Is Everyone an Atheist? You betcha!

When I teach philosophy of religion, we analyze the concept of faith, and after going over other concepts such as reason, sensory perception and evidence, we normally end up concluding that faith can probably best be described as belief in virtue of the absence of evidence.

Why do we define faith in this way? Well, no one seems to know what god looks, tastes, sounds or smells like (though one can perhaps imagine...), so any idea of god deriving from sensory perception simply won't cut it.

So, if there is no evidence, should we believe in god? The answer is usually split: some students are immediately disturbed by this simple realization; others are unshakable in their belief, and claim that we should believe in god because faith is a good thing.

Why some students immediately jump to conclude that faith, at least as defined in this way, is a good thing is always beyond me. Maybe you have some thoughts on this.

To recapitulate, to have faith means to believe in something for which there is no evidence. Usually, no one has a problem with this, and faith is actually thought to be some sort of virtue.

But then I describe to my students the existence of an invisible purple elephant, named Tomba. Of course, being invisible, no one can see him. Believing in Tomba, then, requires faith. When I ask my students if they believe in Tomba, one or two hands go up in the air, but for the most part everyone is skeptical of this made-up deity, even though I tell them that my buddy Tomba is responsible for the existence of the universe, and for the meaning and purpose of life!

Everyone thinks I'm on crack... I expect to be find guards from some psychiatric institution in my classroom one day, just waiting for me.

Of course, the moral is obvious: we have exactly the same amount of evidence concerning the existence of God and Tomba: zip. They are both based on the testimony of very questionable characters. So, if faith is a good thing, and we should believe in something despite the complete absence of evidence concerning such existence, then logical consistency would require that we either 1) believe both in God and Tomba, or that we 2) believe in neither.

Those who do not believe in Tomba are atheists... with respect to Tomba. Similarly, those who do not believe in Thor, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Vulcan, Ra, are also atheists, with respect to those deities.

Christians don't believe in these deities, therefore Christians are atheists. The problem now is that if students keep asking me what I believe in, I can tell them I'm an atheist, and this won't mean a thing!

Why am I talking about all this? Simply because I was reminded of something that I hadn't read in years:

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
Think about it...
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