January 13, 2009
The Year of Reason-2: Starting the process
When in social situations people hear that I am an atheist, they often ask why I don't believe in a god. The answer is extremely simple and can be given in just one sentence: There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence. But I have noticed that when people say, for example, that they belong to some religious sect like the Catholics or Judaism or Islam, no one asks them why they joined that sect or why they believe what members of that sect believes, though we would normally do that if people expressed a preference for anything else, say a film or book or a sports team.
I think this reticence to pose what would be a natural question is because religious people know that there is no real answer that they can give as to why they belong to their religious group. Their allegiance has no more substantive basis than those of fervent supporters of the Browns football team who are fans simply because they were born and live in the Cleveland area. To try to give an answer as to why they belong to a particular religious group is to expose the soft underbelly of religious beliefs, so believers protect other believers from this mutual embarrassment, thus allowing religion to persist (as Sigmund Freud says) as a kind of mass delusion. Freud adds, "No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such." (Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, 1961, p. 32.)
But there is no reason that we atheists should play by those rules. As part of the Year of Reason, we need to start poking holes in this mass delusion. I think that if someone asks us why we are atheists we should, after answering, immediately turn the question around and ask people why they believe in god.
What will people say in response to such a question? My guess is that they will first be surprised that such a question is asked at all, because the basis for religious belief is rarely
unquestioned. (Thanks to Lucas for pointing out this typo.)
I also suspect none of them will say that they actually saw god or spoke with him/her/it. If they do say such an incredible thing, good follow up questions to ask them are what god looks like, whether it was a man or woman, whether god spoke in English, what tone of voice or accent he/she/it had, what the exact words were, whether anyone else was present to see this visitation and, if not, whether they called anyone else to come and witness this extraordinary event.
But you are highly unlikely to get such a response, unless you are speaking with Pat Robertson to whom god speaks once a year and tells him what is going to happen in the coming year. Since it is god speaking, you would expect 100% accuracy. But the record is, to put it most charitable, spotty which means that either god is losing his/her/its grip, pulling Pat's leg, or that Pat is a fraud. (God's statement about what is going to happen in 2009 is here. You can also see what god said about what would happen in 2008 and 2007 as well.)
Although every religious person says they believe in god and even claim to speak to him, only delusional people actually claim to have heard voices or had visions. As the TV character House tells a colleague in one episode about a teenage faith healer who says god speaks to him, "You talk to god, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic." (This is a terrific episode of House that reminded me of Marjoe. You can seen an extended clip of the episode here.)
The most likely reason people will give for saying they believe in god is the Argument From Personal Incredulity. This is a version of "I don't understand how the complexity of the world and how life could come about without someone to plan and implement it. So there must be a god." This argument is a lazy one. Collectively we know a huge amount about how the world came to be. There will always be some unanswered questions but there is no reason to think that they will not be answered in the future just the way that previously unanswered ones were.
Another lazy argument is the Argument From Wishful Thinking. This is from people who seek to find some meaning and purpose in life but are incapable of doing the work of constructing meaning and purpose for themselves, so resort to the option of buying one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by religions, even though they do not make any sense. Take the central dogma of Christianity: "An omnipotent god loves the world and wants to save his creations from the sin he himself allowed them to commit, so he arranges for the brutal murder by crucifixion of his own son, who is also god, in addition to destroying vast numbers of people with natural disasters, wars, and diseases." Only a person committed to self-delusion would subscribe to such a doctrine.
Another is the Argument From Vague Feelings. Here people will take some perfectly natural events that have some emotional punch and imbue them with immense spiritual or cosmic significance. So you will often hear something about the 'miracle' of childbirth or like Francis Collins's experience of being overwhelmed by the sight of a frozen waterfall and seeing in these everyday things signs from god.
Sigmund Freud, trying to understand the appeal of religion even though he himself saw it as an illusion, reports on a religious colleague who told him that the source of his religion "consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded –as it were – 'oceanic'." Freud says that this vague feeling "is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various religious Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless exhausted by them." (Freud, p. 10, my italics)
Again, we see that belief caused by a purely internal emotional reaction is transformed in the mind of the believer into something objective and tangible, merely because other people also report similar feelings.
Those answers, weak as they are, are actually the ones that will be given by the more thoughtful people. The real reason that most people believe, but which they are unlikely to admit to, is because they are expected to believe. Social norms expect that one belong to some religious group.
So to usher in the year of reason, whenever someone speaks about their religion, let's simply reflect the question back at them: "Why do you believe in a god?" Reason begins with asking questions about what one believes and why, and using evidence and logic as the bases of one's beliefs.
I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will give the reasons for they believe in god in the comments.
POST SCRIPT: The Rapture is coming! No, really, this time I mean it!
Richard Bartholomew notes that the people who believe in that weird idea known as the Rapture seem to be getting impatient and are hoping that maybe this year will be when the 'third time lucky' superstition actually kicks in.