The Core Disbelief
I can’t vouch for believers, but from the atheist perspective, arguments about religion seem tediously slippery. No sooner than a point seems to be established the terms of the argument magically change. What sounded like a fact turns out to have been only allegory, and it is the atheist who is branded naive for ever thinking otherwise.
I would like to propose a means of avoiding much of this slipperiness, a simple initial question that can be asked of all participants that will hopefully close-off some of these blind alleys. But first, a couple of examples of the problem.
Let’s start with a big one – the nature of God. Listening to Christian prayers and sermons one could be forgiven for imagining a very anthropic being. He listens, thinks, makes, judges and punishes. He bequeaths His only son. Note that this image is not restricted to the Sunday school and the southern Baptist tabernacle, it can be heard on Choral Evensong on BBC Radio Three – arguably the most intellectually high-brow radio station on Earth:
O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
It seems fair to suppose that for some believers this human-like God is taken at face value. In the absence of alternative descriptions, it will surely be the sort of being that coalesces in the mind of any children listening.
However, should one question the plausibility of such a being it immediately evaporates. Nobody actually believes in this sort of God, it seems (nobody of course, apart from the countless millions who still do.) Instead, this anthropic image is turned into mere allegory. The real God is far more intangible. Variously He is life, nature, human love, an ether permeating all the universe, the cement that binds us, or, in line with 21st century consumer choice, any other form the individual believer wants Him to be. ‘God with a beard’, it turns out, was just a foil created by atheist zealots to discredit believers.
A second example concerns the origin of species. For millennia the church propagated the myth of a six day creation. Eventually geology and rationality rendered this story untenable. But instead of simply dropping the idea of conscious creation, the six days are recast as allegory. Much as God’s being has been transformed into a multitude of inexplicable forces, so have His methods: Perhaps he created us via evolution, His powers “having been originally breathed into a few forms” to quote a rather uncomfortable-sounding Charles Darwin, of all people.
With summits as mobile as these it’s no wonder it’s so difficult to plant a flag. One of the chief causes I would suggest is lack of clarity about the basis of belief – what I see as the crucial dividing-line between atheists and believers. I think it can be clarified with the following simple question:
Aside from other humans, do you believe there are any other intelligent agents at play in your life?
Extra-human intelligence really is the issue, the dividing-line between the natural and the supernatural. After all, who would care about non-intelligent super-nature? What would that even mean?
If established at the offing, this question can bypass a lot of the slipperiness that tends to follow. But first we must deal with the agnostics – some will question the question itself. Some people will argue that as they cannot be sure whether such forces are at play, the question cannot be answered. This is usually fielded as an intellectual virtue, with Shakespeare wheeled-out to emphasise the profundity: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio”
We can avoid this however with a clarification of what we mean by belief. One might say that I believe in extra-terrestrial life – in the sense of believing it to be statistically likely, given the size of the universe. But clearly this is very different from believing that some aliens crashed at Roswell. The first sense of belief is inert. It doesn’t modify my behaviour toward other humans, not the way that belief in the Roswell ‘incident’ might.
So when I say “do you believe there are any other intelligent agents at play in your life?” I mean ‘believe’ in the strong sense – in the sense that your daily thoughts and deeds might be affected by this belief. Rather than drive the agnostics out of the temple, with this clarification they are given a clear choice to remain or leave. No-one can keep one foot inside.
Armed with this question we can now return to the original two examples. Let’s look again at the nebulous nature of God’s being. Rather than anything as unfashionable as ‘God with a beard’ many of my contemporaries today would be more likely to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. This is a gloriously slippery term. It could mean they consider themselves to place little value on material wealth. Or it could mean that they believe each human body is animated by an eternal soul.
Asking ‘the question’ cuts right through the fog. If you don’t believe there to be any other intelligent agents at play in your life your notion of spirituality must be a world apart, literally, from those who do. ‘Spirit’ in this context must just be another attribute of physical and mental being. Transcendence, equally, can only be something you achieve within the confines of your own mind, with your feet planted firmly on the ground.
It’s the same for those who claim to believe in ‘karma’. In fact karma is a great illustration. If you answer no to ‘the question’, but also claim to believe in karma, then you can only be referring to an earthly phenomenon, most likely a version of ‘what goes around comes around’: Be unpleasant to your fellow beings and there is a good chance you will suffer in return. Even if those you wrong are unable to exact revenge, your own conscience may settle the score on their behalf – there is no escaping your own feelings of guilt.
Conversely, acting charitably is liable to make other people like you, and lead you to like yourself. ‘A good conscience is a continual Christmas’ as Ben Franklin so sweetly put it. Now see how different this is from the sort of karma that keeps Earl Hickey in check. That is clearly supernatural, requiring super-human intelligence. Something very clever and very powerful must be watching over Earl, and tweaking his destiny accordingly.
It’s similarly useful when we turn to the origin of species. While a six day creation might seem more ludicrous than the idea of God creating things ‘via’ evolution, the difference is in fact superficial. If you answer no to ‘the question’ then you should be prepared to reject both stories with equal vigour. Along with intelligent design, elan vital and spontaneous generation, creation ‘via’ evolution requires an intelligent agent – to do all the planning and designing. If you find it fanciful for an agent to do this in six days, it should seem no less fanciful in all the other cases.
The No camp
When it comes to the thorny subject of assessing the worth of religion, those who answer no to ‘the question’ can be split into two further groups: Those who see no good in religion at all; and those that still value religion despite their own lack of belief. The first group do exist I’m sure, but I should think their numbers are quite small. It’s a rare atheist who rejects every religious act and artefact. Any non-believer one who has witnessed the happiness, consolation and social bonds enjoyed by some believers would need a hard heart and some hard arguments to condemn the whole enterprise outright. If they are not careful it might come across as envy (not exactly a sin in atheism, but not a virtue either.)
But notice the bold distinction here. Anyone who answers ‘no’ to the question but still wishes to defend the worth of religion must now only be doing so purely for its earthly utility. There can be no recourse to pleasing gods or heavenly rewards. Regardless of what the ‘yes’ camp might believe, all benefits remain in the here and now.
Utilitarian justifications for human behaviour are always more complex than they might first appear. Here are a few pointers at the sort of discussions might arise. The first might be an empirical weighing-up of pros and cons. Any religious belief or practice that appears to increase human wellbeing could be seen as a plus, much as any belief that appears to increase human misery could be seen as a minus – just like we assess the worth of secular beliefs. But as always with utilitarianism it isn’t that simple. Different people have different ideas of good and bad. With God’s judgement out of the picture, who gets to decide which effects of religion are beneficial and which are a curse? Do we just vote on it?
Then there is the question of the motives and methods of such non-believers. If you don’t believe in God but do see worth in religion, how should you yourself act? Should you join-in at prayers even though you don’t believe anyone is listening, or just encourage events from outside the church? Both positions have their downsides. There’s something undeniably ludicrous about going through the motions of a religion you have no belief-in (I remember from childhood.) Then again there’s something distinctly paternalistic about championing other peoples’ belief in myths that you yourself don’t believe-in. What might be your motives here? Do you prefer other people to have a cloudier worldview than yourself?
Furthermore isn’t there something fundamentally dodgy about encouraging children to believe things we ourselves believe to be untrue? Isn’t education about doing our best to paint an accurate picture of the world, not a mixture of strict truths and any untruths we deem useful?
The Yes camp
Those who answer ‘yes’ on the other hand are faced with a much larger set of potential benefits. Naturally they can agree with the ‘no’ camp on all the earthly benefits (and like the ‘no’ camp, they will need to produce empirical evidence to defend these claims – the earthly pros will need to outweigh the earthly cons.) But of course they have a lot more to champion than this – perhaps too much. If prayers really can be answered rather than just provide comfort, and an eternal afterlife really does await us rather than just prevent us from despairing about the briefness of life, and if eternal ecstasy or eternal damnation really do swing on the judgement of one who watches over us, then the earthly consequences of religion seem almost insignificant by comparison.
Of course many modern believers will be horrified at being associated with the last of these images. Once again, nobody actually believes in hellfire and damnation anymore (apart from the countless millions who still do.) But such dreadful misattributions are an unavoidable hazard if you answer yes to ‘the question.’ If you declare a belief in extra-human agency but have no means of proving what it is – and there is no means of proving it – you inevitably consign your beliefs to the same factual basis as any other supernatural belief – ghosts, devils and very ruthless gods. That these other beings might sound absurd or vile, while you believe your own to be sacred and loving, has no bearing on proof. Once you forfeit the claim to rational justification for your belief, you can’t really complain if non-believers make assumptions about your worldview. What can we do but guess?
Fine then, some will say, damn the evidence – my faith is enough on its own. And that is everyone’s prerogative. But in truth this isn’t really enough for many believers, and this is how so many of the exasperating arguments arise. If most believers were truly content with their faith alone, and really didn’t give a fig about empirical support, then such abominations as intelligent design, Lourdes miracles and the virgin birth would not arise. Like it or not, we humans are desperate for verifiable truth. If we have faith in supermen, we can’t help but want to show people evidence of their works, to back that faith up.
So round and round we go. Miracles provide wonderful evidence until they are shown to be illusions – upon which miracles no longer matter, all that matters is the comfort religion provides to the believer. Similarly, a complex trait of an organism provides clear evidence of God’s handiwork until a more mundane evolutionary path is posited. Then the evidence of biology becomes an irrelevance, and only personal faith matters.
This urge to cross back and forth, from the earthly to the supernatural, is surely a consequence of all that religion has lost to rationalism. Only two hundred years ago, with little fear of contradiction, the whole universe could be explained away as the product of superhuman intelligence. For better or worse, rational explanation has now taken over most of that terrain. However one tries to paint it, there has been an enormous loss of ground, and loss of purpose. Widespread belief in a god who hand-crafted the universe has been reduced to belief in a god because that belief in itself provides comfort to the believer (and even that is open to question.) It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that for some believers this new scheme just isn’t enough to satisfy their needs, and the urge to find empirical evidence for irrational beliefs just won’t lie down.