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.

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