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.

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