Monday, December 28, 2015

The Complicated Relationship Between Religious Belief and Mental Illness

As many of you will know, I just published a book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, that is described on Amazon with the following,
A call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God. (bold original) 
That said, it's perhaps unclear whether or not I am suggesting that theistic religious belief constitutes a kind of mental illness. I'm not. I am, however, pretty sure I had this coming and probably should have done something proactively before Everybody Is Wrong About God came out (but who would have read it, and who complaining about it would have cared?).

To begin, there is a relationship between mental illness and religion, and it's complicated. Everybody Is Wrong About God explores this delicate topic somewhat, but it boldly proclaims something that people are pretty likely not to like (or, perhaps, understand). To cut to that chase, I wrote,
Every time someone says that he believes in God, he’s saying that he
has psychological or social needs that he doesn’t know how to meet.
(p. 41, bold and italics in original)
It's punchy; I know. In fact, I'm fairly certain that statements like this garnered me a stunningly confused one-star review on Amazon (which, somewhat to my dismay, a majority of responders currently think is helpful, 60% of them in fact), one that I have no interest in addressing in depth here or anywhere else. You will find, if you follow the link, however, that I made a couple of substantive comments under that review.

Despite its stunning confusion, I will quote from the review just deeply enough to indicate what I haven't argued. I'm doing so as a way of opening a more careful discussion of an important topic that is actually more interesting than a rear-guard presentation against what appears to have been a gross misreading of what I wrote. The reviewer, Ian, after presumably having read my book, astonishingly believes,
James Lindsay's method of dealing with the belief in god seems to be, in essence, to call religious folks psychologically ill and to suggest that god is a coping mechanism. While it may be true that theists are mentally ill (though I doubt it), I'm not sure that's a good way of making religious folks open to atheism.
Well, that's not the case. I do have a rather nuanced view of the relationship between mental illness and religious belief, and I think I thread that ugly needle even more carefully than, say, Richard Dawkins has done. It may work best to quote myself a couple of times and then riff from there.

I'll start with a selection from the fourth chapter.
Even those who do not believe in a deity cannot escape the word “God” and thus its significance. It is easy, and not far from correct, to write it off as a kind of delusion, held en masse, but the danger in doing so is forgetting that the people using this word are normal ones. They also mean something so important by it that it can prove nearly impossible to free them from their beliefs, however delusion-like they may be.

It is time to lay the groundwork so that we can understand what this word means in how it is used, and to do so, we need to understand some of the basics of the psychology—not philosophy—of religion. To understand what good “God” might be to all of these people, we must start by trying to understand what religion does for them. As all theistic religions have “God” at their centers, it would be sheer pretense to imagine that the idea of the deity isn’t directly connected with what religion is doing for them. (emphasis original)
Continuing, here from a section, "On God and Delusion," in the fifth chapter that spells things out pretty clearly.
Religious belief, however, is not typically delusional belief. One somewhat unsatisfactory reason that delusion doesn’t quite describe religious beliefs is that there is some relationship between them and social norms.

Believing in God, lamentably, is still quite normal, and so belief isn’t, itself, an indication of mental illness so much as simply being mistaken. The main reason that delusion isn’t quite the right idea to describe religious belief, and that mistaken is a better term, is that while God does not exist, “God” does. It is the acceptance of theism (usually with attendant certainty, denial of death, and other issues in their own rights) that is the actual issue. That is, religious believers aren’t so much deluded; it’s more that they are confused about the meaning of the term “God.” It isn’t exactly a delusion to believe in something real, even if one goes on to misunderstand its nature via a mythological construct made to that purpose.

The distinction is subtle but consequential. Branding religious belief delusional tars billions of genuinely sane people with a pejoratively understood disorder. ...

People who believe in God do so because they don’t know how else to meet certain psychological and social needs. By labeling these people as delusional, we miss the opportunity to address the actual issues in play.  Probably more importantly, we also lose the nuance necessary to identify the legitimate delusions that arise from mistaking the mythological for the real. Of note, though, some of the beliefs that spring from this confusion  are genuinely delusional. That said, religious beliefs tend not to, but can be, delusional and they are likely to serve as the source of genuine  delusions that are unlikely to be recognized as such. It is delusional, for instance, to believe that prayers will heal someone or that a deity will protect one’s home in a natural disaster. This is a problem that deserves  serious attention.
I go on in the eleventh chapter to make an admittedly controversial suggestion, one that could be mistaken for a view indicating some core relationship between religious belief and mental illness that I don't actually think exists. I wrote,
My last suggestion for a transitional effort will be perhaps my most controversial. We should have therapists and counselors trained to specialize in the challenges associated with leaving behind one's religious beliefs, and we should have lots of them. People leaving their faith traditions are having to completely reconstruct much of the way in which they understand the world, including their own identities, and this is likely to be a difficult process. Trained professionals can facilitate the change via online resources, direct counseling, and, when needed, outreach hotlines.

It may be tempting for some to assume that making such a statement is tantamount to implying that religious belief is a kind of mental illness that needs to be cured, but that is not what is being said at all. Instead, it is merely a statement that a significant shift in worldview is likely to come with some psychological and social challenges that proper therapeutic intervention could mitigate. Importantly, this is not a call to train and employ therapists with the task of deconverting believers. Instead, it’s merely a recognition that people undergoing the psychological and social struggles associated with undergoing a deconversion could benefit from specifically trained help. Therapists could be of tremendous help for people transitioning from a state of faith-based life to one in which that has been outgrown, and it seems obvious that if this change can be made more smoothly in some ways than in others, then it should be.
Okay, as that should make most of my actual stated position in Everybody Is Wrong About God more clear--I don't think religious belief is a mental illness, at least not in general--I feel like I can move on to discussing the delicate relationship between the two ideas.


Karl Jaspers laid out in General Psychopathology three criteria for delusional belief states, and once you see them, it's hard to deny that the delusion shoe fits theistic religious beliefs pretty snugly. They are:
  1. Certainty of conviction: people with delusions are absolutely sure of their "truth;"
  2. Incorrigibility: people with delusions are not easily persuaded by argument, facts, or evidence to the contrary of their belief; and
  3. Impossibility or falsity of content: what they believe is either impossible or not actually true.
It's really, really hard to read those three criteria for delusion honestly and not see belief in God as meeting the criteria. In fact, I think it does meet them, and yet the delusion shoe doesn't fit (not least because the colloquial definition for 'delusion' includes that the beliefs are idiosyncratic, which belief in God isn't). I obviously argue that it isn't appropriate, despite the snugness of fit between delusion and theism.

Because a set of ideas called "God" exists and does real, observable things for people who believe in it, and because that set of ideas gets mythologized into an entity called by the same name, it is effectively impossible to disentangle whether a believer talking about his beliefs means "God," a real set of ideas, or God, a mythological entity in any generic application of the phrase "belief in God." (In fact, I think part of the power of mythological thinking lies specifically in blurring that line to the point where even the believer doesn't always know which thing he is talking about, although he's sure to side with the entity almost every time.) That is, I don't think believers in God are usually delusional for that belief. They're mistaken about what they're referring to because of mythological thinking.

That said, I do think most religious believers harbor delusions that arise directly from their religious beliefs. As I stated in the book, quoted above, it is delusional to believe that intercessory prayer will do anything for you. It is delusional to believe that an all-powerful entity is taking care of you. So far as we have any business talking about, it is delusional to believe that we will survive death or carry on otherwise in some heaven or hell. These are legitimate delusions that are very common, perfectly direct consequences of belief in God, even if belief in a mythological construct itself isn't.

As I said, I also think this is a big problem. The way it stands now, we have no way whatsoever to pull apart common religious delusions--like belief that a deity is in control, that death is an illusion, that life is eternal, or that intercessory prayer works--and attempt to do something about them. Normally, religious delusions have to be of such a grand nature to be diagnosed that huge amounts of smaller, consequential problems are overlooked as a matter of principle and an ethic of practice. This is unconscionable.

Of note, having the threshold on diagnosing religious delusions turned too far up is also a very significant issue where con artists fleece poor people (often literally poor) out of gobs of money they don't have on selling a "Prosperity" delusion. Offenders of this sort, like Joel Osteen, are a real problem, and this is just one tip of one iceberg in the sea of legitimate delusions that arise from religious beliefs.

Still, generally speaking, belief in God isn't delusional, though the more things a person thinks God does, the more real delusions are probably creeping out of the beliefs and becoming manifest--and potentially treatable.

Psychosocial needs

Everyone has psychological and social needs (collectively termed psychosocial needs). Everyone throughout life has difficulties with meeting these needs. Some we figure out; some we don't. This is part of the process of growing up. If there are major complexes of difficulties with these needs that interfere with normal life, then there's a possibility of some kind of underlying psychopathology that presents. Otherwise, having  psychological and social needs is just part of being human, as is having more and less effective ways to meet them.

"God," and thus belief in God, is one strategy people have used since time immemorial to attempt to address, cope, meet, or ignore--yes, ignore--a variety of psychological and social needs. In that, "God" allows people to address them (or ignore them) on some level that (usually) enables more-or-less successful navigation of life and its stresses. Thus, possessing only an inadequate tool for genuinely meeting those needs (belief in God) doesn't constitute a kind of psychopathology, even if believers could do better by trading belief for more successful, real-world means.

When I say that declaring belief in God is tantamount to having psychological and social needs that the believer doesn't know how to meet (without relying upon superstitious attributions and a mythological construct to give them a false sense of reality), I am not saying a word more than I said. In other words, and specifically, I'm not saying that these people are mentally ill or mentally deficient. I'm saying that they're using a particular (relatively bad, though there are worse) strategy for managing those needs, belief in a non-existent God.


One of the specific needs I discuss in the book, particularly where it comes to prayer, relates to a need for coping mechanisms. These all show up under the heading of control-based needs, which all speak to a single psychological theme: human powerlessness. Death and dangerous uncertainty are the two biggest categories in which we need coping mechanisms for which people turn to beliefs in God.

Prayer is one religious coping mechanism. Prayer allows people to believe they can do something when they can't really do anything, or don't want to (in addition to a number of other functions of prayer, but here I'm talking about its use as a coping mechanism).

Prayer, then, gives people a sense of control, which may be enough to effect coping with a terrible stress--even if that sense is illusory (as is supported by evidence in the psychology of religion). Prayer is a cheap coping mechanism, though, and it's often used as such in the intercessory fashion, a belief in which is delusional. It's worth noting, however, that nuance is again important. Turning to a delusion in moments of peak stress probably shouldn't (and doesn't) constitute a legitimate mental illness. It's just human desperation in a bad situation.

Death is the other big religious coping arena, and thus by "death," I mean death's denial. It's easy to argue--as does Terror Management Theory--that the primary occupation of theistic religious belief is the denial of death (although I think it plays a close second to defining and codifying a moral framework, in practice).

Coping with death is hard. Very hard. It's one of the most monumental challenges of a human life. Religious beliefs that offer eternal life (usually through God) are an easy dodge, another cheap coping mechanism that lets people get by pretending to have met a need, perhaps indefinitely. The lines between mental illness, unhealthy coping, and healthy coping are particularly blurry where it comes to religious denial of death.


A special case worth mentioning is religious fundamentalism, which I think probably legitimately should constitute a recognizable psychopathology--a mental illness. I mention this point a couple of times in Everybody Is Wrong About God, and in it I try to also offer a suggestion by which we might understand religious fundamentalism as a subtype of a delusional belief structure. I wrote,
Incidentally, it is my opinion that whatever religious fundamentalism means—this being its own topic of important and complicated research—a key feature by which it can be distinguished is a preference for religious attributions over natural ones when naturalistic ones are available. It is not hard to see, if this conception of religious fundamentalism holds some merit, how it constitutes a kind of psychopathology, hopefully one that could be treated. It specifically manifests as adhering to a set of false beliefs about the world with such tenacity that established and available countervailing attributions are denied or rejected in an attempt to  prevent revision of the beliefs. That these beliefs are maintained in order to meet or ignore psychosocial needs that can certainly be met in other ways should qualify it as a kind of pathological mental state, fundamentalism as a subtype of delusion. (pp. 77-78, emphasis original)
This statement is a little bit technical, but what it is driving at is that when someone's adherence to a superstitious (religious) belief structure is so psychologically important that they will reject established facts about the world--say the biological theory of evolution--there's a legitimate problem going on. The ways in which religious beliefs are attending to someone's needs, at that point, have legitimately impinged upon her ability to deal with basic, well-established facts about the world, facts that are relevant in a variety of important ways, not least in terms of policy  making and choosing policy makers. The superstitious beliefs in such cases are more important than apprehending and accepting reality. That constitutes a pathological level of being unwilling or unable to deal with those needs.

Belief isn't mental illness

So, generally speaking, belief isn't mental illness, though theistic belief is very likely to evoke legitimate delusions, mask delusions that arise in religious contexts, inhibit meeting psychosocial needs, provide cheap but poor coping mechanisms, and potentially evolve into a legitimately psychopathological adherence to beliefs known broadly as "fundamentalism." And yes, ardent creationism is probably legitimately a symptom of a mental illness, not just a religious belief.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Post-Theistic Conversation

It appears I'm going to get to quote myself.

I've heard a few times now, and sadly from some rather noteworthy figures, that my new book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, makes the critical mistake of asserting that now is the time to make the post-theistic turn (away from "atheism") when it is, quite obviously, not that time. Today, the ever-insightful Damion Reinhardt at the Skeptic Ink Network blog Background Probability joins that list in a thoughtful and concerned review.

Damion, writes a few things worth noting particularly, and I'll jump into a little discussion, clarification, and tedious quoting of myself after that.
It is a fine book, packed with sundry insightful ideas about how to move secular society forward, and I commend it to your reading. That is, I commend it with one major caveat: Ask yourself whether now is indeed the right time to go post-theistic. (emphasis original)
Damion, of course, thinks it is clearly not that time. He immediately takes a bat to my statement that New Atheism "did it's job; it changed the conversation" and likening it to a can opener, from which we would drop after opening the can, not continuing to use it for scooping out its contents. Damion wrote, abbreviating by leaving off the good argument he gave supporting his contention (which you can obviously click over to his blog and read for yourself),
The job of New Atheism is emphatically not to open the can and start a conversation about whether any gods are truly guiding humankind. 
I don't know how old Damion is, but I remember the 1990s pretty clearly, a decade not all that long ago and long after figures like Voltaire and Ingersoll. The conversation is changed. New Atheism made atheism and nonbelief standard articles of our culture, things you can talk about without having to hide, even in the hillbilly South. (I, for example, hid my own lack of belief from my own brother for almost a decade, which implies he hid his from me likewise.) At a party last night, I was asked by a Christian woman, "are you an atheist?" which was followed by "that's cool" when I replied, "sort of, but I don't take the label to myself anymore." A Jewish woman also found this non-controversial. Something is different than it was twenty years ago.

I should clarify what I think the goal of New Atheism is. To quote myself from the Introduction to Everybody Is Wrong About God on what I specifically identify as what New Atheism accomplished, in the paragraph preceding one Damion took objection to:
[New Atheism] defeated theism at the level of ideas and obliterated the taboo surrounding an open lack of belief in God, which was its main goal.
The latter of these two things is really the bigger, but in doing so, it made public all the arguments (and new ones) that Damion mentions in his defense of his point. Perhaps I should have added the word "popularly" before "defeated," looking at it in hindsight. But this is all a digression to make me feel better about his taking to that point with a verbal bat.

To the point of whether or not we should turn post-theistic now (or, really, toward it), I urge you to read my arguments in the book and critiques of everyone that provides them. My point really isn't to argue that in this blog post. Here, I want to address a very common misconception, that I think (or suggest) we should stop talking about religious belief.

To see what I mean, Damion gets to this soon after,
The proper mission of New Atheism is just the same as that taken up by every previous wave of freethought, that is, to liberate minds from received dogma. We are here to engender “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” whether those mental shackles come in the form of purported theistic revelation or otherwise.
Lindsay argues that it is time to move to a “fully post-theistic position, one where we consider theism beneath serious consideration” by which we stop “arguing against belief in God” and move on to the next step, were we leave talk about God behind entirely. (emphasis added, to make a point, not to point out the non sequitur lurking here)
To which he concludes, conveying some sense of horror at the suggestion,
Suppose we were all to take this advice, and immediately cease engaging with those who continue arguing for belief in God. Some few will still manage to free themselves from religious dogma by performing their own proactive literature review, applying the existing tools of epistemology and philosophy of religion to the intellectual scaffolding put in place by theistic apologists. Others will languish in their childhood faith, with none of their peers taking the trouble to challenge their worst ideas. I’m fairly confident that I would have ended up in the latter category myself, but for a scrappy band of atheological counterapologists who took my peculiar theistic delusions seriously enough to show me exactly where I had gone wrong. (emphasis added because I don't know where I gave that advice, ever)
Of course, I made the case in several places in the book that we should have easily accessible anthologies of rebuttals to stock theistic arguments and encourage their spread, so I won't bother with that misconception again. I also think that stories like his aren't uncommon and are hopeful. The thing is, he had to care where he had gone wrong before those "atheological counterapologists" (:cringe:) could really impact him. My book is, circumstantially, about addressing why many believers don't. New Atheism will save people like Damion, but it won't save the majority of people I know down here in East Tennessee. Ever.

Damion, though, also objects to my claim that eventually, as we turn post-theistic, we, as a culture, won't take theism seriously enough anymore to argue against it (rather like how we already treat street preachers). He puts it eloquently,
So long as at least one person that I care about takes any delusional belief seriously and allows it to guide their actions, I will take that belief seriously as a threat to their health and well-being. This holds true for theistic and secular utopian faiths no less than chiropractic subluxations and homeopathic medicine. Rationalism has no shelf life, so long as at least some people are suffering from their faith-based beliefs.
Good for him. This is an effort, if properly directed, that I fully applaud and encourage. And now that I've quoted the majority of his review, I'll stop and get to some thoughts and the laborious displeasure of quoting things I already wrote.

First, I'll mention that it's curious that he brought up chiropractic and homeopathy, given the utter lack of effectiveness arguing against those has proved--see this fun New York Times piece from October of this year. Or maybe the anti-vaccination people are worth bringing up, given the huge consequences of their adherence to dead-wrong bullshit and the studies showing that arguing with them and educating them simply doesn't work and often makes it worse.

Now I'll mention that what Damion (and Loftus) fear isn't what I actually advocate and isn't what I mean by a post-theistic position. To be clear, I don't think we should stop talking about beliefs, but we should do so differently. I must have done something wrong since I feel like the single best sentence for accurately marketing Everybody Is Wrong About God is "It's time to change the conversation about God." Change. Not end.

That said, I think it's time to quote myself a little instead of explaining this again.

When I say that theism has lost and "atheism" has won--and that we should therefore go post-theistic--what I'm saying is that the intellectual and philosophical legs that theism has enjoyed up until recently have been completely cut out from under it, nothing more. In other words, I think it's time to stop arguing about theism in the terms of theism. There are other ways to engage the topic, and there are other much more fruitful endeavors to turn our attention to.

One of the main ideas presented, repeatedly in fact, in the book is that if people feel like they have the psychological and social space to leave their religious beliefs, they often will. Efforts that work to create that space--secularism, critical thinking, social environments, socioeconomic security, community, contextualization of death, humanist ethical systems, etc.--are what I advocate over most of the arguing about philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) stuff. None of these are "atheism," though, and none of them are helped by branding them that way. (emphasis original)
And from a different post:
I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.
And another from this same different post:
Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation. (emphasis and bold in original) 
Of course, I don't expect that Damion had read those posts, so I'll quote a bit from the book as well.

Here's a pretty definitive statement from the Introduction:
It could be misunderstood that placing theism beneath serious consideration is just an attempt to shut down discussion, but it is, in fact, a strategic maneuver designed to facilitate productive conversations that move us forward. The goal isn’t to shut down any discussion, particularly not in an authoritarian way. Instead, we should shift our mentality and admit that the terms of theism aren’t serious and are therefore not owed serious consideration.
There also, I argue that we should now consider approaching things in a different way:
Over the idea of God, like with racism, there are two battles being fought at the same time, and they tend to get conflated. On one front, there is a war of ideas, which I claim has ended with the notion of God as the clear loser. On the other is a cultural fight, and that will endure for some time, maybe indefinitely. We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today. The cultural fight is mostly distinct from the arguments over the idea, and it must be fought in a different way. (emphasis added)
Adding to that point, also in the Introduction:
...apparently straightforward questions like “does God exist?” and thus “is theism true?” only seem to have meanings, but it is not clear that they do. These phrases, and the terms in them, are best characterized by perpetually seeming to elude any clarity at all. What this tells us is plain and the subject of this book: we’re talking about the whole thing the wrong way.
Clearly, I'm making a point that we should try talking about it in the right way instead, and that we probably shouldn't stop talking about it at all. In case my meaning isn't clear, also from the Introduction:
Religious beliefs and conviction to those beliefs by faith are relevant matters in the world today, along with their consequences, but theism itself is not. We must stop pretending that the meanings usually given to words like “God” and “soul” should be taken on their own terms. Of course, it isn’t that we don’t have some idea of what people mean by these words. It’s that the terms, as they are intended, are misleading and should be rejected as such. (emphasis added)
I hope it's clearly implied that "relevant matters in the world today" should continue being vigorously discussed. The rest of the paragraph gives a hint as to how. Later in the Introduction, I mention,
I insist that the time to drop this thankless job [arguing for the obvious, that there is no God] is either very near or upon us already. It is time to keep making the noises, beset by religious dogma as we still are, without pushing “atheism.” (emphasis added)
I'm getting the impression I think we should probably keep having these conversations. How about you? Still, just to really make the point clear, though, I'll quote the Introduction once more:
One might worry that theism will “win” simply by its refusal to go away—rather like we must continually address certain kinds of medical infections to prevent them from festering. If we were just dropping the matter entirely and walking away from culturally relevant discussions, there is little doubt that this would be the case. Giving up isn’t the goal. Instead, we are moving away from treating theism as if it has any theoretical legs to stand on in serious discussions, such as in academics and politics. ... We shouldn’t continue to conflate the debate over the idea of theism, which is over, with the needed cultural shift away from it, which is not. (emphasis added)
So, in the first thirty or so pages of the book, noting that I just grabbed a few passages as they jumped out at me, I think it's fair to say that I may even overstate my point that the conversation is to be changed, not ended, almost like I anticipated people wouldn't get it.

But let's continue a bit, mostly so I can share a few more little excerpts to give more flavor of what's really written in my book that so many are apparently so reluctant to open (this being a common comment I keep seeing all over the place, not something I believe Damion is guilty of).

Chapter 1 says,
To be sure, the conversation about “God” need not be put in terms of theism at all, although this statement is likely to seem profoundly controversial. In fact, it is the other way around. It is rather astounding that we seem unable to see where to place the terminology of this conversation if not in theism. There is no mystery whatsoever to where we should look to make sense of the word “God.” The term is personal, and the term is cultural. Psychology—which is to say the working of the human mind—is the obvious locus for the actual, nonmythological meaning of the term “God.”
And adds,
But God is a mythological object and thus emphatically not best treated philosophically because philosophy takes the idea too seriously in the wrong way. Philosophical terms should be jettisoned, then, and we should address “God” in terms of what it actually seems to do for people. We should also recognize theism as a pseudo-philosophical position instead of a properly philosophical one. (emphasis original)
And then,
What we cannot ignore, then, is that the word “God” does mean something, and that something has nothing to do with theism. Something that nonbelievers are sorely missing when it comes to handling the fact of religious belief in our world is a nontheistic account of the term “God.”
In Chapter 3, where Damion complains that I'm wrong to say arguing against religious belief has a shelf life, I continue from what he quoted in this way,
Note, however, that taking theism seriously enough to shoot it down has to have a shelf life. As theism becomes less and less meaningful culturally, antitheism becomes less and less appropriate. There is little reason to argue against something that most of us don’t take seriously. Ignoring it, scoffing at it, and outright making fun of it are sufficient to the task at that point. (emphasis added)
We'll come back to "outright making fun of it," which is a way, by the way, to continue talking about it--a very effective way. But I go on two paragraphs later to write,
People in this position realize that the vague, hence meaningless, general use of the term “God” is best ignored as unclear and irrelevant while the specific uses of the term are to be rejected for being incorrect and misleading.
I do this before devoting an entire short section to an example of how post-theistic conversations can be done well, citing the debate between physicist Sean Carroll and Christian apologist William Lane Craig in 2014--a clear example of conversation continuing. That section concludes,
[Carroll] directly states that theism is “not well-defined,” and his attitude is that because it isn’t well-defined, it isn’t a serious (cosmological) model. He does, however, take pains before, during, and after this set of comments to shoot down Craig’s arguments where they were specific enough to be commented upon. In this debate, Carroll gave us a perfect example of how post-theistic people, especially highly qualified ones, should handle the sophistry of theism.
I'm getting very near, or well beyond, belaboring this point, but I'll mention here that a third of the seventh chapter, about uprooting faith (as aggravated many a person on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog), is dedicated to the application of satire. The other two thirds are dedicated to directing people to engage in conversations of the Street Epistemology kind (see Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists) and that guide people into taking the Outsider Test for Faith (see John W. Loftus's The Outsider Test for Faith).

Before wrapping this up with a couple more quotes from near the end of the book, should it not have been conveyed that I make the point of my goal being to change (not end) the conversation, I'll note that the exact phrase "conversation and compromise," indicating something that I think is central to what we need to be having, appears no less than six times in the book, every single time in a context that indicates its importance.

That said, the ninth chapter is specifically about how we should "unthink" atheism and do things differently, and it notes,
The goal is to have open, honest conversations that move people away from myth and toward more fruitful and solidly grounded topics, and achieving that is an art that often requires swallowing a lot of pride and frustration. Figuring out which activities are good and bad uses of our time is important, and of all the things listed here, it is probably the most straightforward once we’re honest about what the term “God” means. Anything that treats theism on its own terms, except in particular one-on-one conversations meant to help people uproot their faith, is probably a waste of time. That which sees “God” in the light of psychosocial needs that people have and do not know how else to meet is likely to be fruitful. (emphasis added)
I don't know how to get clearer than that on the point that I think we should keep having conversations about this stuff. To wind down, though, and perhaps in bad form (spoiler alert?), I'll actually put the last paragraph of the book here too.
This is possible. Knowing that “God” doesn’t mean what people think it means clarifies the entire discussion and improves our approach. If we have a sense of where we’re going, a sense of where we are, and a sense of what the terrain between is like, charting a course will be straightforward. Our charge is to do just that, no longer wrong about God. (emphasis added)
Hopefully that clears this up a little. Really. I'm not asking anyone to end the conversation. I want the conversation to keep going, but I want it to proceed in a way that is properly informed on its topic.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Of Course I Think Believers Believe

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for.

To be fair, I'm taking this quote from Harris, which also appears in my new book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, slightly out of context. Harris's context is that arguing on the behalf of atheism requires doing as he says, and the obvious to which he refers is the quite clearly godless machinations of the universe. I'm employing it for something different that is obvious, something that I may have to observe and re-observe and argue for, if the statement in this (otherwise glowing) review of Everybody Is Wrong About God holds any portent.

I've heard it several times now; it deserves a response; and this review puts it most clearly; so here's a short something addressing it. "Book Fanatic" writes,
Although I'm giving this book 5 stars overall I do think Lindsay is either misunderstanding or not explaining well in his writing the level of belief in an actual deity by believers in "God". While I accept virtually everything he writes about what goes into "God" I think there is a lot more of feelings of personal relationship with a God or Jesus than comes through in his writing.
Perhaps this reviewer is right. Maybe I didn't make it clear that believers in God tend to believe in an actual deity, one with whom they believe they have a personal relationship. Of course I think that. For starters, I live in a part of the world in which more than five out of six people report 100% confidence in a belief that a (personal) God exists. I don't think it would be possible for me not to think that, given nothing more than the fact that I'm inundated with belief in God, in the existence of a real deity.

More importantly, I don't usually doubt people's sincerity, especially about their religious beliefs. There are charlatans and frauds, con artists and shysters, and opportunists and swindlers to be sure, but I honestly guess that they represent outliers in most realms, including (maybe especially) religious belief. That is, I'm less likely to doubt someone's sincerity of belief than I probably should be, to speak generally, and so I certainly don't doubt the claim that people really do believe in a personal God.

My excuse for not including more space in the book spelling this out clearly follows from the fact that I see it as entirely obvious and thus unnecessary to comment upon. In hindsight, I can see how people would think I missed that important aspect of belief and am simply psychologizing religious belief. So, what I'm about to say next is pretty important.

But mythology

But this is exactly how mythology works. People who have subscribed to a mythological attributional framework don't always know that's what they're doing, and the ones who are doing it are usually believers of the most secularization and, really, least concern where it comes to the potential abuses of theism (say, for examples, Jewish Atheists, very liberalized Christians who see much or all of the story as a myth except the moral teachings of Christ (e.g. Thomas Jefferson), or the Greek philosophers who warned people not to confuse real explanations and mythological ones--largely in vain).

Most people who have bought into a myth believe literally in the mythological figures that they're referring to, which they use mostly as objects of attribution, although the real-world processes, effects, and phenomena that they describe under the provinces of the mythological attribution figure are almost always the relevant thing that they're talking about when talking about the deity.

So, people--like most believers--refer to something real (which I called "God" in the book because that's what they call it) and consider it as a mythological construct, a deity, God. They believe in a real God because if they didn't, the whole attributional schema, and thus the psychological and social needs it supports, would fall apart. Preventing that attributional schema from falling apart is exactly why they believe in most cases, so for most of them, letting it fall apart isn't possible. The myth, to them, can't be a myth, and thus is must be real. And that's what they believe.

But some people get it

There are, as I indicate clearly in Chapter 5 of Everybody Is Wrong About God, a lot--dozens--of interwoven ideas serving various psychological and social needs, and they all get wrapped up in the term "God" as believers use it. I know they're talking about a deity, which is a mythological figure, and know they don't realize it, pretty much by definition. That's the nature of myth. But then, as I just noted a moment ago, some people get it. Some people see the whole religious narrative as a myth and still hold to the religions. What gives?

Not all of the knobs on the mixer board of belief require belief in a deity. Indeed, many are cultural, and for those people, all that's necessary is a cultural narrative. Cultural narratives can be true stories, fictions, or mythological fictions. It doesn't matter. People who "get it," like those mentioned above, are largely nontheistic in their religious belief, and we often identify them as "cultural [religious person]," such as a "cultural Christian" or "cultural Jew." Note that for these people, the matter is almost always the case that they're as completely secular as any nonbeliever, atheist, or antitheist as you'll ever meet.

These takes exist on a spectrum, of course (or really in a space of many spectra), and when one doesn't need "God" as an object of attribution but does use it as a symbolic context-provider for a community or cultural narrative, you can have "cultural believers" who don't really believe but engage in the community and practices anyway. That's why thinking of how fully these various needs are being attended to by belief in God is best thought of as a bunch of knobs that can be turned up and down. People who are religious with very little belief have the "devout" master knob (called "transcendence" in the book) turned way down.

In other words, that many people literally believe in their mythological figure is beyond doubt, beyond apparent need for comment, and that some people use it purely as a mythological contextual narrative and don't isn't anything like a challenge to my case about the ideas called "God." They're just another facet of it.

Of course, though--of course--many people who believe in God really do believe in God and believe themselves to be in personal relationship with that deity, even though it's a fiction and they don't, or can't let themselves, realize it.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Judging a Book by its Cover--On the Rationality of Atheists

My newest book has been released and received a few decent reviews and nods, particularly from my friend Ryan Bell at Year Without God on the Patheos blog network. His review has been mirrored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and by Huffington Post. Incidentally, I consulted with Ryan about which misconceptions stand out most to him since he's been on the front lines of receiving them as well, since most have followed the publication of his review.

I really wanted to title this "Everybody Is Wrong About Everybody Is Wrong About God," but as it's too long and not true, I'm sparing the hyperbole. I do want to clear up some of the biggest misconceptions that seem to be flying around concerning my newest book, which does carry that italicized title (and is available here). These misconceptions seem pretty heavily plagued by the judging-a-book-by-its-cover that, one would think, most of us have learned not to do, given that it's a cliche.

Misconception #1: Everybody is wrong about God... except me! Or, Everybody is wrong about God, including me (so don't bother with the book).

I get the sinking suspicion that I'm going to get really tired of these two piercingly analytical responses to the title of my book--really quickly. I'll say something about it here that a similar sinking suspicion tells me I'll either also get really tired of repeating or just give up on trying to say before too long.

First, let's dispel the arrogance. The title of the book is a bit hyperbolic because that's a function of good book titles, but really, I'm pretty sure the very wide majority of people are wrong about God, and not in the way that makes appeal-to-mystery theologians happy. Thus, some people probably aren't really wrong about God, and good for them. The exceptions are dealt with. As a rule, though, pretty much everybody is wrong about God, so, there we have it.

My thesis is that the word "God" represents real psychological and social constructs, and--and pay attention to this part--those are not best accounted for under theism. Thus, anyone who attends to the notion of "God" in the way that theism does, whether accepting or rejecting it, is wrong about God. Theism, and thus philosophy, is the wrong way to think about the whole subject, and we should stop thinking about it (and arguing about it) that way.

Am I wrong about God, though? Well, I sure as hell was before I started researching and writing this book, and I might be now. I think I'm on the right track to getting things right, and I think this book is a great conversation opener in that direction. I consider it an invitation to think about the topic in a completely different way than the way theism allows.

Misconception #2: Lindsay is just trying to redefine God (and give respectability back to theological language).

After watching incessant, nonsensical accusations levelled at Peter Boghossian accusing him of "attempting to redefine faith," when he was, in fact, simply defining it according to its typical operational usage, I guess I have a right to expect to get pretty tired of this one too. Strangely, I expect it from religious people, and I think it will be more annoying from nonbelievers. We shall see!

So, already it should be clear. I'm not trying to redefine "God." I'm trying to listen to the way that believers actually use a term that symbolizes one of the most important concepts that they think about, talk about, and act upon. I'm trying to be honest about the meaning of the term "God" in use, and that means doing it without theism which cannot be honest about the term "God."

I can't help how believers actually use the word "God," but I can listen to them. After doing just that for a long time and subsequently reading a lot of religious psychology, I think I arrived at a fresh take on the discussion about "God." That, I wrote down and published in the book presently in question. I sincerely hope that this book allows other people to see the term, and thus the people who believe in the ideas called by it, in the same way I do because it's a complete game-changer on how we treat the whole concept and thus the people who believe it and problems associated with it.

Further, I certainly harbor no hopes nor delusions about rescuing theological nonsense from the embarrassing box it has landed itself in through centuries and centuries of simply not being able to do the only thing it claims to do. I also don't want to rescue theological terminology. I openly state in the book that I do not think calling these ideas "God" is a good idea "because bad metaphors maintain the God delusion." 

Misconception #3: Lindsay is saying people don't really believe in God because it's psychological.

Oh no, I most definitely didn't say that, nor do I think it. In fact, I think the vast majority of believers, even the very liberal, moderate, "cafeteria" ones, most definitely believe in a mythological entity they call "God," and what they believe exists is defined by theism. That, as much as anything in this world, is well beyond question.

I also think these people are all thinking mythologically, unless they are unfortunately beset by a delusional psychopathology (and I am careful to distinguish between these in the book--the wide majority of religious belief is not delusional, it's misattributional). The deity they believe in is a mythological edifice constructed around a number of ideas that they employ to meet certain psychological and social needs. That's why it's more accurate to say that most believers are mistaken, mistaking a myth for what it represents, than that they are delusional, which is a psychopathology we have a harder time diagnosing because of this confusion.

Misconception #4: The struggle isn't over OR atheism clearly hasn't won OR the world clearly isn't post-theistic because lots of people believe.

I think, if I were easily insulted, the suggestion that I'm not aware of or concerned about the rampant amount of religious belief in the world and its horrible effects is pretty close to insulting. I mean, really? Disagreement with my thoughts aside, there's no real way anyone with access to the Internet can think I'm that misinformed or stupid. It's pretty obvious that lots of people believe and that lots of hard work is still needed before we will become post-theistic (especially globally), if that ever happens.

When I say that theism has lost and "atheism" has won--and that we should therefore go post-theistic--what I'm saying is that the intellectual and philosophical legs that theism has enjoyed up until recently have been completely cut out from under it, nothing more. In other words, I think it's time to stop arguing about theism in the terms of theism. There are other ways to engage the topic, and there are other much more fruitful endeavors to turn our attention to.

One of the main ideas presented, repeatedly in fact, in the book is that if people feel like they have the psychological and social space to leave their religious beliefs, they often will. Efforts that work to create that space--secularism, critical thinking, social environments, socioeconomic security, community, contextualization of death, humanist ethical systems, etc.--are what I advocate over most of the arguing about philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) stuff. None of these are "atheism," though, and none of them are helped by branding them that way.

The thing is, the terms of theism, the "philosophy" of it, the "evidence for" kind of stuff all follows secondarily to the fact that the beliefs are meeting certain needs for people and held in service to those needs. If the beliefs were held in service to facts and reason, as Dr. House clearly indicated, there would be no religious believers left.

Of course the struggle isn't over, nor are its goals clearly defined (are we arguing for ending religion, merely securing and maintaining secularism and pluralism, or what?). My position is that unless we are clear about what the central term of the whole shebang is really getting at, we have almost no hope of determining the right goals or achieving them.

Far from claiming that the struggle is over, I'm arguing that we need to engage in its central discussion in a completely different way.

Misconception #5: Atheism is necessary to combat theism OR atheism can't perpetuate theism.

No, really, it isn't. Simply not caring, en masse, about the entire discussion about "God" and putting it all behind us approaches "combating" theism in a different way that isn't really caught up in the trappings that are more and more identifiable with "atheism." I don't think that's necessarily the best approach, but I do think it's an element of a better approach than the almost incessant squabbling we do now.

Further, my point really drives into what "atheism" really means in practice. I know what the word means. In fact, I know what it means from a number of perspectives, most of which I reject. I also see how it gets used--atheism movements and communities based really on some combinations of skepticism, humanism, science, secularism, superiority, social progressivism, responding to persecution, and niche topics in philosophical anti-theism. Those, which I argue are all inherently misguided, are exactly the kinds of "atheism" that perpetuate the debate and thus perpetuate theism. Before getting mad about what I said on this, I hope people will take the time to see why I said it.

Worse, and very importantly, setting "atheism" up like a team that competes with the various teams of religious believers makes "being an atheist" a social phenomenon in the same social universe as religions (and, in cases where people get particularly ideological, in the same corner of the universe as religions--which I called "IMMCs," Ideologically Motivated Moral Communities, in the book). Teams, or tribes, like this do perpetuate their negations. In fact, they tend to balkanize and polarize (and it's not like anything of that kind is going on these days...).

One thing is, the "Nones" are rising like mad, and my guess is that it's a social phenomenon that isn't likely to be stable as Millennials age. This circumstance has, however, created an opening into which we can get stability, and I happen to think that getting our thinking right on "God" is probably pretty important, if not necessary, to seizing that opportunity.

Misconception #6: Atheism cannot 'end' because it's the null position that one holds by default when not believing in gods or God.

This is actually the take on the term "atheism" that I agree with, and my thought on it is that it's therefore an unnecessary label--"the most important word that shouldn't exist," I called it. I consider this objection philosophical pedantry. If you have it, raise your game.

There will be more, I'm sure. If any merit commentary, I may append them to this list or start a second page of them. In the meantime, happy reading!


Misconception #7: The last thing we need is atheist preachers like this book calls for.

Honestly, I don't even know how people arrived at that conclusion from reading the title and a short excerpt (here from The Friendly Atheist). Um, no kidding? My book aims to change the nature of religious conversation away from philosophical-type arguing and forming warring ideological teams to understanding the roots of religious belief and attempting to address those. Preachers aren't necessary.

Misconception #8: I may be trying to speak for all atheists and assume their goals (really).

No, I'm not. In fact, I don't really care how anyone chooses to do things regarding theism or atheism, although I want them to do whatever they do with it in a way that is as informed as possible on the matter. I think theism, thus most of "atheism," does them a disservice in this regard and am attempting to provide insights from the psychology of religion that change how they treat the matter.

Monday, October 26, 2015

John W. Loftus on How to Defend the Christian Faith, a book review

Four years ago I wrote in my first book about what I called The Problem of Apologetics, making the case that the very existence of apologetics--lawyerly defenses of religious faith--is a major strike against the believability of the contents of any faith tradition employing them. In considering and formulating that set of ideas, I rapidly concluded that religious apologetics don't deserve serious consideration, and as a result I thought it wasn't possible for me to take them any less seriously. I was wrong. In his new book, How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist, John W. Loftus managed to convince me that the amount of respect I should give to religious apologetic arguments isn't zero, as I had concluded; it is less than zero.

How to Defend the Christian Faith is truly a clever book. Its intended audience is young, would-be Christian apologists, and Loftus's goal is to present them with a hard choice and convince them that they really must make it. On the one hand, the young minds for which Loftus is writing can choose to follow his advice as it is given and become the only kinds of apologists that could have a hope of defending the Christian faith, if it can be defended at all (and I don't think it can or that many would-be apologists would persist after taking his advice). On the other hand, they could be reasonable and abandon all such hope, recognizing the dragons that lie in wait along that path.

Loftus expertly guides these minds, unless they're simply too thick to realize it, to see that the awful choice they have can be summarized by the refrain of the whole book: "If you want to be a good apologist, you shouldn't do these things at all. But then if you didn't do them at all, you wouldn't be an apologist at all." By implication, then, however skilled or brilliant an apologist may be, Loftus neatly demonstrates that he is necessarily a bad apologist. Aspiring faith-defenders who read this book are thereby left with no good options, and Loftus makes it clear that clinging to a desire to rationalize the Christian faith is precisely what binds them.

His thesis is presented in three parts. In the first part, he indicates what any would-be good apologist must do to prepare for the task, and unsurprisingly, all of his forthright and accurate advice would leave the hopeful defender of the faith struggling to hold on to his own belief. He admonishes that good apologists must be open-minded, must think scientifically, must evaluate their religious beliefs from the outside, must get a proper secular education, must attempt the impossible by defending Christian belief solely on evidential grounds, and must learn the relevant sciences--like evolutionary biology--that overwhelmingly undercut the rational capacity to believe. The picture it paints is grim to anyone hoping to argue for Christianity.

The second part of How to Defend the Christian Faith is, in my opinion, cleverer and more interesting. It tells any hopeful apologist exactly the kinds of things she must do in order to be a successful defender of Christian belief, and each and every one of them is something that should cause her to recoil in intellectual horror. Loftus expertly explains in this delightful middle of the text that the only way to apologize for the Christian faith is to abandon one's intellectual honesty. To read these fifty or so pages as a would-be defender of Christian belief must be to be left aghast at the undeniable need to forswear academic scruples to do the job. And so bites the refrain: if you want to be a good apologist, don't do it, but if you don't, you won't be an apologist at all.

The last of the three parts of the book focuses particularly on the problems presented to belief in any Christian faith by the fact that ours is, indeed and for whatever else, a "world of pain." This section brings up the famous Problem of Evil--sometimes rightly called the "rock of atheism"--and gives aspiring apologists the best possible advice for dealing with it, and all of that advice is bad. Avoid, lie, blame, punt, or ignore: these form the backbone of what any Christian apologist must do to handle the full weight that this problem presents to the rationality of Christian belief. Yet again, sincere hopeful apologists will be left dumbfounded at the sheer impossibility of doing their task well.

That all of this artillery against the capacity to defend the Christian faith is headed by a witty and insightful foreword by Peter Boghossian, of A Manual for Creating Atheists fame, only increases its potency. Boghossian, like Loftus, rightly insists that any would-be apologists must engage this kind of material or be prepared to be marginalized out of serious consideration. The foreword sets a tone of cruciality for any aspiring apologists, and then Loftus delivers the bad news for them in chapter after hard-to-dispute chapter.

To that, I add my own insistence. Those who wish to defend the Christian faith should read How to Defend the Christian Faith with utmost seriousness, ponder its contents, and ultimately find something better to do with their time as a result. Others should read it to get a full sense of just how bad the case for Christianity really is. As I argue extensively in my newest book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, the time has come to give no serious consideration to the entire theistic enterprise, and How to Defend the Christian Faith shows us exactly why. The case is hopeless; it's time to move on.

John Loftus's How to Defend the Christian Faith is available for pre-order on Amazon, and it is due to be released in a few days, on November 1.

In the interest of full disclosure, John provided me with a review copy of the book and requested that I blog my thoughts about it, if I would.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Questions anticipating Everybody Is Wrong About God

As many of you will already know, I have a new book coming out this December 1, and it's called Everybody Is Wrong About God, which should have gone to print today or is going tomorrow. An early version of the preface (a few very minor changes have been made in the final editing since putting it up) and the table of contents are already available on this blog with a short introduction to the book.

Between the commentary of some of the people who kindly offered to read it in advance and in various avenues after announcing it, it occurred to me that it would be of some interest to answer some questions people have about the book, and so I solicited even more of them on Twitter. I figure I can keep taking these at least until the book comes out in December, and when I have enough since the last time to make it worth doing (so at least five or six new ones), I'll address them here on the blog. So, keep the questions coming if you have them--in comments, email, on Twitter, or whatever.

Here's a first installment, then, of your questions about the book and my answers to them. I'll start with questions that aren't about content and go from there.

Question: Will the book be available on Kindle?

Easy enough. To quote my publisher: Yes, there definitely will be an ebook edition (for pretty much all readers/retailers -- Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo, etc.). Purchase buttons for ebooks might not post for another few weeks. 

Question: Will there be an audiobook?

Maybe. It can be done, and if there's enough interest, either I can record a reading of it or have someone else do it. Currently, I'm open to the possibility and optimistic about it but haven't settled on it. Definitely don't count it out, though!

Question: How many pages is the book?

The paperback will run 248 pages, or for those that know how word counts go, roughly 80,000 words.

Question, adapted from a concern of fellow author John W. Loftus, who very kindly blurbed the book for me (NB: I thank Loftus for voicing these concerns and include them here for that reason): Does this book, in calling for the end of "atheism" and the philosophy of religion, advocate silence in the face of theistic arguments?

Not exactly, no, it doesn't. It advocates refusing to take theism seriously on its own terms, and it advises against beating the same dead horses over and over and over again (who wants yet another argument against the Kalam Cosmological Nonsense? Right, nobody). In Everybody Is Wrong About God, I am making a call to start a post-theistic turn, one where we treat theistic arguments with decreasing seriousness. I think it's time to turn the corner and start heading down the street to where we treat theistic arguments on the same intellectual level as we do astrological ones, for example.

Everybody Is Wrong About God is calling for a new and different way to handle theistic arguments, one that requires a finer touch than reflexively trying to rebut them. Rebuttals lend seriousness to the arguments that they do not deserve. Sometimes there is a need to answer the arguments, but at other times it's better to ignore them. In the book, I try to give some suggestions, using a good example or two, to give a sense of when different approaches are worth taking.

Generally, though, I do make the case that elaborate philosophical-ish arguments for and against theism are not a good use of time, and that our time could be better spent dismissing the arguments than engaging with them--even explaining why arguments for theism work against theistic religious beliefs.

Question, adapted from a concern of Loftus again: Won't these suggestions (specifically an end of "atheism" and disengagement from theistic arguments) let theism take back the ground it has lost in the last decade?

I have to say, yet again, no, I do not think they will, at least not if I'm right in thinking that the arguments for theism have resoundingly lost the intellectual, but not the cultural, fight. It is for this reason, though, that I encourage compiling useful, accessible resources that rebut the majority of common theistic arguments, like the Secular Web.

I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.

Question, another adapted from John Loftus's concerns: Why do you think we need an argument for the end of "atheism"? Won't it be readily apparent because believers aren't making the arguments any longer?

I'm not as optimistic, I'm afraid, as John is here. From all of the reading I've done of religious psychology and other psychology, I think the arguments come after the beliefs, meaning I think people only make the arguments because they hold the beliefs for other reasons and yet feel like they need to be intellectually defended against the many challenges that evidence and better sense reliably present. In other words, I think that theistic arguments will come about for as long as there are serious and devout believers. I also think the ongoing debate--attempts to answer those arguments--maintains the attitude that the debate has more merit than it does, and thus maintains reasons to believe and thus beliefs.

In the book, I try to make a solid case for the connection between the ideas called "God" and the reasons that people believe in such a notion in the first place. In doing so, I undermine the entire notion of "belief" in the first place.

Question: What does the "end of atheism" mean?

I cover this point rather thoroughly in the book, so I won't get too deeply into it here, but when I say the end of atheism, I mean it's time to stop calling ourselves atheists with pride and to move past the label. I mean it's time to do as I've outlined in the above paragraphs. I mean, especially, that anything that can be taken as "my atheism" or "her atheism" or "being an atheist" or "doing atheism" or "being good at atheism" is something we'd all do better without.

When we really understand that theism is totally bankrupt, that it's mythology, there's no reason to be an "atheist" anymore, and the "philosopher's" term is pointless. Belief itself is the wrong way to think about "God," and understanding that is one avenue to getting post-theistic in a hurry. When we're post-theistic, nobody will be an atheist because that word is, itself, pointless.

Question: What do you mean by post-theistic?

The term explains itself: after theistic, after the phase in which we treat the theistic enterprise with serious consideration. When we look at belief in God the same way that we currently look at astrology (which says very little about how many people subscribe to it), we will be post-theistic. Being post-theistic means realizing that theism is not a mature way to make sense of anything, and not much more. Going post-theistic is leaving theism, and the religious beliefs predicated upon it, in the superstitious past, in the childhood of our species, as it has been called.

Question: If "everybody" is wrong about God, aren't you wrong about God too?

On one level, yes. I wrote this book specifically to begin a more fruitful conversation about religious belief than the one we're currently mired in. I've certainly not been completely comprehensive or perfect in my account, though I do think I've made a pretty good stab at it.

More importantly, "everybody" is rhetorical here. Everyone, though, who thinks about God in the terms of theism, though, is thinking about God the wrong way, and so in a sense, that's pretty much everyone who tries to talk about God. Theism has completely monopolized that conversation, and it's time for that to end.

If you happen to already think rightly about God, good for you. Don't take it hard. It's just the title of a book.

Comment: If God does not exist, then atheists aren't "wrong" about God.

Well, kind of. If people feel the need to identify as atheists, they're still talking about God in terms of belief and nonbelief, which is to say in the terms of theism. If they're thinking about God in the terms of theism, they're wrong about God. They're not wrong about God's existence, but they are wrong about God. 

Question: Will this book prove there is no God?

No, of course not. It argues instead that it's a waste of time to bother with fussing with such a thing, now that enough of the theistic edifice has been smashed, primarily by New Atheism, though "old" atheism did much of the heavy lifting. The goal of the book is to illustrate that God, the theistic concept, is the wrong way to think about the ideas called "God," and when we think about them in the right way, belief becomes nonsensical (in the sense of a category error--"God" isn't a thing to be believed in or not believed in).

Question: Do you think God means nothing more than "my values"? That is, are most believers not making an ontological claim at all?

No, I do not think that, on two levels, and I do think most believers are making an ontological (existence) claim--just not one we need to take seriously. I think believers really do believe what they say they believe, and that means they really do believe that there is a deity that exists in some way or another. I certainly believed exactly that kind of thing when I believed in God. I merely think they're wrong in that claim and that I expose what I think is really going on in Everybody Is Wrong About God.

Also, I think the "my values" part, mentioned in the preface, is a large and significant part of what people mean by the word "God," although there are other facets as well. As just indicated, these aspects all underlie the fact that believers also believe there really is a deity, a belief that defines theism. The book's primary thrust is that the term "God" can be accounted for more successfully without theism than with it.

Question: Could valuing of objective truth be an individual difference variable accounting for some difference between believers and nones?

Yes, it could, but I think it's important to remember that most conservative believers (if not most believers) think not only that they believe the objective truth but that their religion alone accounts for the objective truth. That is, I think most believers do value objective truth, even if they're not evaluating it very well.

Much of the book is dedicated to a discussion of religious psychology, and in that capacity, it discusses some ways in which people evaluate "truth," many of which cause them to diverge directly from what Enlightenment thinkers would call "objective truth."

Question: If people believe in "God" rather than God, do they also believe in "Hell," not Hell? It takes a real God to make a real Hell.

I'm really glad this question came up. In the preface, I say God doesn't exist, but "God" does, but that's not a statement about what people believe. People very much and definitely believe in God; they're just wrong about what the word "God" means. I think anyone who really believes in "God" is probably already post-theistic. Those who are theistic believe in God.

Comment: The biggest mistake we "atheists" do is to assume that religious people actually take their faiths seriously.

I see exactly what is meant by this comment, but it's very important to point out that religious believers, even the very liberal ones in my experience, most certainly do take their faiths seriously--way too seriously, like sacred seriously. The thing is that believers usually seem not to behave in ways that would indicate taking their faiths seriously, meaning that they're relatively casual about which parts they believe and act in ways in outright defiance of the things they profess to believe.

This is exactly the kind of confusing situation that Everybody Is Wrong About God was written to address. When we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, do things for those who believe them on a psychological and social level; when we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, act to amplify the sense of importance and realism of the moral attitudes of the moral communities that define the religious sects; only then do we start to see exactly why religious believers simultaneously take their faiths--their sets of beliefs--very seriously and yet do not agree with all of the pronouncements of their faiths, often explicitly and often by deeds that contradict their professions of belief.

Question: Won't this only be realized in the far-distant future? (NB: This was a concern also voiced by John W. Loftus.)

Maybe? And if so, so what? I don't think so, though, and I try to make the case for why now is the right time to start making the turn toward post-theism. People are getting ansy for a change, at least in the conversation, for one thing, and I'd rather they turn this way than some other ways, like ideological atheism or whatever the hell the Regressive Left is doing right now. Also, people are already turning post-theistic on their own. I am happy to listen to dissent, but I really do think that the time is upon us, here, at least.

That "here" is important too. This turn isn't about to  happen in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, or a lot of anywhere outside of advanced democracies. And of course it won't happen all at once, but it has to happen somewhere first. From there, it can spread.

Still, I think it is of enormous importance to realize that if I am right about the term "God," then belief and nonbelief become the wrong way to think about the thing, like a category mistake. If it doesn't make sense to believe at all, if the terms of belief are inappropriate to the question, people coming to understand that point of view should only hasten the goals of "atheism" (here really meaning antitheism, secularism, and humanism, which often get conflated with "atheism" because they are so often embraced by those lacking belief) where they still progress.

Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation.

Final word, for now:
Thanks, everyone, for your questions, and I look forward to more of them, so keep them coming! Everybody Is Wrong About God is a conversation-changer, and it is to be released on December first this year. It is available for pre-orders now and, at the time of this writing, fairly significantly discounted by Amazon, so you can do that now and connect yourself to a new, better way to think about "God" and religious belief today.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sam Harris, Max Tegmark, and mathematical ontology

This afternoon I saw that Sam Harris was in conversation on his podcast with MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, famous for his book Our Mathematical Universe, in which he famously argued that our universe is mathematics, if we really get down to the fundamental nature of reality. When I did, I sighed audibly and decided that this episode of Waking Up probably would not be worth listening to since I generally find so much metaphysical speculation an absolute academic sinkhole, especially when that bizarre.

No such luck for me, though. I was cajoled by my friend Pete, despite being desperately busy at the moment, into listening (at least to the first third--and I made it through half so far) and, if I thought it worthwhile, to write a little something about mathematical ontology. I mean, I had to. He wrote me an email including words in all caps to this effect, and maybe he was right. I was stunned by what I heard, and I hopefully can make some small contribution to their discussion here.

Before getting started, let me credentialize a little, though in a way I doubt will prove odious. I have a doctorate in (abstract) mathematics, an undergraduate degree in physics, and have thought about these topics for getting on a decade and a half or two. I am not a mathematical ontologist (someone who fusses about with trying to figure out what constitutes the existence of mathematical objects), and I'm only a "philosopher" insomuch as other people keep accusing me of being one. I also wrote a book a couple of years ago dealing with some of what they talked about, and notably, I've never found "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" the least bit mysterious and am thoroughly confused at why people are so easily mystified by the question.

Since I only listened to the first half of their talk, I'll keep my commentary limited to the relevant bits, which stretch roughly from 19 minutes into the podcast until about the 37-minute mark.

Why should we trust mathematics?

Harris asks this question to really open the discussion about mathematics, and his take is that our intuitions are often very misleading about reality, citing quantum mechanics and relativity theory. If our intuitions are so misleading, why should be be so willing to trust mathematics epistemologically, stating clearly that he understands the pragmatic reasons--it works.

In response, Tegmark talks about how physics is able to make predictions that are able to be proven correct, and so in a way, he is suggesting that empiricism (data, which means asking reality for feedback) gives us a firm epistemological foundation to work from. I don't disagree. Where I do diverge from the thoughts of these two, though, is that I think mathematics is far more empirical than most people think.

Perhaps it is because my doctorate was done in combinatorics (as opposed to some useful branch of mathematics), but I see math, at its very basis, as being about counting. Certainly, counting is where math began, a fact that seems to account for why it took so long for the number zero to be invented. The thing is, counting is inherently empirical.

If I think I have five things, once I have a definition for five, I can count them. One, two, three, four, and--I do have five, okay. It turns out that I can separate those five things into two piles, one of two things and one of three. I can see them. There's two. There's three. And then I can put them together, and there's five. I can do it like an experiment: five balls, five trees, five sticks, five rocks, five people, five birds. Every single time, I can separate those five into two groups of two and three (or one and four, or, a bit more abstractly, five and zero), and I see 2+3=5. This isn't some abstract effort. It's naming sizes of collections and then looking at them, counting them, in reality.

I can make predictions too. I can come up with all these names for numbers, which ultimately come down to "add one more this many times," and then I can make predictions about them. I can imagine I have ten grapefruits over here and another twenty grapefruits over there, and I can do the math, play with the abstracted things we call numbers, and predict that if I combine my piles, I'll have thirty grapefruits. Then I can combine them, and, as predicted, I'll have thirty grapefruits. I don't think anyone calls this level of effectiveness "unreasonable."

Notice that this is exactly the epistemic basis that Tegmark asserts, apparently to Harris's satisfaction, that gives physics its legs, and I don't think it's one any but the most hardened skeptic would doubt. Math, at least where it comes to counting and basic arithmetic operations, has empirical foundations--indeed, that's how the math was invented in the first place.

Tegmark remarked slightly before this part of the conversation began that he thinks that a scientific theory should be taken seriously even if it includes unfalsifiable elements so long as it has other parts that are testable, and he implies that our trust in a theory increases with the number of tested and proven cases. He mentions black holes and general relativity, the wobble in the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and so on. We can't know what's going on in a black hole by observation, but we can predict it using a theory that works so well in so many other places that we should probably at least listen to what general relativity has to say about your fate if you fell into a region of super-gravity.

So too in mathematics. Suppose I only have access to a few thousand things that I can count (as many ancient number systems seems to indicate was often the case in the ancient world--see Chinese which uses ten thousand, wan, and then one hundred million (ten thousand ten thousands), yi, as its basic big numbers, which makes saying big numbers in Chinese pretty inconvenient sometimes). If that's the case, I'll quickly run out of a practical way to keep testing my theory of numbers. Sure, I can define a number called a million and add it to another number called one hundred thousand and come up with 1,100,000, and if that is (practically) unfalsifiable, we can still trust it is correct because every other pair of numbers we've added in the same way has worked out.

That example may seem silly, but there are really impractical numbers. Take a number that has a trillion digits, for example--or one that the number of digits is described by a number with a trillion digits. What does such a number count? Nothing real, without getting really abstruse (the number of atoms in the observable universe is estimated to be an 81-digit or 82-digit number). Now take another number of similar size. Add them together, or multiply them, or raise them to powers of one another, say that many times over. Somewhere in here, we get beyond anything that's like being falsifiable in any realistic sense, and yet we know we can trust the numbers will come out right if we have a machine that can do the arithmetic because we trust the theory. Really big numbers, then, are like the insides of black holes, and we trust the mathematical structures because they work in literally every little case we can possibly check.

But proofs

But aren't these mathematical facts proven, and so we don't have to trust the theory? Well, yes, they are. The point, though, is that we could trust the theory even without the proofs, although in doing so, we'd introduce an element of uncertainty and find a gap in which we can argue about epistemic warrant and other things that philosophers of science like to argue about--sometimes for good reasons.

The proofs aren't irrelevant, though; they're very important. They are not so important, however, that we get to commit the philosopher's greatest error of forgetting the world for his abstractions. Math is, at bottom, empirical and then abstracted from there. It is not the other way around. Let me explain. 

Mysticism and Platonism

It's easy to argue that my last book, Dot, Dot, Dot, is largely a treatise on why people shouldn't be Platonists. I'll avoid rehashing too much of it here.

Harris wonders at the primacy of mathematics, or its "unreasonable effectiveness," and asks Tegmark for his take. Tegmark notes that we have to ask what mathematics is and correctly notes that if we ask lots of different people, we'll get lots of different answers. He then says most mathematicians would say mathematics is a set of "structures" that are "to be discovered," giving examples like numbers: 1, 2, 3, and so on, and 2+2=4. I assume that by "to be discovered," he means by logic, as opposed to empirically as I just discussed. In so doing, he echoes Ian Stewart's remark (quoted in Dot, Dot, Dot with a reference) that most mathematicians hold some kind of "unexamined blend" of two takes on mathematical ontology: Platonism and formalism.

I explained this in Dot, Dot, Dot in considerable detail. The general thrust of my explanation is that mathematics is a kind of philosophy that performs logic on certain axioms which are, in many cases, very "self-evident" statements. Indeed, as I just argued, they are ones that can be (and were originally) derived empirically and then made into abstractions. Once a set of mathematical (or other philosophical) axioms are determined, though, and the type of logic being used is given, the combination of the two produces a structure, to borrow Tegmark's word, called an axiomatic system.

An axiomatic system is a collection of statements together with their truth values under a specific kind of logic, all standing in relation to the set of axioms that underlie them. And this is why mathematics seems so discovered. The truths, falsehoods, and undecidables of every axiomatic system--all abstract objects, which means ideas--are determined in total in the very instant the axioms and logic that define the system are chosen. Finding them out is discovering them, as if they exist in an imaginary landscape defined by the axioms and logic themselves. It's exactly like turning over the cards in the children's board game Candyland, as I argued in the book. Once the cards are shuffled (axioms and logic are chosen), the game (entire axiomatic system, or "mathematics") is determined. It's just a matter of going through it and discovering what happens (though harder, more interesting, and more useful by far).

The axioms, though--those we invent, sort of. We certainly invent some of them, but I'll come back to that. The ones we didn't invent are merely "not invented" because they're empirical. Numbers like one and two and three, even zero, fundamental definitions for the way addition works, and so on, are either self-evident axioms or direct consequences of others that are either self-evident or abstracted variants on ones that really are self-evident.

Some aren't so clear, though, like the Axiom of Infinity, which implies that at least one infinite set exists. That, I'd say, we invented. And we can choose to use it (standard mathematics, and some weird others) or not (finitist and ultrafinitist mathematics). Once we have infinity, we have to wonder about choice across infinite sets (Axiom of Choice), and we can choose to accept it or reject it. In each case, we get a different axiomatic system, a different mathematics.

So when Harris says that "mathematics is a landscape of possible discovery that exceeds our current understanding--and may, in fact, always exceed it," yes, and yes, necessarily.

This is the case without even remarking upon Godel's famous incompleteness theorems, results that show that the kinds of axiomatic systems we usually associate with mathematics cannot simultaneously be complete (all statements have determinable truth values) and coherent (no contradictions). Because there are infinitely many numbers (or indefinitely many, to satisfy the finitists out there), there are infinitely many theorems, and we'll only ever state a finite number of those. Harris alludes to this directly by implying that we'll always only know a finite number of primes while also knowing the cardinality of the set of primes to be infinite--and so there's always another theorem lurking out there: "p_newly_realized is a prime number" (although "n is an integer" would work too, for any big enough integer n because as there are infinitely many such theorems, there isn't time to think them all up).

The fundamental mystery isn't mysterious

Harris goes on to raise the point again about the "fundamental mystery: why should mathematics be so useful for describing the physical world and making predictions?"

Tegmark responds that you'll get a lot of answers depending upon who you ask. He says some people (who are not like me) will say there's no mystery: "math is useful, go away," they'll say. I don't think there's a mystery, but pragmatism isn't my reason. He says others are Platonists, and so on, going to the extreme case of himself where he answers that it's because the world is mathematics. Bah. Metaphysical speculation.

So here is why mathematics is reasonably effective, and why we should be surprised if it weren't. Mathematics, at the beginning of its efforts, is about counting things. This effort is inherently empirical, as I argued, so we are linking mathematics to the world from its very basic beginnings and then abstracting via logic from there. All of the math we have ever built started with counting and added layers of abstraction from that concrete basis. I suppose it didn't have to be this way, in some grand sense of the phrase, but really, it did. Why would we have expended energy developing mathematics that didn't apply to the universe we find ourselves in? Even now many of us wrinkle our noses at mathematicians who are too enamored with that endeavor, despite having sufficient resources to fund it.

There's, as Harris alluded to, an infinite landscape of mathematics that could have been, but we built the mathematics that is rooted in our experience of reality instead of something else. We could define addition or multiplication or even numbers differently, and for some abstract purposes, mathematicians sometimes do. We don't do much with that, though, because if we used those axioms for "basic" mathematics, we'd get answers that diverge from our experience.

Perhaps the most famous an obvious example of this fact goes all the way back to Euclid, some two millennia ago. While laying out the foundational axioms (postulates) of geometry, he included the parallel postulate (usually stated via Playfair's Axiom now: In a plane, given a line and a point not on it, at most one line parallel to the given line can be drawn through the point.) This is an axiom, a self-evident truth, of planar geometry--often called Euclidean geometry--but it is not true of spherical or hyperbolic geometry, both of which are important in cosmology. Those two are different geometrical systems.

What we see is that when we change the axioms, we get completely different mathematics, and there are lots of possible choices, though the vast majority of them are bad. The entirety of my argument for the reasonableness of the effectiveness of mathematics is that we chose to keep and develop those axioms that are useful to the real world or seemingly logical extensions of those instead of any number of others--and we didn't have to.

So why is mathematics unreasonably effective? Because out of all of the many possible ways we could have built math (infinitely many, really), we built the one that applies to our world by starting with self-evident axioms and building upward and outward from there.

Is all math unreasonably effective?

No, not even within the confines of mathematics we have developed. It isn't clear, for example, that infinity is terribly useful. Finitists claim that all relevant mathematics can be done without it, and they seem to have made a strong case for that fact. There are also frequent articles being published arguing that infinity is where physical models break. So should we accept the Axiom of Infinity or not? Is infinity, and all its corollaries, unreasonably effective mathematics? Probably not. Maybe--but probably not.

Let's say it is, though. Let's say that the Axiom of Infinity is surprisingly effective for something. That will bring us to the Axiom of Choice pretty quickly. Is it unreasonably effective? Well, there's a reason there has been a lot of controversy in mathematics surrounding Choice. On the one hand, it seems desperately arbitrary to reject Choice, even on infinite sets, but on the other, accepting it causes the Banach-Tarski Paradox, in which a single solid object can be deconstructed into five distinct pieces and reassembled into two exact copies of the original object (apparently implying that, in some sense, 1=2, or that two is just another form of one). So, is mathematics on one side or the other of Choice unreasonably effective? Who knows?

This is what I know, though: if the universe provided some solid empirical reason (to root Harris's question about epistemology) to accept the Axiom of Infinity and the Axiom of Choice, say some weird quantum effect showed that the Banach-Tarski Paradox isn't only not paradoxical but is part of how nature works at sufficiently small scales within certain energy ranges, we'd accept them both and declare the mathematics that results "unreasonably effective." On the other hand, if nature showed us good reasons to reject them both as bad axioms, we'd accept their negations and declare the mathematics that results "unreasonably effective."

Quelle "unreasonably effective."

Is the universe made of math?

Who knows? This is pure metaphysical speculation, but if I were invited to speculate, I'd say it isn't. Metaphysical speculation of this kind is probably always more likely to be wrong than right. Still, this case is probably worse, and Harris catches Tegmark at it with exactly the pertinent question.

Harris pushes Tegmark on whether or not language can be said to do the same thing as mathematics--characterize the universe at a fundamental level since the universe is describable in language (this being a big part of Tegmark's case--electrons, etc., are identifiable with a set of numbers, and that's that). I think Harris busts the whole thing there: yes, the same claim applies to language, because math is just a subset of language (because everything in math can be expressed in language, and most of "math" is shorthand).

Tegmark, of course, dissents. He says that math is inherently more powerful than language, but he gives himself away (and is wrong) in the moment where Tegmark admits that human languages are "notoriously vague." At that, he also admits that the power of mathematics is that it is a very precise kind of language. But why is mathematics so precise?

It is precise because of something few readers will believe: math is precise because it is simple. Math is reality stripped of everything complicated about reality. Math is a kind of philosophy in which we use very robustly self-evident axioms or those that seem to logically follow from those and in which pretty much everybody agrees upon those axioms, at least for the "basics." It's simiplified but empirically based axioms and cold, cruel logic.

A conversation worth having

Now, Tegmark makes some remarks near the end of this segment that let me come full circle when he discusses his "optimistic view" of a mathematical universe. He says something that implied to me that eventually we'll run out of better data, but we'll always have math, and imagination, to continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge. This is an interesting conversation to have.

When I first met Vic Stenger, I asked him this very question: What happens when we get to a point where there's no practical way, or maybe even no physical way, to extract more relevant data from the universe? Say, for instance, we physically cannot, for whatever reasons, pry another decimal place out of our measurements. Now suppose we have two competing models that would be resolved two or four or twenty or one hundred decimal places further down than we can get. How do we choose between them?

Sadly, Vic told me he didn't think that would be possible. He didn't think there would be limits on how much information we could pry out of reality, but even if there aren't physical ones (I suspect there are, given Heisenberg and the Planck dimensions), there certainly are practical ones. What if the particle collider needed to answer the question requires more energy than the total output of our sun for a century, for instance? Even a tiny fraction of that much energy is unlikely to be worth the effort.

Tegmark is right, though: there, at that limit, if nowhere before, math and our imagination, along with the other elements that lead us to accept physical models, become the defining criteria for choosing one model over another. Working out what those criteria are constitutes an excellent pursuit for the philosophy of science, and I think the question is fundamentally very hard because it asks how we will define scientific epistemology in a domain in which empiricism can't rule the epistemic roost.