keep his driver’s licence, colander and all.
Niko Alm, an Austrian Atheist who was permitted to wear the colander for his licence.
Jessica Steinhauser, formerly known as the adult film star, Asia Carrera, also wearing the colander.
All these things combined, including the satirical mockery of Christian prayers and invocations (akin to the IPU), blend into a ‘religion for Atheists.’
Bertrand Russell’s hand in all of this can be found in the fingerprints we might find smudging the edges of the logical arguments each of these examples provide. Moreover, each of them contributes an intriguing insight, not just on how we might use them to make sense of the identification going on ‘under the surface,’ but on how they have been influenced by related, but altogether different, sorts of discursive sources. I might conclude here, then, with the notion that understanding the who, how, and why concerning these discursive examples is inextricably linked to the logical arguments that came before. This is not, of course, the same as saying Russell’s teapot is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Rather, this is more akin to locating the roots of the former reinforcing the beliefs and practices of the latter. We might also consider how these representations might equally alter our conceptual understandings about religion and religious identity. When troll religions become religions, how then might we make sense of these identities when they’re Atheistic, and thus antithetical to our normative ideas about what might constitute ‘religion’ or ‘religious?’