So exhibitionistic atheist PZ Meyers declares that not only has he desecrated a communion wafer but a Koran, and something secret he won't tell us about until tomorrow. I am not sure what desecrating the Koran is going to mean, but the Koran is a book, and I don't like the idea at all. Not one bit. If "desecrating a communion wafer" means you're an uncivilized boor with a perplexing desire to demonstrate your lack of comprehension, "desecrating" a book in any way that damages or tarnishes said book demonstrates you're a barbarian, a modern savage, pure and simple.
(And I don't mean to go soft on the Catholic League here either. Bill Donohue's vow to sic the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Meyers is a touching manifestation of the ecumenical spirit. But it only heaps more undeserved attention on Meyers' stunt, as well as shows more than a whiff of a victim/persecution complex).
But amidst all the din on PZ blog, David Heddle attempted to get a point across about Russell's oft-quoted teapot analogy. There's something that always bothered me about that analogy. I read very little of Russell. I have his history of Western philosophy somewhere on my shelf but it's in the partially-read state so many of my books are in. But I'm at least aware that he wrote it, and I'm aware that Russell remained on friendly or respectful terms with such thoughtful philosophical theists as Whitehead, and that he engaged with philosophical defenses of theism. Why would he put forward such an awful argument?
Unless, as David Heddle argues, the argument is not so much an argument against theism as such, but an argument against a careless way of shifting the burden of proof:
Theist: Why would the burden of proving the existence of God be on me? After all, as an atheist, you surely cannot disprove the existence of God.
Russell: Ah, but there are many things I cannot disprove. I cannot disprove the hypothesis that somewhere around Saturnus a tiny teapot is orbiting - one so tiny that our most powerful telescopes can't catch it. But surely this is not an argument for accepting the existence of such a teapot?
The catch here is of course that the retort only flies in as far as the theist leaves unspecified whether the God whose existence is debated is an empirical reality, a metaphysical presupposition, or some kind of transcendent reality encountered in faith and mysticism. And that's as far as it goes. If the theist specifies that God is a purely empirical reality, an "entity" part of the cosmos in the same way particles and gas clouds and supernovae are, then he must furnish possible ways of falsifying or verifying God's existence - and if he does, out goes the analogy (regardless of whether the theist's further arguments are any good). If he is arguing for God to be some kind of metaphysical presupposition, he would need to defend it by showing how more everyday, including empirical, ideas about the world depend on it. And so forth. Russell's analogy, on Heddle's reading, works but it only works as a reply to one specific kind of argument by a very careless theist. Used as a general argument on theism, it often rests on unexamined presuppositions (such as a positivistic theory of knowledge, i.e. the only propositions worth discussing are those that are empirically verifiable or falsifiable) which the theist is under no obligation to share.
UPDATE: So Myers did mistreat his communion wafer, if it is indeed that - together with ripping out pages from a translation of the Koran as well as The God Delusion. I'd have betted on Origin myself. In any event, the juvenile behaviour in question is accompanied by a long piece on Catholicism and Anti-Semitism which would be interesting just about anywhere else, as well as with the following exhortation:
By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanities' knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.
I cannot but marvel but at the mentality which couples destroying books with questioning everything - but I guess questioning everything is useful. For a little while. Until you find out that there are things that are sacred, that there are truths that you live by, and that these have been mediated by tradition - and that's just the first step.