A Tempest in Russell’s Teapot

First winter storm of the season. It is NOT pleasant outside today.

So I have storms on the brain, and as 2015 draws to a close, I’ve been having a think back over some of the things that have recurred – in my thoughts and in my writing – and giving some head space to how I might make, based in those recurrent things, some changes in the New Year.

I have to believe that the biggest and best tool we have in our collective arsenal against inequity and injustice is another ‘in’ – ‘incredulity’. I’ve written about its opposite in the past – and how that ongoing, unjustified, suspension of disbelief when it comes to things that reallyreally matter is at the heart of most (if not all) of the problems that we, as a world community, as facing as we enter 2016.

N.b. that date. Two thousand and sixteen. That we continue to mark the passing years in accordance with a calendar that adheres to the purported existence of a mythological character is, in itself, telling. And what it’s telling us is that we need to just stop permitting such characters – and the politically-driven stories that developed around them – to dictate our societal governance and ways of viewing the world. Lack of examination of the origins and intended interpretations of the stories – along with constant, continuing, unthinking citation far removed from their historical, geographical and sociological contexts – is making us stupid.

This morning I watched an old TedTalk, by a guy named James Randi.

He has been challenging the credulous – and those who prey on the credulous – to reexamine their beliefs and check their credulity at the door in an effort to prevent the further stagnation of our collective intelligence. The talk is from 2007. I fear its message has been lost in the interim (although, to be fair, homeopathy isn’t nearly as ‘accepted’ as it once was. Other forms of ‘alternative medicine’ remain popular, of course, but that’s another day’s windmill…).

Over the holidays we, like 1/7th of the world’s population, went to check out the rebooted Star Wars universe. Full disclosure: I liked the original three (Empire was the best), but loathed the prequels. So I’m not sure I was expecting much – despite being told by true aficionados that I’d enjoy the ride.

I did. Largely because of the familiarity of the thing. Sure, there was enough mystery to keep me guessing and wanting to know what happens. But, truly, the motifs and the themes and the characters… all were as familiar as old friends. And I’m not just talking about Han and Chewy and Leia.

We recognize the characters – and their struggles – despite the fact that they’re living in a galaxy far far away. Good writers (and directors – JJ Abrams is both) understand the pull of mythological archetypes, and use them to their advantage. The archetypes employed by George Lucas in his original vision of the series stand the test of time and are greeted in their later years with fond welcome. But we love the new characters, too. Because, like those who came before them, we know them.

I’m not going to be pedantic and go back through all the ramblings (like this one) I’ve written about why the themes and types of characters keep showing up as we, as humans, try to answer the big questions and entertain (since these are things that need not be mutually exclusive). Suffice it to say that nothing is ‘new’. Not Rey, not Finn, not even BB-8.

Just like that dude, Jesus. He wasn’t ‘new’, either. Nor was Moses. Nor Muhammad. There is nothing new under the sun, to paraphrase my buddy Qoheleth.

Our brains, fierce though they may be when used to full capability, see the world in the frameworks to which we are accustomed. And we rarely like stepping outside of those comfort zones of familiarity. That would require work.

Those who easily transcend the boundaries of those limitations are our astrophysicists, our visionary philosophers, our poets and, historically, our theologians (who were, often, scientists and philosophers, as well. Limited by their cultural context and language, they spoke of the unknown as ‘god’. They’d know better now).

The rest of us tend to be a little more pedestrian in our understanding of things. So the myth-makers, now as then, use the familiar to tell the stories that want telling. And to set the examples that need setting. Star Wars: The Force Awakens revisits the New Hope we first encountered in Episode IV. Cycles. And the continuing battle between good/evil or dark/light or order/chaos.

I’m okay with all that. I like our stories. The ones that date back 2000+ years, and the ones that we’re hearing today. Both sets offer up wisdom that is finely-crafted and impactful, and, often, super-fun to watch/read. Having spent most of my adult life learning and studying these stories, I’d be the last one to assert that they are valueless.

But.

Stories, while they may contain elements of historical, documented, truths, are not, always (or even often), true. So using them, whole cloth or in bits and pieces that lose the overarching message, to determine things like social justice and equitable, human governance, is ridiculous, at best. At its worst, it’s downright dangerous. We can see the latter happening in the US – as credulity is permitted to run rampant, and people believe (without evidence) the various, all-too-familiar, narratives that self-serving individuals are selling, since it jibes with the stories they are already telling themselves.

And not all stories are good stories. Some should be examined, yes, but then consigned to the history that has demonstrated their inhumanity and ideological obsolescence.

Bertrand Russell introduced his concept of a celestial or cosmic teapot as a means of illustrating the nonsensical argument that the burden of proof for the non-existence of god(s) lies in the hands of the atheist. Russell likened such ridiculousness to the idea that there is a china teapot in an elliptical orbit around Mars, which, though no more provable or disprovable than the assertion that god(s) exist(s), remains highly questionable, and unlikely to be widely believed. Unless, of course, there was a centuries-old tradition of literature and teachings about said teapot. Then the idea of a cosmic teatime, with appropriate crockery, might have some value.

The point of the teapot analogy is its usefulness as a demonstration that assertions should not have to be disproved. Occam’s Razor suggests that the starting point in any discussion of this nature should be the one with fewest assertions: i.e. that no gods exist. It also points out the reductio ad absurdum of those who vacillate and/or claim to be ‘agnostic’, suggesting that if we can’t know for sure whether or not there is/are god(s), we also can’t know for sure that there isn’t a china teapot out there circling Mars. Since neither claim is any more or less scientifically provable, both are equally (im)plausible.

Idiomatically, a tempest in a teapot is ‘a lot of unnecessary worry and anger about a matter that is not important’.

We’re at the beginning of a New Year. We’ve spent 2015 beset by matters that are of great importance – to all of us, as a human family. How’s about we forget about that teapot and its equally-ridiculous co-assertions, and get on with the business of being human. Total and complete secularization is the only direction for us to be headed.

Otherwise it’ll be a hard rain that falls on us all.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son
And what did you see, my darling young one
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Bob Dylan wrote this song in a time of uncertainty, when injustice, suffering, warfare and environmental destruction threatened the fabric of the world and its continuing stories. Plus ça change, as they say. I’m an historian and an atheist – not a poet and a visionary. My voice may not have the breath, or breadth, that his does, but my plea remains the same as his was, in 1962.

Wishing us all peace and harmony. For 2016. Happy New Year, my friends.