Of all the things to which humans ascribe tremendous social and moral worth, the question of whether or not God exists is, to my way of thinking, one of the silliest. It’s silly because it doesn’t actually carry the meaning or importance that people like to think it carries. Beyond that, it often functions as a really counterproductive way of framing things. The theism vs. atheism contest most often serves to obscure communication rather than lend clarity. It’s another needless wedge issue and here’s why:
An apologist is someone who spends their time arguing in favor of a certain tradition or a particular set of ideas. The aim is that, by doing apologetics, people will feel more comfortable accepting your ideas because they deem that they’re backed by some intellectual muscle. In some sense, we’re all apologists. If someone questions our viewpoints, we feel the need to reassure ourselves that we’re correct. We’ve a couple of strategies in that regard. One is to dismiss the dissenting opinion simply because it comes from a place of dissent. That’s dogmatism. Please don’t do it; there is nothing so insufferable as someone who refuses to consider the idea that maybe they don’t know everything. A less obnoxious apologetic strategy is to construct some argument that lends support to your own views while disqualifying challenges to its legitimacy.
Theists have felt a need to provide rational justification for their belief in God for as long as there have been theists. Their toolbox is filled with, amongst other things, philosophical proofs for the existence of God. All of them are flawed. Typically, a proof for the existence of God relies on assumptions that either a) guarantee the desired conclusion or b) cannot be proven. A group of Silicon Valley atheists pokes some fun at proofs of God’s existence here. For example:
COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT, a.k.a. FIRST CAUSE ARGUMENT (I)
(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.
The proof (although stated sardonically) is logically sound and internally consistent, but it relies on a whole slew of other assumptions which would also need to be proven.
All of that, though, is sort of beside the point, because proofs for the existence of God don’t address the question, “Whose God?” Most apologists, for some reason, don’t seem to have thought that point through. A mouthpiece like Dinesh D’souza, for example, is not arguing for the reality of Zeus or Allah. He’s arguing, presumably, for the God of the socially and politically conservative Evangelicalism that he favors. But the arguments he invokes don’t point towards any of the particular social or ethical claims that he views as the natural outcome of the existence of his God. Even supposing that he had succeeded in something other than rhetorical fireworks when trying to prove God’s existence, the God he proved wouldn’t need to be consistent with any particular traditions understanding of God.
No God, No Morals?
The “whose God?” question is tied closely into the issue of theism and morality. The thinking goes that Theistic thinking and correct religious observance are necessary components of morality (whether public or private). United States Congressional Representative Louie Gohmert recently made that very point in what was easily one of the most tone-deaf statements I’ve ever heard from a public figure. That morality and a certain sort of theism must be tied up is another baseless assumption.
Whenever someone starts talking to me about the importance of believing in their God, I can’t help but think about a joke that Bill Cosby used to tell. “The wonderful thing about cocaine,” someone had told him, “is that it intensifies your personality.” Cosby replies, “but what if you’re an asshole?”
“The wonderful thing about my God,” someone might say, “is that He strengthens and affirms my deepest held values.” Alright, well, what if your values are wrong? Or, what if your values make people feel dehumanized? When someone tries to sell me on a God whose chief function seems to be bolstering their own nastiest, most judgmental, rudest traits, I’m like, “No, but thank you.”
And so the atheist argument here is that many conceptions of God cause people to act in ways that are immoral and harmful. Thus, it would be best to abolish religion altogether. Since religion is the root of so many of our personal and social ills, it’s eradication can only improve both people and society.
So far as human evils like factionalism, hate, and violence are concerned, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Religious people engage in all of those things, yes, but they don’t do them because they’re religious. They do them because they’re people. Factionalism and intolerance aren’t dependent upon religious belief–a point which a certain class of atheists prove for me. The New Atheist crowd–folks like Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss–appear practically incapable of saying anything about religion without reducing all religious observance or belief to the most barbaric, backwards fundamentalism they can imagine. In acting as adversarial mouthpieces for a certain point of view, they are in many respects very similar (at least functionally) to the Jerry Falwells of the world whom they so despise.
I learned a new word the other day. “Rantitheism.” A Rantitheist is someone who takes advantage of even the most unprompted opportunity to unleash a venomous rant against religion. If you haven’t come across someone like this, hang around the comments section of Huffpost Religion. The Rantitheists illustrate beautifully another universal human tendency. As an author, the people who respond in the most enthusiastically negative way to what you’ve written are bound to be people who failed to actually understand your point. These are people with an axe to grind, and they don’t care much whether they’re sharpening it on a grindstone or your face.
Morals, not to mention basic social graces, don’t always have very much to do with whether or not one professes belief in God.
This has all been decidedly negative. How should we frame our discussions if not with the construct of theism vs. atheism?
I think it’s much more productive to talk about cosmology. All humans, from the most devoutly religious to the superstars of rationalism, are cosmologists. By that, I simply mean that we all hold beliefs about the way the world works. We tell stories, some better than others, about the rules and dynamics that tend to govern human interactions.
The best way I know how to talk about cosmology is in the framework of politics. Consider the fact that 48% of U.S. households don’t pay Federal Income tax. When political conservatives invoke this statistic, they’re usually at the same time invoking an entire political cosmology. It all fits into a dualistic story about moochers and producers, about the virtues of markets and the evils of socialism. We’re meant to think that these 48% of households are feckless, irresponsible, and lazy; that they’re living high off of some welfare hog while honest Americans bust their humps to support their fiscal and moral failures. None of that flows logically from a simple statistic, though. The statistic gets assimilated into a pre-existing story. It is, like everything else we encounter in the world, cosmological raw material.
Cosmologies, political or otherwise, are oftentimes inaccurate. They’re shortcuts by which we’re able to make sense of a world that would be completely incomprehensible without an overarching story into which all of the pieces tend to fit. That’s what all of us hold in common, religious or secular. We’re all using our value judgments and cosmological tropes to create some type of coherent world in our minds.
One of our fundamental human questions is, basically, “how do we respond when the world outside doesn’t match the one in our brain?” The answer doesn’t depend on religiosity. It’s a function of our ability to extend empathy. Where’s the cutoff point at which we can no longer put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Forget about religion for a moment. Try to think about your capacity as an empathetic actor. The real world’s so much bigger and more interesting than the one we’ve been building in our brains. If we can’t realize that, then we’re doomed for bickering and violent factionalism, with or without religion.