O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Turtles All the Way Down

In Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the famous physicist opens with a story about a prominent scientist (probably Bertrand Russell) who gave a public astronomy lecture way back in the day. He explained how the earth moved around the sun, and how the sun is just one of an countless stars in our immense universe.

When the lecture ended, an annoyed little old lady approached him. She told him that he was talking nonsense, because all that stuff about the planets and solar system and stars was just plain wrong. “The world is really a flat plate,” she explained, “supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist was unphased. He asked her, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” the old lady replied. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”


There are several different versions of this story floating around out there, often identifying different scientists (could have been William James). Hawking uses the story to explain the existence of different cosmological myths. But in O Me of Little Faith, I employ it a bit differently.

I love the visual of a turtle stack, suspended in space, turtle upon turtle upon turtle. Every turtle supports the turtle above it. Every turtle rests on the turtle below it.

It occurs to me that my faith is the same way. The world at the top of the turtle stack is me. Each turtle is a specific presupposition of my faith — all of the things that support who I am. Basic morality. How I live. How I treat people. How I raise my kids. My career. The books I write. Whether or not I attend church. The doctrines I hold about the Bible. What I believe about Jesus. All of these things link together in a chain that informs, supports, and sustains my life, turtle upon turtle upon turtle.

There are a lot of turtles in the stack, but it’s not turtles all the way down. Because all of these doctrines and viewpoints and ideas ultimately balance upon one thing: whether or not I believe God exists. That’s my first turtle, and that turtle rests upon nothing but starlit emptiness and space. We can talk about proofs for the existence of God and all that stuff, but let’s face it: the first turtle is supported by mystery. Faith.

Every turtle chain has a beginning, a foundational belief that everything springs from. Mine is that God exists. An atheist’s starting point may be that there is no God or gods. Both of us build stacks upon those first turtles. Both of us are depending on the strength of that first turtle, because it supports everything.

God is hard to prove. God is hard to disprove. The existence or non-existence of God is unprovable. But both of us — the believer and the nonbeliever — are basing everything on our starting turtle. And once the turtle is in place, switching it out with a new base can be incredibly disruptive, painful, and dangerous. Everything is at stake.


Of course, in the book, I go into a lot more detail about the turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor — including a brief tie-in to Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle — but that’s pretty much how the turtles work in O Me of Little Faith.

You had some great guesses about the turtle metaphor as it relates to faith, but as you now know, the winners were the ones who correctly guessed “turtles all the way down.” Josh quickly identified the ancient belief that the world rested on the backs of turtles, but didn’t quite predict the correct metaphor. (He’s right about one thing, though: a literal belief in the turtle arrangement is pretty easy to doubt.)

Angela was the first to introduce “turtles all the way down,” but then again, she’s my editor. She already knew. Radosh knew it, too, but 1) he’s already got Pocket Guide to the Bible and the other Pocket Guides and 2) he’s getting an advance copy of OMOLF anyway. I’m going to disqualify him on the amount of stuff he already has. (Sorry!)

So that leaves me with Myles, a theology student at Baylor. Congrats, Myles! We’ve met before, and I’m thinking yo may have PGTTB already, but if not, let me know. (And if you’d prefer one of my other books, just tell me which one and I’ll send it your way.)

Thanks for playing, everyone! Come back for some meaningless frivolity tomorrow, when I won’t be talking about turtles, theology, or OMOLF at all.

Update: When I checked this after posting it, the Google-based ad in the sidebar was for turtles. So awesome.

Comments read comments(9)
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posted February 4, 2010 at 9:08 am

awesome! I don't have it, actually, so send it on!

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posted February 4, 2010 at 9:09 am

actually, could I get sainthood one? that'd be really fun, I think.2716 MorrowWaco, TX 76707

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Jason Boyett

posted February 4, 2010 at 9:11 am

You got it, Myles.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 9:32 am close.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 11:24 am

Oh, well. :) I didn't really think mine was accurate, but figured it was worth a shot.Did you know that Dr. Suess wrote Yertle the Turtle to make a point about Hitler? Ah, the things I learned as a a kid…

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posted February 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

OK, so two things out of many possible things.1) While I respect that *for you* it all comes down to "whether or not I believe God exists" clearly you must see that it doesn't need to. There may indeed be atheists for whom everything rests on the belief that there is no god, but I suspect that for most of us that idea is incidental, not foundational. The bottom turtle, if one must subscribe to this metaphor, could be human dignity, the infinitely complex interrelationship of all matter and energy in the universe, the first law of thermodynamics, etc. It could even be, "heck if I know" or "what difference does it make?" which may sound flimsy to you… but more so than "the profound mystery that is faith"? Really? 2) This is kind of one of those classic arguments against (or more accurately about) the existence of God so I know it won't be new to you, but what's clever about the Bertrand Russell story is that the little old lady has found a way (albeit a humorously illogical one) to outwit the great thinker. If you reject her reply than you are forced to grapple with his original point: if all turtles must stand on something, what does the bottom turtle stand on. Saying the bottom turtle is God and therefore doesn't need to stand on anything is tautological. "Everything must be grounded in something else. But not God because his nature is to not be grounded in anything else. That makes sense because it's a mystery and you have to have faith." That's a non-answer answer.

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Jason Boyett

posted February 4, 2010 at 4:17 pm

@Daniel:You're correct of course (#1), and I cover that in the book. That's the choice for me, based on my history and culture. Obviously there aren't just two options for the base turtle, and from a nonbelief perspective, the idea that they have to make a turtle choice is stupid. After all, my life isn't defined by whether or not I build my turtle stack on Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti or nothing at all. That's because I wasn't raised Hindu.But then again, what gets covered in a 6,000-word chapter doesn't always find room in a 600-word blog post. You're exactly right about #2.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 4:41 pm

And perhaps I should have led with, I am now really looking forward to reading the book.

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