Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ending Atheism: There Is No God but "God"

This text is adapted – or fleshed out, rather, in my attempt to practice it in the way I feel I think best, in writing – from the talk I recently gave at Atheists United in Los Angeles. I wanted to put it in print because I think the points it makes are both interesting and of some value, so I wrote this expanding from the notes that I made for myself for the talk. In a sense, then, this is the talk that I wish my brain could have produced while standing in front of an audience, and thus hopefully a preview to even better talks to come.


Opening and statement of thesis

Let me start today by thanking you for being here to hear me talk. It's always an honor, as my thesis advisor used to say. “You should always be grateful that anyone ever wants to hear anything you have to say,” he'd say – a real master of encouragement, that guy. He was right, though, and I am grateful and glad to be here. I'd also like to thank Atheists United for hosting me, and especially, thanks to Reid Nicewonder for connecting with me and setting this up.

So you know the title of my talk: Ending Atheism: There is no God but “God,” and it's plausible that this seems like I'm being kind of gimmicky, but I'm serious. Over the course of the next hour or so, I sincerely hope to convince you that we should end atheism and change the whole nature of the conversation about God. That's the second part of my thesis today, in fact: we should end atheism and change the conversation about God. The first half of my thesis is really just that there is no God but “God.”

Of course, you see the trick now, or you realized it before. I've taken a banner statement of theism – there is no God but God – and I've made a little modification to my own purposes. I hold the word “God” in scare quotes. I'm not doing that to be cute or clever. I'm doing it because I think God is an idea, not a being. Like many of you, I've spent a long time recognizing that it isn't clear at all what people mean by the word “God,” at least not if I really try to nail it down, and I've wondered what it might really mean, especially after I stopped believing that theism could account for it.

What I concluded is that, really, there is no God but “God.” We can be reasonably certain at this point, I think. And I think that by examining how widely and strongly people maintain belief, and the ways they talk about it, we can also be reasonably certain that there is some meaningful set of ideas that people call “God.” If you've already read my book, you know that this is why I think everybody is wrong about God, and that's most of what I want to convince you of today. If I can do it, wanting to end atheism will follow pretty naturally.

Theism and atheism

We'll have to start with God and the unfortunate word “theism.” Theism is a rather academic term that I'd rather avoid, and all it really means is belief in a god or in gods. I'm going to use it frequently today, though, because of its obvious parity with another unfortunate word, “atheism.” So on the surface, we have “theism,” which is belief in God, and “atheism,” which is “without belief in God.”

Just to get it out of the way, the first thing to say about God is that people really do believe in it, maybe by the billions, as an entity that they really think exists. Belief for most believers entails accepting the myth fully and really, truly believing that their God exists, either in reality or in some extended version of reality that no one can adequately describe – one that looks an awful lot like the realm we call 'imagination.' And nothing I say today goes in opposition to the fact of their belief. That deity comes with a suite of fantastic and magical properties – like infinite power, infinite knowledge, and absolute perfection, along with existing outside of space and time and the like.

A quick look at the definition of magic, by the way, is all it takes to ensure that I didn't just overstate my case. Belief in God really is nothing more than belief in a particular kind of magic. Magic is the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. That definition could hardly fit God more exactly. The Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed. And just to be clear – because this gets lost pretty easily when we get into the ideas I want to share with you – people do believe in this magical entity, and we can be pretty sure that they do so, in one way or another, in absolutely astounding numbers – including maybe two hundred million such believers just here in the United States. So that's theism.

Atheism, of course, is usually understood, at least in practice, as the rejection of all of this. But that's not all atheism means. Atheism really has taken on more meanings than just the bare-bones rejection of theistic magic, and it has become the basis for a readily identifiable, and none-too-popular identity, though maybe that's changing some now. Still, atheism even sometimes gets mislabeled as a competing religion, and sadly, it often seems to act like it.

I don't think of atheism even as the rejection of theism, though. Even that's too much because it makes something out of atheism. Atheism doesn't accept theism, and that's all, and the distinction between “doesn't accept” and “rejects” is really subtle. Of course, like with many subtle things, the degree of importance in the distinction is directly proportional to the subtlety needed to understand it. Atheism, so long as it is even just the rejection of theism, is a thing, and making atheism into a thing is a mistake. This is why I want to end atheism, and it's why you'll hopefully want to too.

To elaborate on what I'm getting at, let me talk for a minute about the Japanese flag. I expect you know what it looks like. It's an all-white field with a red disk in the middle – an image of the rising sun. But I'm a mathematician, and I only want the flag for its image. The Japanese flag is a Venn diagram, a larger region containing a nested sub-region. Now you have this visual in your mind of a red disk nested within a larger white rectangular area. For the moment, let theism be the red disk.

Be aware that many people think of this particular kind of Venn diagram as illustrating a population and a subset within that population, but that's not accurate. This Venn diagram shows a population and two subsets: the one inside the disk and the one outside of it. Many people make this mistake and fail to see those outside of the highlighted set of interest as their own subgroup of the population, but there they are. Theism represents the inside of the disk, and atheism represents the outside.

And many, maybe most or all, of you here today are atheists. If so, that means you're outside the red disk. Many of you, no doubt, deconverted from some belief system, maybe Christianity. If so, you probably figured out a way to the boundary of the disk from within, recognized that there there's an outside, wanted to get there, and banged at the edge until you found a way out. Maybe you did it yourself or you were pulled out. Or maybe you just fell out or suddenly realized one day that, at some point, you had left the disk and didn't realize it. No matter the way, you found yourself outside of theism, and now you're in the white part of the flag. Now you're an atheist.

Now I have a hunch that most people when they first get out, or first realize they're out, tend to be pretty upset that they were ever stuck inside. In fact, I don't think those religious people who claim that atheists are rebelling against God are completely wrong, at least not at first. I call that initial rebellious phase of having left religious belief “throwing rocks at the cathedral.” Atheism is, mostly, throwing rocks at the cathedral taken on as a lifestyle choice.

Go back to thinking about the two regions on our Japanese flag image. My question for you, then, is what the two areas have in common. The red disk and the white field around it. Theism is the red disk, and atheism is the white field around it.

They have two things in common, mostly. The first thing the two regions on the flag have in common is that they're both on the same flag. They both describe people making their way in the world the best that they can. If you're angry enough at them, you may not realize that religious people are doing that, but they are – and don't worry, a lot of them don't think you're doing the best you can either. That perpetual antagonism between believers and non-believers is something I hope ending atheism can help remedy.

The second thing the two regions on the flag have in common is that both regions are defined by the edge of the red disk. People who believe in God have their thoughts dictated in one way or another by the edge of the red disk: they don't venture outside of it. People who do not believe in God also have their thoughts dictated in one way or another by the edge of the red disk: they don't venture into it. Both groups are largely the same in nearly every respect, and both groups are limited and estranged from one another by the red circle that makes the edge of that red disk.

This is the nature of rebellion, or if you refuse to take on that term and its baggage, rejection. It happens with all counterculture movements, and it's why they all wear uniforms in the guise of protesting the notion of wearing a uniform. Don't they? Could you pick a hipster, a hippy, a goth, or an emo out of a crowd? No doubt. Why? They all wear uniforms. They give themselves away. How? By how they define themselves. And they define themselves by refusing to fit in, in particular ways. Refusing to fit in means having how you present yourself being dictated by what's “in” every bit as much as fitting in does. You can't reject something without knowing what it is and being decidedly not that. And it often shows. It's also a kind of limitation, and it can be unnecessarily alienating.

So what really matters here is that the rejection of theism defines its own kind of position as a result – a not-that position, a them to some us. This isn't a good way to conceive of atheism, and I'm not by any means the first person to say so, even publicly. It's one, in fact, that Sam Harris spent an hour describing as a “trap” in 2007 at the Atheists Alliance International conference, though not too many people listened to him at the time as the atheism movement was in is real upswing. Of course, that movement itself brought with it all kinds of self-importance for self-described atheists, and thus Harris's cool and prescient reason wasn't terribly well received, even though he was right.

Now we really get to look at atheism, so I'm going to describe that very important subtlety. To do it, here's where I have to dive into a little statistical thinking – right after Venn Diagrams, I know! – knowing no one in their right minds ever wants to talk about math. To start, I want to present the unobtrusive notion that theism is something like a hypothesis (although it doesn't quite qualify) – it's an idea that's being put forward about the workings of the universe, an idea that people have considered for millennia and still consider today, even right now.

Equally unobtrusive is that if we understand it correctly, atheism, then, is the default hypothesis, what we call the null position, atheism as lack of belief in God. I used to fight for this definition of atheism, but I've given up on that fight. We'd do better to end atheism instead.

Of course, we can know that atheism is best understood as a default or null view on the existence of God because with or without God, the world exists, and apparently it exists just like it is in either case. That is, if we can be certain of anything, we at least know the world exists, whether there's a God or not. The world is obvious to us. It's here. Anything more than the world – like God, for instance – is extra. That makes the right view of atheism a default position, and that, by the way, is the only kind of atheism that can't, and thus shouldn't, end.

So there is an atheism that can't end, but that doesn't really matter anymore – the one that can end has kind of taken over. The only kind of atheism that cannot end is the atheism we'd have if no one ever in the history of the world had talked about anything like a God at all. You'll notice that that's the same kind of atheism that we share with babies and cats. It's the kind of atheism that wouldn't have coined the word atheism at all. That is, the only kind of atheism that shouldn't end, but only because it can't, is the technical, boring, philosophical meaning of atheism. And it's good that it's boring. Atheism, if the word has to exist at all, should be boring because it's really not a philosophy; it is a non-position, something no one would want to try to make themselves into.

This “atheism is the default” thing is well-trodden ground, of course, but it's like land that someone has acquired and then, forgotten. This kind of thing used to happen sometimes where I'm from in the South, though I'm quite sure it doesn't happen in LA, so I'll describe it. You can think of it like the far corners of a huge plot of remote woodland – maybe hundreds of acres – that its owner only visits when he has to, being rather far from the house. It gets ignored to the point where there's no real claim on it any longer except on paper. It's acreage that its owner only bothers to look at occasionally, maybe to check the fences or in response to some disturbance, and then only to be both surprised and upset that other people have littered, or even built subdivisions, on it. Atheism as a default is something we usually only think of when we can be honest enough about it to take ourselves out of it.

This kind of thing – turning a position of rejection into a cherished part of our identities – is typical, even if it's unfortunate. It's exactly what happens when we forget the role of a null hypothesis as considered against its potential alternatives. It's what happens when we forget that we don't reject alternative hypotheses; we fail to accept them – and there's probably at least one statistician in the audience who disagrees with this interpretation, as some do, but I fail to accept their point.

When the evidence isn't sufficient to demonstrate an alternative to what seems obvious, we fail to accept that alternative. Failing to accept is slightly different than rejection, and this distinction matters. The distinction is all of the poignancy behind Sam Harris's often-quoted remark that “atheism is a word that shouldn't even exist.”

Obviously, though, atheism is a word that seems to need to exist – probably a majority of the people in the world believe in God, and some religions, like Islam, appear to be growing rather meteorically. People want, even need to identify as outsiders to that phenomenon – beset by religious bullshit and prejudice as they often are – and they want to get together and share their struggles. I get that. That's why I say that atheism is the most important word that shouldn't exist. That's also why I want to change that status and get rid of it.

Leaving the terms of theism

The way I want to change it is, to go back to my Venn diagram, to change the Japanese flag. I want to change the red disk to a white one like the rest of the flag, although the red border will remain – at least as long as widespread religious belief does. The point of this change is that we are all people, and we're all after roughly the same things – some of us just believe in some things we aren't justified in believing. If we bleach the contrast out of our Japanese-flag Venn diagram, now we have a white rectangle with a thin red circle drawn on it. There's still inside – belief in God – and outside – non-belief, and that arrangement has still got some of the same issues, but all of those issues are in the thin red line, and it's a lot easier to find and cross. Plus, everyone on the flag can be seen to be on something like equal footing – people doing their best to manage their needs.

To help see that, we need to see “God” differently. It's time to look at “God” more closely, and to do that, what I want to do is to give up on the terms of theism for a while. The red disk that we imagined earlier – I want you to think about the red coloring the disk as the terms of theism. Bleaching the disk except its edge is like abandoning the terms of theism, at least in the way we, who can, think about it and engage in conversations about it. And the terms of theism are terms that we should abandon. The terms of theism are a consequential mistake – they mistake mythology for reality, a mistake even the Greeks, who invented the word mythos, already recognized. So, now we're going to try to have a think about God without the terms of theism and see what we come up with.

Before beginning that effort, take a moment to appreciate that chances are that you've only ever thought about God in the terms of theism – even if you were raised outside of religious belief. In fact, you might not know any other way to do it – theism, and its wonkish cousin, theology, are really the only games in town for thinking about God. Think about what that means.

We know people live very successfully without believing in God. You probably do. Every person in the world who doesn't believe in God, and every such person who has ever lived, is testament to the fact that human beings can and do live perfectly well without importing belief in God – often better, if we are to believe the implications of a large number of studies on societal well-being.

Those of us who don't believe in God feel properly skeptical of the claims that theism puts forth, and we should be. There aren't any compelling reasons to believe in God, if we mean 'compelling' in the relevant sense, what philosophers would call epistemological reasons, which means knowledge-based reasons. As many people have pointed out, especially over the last decade, there are lots of really compelling reasons not to accept the claims of theism.

That children often possess the perfectly canny capacity to ask simple questions about their beliefs that put religious adults completely on their heels is a pretty easy reason to doubt theism. And that those same children usually know more science by the end of grade school than did the authors of the Bible is another easy one. A more grown-up reason is that, despite literally thousands of years of trying, theology simply cannot express a mature model of anything in the world – one that attempts to address how anything in the universe happens – and thus is rightly labeled a non-subject. The closest it comes, for reasons we'll understand better shortly, is in human psychology, and there it's still completely speculative, not at all interested in evidence, careful analysis, or a realistic approach to human well-being. It's also pretty reliably psychologically damaging to many people.

Now let me ask you: how skeptically are we approaching the topic of God if, despite this complete dearth of reasons to believe it, we lack any capacity to engage with the topic outside of the language it, itself, provides? Doesn't it strike you as strange that there is no other way to talk about God than in the very language we want to get away from by talking about it? The only lens most of us have for looking at God is the one provided to us by theism, and so everybody really is wrong about God. Atheism is an easily identifiable part of that lens, and so atheism eagerly speaks in that very same language – the language that, by definition, doesn't get rid of God at all. And so how in the world are we supposed to get rid of God?

Some of you are, no doubt, tempted at this instant to object. “Atheism is a conclusion!” But it isn't. Atheism only looks like a conclusion because of the cultural prevalence of theism – especially so if you were raised under its heavy thumb. Had you been raised in a thoroughly godless culture or religion, you wouldn't think so. Believing in God would just be another weird thing that superstitious barbarians from another part of the world don't seem to be able to see for what it is. We've all heard stories of this kind, say when Christian missionaries first went to China or when they met the Inuits.

Consider it: you may have rejected a religion, maybe it was Christianity, and thus atheism feels like a conclusion because you had to think about it a lot to break free of your beliefs. But chances are you did not take the time to delve seriously into Islam or Hinduism. You already were quite sure those were false before you started, and ditching your own beliefs merely added some reinforcement. “I should stop being a Christian” is a conclusion, and so is “I don't have good reasons to believe in God,” but atheism is not.

Though exceptions exist, if you were raised as a Christian, it is unlikely that at any point in your life did you reach a conclusion that Islam is not the One True Faith it claims to be. You just failed to accept Islam – whether you ever bothered to consider it or not. The same is true for Hinduism and essentially every other religion. I know I can count on one hand the number of serious minutes I gave Hinduism – and I don't even need to use any fingers.

Now stretch your creativity. Have you rejected all of the religions or gods that you've never heard of? Of course not. You fail to accept them because you don't see any good reasons to accept them. How could you have any? But this is probably exactly how you dealt with religions you aren't surrounded by, or that you weren't raised under. If it applies, it's only different with your former faith because you started there. That your former religious beliefs are probably false was a conclusion relevant while you were leaving them, but even now if you were to test them again in earnest, you'd simply fail to take them back up.

So how skeptical is it to import all of the terminology of theism in order to discuss it? Not very. Instead of thinking about God in the terms of theism, what you need to do is exactly what that terminology prevents. You need to see the idea of God directly, with original seeing. This isn't Chopra stuff! You need to explore the idea as if you haven't ever heard of it before, losing all of the mental anchors that you've grown up with or studied on your quest to make atheism a conclusion. That's what we're going to do today, and we're going to see that there's no God but “God” in the process. Ending atheism follows pretty obviously.

Seeing “God” in a new way

Where should we start? By listening. That's what I did to write my book. I started listening to what religious people were telling me – listening to them and taking them seriously, just not exactly at their words – and I did so while reading religious psychology in my spare time, chasing a hunch. It isn't a bad principle to live by that if you want to know what people mean when they say something, you should probably listen to them enough to figure it out. The trick is that we usually hear things in terms of what we already think we know. So they talk about God in the terms of theism, and we, likewise, hear their talk about God in those very same terms. If we abandon the terms of theism, we have to listen more carefully, trying to pick up on context clues.

To get ourselves halfway there, let's start with a prominent theologian. We'll invoke the patron saint against lightning, who is also the patron saint of philosophers and apologists and pencil makers – whereupon you can make up your own jokes. Let's consider St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most significant historical theologian since Augustine.

Aquinas is famous for his “five proofs” of God's existence, and his wording is going to be our gateway into original seeing on the concept of “God.” Aquinas is going to bleach the red disk for us. Do you know the five proofs? Yeah, nobody does, because they don't matter. Usually, if I'm not looking at Wikipedia, can do an almost perfect imitation of Rick Perry and name four of them.

So, there's the Prime Mover argument. Do you know how it goes? It goes like this: blah, blah, blah, this men call God.
There's the Uncaused Cause argument. Do you know how it goes? Like this: Blah, blah, blah, this men call God.
There's the Argument to Purpose. Blah, blah, blah, this is what we call God.
There's the Argument to Contingency. Blah, blah, blah, and this is what we call God.
That's four, and then there's the, the, … did I already say the department of education?

All five arguments go the same way: blah, blah, blah, and this is what we call God. That's how we're going to get original seeing.

Now generalize it. People talk about God all the time, and they use the word “God.” The say a bunch of stuff, and if you listen, you can always here a clear hint of “blah, blah, blah, this is what all people call God.” And what do they say? Listen, dump the theism, and wonder, what do they say?

Let me give you an example to extract some ways people use the word God. I have a friend. I know – I can barely believe it too. I have a friend who recently hit a rough patch in his marriage and seems to have worked it out. Good for him, but it came at a cost. He and his partner seem to have returned to a stronger version of their Christian beliefs in order to come together as a couple.

Now, being that he's working on a rocky spot in his marriage, he does all this cute stuff, and he did this one thing recently – you've probably seen this thing he did. He recently drew a picture for his wife, and it's a nice triangle. The bottom corners are labeled with his name and her name. The top corner is labeled “God.” The phrase that goes with this little diagram is “the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other.” Aww! It's cute. Asinine, but cute.

It might seem asinine, but it's not empty. It says something both true and of immense importance. I'm going to throw a few things out for you to try and get at it. Let's play Aquinas with my friend's little drawing. Imagine if we replaced the word “God” with a few other ideas that people often mean when they use the big-G-word, ideas that the psychology of religion tells us are core to religious belief.

Here's one: “The better our senses of meaning in life are aligned, the closer we get to each other.” That's not asinine.
Here's another: “The more closely our moral attitudes match, the closer we get to each other.” That's not asinine either.
Another: “The more similarly we see ourselves and our places in the world, the closer we get to each other.”
Another: “The more we rely upon overlapping understandings of how the world works, the closer we get to each other.”
One more: “The more aligned we are in whatever is meant by the word 'spiritual'” – which I'd argue is mostly but not entirely a moral concept – “the closer we get to each other.”

Just from that cute, silly drawing, we get some real sense of what people sometimes mean when they say the word “God.” They mean a sense of meaning in life. They mean morals. They mean their personal context in the world and in their communities. They mean how they make sense of the world and life. They mean a whole bunch of stuff atheists foolishly won't touch because they call it “spiritual.” They mean more than that too, and most of it works in this silly little drawing. And they mean all of it at once.

So I'll briefly mention what the psychology of religion tells us. It tells us that we have needs – we have needs for meaning making, for security, and for esteem – and it tells us many of us turn to religion to try to meet those needs. As God is at the center of theistic religions, God, as an idea, must have a lot to do with those human needs.

Psychologists of religion tell us that those needs are dealt with in terms of coming up with religious attributions when we we don't have natural ones. Attributions are explanations for things. God is an attributional scheme. The idea of “God” lets people make sense of complicated things like morals, purpose, the universe and everything in it, spirituality, the abstract, and so on.

They also tell us that much of why we invent a mythological power as an object of attribution is to seek a sense of control in life (think, “In God We Trust” and having something to pray to when people need it). You and I know that a non-existent God must provide a false sense of control, but psychologists are quite clear that even an illusory sense of control will often suffice for meeting this need when we lack a real one.

People also invent God because we're very social, and the notion of God strengthens religious communities. It does this by giving us individual context (we're children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, for example), group context (“One Nation, Under God,” for example), enabling us to deal with transgressors in our groups (by penance and forgiveness rituals), and establishing and defining group hierarchies (God is the top point of that silly triangle for a reason).

What we can conclude is that the various ways in which many human beings attempt to meet (or sometimes ignore) these sorts of psychosocial needs is what all men know to be called “God.”

Notice that these are all human things. Religion has no ownership over human psychology. And those of us who do not believe in a God have ways of managing them for ourselves. The outside of the red circle is white, and the inside of the red circle is white too. Both represent ways of addressing the same human needs. It's hardly different except in the language we apply and the consequences of holding beliefs expressed in that language.

Now, we're going to focus in particularly on what I think is usually most important way that people apply the word “God”: morality – this, of course, coming after the grim reality that most people's religious beliefs are centrally concerned with denying death, although that's not so separate. The way religious people manage the denial of death is almost always via a promise that death isn't real – if you do life the right way. How do you do life the right way? Right living, as opposed to wrong living. That is, via morality. Morals are at the center of religions, and more often than not, when people say the word “God,” it can be interchanged with some variation of the word “morals,” with the result being more clarity, not less, about what they're trying to express.

Why would a word like “God” often effectively mean morals? Going all the way back to the renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim, we've recognized that religions are, at their bottoms, moral communities – groups of people who share certain moral attitudes, values, and intuitions. We could talk for hours about moral communities, but all I need to do today is let you know that the first thing religions are is a kind of moral community, and the word “God” is the figure of moral attribution in theistic religions. “God” is the word very many believers use to explain how and why morals make sense, and even why they are what they are.

So, when people say “God,” a lot of the time, they mean something that includes an awful lot to do with morality. “The closer together our moral views get, the closer we get to each other.” And it's largely true, and supported by evidence. We often take a liking to people who share our moral views of the world and dislike the idiots who don't. This is how moral communities form, and forming moral communities may be the single most human thing that we do.

To get an idea of just how powerful replacing the word “God” with the word “morals” can sometimes be, consider another example. The ever-vigilant Amanda Marcotte made a very famous statement a few years ago. She said that it's terrifying to “us atheists” when we hear – as we all do from time to time – things like that without God's Law, there would only be man's law, and no one has to be following man's law, and so with no God we'd have people raping, stealing, and killing at a whim. She said religious people terrify us atheists when they say a thing like that, and taken at face value, rejecting theism but not its terms, it is terrifying. But, it isn't. In fact, I'd bet it never scared any of you – though it may have confused you – or at least that it never scared you until after Amanda Marcotte told you it should.

Now, you may have heard something like that before. I certainly have. And don't get me wrong, I believe that there are properly scary people in the world. In fact, I'm quite sure I've met some of them. But I've never heard that attitude expressed by a properly scary person. Every time I've ever heard that without God everyone would be raping and killing, it's been from a person who clearly thinks raping and killing are abhorrent, someone who plainly wouldn't do such things even after a crisis of faith. The fact that such normal, safe people say such a superficially horrifying thing is, in fact, exactly what makes the statement seem so scary, at least to people like Amanda Marcotte.

Let's try to see that statement more originally, though, dropping the lenses of theism and fear. What would such a person really be telling us? I'm going to bet most people aren't telling us about a secret desire to rape and kill that is only prevented by a “flimsy” belief in an imaginary God. I think people who say moral tripe of this kind are telling us something a lot simpler: “God,” as they mean it in that moment, means morals. That's it. In that case, their statement reduces to little more than “without morals we would do immoral things,” which is obvious, not scary. Put another way, “if there are no morals, then there are no morals.” Shiver me timbers.

Now imagine one of these people saying that – hearing in the meaning part of their mind nothing more complicated than, “if there are no morals, then there are no morals.” Now imagine their reaction when someone like Amanda Marcotte becomes terrified of this statement and overreacts accordingly. We have little more to thank than atheism – sadly and inappropriately infused perhaps with victimhood-driven social justice activism in this case – for such dramatic miscommunications.

We can pick fruit higher up on the tree as well. Obviously, I'm a big fan of Sam Harris's work, and I scare myself sometimes in that I struggle to find anything with which I disagree with him about. So I don't feel like I'm picking at him when I point out his famous remark that if George Bush had communicated with God by speaking into his hairdryer, people would find it insane, and yet that he fails to see how the addition of the hairdryer makes it any more absurd. But you don't access your moral reasoning by speaking into your hairdryer, and everyone knows that. I don't say this to exonerate prayer, which is ridiculous, or belief in a God that answers prayers, which is completely unjustified, and I don't say it to declare Sam's point wrong, as it is largely on the mark. I say it to point out that unless we get the notion of “God” right, it's very difficult to understand what we're dealing with. Atheism, I contend, makes this job harder, not easier.

Ending Atheism

I want to end atheism, and so we're back to the usual irritating flotilla of qualifications because, like that far-flung land I mentioned earlier, we've probably already forgotten them. Well, because of that and the tireless remonstrations of contemporary philosophers.

I don't think we should, or even can, end the atheism that is the default “failure to accept theism,” even if we can abandon the word. We need to end the atheism that is a thing, a rejection of belief in God, and the atheism that isn't just atheism but is a combination of so many other things cobbled onto it – like skepticism, humanism, secularism, science, and the like. These things are all fine on their own without being mislabeled “atheism,” and surely many nonbelievers can be quite enthusiastic about them with no problem.

Any atheism that can be taken as an identity is the atheism that needs to end. I'm sure many of you already see why it needs to end: it doesn't make sense to make a blank, boring, default position a part of your personal identity, and it's missing the point.

And it gets worse. Atheism makes an us that stands against a them. It does place us outside the red circle and them inside the red circle, separated even though we're effectively the same and after the same things, some in better ways and some in worse. Theism is, no doubt, usually a worse way, but that's beside the point. Atheism as a movement, atheism as a community, atheism as an identity defines the line of that red circle, and when it accepts the terms of theism, it gives theology a boost by painting the whole disk red.

It isn't just that atheism of this kind helps to maintain the terminology, and thus entire mission, of theology, and it isn't just that atheism, by setting itself apart from theism, maintains theism by rebellion. Atheism also separates two competing kinds of moral communities, the atheists and the “theists,” which is surely one of the most cringe-worthy words in the English language. Don't use the Th-word. That is, atheism of this kind tends toward being just another branch on the same troublesome tree upon which all of the religions grow.

That's because that us-versus-them thing comes at a cost. Social psychology has outlined various ways in which human groupishness and tribalism manifest, for example social identity theory. One thing social identity theory tells us is that when there's an us, we try to make ourselves feel more important and valued – there's that need for esteem – by elevating the status of the group. We are star-bellied Sneeches. They are not. Thus, we are better – we're smarter, more informed, more enlightened, and hold better values. We have stars on our bellies. We're brights.

Social identity theory goes further. It explains that the us competes with the them. And there are at least two broad ways in which all competition plays out. A competitor can up her own game or can crap on her opponent's game. We see this all the time, and we generally hope there will be more game-upping and less playing dirty, but both happen. Making matters difficult, the latter approach is probably cheaper and easier in most cases (which is why we call it playing dirty – to add a cost of shame to help balance the books and encourage the more virtuous type of competition). We see it in social identity too. An us can elevate itself by denigrating them, and as sure as may-be, we do it, often precognitively.

Henri Tajfel showed in the 1950s just how rapidly this kind of thing can get out of hand with his famous and probably unethical Robber's Cave Study. He took a number of well-adjusted middle class teenage boys to a camp at Robber's Cave, put them in two groups, and slowly started letting them compete. Within very little time, the groups had to be completely separated for their own safety, but almost immediately they did exactly as social identity theory explains. They started elevating themselves and denigrating the others, with violence erupting between the groups with surprising quickness and ferocity.

So if atheism is taken as a rejection of theism, and theism often means “morals” in addition to a number of other core values and ideals, what are we doing by investing in it as an identity? Though perhaps it will all work out, and people pushing to normalize atheism are on to something, I don't think I have to elaborate to make the potential problems clear. I'll just say that I think it isn't too surprising that atheists tend to score roughly at the same level as rapists in some studies of perceived levels of trust.

Instead of harping on that, though, or on the fact that enforcing the existence of the red circle perpetuates the notion that what's inside it has tangible meaning – that the arguing type of atheism helps perpetuate belief in God by supporting its terms and opposing its tribes – I want to draw toward a close by talking about how we have to change how we have conversations in light of what I've said.

Changing conversations

Let's go back to my friend who is using Jesus as a tool to smooth over a rough patch in his marriage. You would think, maybe, that as I am who I am, and I know what I know, and I've written what I've written, and that I'm thoroughly steeped in the Socratic approach that my friend Peter Boghossian calls Street Epistemology, that I would try to talk sense into my friend. We're certainly close enough for it, after all, and he's certainly aware of how I think and what I do. But I don't. Not yet, at any rate.

When my friend waxes Christian, no matter what his actual state of belief – and I have no reasons whatsoever to doubt his sincerity – he isn't just talking about ideas that he thinks are true in the relevant sense, that epistemological sense, if he even does think that. He's also talking about the security of the relationship he has with his wife. He was nearly non-religious before the trouble started, and yet they came together in faith to solve a crisis in their marriage.

That means that, at least for the time being, to go all atheist on him – to argue against his religious beliefs, even to question them, is to push him toward a state of existential crisis regarding his marriage. How do you think that's going to go for me? Will I be likely to change his mind?

It is well documented that there is a Backfire Effect, whereby people sometimes strengthen beliefs they already hold when someone argues against them. Peter Boghossian referred to something similar as 'doxastic entrenchment.' So, we know that people often dig into closely held beliefs when those are challenged.

So here's what I think would happen, more than anything, if I tried to talk to my friend like, say, we might like to imagine that Christopher Hitchens might have. I think I'd cash in on my friendship, which would damage it, for the likely result of digging him more deeply into his beliefs. The perceived threat to his marriage would overwhelm the whole thing if I got too close to it. So, trust and rapport between us would drop, and I'd achieve exactly the opposite of what I hoped for. Why would I do that?

If people are usually holding their beliefs in God for reasons that rest upon personal psychological and social needs, going after them in the language and architecture of anti-theism is often going to trigger exactly this backfire. They are.
They believe because they are afraid of death, or the interminable separation from loved ones that it implies. If you argue with them, you're often arguing with that, that they'll never be reunited with their dead parents or children.
They believe because they mistake belief for morals. If you argue with them, you're likely to be arguing against the fact that they see themselves basically as good people.
They believe because it helps them cope with their powerlessness in the world. If you argue with them, you will argue with those fears.
Obviously, this does nothing to justify faith, which is every bit the failure it has always been, but it should dramatically change how we think about, and thus deal with, belief in God.

When arguments of these kinds go predictably badly, I think of it as a triple failure. First, I fail to bring my friend toward my point of view. Second, I'm likely to back him further into his own view, the one I want to move him away from. Third, I damage our relationship in the process – three failures for the price of one.

For every person that anti-theistic arguing shakes out of belief, eventually – it may reinforce several others, and at the cost of relationships that would otherwise prove the best vessels for having such conversations. It's far better to nurture friendships and try to hear where our friends are really coming from than to argue atheism with them. Atheism is the Iraq War of identities – it's messy, it's hurtful, it's unpopular, it's wrongheaded, it isn't what it claims to be, it's attacking the wrong thing, and it's ultimately unwinnable. And look around. Mission accomplished. Where's my flight suit?


So what I hope to have conveyed to you today is that there is, indeed, no God but “God.” That is to say, no God exists. Something called “God” does exist, though, and that's the only thing that God is. The thing people call God is a slough of ideas made into a myth that serves deep psychological and social needs – needs to understand things like morality, purpose, nature, spirituality, needs to feel control and security, and needs to belong, feel esteem, and fit into a social context and to be able to define themselves within it.

Because there is no God but this set of ideas people call “God,” identity atheism doesn't make sense either, and so we should end it. We should stop making an identity out of failing to accept the ridiculous. We should stop making a movement out of misunderstanding a term – God – that the language of theism guarantees we will misunderstand. So we should drop the terms of theism and put the entire theistic enterprise beneath serious consideration. It's time to see “God” for what it is, end atheism, and change these conversations for the better.

Thank you.

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