Bertrand Russell: Atheist versus Agnostic

British philosopher and self-ascribed agnostic, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) expressed an idea that is both simple and striking: He felt that all opinions, without exception, should be held conditionally (capable of being changed), not dogmatically (etched in stone).

When people feel the evidence for a claim is strong, they can be confident in the claim, consider it true, and act accordingly, but they should always keep their minds open to new evidence or further thinking that might change their opinions.

The idea is quite simple, but people seldom think this way. Russell thought life would be much better if they did. Discussing even the most delicate subjects without coming to blows would be possible.

Suddenly, a real conversation becomes possible. Both sides can offer forceful, passionate arguments, and the admission that some degree of doubt always exists allows each to better hear what the other has to say.

When he traveled to a foreign country, for example, he was always asked by officials what his religion was. He never knew quite what to say. Russell was of the strong opinion that God didn’t exist, and he admitted that he might be wrong about that. In other words, he fit comfortably in two categories that most people think are mutually exclusive: atheist and agnostic.

Russell was well aware of the popular misconceptions that atheists are entirely certain and that agnostics are precisely in the middle, and he knew that other philosophers shared his understanding.

When speaking to philosophers, as he often did, Russell always described himself as agnostic, because as he put it, “I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God,” and philosophers would understand what he meant.

But he also wanted to give an accurate impression to everyday people. If he described himself as agnostic to a general audience, he knew they’d think he was smack in the middle between belief and disbelief, shrugging his shoulders, when in fact he leaned heavily in the direction of disbelief.

If he was going to call himself agnostic about the Christian god, he once said, he should really also call himself an agnostic toward Zeus, Apollo, and the rest of the Greek gods as well. He didn’t think they existed either, but he certainly couldn’t prove it.

Russell’s position on the God of the Bible is exactly the same as most people’s position on Zeus. Because most people consider themselves fully atheistic toward Zeus and friends, Russell would call himself an atheist when addressing a general audience.

In 1958, Russell hit on a useful analogy to explain this position even more clearly. He asked his readers to imagine their reaction if he said he believed that a tiny bone china teapot is in orbit around the Sun between Earth and Mars — one too tiny to be seen even by our most powerful telescopes.

Would you be obligated to believe the teapot exists just because you could not disprove it? Of course not. Nobody thinks the existence of such a thing is likely enough to be taken into account in practice, Russell said. And he considered the Christian God just as unlikely as the teapot.

To understand Russell’s meaning, take a moment to prove conclusively that no such teapot exists or that Zeus and the rest of the gods of ancient Greece don’t exist. Russell said doing so is impossible.

Yet even though such certain proof can’t be found, acting and living as if they don’t exist seems reasonable. Russell felt very much the same about the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Agnostics today who share his position often call themselves “teapot agnostics” in tribute to that evasive little piece of china.

Agnostic underlines the uncertainty; atheist underlines the opinion that one conclusion is much more nearly certain than the other. Note: Russell opts to capitalize Atheist and Agnostic.

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