The Celestial Teapot
Dawkins uses Russell to argue that we cannot prove God’s non-existence, but then we cannot prove anything’s non-existence. ‘What matters,’ writes Dawkins, ‘is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t), but whether his existence is probable… Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things.’
I agree with Dawkins’s conclusion, and consider God highly improbable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occur neither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent — the content of the belief — matters here. God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in God is a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, precisely because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing, and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all, that no one has ever worshiped a teapot: it does not allow enough room to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into it.
Interestingly, Dawkins himself seems to agree with this complaint. In a recent conversation in Time with the geneticist Francis Collins (who is a believing Christian), a conversation in which both men spoke eloquently, Dawkins was pushed by Collins to admit that, in Dawkins’s words, ‘there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible beyond our understanding.’ That’s God, said Collins. Yes, but it could be any of billions of Gods, replied Dawkins: ‘the chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small.’ In other words, the God of a particular scripture and tradition is a parochial and inherently improbable notion. But the idea of some kind of creator, said Dawkins, ‘does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable — but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect.’ To which one should add: by definition, then, this ‘grand and big’ idea is not analogically disproved by referring to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur.